How to Trust a Sermon

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I can remember the moment with absolute technicolor and Dolby 7.1 sound; the moment the Bible became real to me.  Growing up in a fundamentalist church, winning Awana trophies, attempting (and failing) at daily Scripture reading-based quiet times, I thought I knew what the Bible was.  As a sophomore in college I was invited by Suzanne, my local InterVarsity chapter leader to what was known as an “Inductive” study (we’ll get to that method later) of Mark.  With the verse numbers pushed aside, no footnoted commentary jumping me ahead to quick application or theological clarification, just the text and the freedom to swim in it, with observation, introspection, confusion and exploration.

Putting Scripture study at the center of my Spiritual practices has transformed my life.

What was not allowed were quick answers.  No commentaries, only reference books: Interlinear texts (the Greek next to the English), Concordances and stacks of Bible Dictionaries.  Our work was to put the text in its original place, not to ask it to fit into ours, and the effects were magical.  I have never abandoned that study method these twenty years.  And though I have augmented it with other more mystical readings like Lectio Divina, putting inductive Scripture study at the center of my spiritual practices has transformed my life.

Because so much of my writing and podcasting as well as the teaching in TRIBE are deeply Scripture-centric, I am often asked how to recognize a Sunday sermon as theologically sound.  It is a difficult question, no doubt, becacuse the deeper you go with truly reliable Scripture study methods, the more the proof-texting and quicky applications so prevalent in today’s mega-churches and would-be mega-churches (isn’t that everyone’s aim these days?) ceases to resonate. Recognizing the Bible’s slow and steady pace to the margins of American religious life, I felt it was time to start answering this question for us all.

The tool we use in TRIBE (and I use for myself every week) we call “Into the Text and Back Out Again.”* I will be writing a series of blog posts and email blasts to help you have some tools for bringing Scripture back into your spiritual life in a deep and transformative way.  I am starting this series with interpreting and applying the sermons you listen to, as for most 21st century believers this is the primary place you interface with Scripture.  But before we dig in, a duo of caveats:

  1. The Frailty of Sermons: I am starting with sermons as a place to think about the Bible because of their familiarity, not because of their importance.  I would argue—in fact—that the standard 25-minute sermon is one of the worst places and ways to interface Scripture among the spiritual practices toolkit.  And yet, due to the forms and functions of American Evangelicalism, it is the method we are most familiar.  Sermons, by their structure and social role in a performance-based religiosity that most weekend services create, are frail animals.  They get devoured up by self-deprecating humor, easily-digestible anecdotes, and alliterated talking points so that the listeners can go home with quick and simple application.  This sprint to application is (as you will see below) one of the things that the ancient texts have absolutely no interest in providing, thus making sermons and an accurate use of Scripture a difficult emulsion.
  2. The Inaccessibility of Intent: Professional preachers and those that love them may find some of what I have to say here controversial or even offensive.  Some may read into what I am saying a judgment on the intent of the sermon-giver or his/her depth of spirituality.  This could not be farther from the truth.  I have no idea what you as a preacher (or your favorite preacher) intend to say.  What we have access to is what preachers say and what affect that has on our ability to access the meaning of the Bible.  It’s not worth our time here to explore (though it would be easy to do) how often the intent of words and the affect they create do not align.  It should come as no surprise that the incongruity between intent and affect applies preachers as well.
Unless your preaching to a room full of people who have the Bible memorized, one must reference single verses or sentences with extreme caution.

So, let’s get to it! Sermons utilize Scripture all the time to make their claims on your actions and beliefs.  You attend church with the expectation that the written Word of God would in some way play a role.  But, perhaps, you’ve been wondering (as I have): Just because a pastor plasters a verse on it, does it make it so?  Well, as an entry point into our series of discussions on Getting Into the Text and Back Out Again, let’s start with the big question: How Can You Trust a Sermon to be Using the Bible Accurately and Effectively?


Sign One: The Text Is the Primary Source

Unfortunately, most sermons will struggle to pass this one.  While they may claim that they are based on a certain passage, further attentiveness is required.  Often times a Biblical story or series of verses is simply used as the Scriptural backstop for more self-help content.  For example, perhaps the sermon series is about “overcoming obstacles” and purports to use Nehemiah and his struggles to build the wall of Jerusalem as the source text.  Nehemiah has very few (if any) self-help applications.  It is not a likely place for you to go to in order to get ideas on how to face a resistance challenge your facing at work.  This doesn’t mean that the sermon won’t give you a good tip or two on how to overcome in trying times, those tips just won’t have anything to do with Nehemiah.

Ask yourself this: Could the pastor have come to these conclusions without the text? Is the text being used to validate ideas found elsewhere (in a book they just read, for example)?  If the answer to either or both is yes, you should have red flags.  If not, proceed to Sign Two.


Sign Two: The Text Is Used in Its Entirety

Prooftexting is arguably the central problem of modern preaching and Christian writing.  If you’re not familiar with the word, prooftexting is the practice of starting with an idea and then finding a verse (out of context) to validate that idea.  Once you understand the concept of prooftexting, you see it everywhere.  One of the most famous involves the use of Jeremiah 29:11 (For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and future.) as a source of optimism for those in transition (Note it’s flagrant use on Graduation Cards).  In fact, Jeremiah 29 is about God restoring the nation of Israel after its destruction and exile. This restoration is the next step after Israel’s suffering for abandoning her role in the covenant.  What this has to do with calming 18-year-olds’ anxieties about heading off to college, few can say. 

