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Preaching in the Small Membership Church
By Lewis A. Parks
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2009 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
The Preacher as Student of Scripture
I teach in a summer school for persons who were called into ministry in mid-life or later and do not have the resources, or health, or time to endure the rigors of the ninety-hour Master of Divinity program required for ordination in my denomination. Although there are exceptions (doctors, lawyers, teachers), most of these adult students have only a high school education or the GED equivalent. They answered the call while they were driving a truck, serving as a teacher's aide, selling insurance, managing a daycare facility, or managing the power tools section of a home improvement store.
They were disciples of Jesus before they answered the call to ministry, and they served as speakers and teachers in their home congregations. They studied the Bible to prepare for their service, but where and how? I love to listen to their stories. They would get up before dawn and study the Bible for an hour or two before they began the day's work. They would steal away over the lunch hour to work on Sunday's lesson. They would play CDs of James Earl Jones reading the Gospels while they drove their rig across Interstate 70 from Pennsylvania to Colorado.
And now these servants of God's Word find themselves in the most exhilarating role reversal imaginable: they are being paid to study the Bible! They are expected to sequester themselves on a regular basis so they might indulge in a search of the Scriptures. The amateur gets to turn pro! And nobody in the small membership church, neither the one who shares the preacher's blue collar hunger to grow by learning nor the professional who appreciates the privileges accrued by higher education begrudge them this basic act of seclusion behind every sermon.
Of course, some licensed pastors, like some of their ordained counterparts, are not up to the compliment. They will flit from one Urgent Task to another like a hummingbird seeking the next red blossom. They will run on empty, squeezing as many sermons as they can out of the lingering fumes of an earlier period of study. But for those preachers who are up to the call to study that sustains the call to preach, there is the weekly experience that Scripture is an effervescent source of stories, themes, images, and plots just waiting to be discovered and carried back to the community of faith.
There are several points where preaching has a heroic quality about it, and this is one of them. The preacher is aware of being signaled out by the community of faith for a dangerous mission to a distant place, like the dove Noah sends out to find dry land after the flood waters subside. Will you find any sign of hope for them this week? Will you be able to bring back to God's people some message from their Lord?
There is no guarantee that you will. Most experienced preachers will remember a miserable occasion or two of showing up empty-handed on Sunday morning after a week's worth of honest labor. You can try to cover—add hymns, meander through announcements, prolong that baptism—or you can confess it: "the Lord gave me the silent treatment this week" and allow the congregation a peek inside the peculiar prayer risks of your call. Either way the memories of such failures are saturated with shame, and the preacher will seek whatever help there may be to avoid repeats. There are tools and disciplines that increase the odds of success.
Before naming the tools of the trade, a word about the place where the preacher will use them, the study. If I am sent out weekly to search for a word from God for the people of God, I must have an environment that encourages concentration. In the floor plans of older parsonages and manses, a space was always made for the pastor's study, often smaller than a modern walk-in closet, but always there. Old pictures show a room stacked with books and magazines, cluttered with spectacles, pens, assorted knickknacks, and dominated by a ratty but comfortable chair for reading and a plain table or desk for writing. The light that fills a study is wistfully amber.
The study has been replaced by an office in many parsonages. An office is a room with a different heritage and a different mission. It is a place of commerce, a place for the exchange of information and goods. An office needs to be equipped with the things that will support that exchange, with phones, personal computers, and fax machines. Its furniture should promote attention and conversation: uniform, comfortable but not too comfortable, arranged in calculated angles. The light that fills an office is analytically white.
To adapt one of Winston Churchill's shrewd observations: we shape the rooms we occupy and then our rooms shape us. Preachers need offices because preachers are also administrators, counselors, and coworkers, but preachers never stop being preachers who need the type of space that will promote and absorb the very personal struggle of sermon seeking and sermon writing. A study is a space where Jacob can wrestle with the angel, vowing, "I will not let you go, unless you bless me" (Genesis 32:26).
