Posts Tagged ‘preaching’

Barth on why social action is not preaching

February 18, 2010

Why does the Church do social action – that is, helping meet the needs of those around us, through soup runs, community projects, clothing collections, medical missions etc.? Sometimes it is said that this is done as a way to proclaim the gospel, or to “open doors” for the gospel. But is there a problem with this? Karl Barth seems to imply so – it turns it into “propaganda” and ignores the true motivation which is genuine Christian love for our fellow human beings, and above all, for God:

“But there are also other elements in the life of the Church in which what we say about God is addressed to our fellow-men but which cannot seek to be proclamation. To this group belongs a function which from the very first has in some form been recognised to be an integral element in the life of the Church, namely, the expression of helpful solidarity in the face of the external needs of human society. This, too, is a part of man’s response to God. When and because it is he response of real man, necessarily in terms of Mt. 5:14 it is a shining light to people among whom alone man is real man. If God exists for man, as the Church’s prayer, praise and confession declare in answer to the proclamation heard, then this man as the man for whom God exists must also exist for his fellow-men with whom alone he is real man. Yet the special utterance about God which consists in the action of this man is primarily and properly directed to God and not to men. It can neither try to enter in to quite superfluous competition with society’s necessary efforts at self-help in its straits, not can it seek, as the demonstration of distinctively Christian action, to proclaim how God helps. “That they may see your good works and glorify your Father which is in heaven,” that they may be a commentary on the proclamation of God’s help, is, of course, freely promised, but cannot be its set intention. Like prayer, praise and confession, especially in cases like Francis of Assisi and Bodelschwingh, it has always been spontaneous, unpremeditated, and in the final and best sense unpractical talk about God. …

If the social work of the Church as such were to try and be proclamation, it could only become propaganda, and not very worthy propaganda at that. Genuine Christian love must always start back at [turn away from] the thought of pretending to be a proclamation of the love of Christ with its only too human action.”

Church Dogmatics 1/1, p.50

Urban legends: and, can we please stop preaching them?

July 10, 2009

I’ve just been listening to an MP3 of a sermon (I won’t tell you who by!) from an evangelical church which used, by way of illustration, the story about Arthur Conan Doyle sending a letter to certain famous people saying “All is discovered: Flee now!”. Of course, they all fled. Great illustration of the universal guilt of humanity (Romans 3:10 etc.) … only, it’s not true.

This particular example isn’t so bad, because the power of the illustration does not come from its truth or not, but because it makes the point that everyone has things in their life which they would be ashamed of if made public, underscoring that we are all sinners, no matter how respectable we try to appear. But even so, I don’t think it is appropriate for Christians to repeat these kinds of urban legends as if they are factual – and if they do use them, to make it explicit that they are legends and not fact.

Other common urban legends I’ve heard from various pulpits include:

  • Charles Darwin recanted on his deathbed.
  • NASA scientists discovered a “missing day in time” caused by the events recorded in Joshua 10.
  • Spurgeon poured a pitcher of water over someone who claimed to be sinless to see their reaction (this one might actually be true… sounds like the kind of thing he would do)

Why shouldn’t preachers use urban legends and myths?

  • Because it makes it easier for non-Christians to charge Christians with deceit, or with not caring about the truth, so long as a story fits their cause. And if Christians are willing to repeat an urban legend they heard without checking up on the veracity of it, why should we not then assume the worst about their repetition of the gospel?
  • Because repeating a false story from the pulpit keeps the story in circulation, because more people hear about it, and they hear it from someone who they (should) consider reasonably authoritative.
  • Because a good sermon should derive its authority from the Word of God, and any other story can only ever be illustrative anyway – so if a particular urban legend is integral to the point the preacher wants to make, the point is probably not worth making in the first place.
  • Because it is very, very easy for people to check out the truth or falsity of urban legends – and undermines the truth of the rest of what the preacher has said when someone finds out that the illustration was not true.
  • Because truth matters, and what we say matters. James had a lot to say about the power of what we say; Jesus once said that human beings would one day be called to account for every careless word they have spoken (Mt. 12:36). God does not lie – and neither should his ministers.

Given the ease of checking urban legends out on the internet, and of recognising the “urban legend” genre by its literary form (cues such as vague references, having heard it before in a slightly different setting, being a little too pat to be true etc.) I don’t think Christian preachers have any excuse for using them. At the very least they should come with a huge health warning: “This story is apocryphal/probably isn’t true, but illustrates the point I’m making…”

What do you think? Are there circumstances where it is OK to use urban legends or stories we suspect to be apocryphal in preaching? Have you heard any others used recently?