In defense of prooftexting, some might argue that the New Testament is full of “prooftexts” of the Old.  This is a misunderstanding of the teaching form of the first century.  The Old Testament was memorized in large chunks by the majority of listeners because, of course, so few could read.  So, when Mark (for example) pulls a single verse from Isaiah to make his point about Jesus, the audience would have immediately called to mind the entirety of the Isaiah passage surrounding it.  In this way, prooftexting as we know it would have been impossible to the Gospel writers.  Everyone had the key passages memorized, and therefore the verses couldn’t possibly be taken out of context.  So unless your preaching to a room full of people who have the Bible memorized, one must reference single verses or sentences with extreme caution.

Ask Yourself: Are the verses being quoted taken out of context? Am I being expected to apply these verses without knowing our understanding the story or message which originally contained them?  If the answer to either or both is yes, you should have red flags.  If not, proceed to Sign Three.


Sign Three: The Text is Used Contextually

One of the central rules of interpreting Scripture is that you cannot know what it means until you know what it meant.  If the preaching is asking you to apply modern day problems to an ancient text without first helping you see what that text would have meant to its original audience… Yikes.  That doesn’t mean the pastor must do a 45-minute history lesson on every passage, but it does mean that she had better have done that work herself before attempting to extract modern-day meaning.  If there are no signs of historical, cultural, literary or religious context applied to the passage, we are destined to treat the text as an Inkblot test where we assume the original readers and listeners had the same issues, questions and problems we do, and therefore we can project our issues onto this ancient text.  The most important thing to understand about the Bible is that someone, somewhere wrote it.  You cannot understand I Corinthians 13 (the love chapter) without first understanding the issues of a first century church in Corinth.  This establishes a matrix of meaning.  Whatever the text meant to them is a controlling frame for all the possible things it could mean for us today, or for believers 500 years from now.

Ask Yourself: Is the passage being explained without historical context? Is it being interpreted as if the author would have had modern day issues in mind? If the answer to either or both is yes, you should have red flags.  If not, proceed to Sign Four.


Sign Four: The Text is Applied Transformatively  

The Bible’s intent is not to change our behavior, but to transform our very selves.  It is NOT in any way (B)asic (I)nstructions (B)efore (L)eaving (E)arth.  In fact, it’s not instructions at all.  The Bible is a complex and twisting narrative about what is wrong with the world, why we suffer, who God is, what it means to be human, God’s plan for human thriving, and how all of these questions are resolved in the person of Jesus.  There is very little here to go and “try out” this week.  This is one of the many reasons why weekly 25-minutes sermons are so unfriendly to Bible teaching.  We have conditioned ourselves (and our pastors) to believe that a couple of quick verses and three action steps for the week is what is required, when really, such a format all but assuredly pushes us to miss the mark entirely (not ironically, the Greek word for “sin” literally means “missing the mark.”) 

Effective Scripture study should open space for new thinking, new revelation.  We should feel exposed by it, undone at times, and stand in wonder at the possibilities of the world Scripture promises.  It will fail forever as a roadmap for human performance, but will succeed endlessly as a narrative for human redefinition.  It will allow us to question who we are, what we are living for, where our hope is, and how to awaken to the Love of God which is breaking forth in every moment of our everyday lives.  In this sense, Scripture, when it is doing its work, transforms us, not teaches us.  It opens us up, revealing our tainted and confused core of thought, belief and feeling, and invites us into new narratives.  Walking away from a great Scripture study should feel like a new song has been written on your heart and your very internal organs have been shifted… though you cannot explain how.  If the way the passage is being preached offers you easy steps to resolve the life your living, skepticism ought to run high.  But if the preacher tells the truth and you find yourself awakened, convicted and full of a longing to follow the path of Jesus with fresh energy and insight, then this is something you can trust.

Ask Yourself: Is the passage being simplified down into actions to be performed? Is it being applied as a list of to-dos which will act as a prescription for some failure (have a better marriage, improve your conflict resolution style, raise better children, be more hopeful, trust God more, give more money, serve others better… etc.)? If the answer to either or both is yes, you should have red flags.

So rare is a sermon with all four signs.  So rare for the text to be used in its ENTIRETY as the PRIMARY source for the teaching which is discovered CONTEXTUALLY and applied TRANFORMATIVELY.  But this is the reason why so many people leave so many sermons unchanged.  We walk out with a sense of “should” or we get a little emotional pick-me-up from the music, but we rarely leave, if ever, centrally altered. 

As Western Evangelicalism has worked to pull Scripture from its moorings so it can be more “applicable” to people’s lives, we have simultaneously sucked all the power out of it, leaving the primary gathering places for most people of faith vacant of meaningful content which can actually transform a life.  What is left—too often—is some kind of Tony-Robbins-Lite, where we are inspired by swelling music, tantalizing words and quick self-help style solutions.  We feel validated in the “spirituality” of these self-help seminars because they are interspersed with verses and take place under the shadow of a cross.  But friends, you have the Spirit within you to freely discern what is trustworthy and good.  You can educate yourself on the tools to understand and apply Scripture effectively and within the matrix of meaning.  You can learn how to get into the text and back out again. 

That is the vision of these next several blog posts.  To help give you the tools to find meaning and transformation in the timeless Word of God.  They are the tools I have used in my own journey and in the leading and teaching of others for almost 20 years.  And each time someone engages them deeply, they find as I did, they never see the Bible or themselves the same.  I hope you’ll join us.

It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.
— C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

* This system is unapologetically derivative of the inductive tools I learned in InterVarsity all those years ago.  If there is further attribution needed, I am happy to do so.  At this point the method has become so a part of me I don’t know where it ends and I begin.  What I do know is that I am not the method’s originator and every time I use it or teach it I stand on the shoulders of giants like Suzanne Vogel.  I am eternally grateful.