REVIEW: Today’s preaching lacks a ‘bush bursting into flame’
Many consider Thomas G. Long to be one of the most thoughtful and intelligent preachers in America. His latest book demonstrates why.
Although Long writes primarily to preachers and for preachers, every Christian concerned about the life of the church and its weakening voice within our culture needs to read “Preaching from Memory to Hope.”
Throughout the book, he urges ministers to deliver — and churchgoers to demand — a bold and joyful approach to preaching. Preaching that lovingly proclaims the story of God’s people and courageously announces what God is doing among us.
Long, professor of preaching at the Chandler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, begins by exploring the attacks on narrative preaching. He acknowledges that some of these attacks are valid. He warns the church not to overreact to such criticism.
I am a preaching minister, so Long’s advice helps keep my ministry centered and balanced. It is easy for me to lean too heavily on the teaching component of my craft. The professor reminds us that a preacher is not only a teacher, but also a storyteller and an instrument through which God-breathed Scripture exhorts all of us to ethical living. These three components of good preaching must remain in healthy equilibrium.
Long laments the fact that much of today’s preaching avoids speaking of God in the present tense. This kind of preaching proclaims good things about God and offers helpful advice for successful living but never contains “a desert bush bursting into flame.” Such sermons are nothing more than “oral religious essays.” Preaching of this sort fails to point to a direct encounter with God.
Long demands that we identify the present activity of God in our preaching.
“Either God is present and active in our preaching or we are … pathetic fools,” he writes.
His Paul-like rebuke may strike the reader — as it initially struck me — as overly caustic. But if we will reflect on it more carefully and respond to it less defensively, we will be better for it.
Preaching must be more than a recitation of historical facts about God. Preaching must point out the present activity of the living God in us, through us and, sometimes, in spite of us.
Midway through the book, Long confronts our culture’s new spirituality — capsulated in the jingle, I want to be “spiritual but not religious.” Many describe this sentiment as a new spiritual hunger, but Long identifies it as a modern-day form of Gnosticism, that ancient enemy of Christian teaching.
This section of the book may prove to be the most challenging, especially to those who have little or no insight into the history and nuances of Gnosticism. But for those who think through the argument carefully, Long’s analysis is enlightening and relevant to our present situation.
Long argues that what may appear to be a harmless jingle is in fact an ancient heresy that has again reared its ugly head within the church. He asserts that this form of teaching creates an impulse within many believers to embrace Christianity as an intellectual and emotive enterprise rather than a practical one.
Long urges the church to call its members back into the practical life that Christ modeled for — and demands from — all of his followers.
He then laments the fact that language of heaven, hell, Christ’s second coming and the final judgment is strikingly absent from much of today’s preaching.
I am a member of the Boomer generation, so his assertion that there is a “veil of embarrassment … over the whole matter” shakes me to my core. When was the last time I engaged in the hard work of digging out the Bible’s teaching on Last Things?
Long urges all of us to demand sermons that tell the story we are living from the end backwards — sermons that help “our people know that the eschatological and apocalyptic language of the Bible is not about predicting the future; it is primarily a way of seeing the present in light of hope.”
Long abhors complacency. Instead, he seeks to provide a way to survive our most recent nervous breakdown.
In accomplishing his objective, he embraces the criticism being leveled against the institutional church and finds what is helpful within it. He then charts a solid path through the theological issues facing the church and gives us a wonderful gift — a renewed memory of where we’ve come from and a glorious hope of where we are going.
BOB ODLE is preaching minister for the Three Chopt Church of Christ in Richmond, Va., and is working toward a Doctor of Ministry Degree at Abilene Christian University in Texas.