Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The Church and Story

A couple of weeks back, I let myself get sucked into an argument about whether drama or story should be allowed within a church service.


The argument was played out at Christ and Pop Culture, which gave a link to an interview with Pastor John Piper, which you can read here. (A better rebuttal of Pastor Piper than mine can be found here.)


In a nutshell, Pastor John argues that while no one will go to hell for doing so, that any use of story or illustration anywhere within the church service will damage the kingdom.


The purpose of a church service, the argument goes, is to provide a specific style of “till Jesus comes” preaching. Any church that uses anything that helps the congregation “stay with them and be moved and get helped” undermines the power of such sermons as being the core provider of salvation, and thus is anathema to Pastor John.


This includes any use of illustration, from a drama performed by an actor to a story the preacher himself tells.


I have to admit, I wasn’t even aware of the “sermon wars” – the existence of a “my type of sermon is the one true way, and anyone who preaches another way is of the devil” struggle.


Sure, I was aware of the music wars (“If it has a beat, Old Scratch wrote it!”) and the communion wars (“If the wine is fermented, it negates the power of the bread!”), and we all are aware of the baptism wars (“Dunking if for donuts, not disciples!”).


Apparently such a sermon war exists. (Kenneth E. Bailey, in the first chapter of JACOB AND THE PRODIGAL addresses this tangentially, as he feels he must start the book by validating the use of metaphors, parables and dramatic action while discussing theology.)


I do agree with Pastor Piper that not all churches should use illustrations within their sermons; but I do not agree with his notion that to use anything within a service that “moves” or “helps” the congregation is a danger to the power of sermon.


Paul and Jesus used illustration to clarify their points; it did not negate their power and authority. Many of our brethren have entire church services that do not even contain sermons; their communion with G-d is in no way diminished by that omission.


Pastor Piper argues that if anything other than preaching is shown to either hold, move or help a congregation, that therefore we can (and shall!) assume that preaching can do none of those things.


Either/or.


Thinking that everything must be an “either/or” doesn’t not fit with a G-d that refused “either/or” in his very Gospel; in a savior that is not either G-d or Man, but rather a “both/and.”


The use of parable or illustration does not work for Pastor Piper — all the more power to him (I mean that sincerely). Does that mean all other congregations must choose to believe that either there is no power in parable, or that there is no power in preaching?


Absolutely not.


It is a false dichotomy from the get go.


Tomorrow: The question about church drama that should have been asked.


Just my thoughts,


Sean

8 comments:

brianjwalton said...

Well , I started reading Piper's article thinking I would hate it, and I finished actually agreeing with it, much to my chagrin. And here's why.

I don't think he's creating a false dichotomy (he certainly gives himself enough outs). Rather I think he's describing an ideal. I do think it is better in the pulpit for clear explication of scripture. I do think that Jesus was doing something very different in his parables then what Paul calls us to do in our preaching.

Jesus was illustrating, Paul was preaching. You can give an argument in a sermon (or an essay). But in a story, you can only show the idea behind an argument.

So I think it's very possible to have too much illustrations and not enough explication, which is what Piper seems to be warning against.

But there's also the danger of being so talking so much about the "experience" and you're "interaction" that you loose all context of the object of your interaction.

I think Mosaic's Sunday night service falls into this. When you have people painting on the side of the stage during a sermon, illustration and explication are confused. They are put at the same level when they are not the same thing. A pastor can make those distinctions when he gives a sermon, but there is no distinction being made when they are simply placed side by side as if they are of equal value.

These are just my initial thoughts, but I've long been bothered by churches that think a nice story about a child who steals and feels bad can be played next to a sermon delving into the act of redemption working in the life of the thief on the cross as if they two are on equal ground. I wouldn't say that one is necessarily better for the spiritual growth of any given Christian. I would never limit how God could work in that way. But, I am willing to agree that certain artistic expressions (not form or style, but the actual expression) might be inappropriate for a Sunday sermon.

Again, I'll rail on Mosaic. Once a month they showcase a local band. They band plays there songs before the sermon. When I went, it wasn't necessarily worship music as far as I could tell. It was simply part of the experience. As a Christian, how was I and the people around me supposed to engage with that while at pir place of worship?

David Goulet said...

Wasn't Paul's preaching an intellectual expression of his redemption experience?

Truth can only be understood when placed in a context. Holy Scripture is a context. Paul's letters are a context. Jesus was Truth incarnated in the human context. Liturgy is provision of a symbolic/cultural context.

Preaching is ultimately just a collection of arguments that must be 'proven' within a context or it's all just conjecture.

Deeds trump words.

Gaffney said...

Brian,

I don't disagree with you. On the other hand, you completely disagree with Pastor Piper.

Piper is not saying that certain dramas or ways of telling story or using illustration is bad; he is saying all forms of drama or ways of telling story or using illustration is bad.

To quote myself, "I do agree with Pastor Piper that not all churches should use illustrations within their sermons."

And there is definitely a place for pure explication of scripture. But one of the places we diverge is in the notion that Paul trumps Jesus when it comes to how we should design our services.

Who says that a church service must be based solely around a certain style of sermon?

Pastor John is arguing that if Jesus (the real Jesus) showed up one Sunday morning, and instead of letting John preach took the pulpit himself, and said, "Hey, look at that person in the corner praying" (illustration), and then said, "You think you understand this Bible verse, but you are approaching it like a man who had a field" (parable), and then took a tip from Paul and said "Okay, let me set this up for you. Remember in last week's episode of LOST," -- if Jesus were to do that and we did not get a sermon the way Pastor John gives it, John's argument is that of course Jesus won't go to hell for it (his outs), but it would take John a long time to clean up the mess that Jesus just made.

Pastor John is not asking the right question -- and the one that you seem to be arguing for, which is... my next blog.

Gaffney said...

David,

Right on, brother.

gilliebean said...

I do shy away from intentional emotion-manipulation such as the music swelling because "it works" or "that one easter drama" because "it makes us all feel good". Sometimes it's hard to throw out the bath water because the baby's still dirty.

Linds said...

It seems to me that this is an argument that presupposes supremacy of the sermon - an academic, authoritative exposition of an ancient text - as the means of salvation, but that's a very new idea for the church.

For millenia, the main point of church was participation in the Body of Christ through the Eucharist, not the sermon.

It seems to me Pastor John is deifying his own role in the service and minimizing the fellowship and worship that are also vital elements of the gathering of the followers of Christ.

Of course the sermon is vital, because the church can't worship properly in theological error and can't have fellowship with each other when united in falsehood. But if the sermon is the be all and end all of the purpose of church, we may as well just stay home with study Bibles and read books written by experts. After all, the experts might be better than our local pastors, and if expositional teaching is all there is to it, we should find the best, right?

David Goulet said...

Great point, Linds.

Communion, as it implies, is a participatory activity. God (the Writer) created us to be active protagonists, not passive ones.

And a good sermon is 'good' because it inspires us to some form of action -- either an inward character arc or an external action (hopefully both).

Omar Poppenlander said...

The idea that Christian faith is primarily (or only) a propositional affair - a series of intellectual ideas to which one must assent to be "saved" - is a relatively new notion in the church. Orthodoxy has slowly crept up to crush orthopraxy as our means of salvation. It seems rather that holding some form of both/and tension between the two might be wise.

My church engages in an open worship segment entitled "God stories" each week. Is that an oxymoron? Do we need to get rid of it?