Short Response Regarding Keller’s Book, “Preaching”

(I posted this to the Gordon-Conwell Preacher’s blog, but figured I’d repost here in case anyone is interested. It is in reference to Timothy Keller’s book, “Preaching: Communicating Faith in an Age of Skepticism.”) 

In the chapter, “Preaching Christ to the Culture” Tim Keller gives us six practices of good contextualization that have got me thinking:

  1. Use Accessible or Well-Explained Vocabulary (103):

I already have one strike against me besides the fact that I’m a newbie preacher: I am a recent graduate of a seminary. :) In seminary I learned all sorts of 5+ syllable words that I now pretend to understand. That’s not necessarily a bad thing since I like to play scrabble, but it can be problematic when I’m preparing a sermon. What is immediately accessible to me is NOT accessible to most of the other Christians I know. I forget that at least once every time I preach. As Keller notes, my language becomes a “boundary marker” (105). I mean, it’s not as if the congregants in my church don’t know Scripture. Most of them do, at least vaguely. And actually, most of them even love Scripture (or would at least say that they do). So in that aspect we’ve got lots in common. Unfortunately, the disconnect comes when I start speaking theologically (or, more specifically, the way I’ve been taught to speak *write* about Scripture in seminary) and I forget my congregants haven’t had that same education. Sometimes I accidentally mistake my seminary professors for the members of my church – but they don’t actually know each other. At times, my preach speak may be correct (if I’m getting lucky), but the babble is real. Speaking theology in street-talk is a must, but I’m afraid my street smarts aren’t as strong as my theology-smarts, so I end up speaking in-accessibly (is that even a word?) more often than I’d like to imagine.

2. Employ Respected Authorities to Strengthen Your Theses (106):

I’m currently trying to use stories from respected authorities more than quotes. I love using quotes, but I don’t think my congregation does. I don’t hardly have anyone tell me that a quote I gave from an authority was the “nail in the coffin” or even especially helpful. However, it seems when I use the logic of an authority and explain what they are saying, and then confirm or contrast that with Scripture, that seems to be more helpful. Authorities have a way of saying things in a better way than I could – so I’ve found if I ride that train, more people ride longer.

3. Demonstrate an Understanding of Doubts and Objections (110):

It is difficult to know how to do this without coming off as smug, egotistical, intellectualist, or simply mad. It seems to me that objections from the pulpit feel “louder” than affirmations. We want to be clear, convicting and bold in our preaching, but how do we do it in an attractive way? I almost wish Keller combined #3-#4 into one point, because I think if #4 isn’t a part of the progression of #3, we lose people. However, if we do #4 and not #3, we end up losing some of the tension we are trying to maintain.

4. Affirm in Order to Challenge Baseline Cultural Narratives (115):

This one stuck out to me the most. I must get better at this. I need to start doing this more often. I think if I do more work in affirming baseline narratives, my challenges will become all the more palatable. It will also facilitate more rapport. It’s not as if as a preachier I’m just a destroyer of bad ideas (although, I’m reminded of how much I like to play battleship which, admittedly, is something different entirely). Instead, if I find ways to affirm then I’m proving I understand. I have empathy. I’m similar to you (the listener). But I’m curious, will we be able to affirm in some aspect everything we are analyzing? I can think of more than a few things that I cannot affirm in any way (racism, sexism, classism, etc.). What do we do with that?

5. Make Gospel Offers that Push on the Culture’s Pressure Points (117):

“We must show at the very point of this particular narrative how Christianity offers far more powerful resources.” (117) Agreed. But how long does this take? If I’m doing 1-4 well, I might not have much time left for 5-6. Does anyone have an opinion about which point should take up the most time in the sermon?

6. Call for Gospel Motivation (118):

I am intensely against moralism. I hate it. Yet, sometimes moralism is the easiest way to conclude a sermon, and I think I hate that more. As Keller says, we want to solve problems “not by calling them to try harder but by pointing them to deeper faith in Christ’s salvation.” (120). This takes a lot of brain-power! For my colleague, this is the easiest part. For me, it is the most difficult. I’m curious how my inexperience is affecting me here. Or maybe it’s something else? I wish it wasn’t so difficult to conclude in the same spirit of a passage, but it is. For me, at least.