Preaching in the Context of Biblical Illiteracy: Part 2
In last week’s post we explored the crisis of Biblical illiteracy in our churches. How then as preachers should we respond?
Part 2: The Preacher’s Task: Recovering Literacy.
Faced with biblical illiteracy of the audience, the temptation for the preacher is to preach on contemporary events or situations rather than on a scriptural passage (even when a biblical text is used as the basis). So a standard sermon in the church these days may begin with an illustration or story from our contemporary experience, use the biblical passage to illuminate the experience or answer the question raised from our experience and conclude referring back to the illustration with which the sermon started or add another story from experience as conclusion. Preacher is happy and the people are impressed. But what was the sermon on?
Let us look at an example. It is a sermon heard in a prominent church, preached by an eminent preacher, in the beginning of May 2009. The preacher
- starts with the description of a woman, Susan Boyle, who looked incompetent or unlikely to be successful on the stage in the ‘Britain’s Got Talent TV programme
- follows that with a description of the response of the audience (and even the judges) when this woman came on to the stage – none thought she could perform.
- moves on to explain how this woman performed wonderfully successfully, contrary to the low expectations of the hearers
- draws one main point – we normally look at the outward appearance; our judgement is not always fair or we do not have the capability to make right judgement
- then moves on to God: “But God does not judge us outwardly.... he approaches everyone with compassion and care, not writing off anyone...
- makes a reference to the biblical text for preaching – The Good Shepherd passage from the Gospel of John – how God cares for all without discrimination.
- finally refers back to the story of Susan Boyle and concludes with a few exhortations about not being judgemental, being open and so on.
For me this sermon exhibits the main weaknesses of much Christian preaching today. Biblical narratives have lost their appeal; so we appeal to other narratives and make them the basis of our preaching. Scripture is brought in only to support a message that we draw from our non-biblical narrative. We cannot blame the listeners if the dominant image they had in their mind during the Eucharist and afterwards was Susan Boyle not Jesus the Good Shepherd!
Preachers alone are not responsible for spreading biblical literacy among people. But they do have an important role to play. What can preachers do?
Claim the Bible back as the church’s book.
The Bible must be claimed and promoted as the church’s book. We should take scripture out of individual hands – of both scholars and individual believers – and place it in the community of believers. Rampant individualism cannot be treated by prescribing some solution to the individuals. The study of the Holy Scriptures must be established as the practice of the community of disciples. Our preaching should not just aim to teach from the pulpit; rather it should encourage learning in the community. The church interprets scripture by shaping itself as communities of prayer, worship, service, and witness.
It is the preacher’s responsibility to remind the congregations that we cannot read the scriptures rightly until we participate in the life of the church. Neither can one understand the Bible by herself or himself. Preachers must also manifest in their sermons the evidence for learning from and in the community. Preachers must learn in the community, not in their private study. They should continue to develop a community way of interpreting scripture. They should sharpen this skill in group situations and in personal conversations with their listeners.
Preachers should challenge the listeners to read scripture as their identity story. Scripture helps believers to remember who they really are. In one sense scripture shapes the community. It is constituted by a basic narrative that unifies its diverse materials in scripture and shapes the community’s sense of faithfulness. We are a community of character, a character shaped by a distinctive narrative.
In the third and final part of this series, we will look at two other steps we can take as preachers to address this issue.
- - The Rt Revd Dr John Perumbalath, Bishop of Bradwell