Sunday, May 22, 2011

Three questions to ask to become a "good" preacher

This morning I sat down in the pew and listened to a sermon. At times I learn from a counter-example of things that I appreciate most. Moments later, driving to a nearby coffee shop, the sermon that I heard caused me to rethink about the rationale or quality of preaching; I liked some part but didn't like other parts. Drinking coffee, I came up with certain clarifications about the sermon, along with a set of critiques and new ideas. To become a good preacher, I think, the following three questions should be asked and answered: 1) Are you a good theologian?; 2) How do you read the text?; 3) Do you know how to communicate with the audience? Let me explain one by one.

Are you a "good" theologian?
It is a big misunderstanding if we think that all preachers have a blank mind, getting all preaching insights from the Bible. In fact, the Bible does not speak, but the reader makes sense out of it. Furthermore, there is no clear, single voice or theology in it. Most of the time people read what they want to read from the text. On one hand, this kind of "contextual" reading helps those who need particular helps in their lives. But on the other hand, it can be naive, or even dangerous to others if applied without discerning the implications or ramifications of a particular reading. Often preachers love to say, "The Bible says." But if the Bible says, there must be many things. Unless a preacher explains in which way the Bible speaks, the Bible is hollow. All I am saying is this: "Even before you preach, you have to be a good theologian. In other words, your theological lens or perspective is a basic starting point." Otherwise, people always preach the text naively regardless of which text they read. Why does this happen? It is because they preach the texts with the same naive theology all the time. It is a miracle how some preachers preach often contradicting, difficult texts harmoniously without tensions with other texts. Whichever texts they read, the conclusion is always the same, something like this: "Jesus is the way; Jesus saved you because he died for your sins." Therefore, the most important first step for a better preaching is not to begin reading the text but to begin reading your perspective or theological lens.

How do you read the text (the Bible)?
Each text can be read on its own without being harmonized with other texts or being reduced to one particular meaning. Even though all texts, written or living texts (life), are inter-textual, it does not mean that all texts can be mingled without careful discernment. An example helps. If the difficulties of innocent human suffering or problem of theodicy is a focus of preaching with a text chosen from the book of Job, by and large, preaching should stay with that particular concerns that people need to tackle. If a preacher adds a Jesus-talk in the middle of a sermon saying, "Jesus suffered for you and your tears will be wiped out eventually," he or she confuses listeners (at least for me) because the main issue of theodicy or innocent suffering in Job is lost. In other words, there must be tensions intact throughout, thorny issues regarding God's character or innocent human suffering without giving an easy answer. Obviously, Jesus did not remove the suffering of people today. Jesus' suffering on a cross did not eliminate the suffering of people today. But still, preachers do the same preaching again and over again. I guess people in the pew listening to the same sermon again and over again. Then, what? Does this help? Is this sermon a panacea for all kinds of disease? Or is it opium that gives people oblivion about their lives?

Do you know the basic skills of preaching?
Whichever sermon we hear, we expect something of a life lesson or a moral challenge, or some sort of spiritual comfort or encouragement. This means the entire sermon needs to get focused on a particular need or issue. But the real sermon is a far cry from this. Some preachers are almost writing a book when preaching. I mean he or she uses big theological vocabularies without clarity or elaboration, much less with a real-life connection. Some are explaining theological doctrines without life lessons in real life contexts that the audience needs to tackle. Others are doing a very good job in the beginning; there is a nice introduction with possible topics and thesis promised. However, soon my expectation collapses when the preacher suddenly incorporates a particular view of atonement when talking about the innocent suffering of humanity (as mentioned before). I still don't know how Job's suffering is related to Jesus'. There can be a connection between them. But there must be a clear explanation about that. Otherwise, that is a moment of an anticlimax.