For some, this little book will be a healthy reminder; for others, it will revolutionize their preaching.
D.A. Carson, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Deerfield, Illinois
Extract from – Burning Hearts. Josh Moody and Robin Weekes. 2014. 144pp.
Our changing culture: opportunity or Trojan Horse?
This is one of those chapters that we wish we had much more time to write. That is because the subject is tricky – how, in a relatively short space, do we persuade all who read this that we are absolutely and unwaveringly committed to the preaching of the gospel in any and all ages; and at the same time also give an insight into how culture has changed, and therefore how certain kinds of preaching are liable to be more effective? How do we show how to seize the opportunity of our culture’s interest in the affectional element of life, without allowing that interest to become a Trojan Horse smuggling in more subjective and unbiblical elements into contemporary expressions of faith? We really have no idea. To be honest, it would be much easier simply to duck for cover.
Perhaps we can start by saying what we are not saying. We are not saying that ‘styles’ of preaching are value neutral. This is important to assert because sometimes we can be too simplistic assuming that how we preach does not influence what we are heard to be saying. Our approach to preaching is to be shaped by the message, so that the way we preach – with tender-hearted passion, and rugged commitment to truth-telling – is shaped by the content of the particular passage we are expositing at any particular preaching moment.
Nor are we saying that sometimes it is a good idea to be expository and at other times it is not a good idea. Probably few would get this far in this book and think that we might be saying that we can ditch expository preaching in favour of some other approach. But, again, we are committed to explaining the text clearly, winsomely and passionately – in fact our commitment to the text persuades us of our need to explain the text clearly, winsomely and passionately. Our commitment to affectional expository preaching is not an addition to preaching expositionally, but a necessary result of actually preaching expositorally. How can you explain the glory of the immortal God as Paul indicates in Romans 1:21-25 without yourselves embracing that glory and communicating in such a way that encourages our hearers to be able to join Paul in his joyful ‘Amen’ at the end of verse 25? A commitment to affectional preaching comes out of a commitment to the text of the Bible. It is what the Bible does. It is what the Bible wants us to do as preachers of the Bible.
We are not advocating that preaching should ‘go with the flow’ in current culture rather than prophetically resist. Some tendencies in contemporary culture are damnable, others are expressions of the ongoing image of God in which we are all made, and reflections of God’s general grace and mercy upon all people in all places. A desire then to use a stepping off point in contemporary culture – a bridge – is not saying that we think that everything in that culture is good, or that we should embrace all aspects of any particular contemporary culture, or that affections as perceived in contemporary culture are all good. Surely the desire for a buzz, a thrill, a high, a rush, is not all good. But neither is it all bad, and there is something in that desire which reflects the heart that is restless until it finds its rest in God. Expository preaching to the affections is aiming to seize that opportunity in the culture and guard against its misunderstanding, by rooting it solidly and lastingly in a commitment to the actual text of the Bible.
As we hope is clear both from this book and our ministries, we are thoroughly committed to the proclamation of the God-centred gospel of Jesus Christ. With God’s help we will do that with our dying breath, with our waking groan, with our midnight sigh, in the pulpit and in the counseling room. We will do that in season, and out of season, in an age of affections and in an age of reason.
This chapter assumes that you have read the chapters What are affections?, Why preach to the affections? and How do you preach to the affections? It assumes, in other words, that preaching to the affections is biblical. It assumes that we have a working definition of affections as the leading edge of the thinking-feeling-willing unit of the heart. It assumes that you have a framework for how to preach to the affections.
All we are trying to say here is that our age is at least partly an age of affections, and that therefore preaching to the affections is at least partly helpful. That does not mean that preaching to the affections is not important in other ages (perhaps it is even more important in an age of reason). It does not mean that if our age were not an age of affections, we should not be writing books about affections. It does not mean that we think that preaching to the affections is biblical only because we live in an age of affections. All it means is that affections are prominent on the cultural menu. And so they should be addressed from the Bible.
We are going to analyze:
- what is the same about our age
- what is different about our age
- what we should do about it
What is the same about our age?
Everything of greatest importance. People are still made in the image of God. People are still fallen and depraved. The world and the whole universe is still created by God and sustained by the word of His power. All of reality still throbs to the beating heart of the living God. Jesus is still Lord. The cross is the centre of the universe and of all time and space. The Holy Spirit is the power for ministry, life, change and Christlikeness.