The first tool the preacher as student of Scripture must take up in this study is a church translation of the Bible from its original languages of Hebrew (Old Testament) and Greek (New Testament). There are half a dozen or so of them available, but two have emerged as preeminent:
New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright 1989, by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of Churches of Christ in the United States of America (NRSV)
Holy Bible: Today's New International Version, copyright 2005 by the International Bible Society (TNIV)
A church translation is to be distinguished from a paraphrase. In a paraphrase, a person or group like a Bible society offers a version of the text with more attention to clear contemporary expression than to the meaning or intent of the original Hebrew and Greek language of the Bible. A number of paraphrases are in print, such as J. B. Phillips's The New Testament in Modern English (1958); Kenneth N. Taylor's Living Bible, Paraphrased (1971); the American Bible Society's Good News: The Bible in Today's English Version (1976); and more recently, Eugene H. Peterson's Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language (2002). Paraphrases are compelling. The flow of the text seems less inhibited. There is little theological shoptalk to get in the way. The contemporary jargon reaches up from the page like an old friend inviting you into the conversation. For all these reasons paraphrases are helpful when it comes to introducing a seeker to the Bible or for personal devotions or for unfolding a text in the sermon. But paraphrases are not the church's translation of the Bible and should not be used as if they were, as most writers of paraphrases are quick to point out. Paraphrases are not the primary version of the text the preacher studies in sermon preparation or reads in worship or preaches from in the pulpit.
That version will be the product of one of the church's major collective efforts as was the NRSV and the NIV, or the King James Version (KJV), their prototype written four hundred years ago. The NRSV and NIV represent the voice of a broad consensus of the church. The number of scholars engaged in the writing is large enough to ensure a faithful knowledge of all the relevant ancient Hebrew and Greek manuscripts. Those same scholars working collaboratively hammer out a careful rendering of that text into English. Persons representing all three of the church's forms of governance (episcopal, presbyterian, and congregational) have their say. So do those from across the entire theological spectrum. Partisan readings are smoothed down; eccentric interpretations fall by the wayside.
Those who create the major church translations of the Bible desire to connect with contemporary readers but hold that aim in greater tension with the aim of faithfulness to the Hebrew and Greek text. That means bumps remain in the text to be worked out by the preacher as student: vengeful prayers to be explained, seeming contradictions to be untangled, runaway sentences to be corralled into sensible punctuation. Seasoned preachers know that some of their best preaching begins as a run-in with a stubborn text.
One note on local church hospitality and translations: in recent years church translations of the Bible have helped introduce more gender inclusive language into the culture of the local congregation. The irony in some small membership churches is that the majority of members and leaders are women yet the nouns and pronouns the preacher uses when referencing persons in worship are exclusively masculine. Hearing the Psalmist declare how good it is when "kindred" rather than only "brothers" dwell together in unity (133:1) or hearing Paul appeal to both "brothers and sisters" (1 Corinthians 1:10) is a significant step toward honoring the equality of men and women under God.
The second tool the preacher as student of Scripture must take up is a collection of good contemporary commentaries. But what is "good"? Here are three questions that help. First, does this commentary represent the broader voice of the church or only one individual? The preacher who prefers the church translation to the paraphrase will prefer also a commentary that represents the church in its rich unity-in-diversity, or "one-ness." Flourishing in that unity-in-diversity is one of the traditional marks of the true church.
Second, is this commentary preacher friendly? The writers of some commentaries are like the narcissistic friend who invites you into a conversation that turns out to be their monologue. The scholar's love for the minutia of archeology, the nuances of word study, or the intricacies of some variant reading of the text could be contagious. And the preacher as student and teacher comes to know the love of learning for learning's sake when it comes to the Bible. But Sunday is coming so the preacher needs commentaries where application to the life of the disciple and the church are woven into the entire fabric of the commentary and not given as a brisk endnote or afterthought.
Third, does this commentary represent important contemporary trends in biblical scholarship? There is a place for knowing how the church of the past read the Bible. What questions did they bring to the text? How did they try to be responsible to their time and place when they approached the Scripture? But each generation of biblical scholars builds on the work of their teachers, and it is important for the preacher to be in dedicated conversation with the biblical scholars of the present generation.
It might be tempting for the preacher who has received little or no formal theological training to settle for a paperback reprint of a popular commentary from the nineteenth century. Or perhaps it is the handsome multivolume hardback set of commentaries from the middle of the twentieth century, the gift from a retired pastor. What that preacher would miss for lack of acquaintance with more recent biblical scholarship is substantial. The preacher would miss the energy for preaching released by more recent schools of biblical study that find a way to move past the analytical knots created by earlier ways of thinking. She or he would miss the imagination for preaching released by those who invite us to inhabit the parables of Jesus rather than simply decode them as an earlier generation was determined to do. She or he would miss the passion for preaching released when a church experiencing decline begins once more to read the call to discipleship in its sacred texts.
