When I was training to be a preacher in the early 90s, the most attuned preaching prof advised that we preach as if unbelieving visitors were present.
The basis of this advice was a conception that if Jesus Christ brings any difference to, say, your money management, that same ability to bring faith to bear would apply to people who don’t come with faith, as it would apply to people who don’t see how the good news might apply to money management.
Translation: Advice to unbelievers could benefit believers too.
Believers live in the world too, not always relying on a faith approach (surprise!), talking a secular language should work for both kinds of hearers.
The radical idea under the advice is that hearers don’t have to have crossed the threshold into believerdom before they can benefit from a church message.
Contradicting many people, that’s saying: There is not a salvation message, and then a second step, a holiness message.
There is one message of faith in the risen Messiah of Israel, Jesus.
The message is for believers who need to put it into practice, also for unbelievers who need to put it into practice.
So: Preach as if unbelieving visitors are present. The believers will hear you better too.
When I actually got into a church and had to deliver each Sunday, the advice proved hard to implement.
I don’t know exactly why it was so hard to speak as if pre-faith folks were present.
Many messages I developed seemed likely to matter only to church folks.
I’d take a verse, think it through, develop a pile of possible implications, make it as practical as I could.
But as soon as you yield to the temptation to talk in-house on just one day, you are sunk because the members will not know for sure if you are in-house or whole city on any given day. So your Sunday morning space will not be automatically safe for pre-faith people. They might be subject to something that does not concern them.
I was somewhat successful in a wide audience message when I knew for sure that there would be mainly non-church folks present.
The mighty focusing reality forced me to think through the language and thought forms.
I read over my messages now, ten years later, and here is what I think.
These talks might be OK if only church folks were there, but for anyone else they are so dusty. They probably talk past people.
Why, for example, is a post I just made about death so out of it? It seems very Sixties as I read it.
The post tries to get “under” death as a taken-for-granted reality by acknowledging secular ways of dealing with death (that’s the Kubler Ross introduction).
Then I use literature (a Tolstoy story from the late 1800s) to show the horror of death when you are in a process that we tend to ignore during life. Just as Illich ignored the coming reality until struck down.
But, here’s a problem.
People today display no fear of death.
They might even shrug if you talked about it.
“No one knows what happens.”
The conception of sin that drove the fear has evaporated in the era of Freud and more recent therapies.
The pursuit of personal authenticity is much more pressing than moral failure.
Tolstoy is labeled a moralist, after all. His psychology is a moral or religious psychology.
Few people are primarily moralistic now.
Tolstoy’s story is still interesting (I think). Charles Taylor the current philosopher has a piece or two that jigsaws with it – still, even now.
But it is not quite on the track with late-moderns or post-moderns who have been psychologized.
Counselling prof David Powlison once asked a seminary class: How do you intend to do ministry with psychologized people?
Powlison’s question is still a great one. I wish he had said more about it.
If sin-sense seems to be gone, you have to find where the consciousness of sin is hiding out. how the anxieties also manifest themselves today.
The filmmaker Kieslowski did a 1980s film search expedition of just this question. In his series “The Ten Commandments,” each segment works out the persistent effects of disregard of the commandments.
Even though no character has much or any faith.
After all, psychologized or not, we are created in the image of God. We have all done something with God. We all live in his world. He is inescapable.
For the old time preacher, how to find where they’ve hidden him?