You can stop reading now, and nothing of great importance will you miss. Ecclesiastes is right when it says that ‘there is nothing new under the sun’ (Eccles. 1:9). Women are still women. Men are still men. Ambition, pride, deceit and all the devilish fears of humanity still dominate the world. The kingdom of God, though, is on the march. The gospel is preached. The church is being built. One day Jesus will return. Every knee shall bow. God will be glorified. Those who resist Him till the end will be cast into outer darkness. The dead shall be raised. Those who love Jesus till the end will join Him in the New Heaven and the New Earth to thrive in an eternity of joy, peace, love and endless glory in Christ.
None of this has changed. None of it ever will.
What is different about our age?
Cell phones. The Internet. Technology. Communication across the globe through social networks like Facebook or Twitter. None of this is essentially different from anything that has come before. Every society finds ways to build its Towers of Babel. But the phones we carry in our pockets have more computing power than our laptops did ten years ago. Text messaging. Email. It’s hard to believe it, but when I (Josh) wrote my Ph.D., I wrote it on a laptop with a screen about the size of my cell phone screen now, in black and white. And that was trendy new technology then.
Inevitably, if this book should last longer than six months, what we have just written will be picked over by historians for what we thought was new now. Cell phones! Huh! How quaint! Internet – remember those days when they thought it was still new? Hilarious. As historians we get this: we read manuscripts of people wondering at how simply marvelous it was to be able to write a letter with pen and ink, on scraps of expensive parchment, and then send it across the Atlantic. The sheer miracle of a communication return of a month or so to Scotland from America!
We are not saying these things are new and therefore always will be new. Tomorrow they will be old. That’s what it means for something to be new. We are just saying that not everything is exactly the same as it was.
Take books. It is now possible to get a book on a Kindle device in about 15 seconds. That’s new. That’s different.
We are not saying all of this is better (or worse). We’re just saying it is. And it does influence how we do things. For people of a certain generation, we find we can leave them a message, send them an email, and wait and wait. But if we text? Bam! Reply in thirty seconds.
Beneath all these technological changes, at a supporting, complementing, somehow-coming-alongside level is an ideological shift. I (Josh) have written about some of this in far greater detail elsewhere. Since the eighteenth-century Enlightenment, Western culture has been split between the rational and the emotional. The European intellectual elite concluded that ‘God’ was not ultimately knowable in a rational sense. Everything transcendent, spiritual or divine, then, became a matter of intuition and private devotion.
Both the technological, and the underpinning ideological changes, are major shifts in how society functions. This is not the 1980s. The 1980s communication styles will likely be about as effective as the number of people still living in the 1980s. And that number is not growing.
Again, that does not mean people have essentially changed, that the gospel has changed or that the basic strategy of preaching the gospel has changed. It has not. It does mean that the way society is expressing its inherent rebellion against its Creator has changed. Jonathan Edwards preached in a wig. He preached sermons with more theological grist than you would find in your average doctoral program at major theological faculties at major universities. His culture was different from ours. Expository ministry in my view is not a cultural factor, but is preaching the gospel like Peter and Paul and Jesus preached it. We want to preach like Jonathan Edwards, but we don’t wear wigs when we preach. We want to preach like Paul, but we don’t wear sandals when we preach (though maybe flip flops if we’re doing a beach mission). We want those to whom we preach to have as much if not more theological understanding as your average Puritan congregation in the 17th or 18th century. They do not right now. We are not even sure we do right now. We are all on a journey towards greater biblical fidelity and greater gospel godliness.
Everything essential and ultimate is the same. The ephemeral is constantly changing. We are people of eternity preaching the gospel in a season of time.
What we should do about it
Unhesitatingly proclaim the truth of God. Reason in the marketplace of Athens (Acts 17:17), and in the synagogue of Corinth (Acts 18:4). Refuse to capitulate to the Kantian philosophy that says that ultimate truth about God is not accessible. He has been revealed. God is speaking and is not silent. He became flesh. He is risen. He has shown Himself. That not all see it is because the god of this age has blinded their minds, but as we preach Jesus Christ as Lord, God ‘has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ’ (2 Cor. 4:4-6).
Don’t believe that emotions are not truth-telling. Contemporary research seems to be showing that our emotional life is more cognitive than older Darwinian theories used to say. Just because certain intellectual elites have sneered at religion for being emotional does not mean we should capitulate and remove emotion. John Calvin (pre-Enlightenment, of course) was right to insist on there being a ‘sense of God’ in each of us. He was right to insist that self-knowledge could only really come about through the knowledge of God. There is an affective element in biblical ministry.