I call the third tool for the study of scripture a collection of voices from below. One of the smartest things a leader of a congregation or any organization can do is to listen for the occasional telling remarks that come from persons who are often overlooked at the table of power where decisions are made. There is the new member who carries an outsider's perspective, the former addict who has no time for social politeness when it masks codependent behavior, or the teenager whose view of the world is so at odds with that of the generation who is running things.
These voices from below dampen our self-congratulatory moments of victory. Just about the time we think we have covered all the bases and tied up all the loose ends, one of these voices says something that jars us into silence, then sends us back to work. So why should we listen to them? There are two good reasons. First, "the church is ever reforming" (ecclesia semper reformanda est). This powerful little phrase was a gift to the church of all ages from the church leaders of the sixteenth century. Until the Kingdom comes and God's will is done on earth as it is in heaven the church's forms and structures are at best provisional. They are subject to scrutiny and open to revision. Listening to the voices from below is one of the best ways for the church to remain open to its environment, receiving life-saving cues to change and adapt.
Second, the voices from below represent the future of the church in its unity-in-diversity. The church that is shrinking toward a monoculture of age, gender, class, race, or ethnicity is a church flirting with death. A church moving toward a multicultural community of faith, however labored the steps (Acts 10), is a church running to catch up with the Spirit out ahead. The voices from below may not represent where most of us in the church are coming from today, but they do represent significant constituencies that must be present if the church is to flourish tomorrow.
As a leader must learn to listen to the voices from below, so must the preacher as student of the Scripture. The inner conversation might sound something like this: I will own and cherish the books that are the staples of my weekly sermon preparation, the translations and paraphrases, the commentaries, study Bibles, and books of illustrations. But I will also maintain a shelf of books that upset me too much ever to become a steady diet. For conscience's sake, I will make myself pick up one of them regularly and allow its voice to disturb my settled ways of reading the Bible.
In the setting of the middle class, mainline church where many of us begin, those voices might include (1) an African American reading of the Bible that stirs up ancient wounds, (2) a woman-centered reading of the Bible that questions contemporary power arrangements, (3) a reading of the Bible where the divine mandate that there "should be no poor among you" (Deuteronomy 15:4 NIV) is shown to be the Rosetta Stone for a multitude of texts, (4) a reading of the Bible by churches in nations subject to past and present oppression from other nations, or (5) an emerging-church reading of the Bible that is relentless in its criticism of the contemporary institutional church.
Some will argue that the preacher needs to maintain a personal devotional life of studying Scripture separate from the weekly discipline of seeking a word from God for the people of God. They worry that a person whose encounter with Scripture is driven by the need to produce for others will lose respect for the personal encounter with Scripture and compromise their sense of worth apart from work life. The preacher in the small membership church who is already pressed for time to read and write for preaching is given yet another reason to feel guilty for things left undone. If that preacher is bivocational, the sense that they have somehow lost their soul to the work of preaching may become so acute that they give up the call.
I want to offer some experience to the contrary, mine and that of a surprising number of preachers, once you get them to come clean about their solution to this conundrum. When I study for preaching, I am driven by the desire to find a word from God for the people of God. It is hard for me to imagine a more intense field of energy than that search. I tap into the depth of my call as one sent by the people to find a message. I tap into the mysterious chemistry by which faith is born in hearing the word preached. And I tap into the intercessory passion of carrying a people in my heart before God, the source of all our needs. Could there be a climate more favorable to personal prayers of thanks, confession, request, intercession, and praise than that?
When I write for preaching, I write with God looking over my shoulder as did Augustine writing in his Confessions. What starts as a search for right words soon becomes the search for true words, words that will stand before the One who knows my every flaw but calls me to this task just the same. The ultimate seriousness of what I am doing is never far from the search for the message and the elements to support it. "Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O LORD, my rock and my redeemer" (Psalm 19:14).
Excerpted from Preaching in the Small Membership Church by Lewis A. Parks. Copyright © 2009 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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