I am one of those pastors who came into the Christian ministry a clear sense of call. I could point to a particular moment in my life when I sensed God’s calling on my life. It was both surprising and overwhelming at the time. But, over time, it became the settled conviction of my heart that God was calling me to preach the Gospel in some way. And, I need to make that clear: in the earlier stages of my life the call I felt was toward preaching. When I started out I had very little conception of what pastoral ministry was and what it might entail. I had come to Christ at the invitation of an evangelist at a holiness camp meeting. The message of Christ had made a profound change in my life for the better. And, I wanted to share that message with others. I felt that a great favor had been done for me — a message of hope had been given to me — and I wanted to extend that favor to others. My attitude was the same as that expressed in the often quoted line from D. T. Niles: ““Evangelism is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”
Biblical preaching had been crucial in re-directing my life. So, it was something I assumed would be the focus of my future ministry — and it was something I wanted to learn to do well.
I sure have met a lot of people over the years for whom evangelical Christianity — and, I might add, holiness Christianity particularly — was an oppressive reality in their lives. It was something imposed upon them. It was a almost-constant threat of Hell. It was legalism. It was a rigid authoritarian mindset from which they later emerged with relief.
I get that. I have heard the story so often — in so many different forms. I understand.
But, that is not my experience. I experienced the Christian message as a message of hope and deliverance. It was about forgiveness and new life. And, as the new life in Christ opened up before me I saw so much to learn. I wanted to know more about Jesus. I wanted to know more about the Bible. I had a hunger for spiritual and Biblical knowledge. And, yes, there was a time when I embraced a quite rigid understanding of the faith — or, allowed others to define it that way for me. But, I thought that is what I needed at the time. I was hungry to learn. It takes a while to be discriminating.
I have written about my long-standing love for the Bible before. I found it to be a wonderful book. It spoke to me on so many levels.
So, I say all of this to say this: I had a clear sense early on what was calling was. I was going to preach and teach the Bible in a way that brought life and hope to other people. As time went on and I learned more, I wanted to bridge the gap between the academic study of the Bible and the every day lives of the people in the churches. I’ve always been evangelical in my sensibilities about the Christian faith — I want to spread the Word, not just keep the Word. People need to know. And, my concern was not just a
Heaven or Hell thing — I was convinced that faith in Christ was the gateway to a meaningful life. As John Wesley once said:
By salvation I mean not barely according to the vulgar notion deliverance from hell or going to heaven but a present deliverance from sin a restoration of the soul to its primitive health its original purity a recovery of the divine nature the renewal of our souls after the image of God in righteousness and true holiness in justice mercy and truth.
I was convinced that Biblical preaching was something that could re-orient a person’s life for the better. (I still am convinced of that.) And, such re-orientation was not simply a one-time event — it was ongoing. The more widely and deeply a person reads — and the more open a person is to the message — the more and more one is challenged and changed. The Bible (at least in my experience) more often upsets my preconceived ideas than bolsters them. It teaches me to look at life — and at people — in ways I otherwise wouldn’t. By regularly encountering its message anew I learn what it means to love God with all my heart, mind and strength — and my neighbor as myself. So, teaching and preaching the Bible became something I wanted to do. Ellen F. Davis expresses this well in her book Wondrous Depth: Preaching the Old Testament:
For the Bible is, as I have suggested, an immediate and insistent presence thrust into the center of the church’s life. Anyone who reads it with alertness and honesty must recognize that it calls on each of us to submit to a process of change that is never-ending, and regularly painful.
It happened — in my particular case — that reading John Wesley and Adam Clarke helped me understand the Bible better — and I felt that this perspective was bound to be helpful to other people as well. (I didn’t come to appreciate the early Church Fathers until much later.)
So, there you have it folks. That’s the ministry to which I felt called.
I felt that the Church was demoralized through a widespread Biblical illiteracy. People didn’t know their Bibles and they didn’t know how to use them.
And here is the irony in all that: things are — if anything — far worse today than they were when I set out in ministry.
Today atheists and agnostics know more about the Bible than Christians do. Preachers dip into the Bible to support their pet doctrines, to support theories about marriage or child rearing or how to get ahead in life — or, worse yet, to endorse a political candidate or political party.
It is an unpopular opinion, I know, but I feel that Biblical preaching provides opportunities for spiritual growth and positive life-change that doctrinal and advice-centered preaching simply do not — and cannot. In preaching this way, we seek to re-create the effect of the Scripture in the present day — in light of its place in God’s revelation through Christ as a whole. Doctrinal preaching can simply be re-enforcing preconceived ideas. Doctrinal preaching can have the effect of putting head-knowledge above actual lived experience. Life-application preaching is moralistic to begin with — and raids the Bible for its moralisms.
One of the primary reasons the early Church got together on Sundays was the hear the Bible read. The materials that go together to make up our New Testament were writing either read in the Church, or derived from what was remembered and repeated by the church. But, now we have entered a new era where Scripture is never read as if it had value in and of itself — it is often only read in defense of the preacher’s thesis. Times have changed. In the days of the early church people often did not have access to the Scriptures — it was very important that the Scriptures be read in a systematic fashion so that the congregation at least had the chance to hear it. Now we can assume people have ready access to the Bible in several different translations. I get that. But, it feels like the Church is hearing and studying and heeding the message of Scripture less than ever. I’d like to be wrong about that — but, that’s the way it feels.
I’m not in any way ashamed of taking the path I took. But, the church has been marching in a different direction. And, the problem of biblical illiteracy is worse today than it was when I started out.
At least I did what I could to not contribute to the problem.