Don’t accept the split between reason and emotion. We are more than a thinking machine. We are also more than an animal acting with no higher nobility than to protect our genetic heritage. Our love, as Christians, transcends that, and we live ‘in the Spirit,’ not according to the ‘flesh.’ Oh for more space (and time) to write, but do not accept theories that think that the only truth out there is one discoverable in a test tube. Do not give in to the underlying ‘nothing but’ assumptions of materialism which says that we are ‘nothing but’ an animal, any more than you can accept that a Rembrandt is ‘nothing but’ blobs of paint on canvas.
In other words, use biblical exposition to direct the gospel at the sin behind the sin, the lie behind the lie, the basic heart issues of our day and age. Do not be frightened of technology. Do not become a Luddite. Conversely, do not worship at the footstool of Facebook. Do not become a ‘twit’ on Twitter. Understand that all cultural mediums of communication carry with them a message. The gospel can be preached through printed material, controversial as that was at the Reformation. The gospel can be preached through microphones, controversial as that was for some when the technology first came out. The gospel can be preached through webpages, controversial as that was. The gospel can be preached through Twitter and Facebook. None of this takes the place of the gathered community of the local church. Obey the word of Hebrews: ‘not neglecting to meet together’ (Heb. 10:25). And do not think that means a Starbucks latte with your best friend (or two). Join with a local church; submit to its leaders; be a biblical Christian, which means a church Christian, because the Bible never describes a Christian that is not part of a church. To be a Christian and not integrated with a local church is a contradiction in terms, like saying you are married but you do not have a wife. Some of us for a season live with such contradictions at least in the ecclesiological parallel. But church is the expected norm for Christians.
Use technology; do not be used by it. Fast from Twitter. Fast from Facebook. Take a break from email. Understand the implicit message that each medium of communication brings with it. The medium does not equal the message; otherwise, watching pornography on TV would be the same message as watching Billy Graham preach on TV. But TV does have a message that comes alongside whatever it is showing. TV says you can stay home and still listen and watch. Facebook says you can have friends without actually being in the same place as them. Both are truths; they are not the truth. They are half-truths, just like reading a book is infinitely less insightful than meeting the author of your favourite book. But that does not mean you do not like reading the book in the first place.
Catch the ideology of our society unawares, like going trout fishing. That ‘sense’ of God is there. It is rational and emotional. Preach to it. Preach the glory of the gospel of Christ in a way that is rational, but is not only rational. Proclaim Christ so that His glory is sensed. Watch how Jesus does it. Listen to how Paul does it. Read how the great preachers did it. Keep learning until you die, or go hoarse, or are put in prison – and then preach it to the prisoners. Have passion, but not the kind of passion that looks like something out of a bad movie. Have the kind of passion that you have when you are passionate about something. If you cry, then weep. If your upper lip twitches just a little, then let it twitch. Authenticity is the thing: be who you are in Christ, not who someone else is. Be so captivated by the message of the passage in front of you that you communicate with the unconscious rhetoric of a lover to his beloved, of a beggar pleading for mercy, of a herald announcing the most important news in the world.
Craft your sermons. Craft them so carefully and correctly that when you preach them, each verb and noun sings in unison like a perfectly collaborative choir, or like a drum set in time with a guitar solo. Do not give into the false idea that spontaneity equals spirituality. Work harder at your Bible work than a barrister works at his court work, than a CEO does at his annual board presentation, than a professor does before a seminal university lecture. If there are four people in the audience, preach as if every single one of them is of infinite importance, for they are. If there are four thousand people, preach as if every single one of them is of infinite importance, too. Do not give in to the cardinal sin of the preacher: pride. Do not give in to the besetting sin of the preacher: discouragement. Lift your eyes to the hills and preach as if you were meant for it, designed for it, set apart for it, and as if it was the most important task in the world.
Above all, ‘Preach the Word.’ Preach it with passion. Preach it with reason. Preach it with authenticity. Preach it from the biblical text, framed by the biblical text, shaped by the biblical text, and therefore as the very Word of God.
All of this is exactly the same as Paul told Timothy. All of this is different. It is the same in all essentials. It is different in all peripherals. ‘Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.’