19 April 2012

The odd little man and what he says to preachers

by Dan Phillips

The Pastoral Ministry class in seminary was of uneven value. I think the professor tried to make it valuable, and he was a very genial and likable fellow. One thing he said has stuck in my mind ever since. So here's what we'll do. I'll tell you what he said, I'll warn you against taking the wrong point from it, then I'll tell you the good truth I keep from it.

The professor told us to picture the most absurd-looking man imaginable. He said something like that we should make him round in shape, put him in a bright green suit with a bright orange hat, and adorn the suit with a big flower, and the hat with a big propeller. That way, you can't possibly miss him.

Then he said to put the man in the front row.

Then he said to imagine that the man only knew three words in English, and to imagine that he kept repeating those three words over and over, all the way through the sermon.

The words:

"Tell me how."

Now, the wrong way to take this exercise is to conclude that all sermons must be pragmatic, they must all be how-to sermons. It is possible that this is how the professor intended that we take his exercise. If so, I would disagree. Such a bent would cut out a lot of Scripture and a lot of truth. Arguably, one might never preach the Gospel, let alone the doctrines of the triune God, or prophecy, or a host of other truths found all over Scripture.

However, that is not the way I apply the exercise. I take it to mean that I should tether myself to reality, to my hearers. My goal is not to soliloquize the Word of God, to speak for my own amusement or edification or aggrandizement. My goal is to preach the Word, to communicate it.

My goal in studying is to connect with the Word myself, heart and mind and soul. My goal in preaching is to connect the Word with my hearers, heart and mind and soul. To do that, I need to aim for where they are. Whether I am preaching on "Husbands, love your wives" or "God is light and in Him is no darkness at all," whether on "Flee fornication" or "God is Spirit," whether on the fruits of the Spirit or the seals, trumpets and bowls of Revelation, my job is personally to connect with the text myself, and then to connect my hearers — the sheep entrusted to me — with that same text.

If I don't understand it, I fail. If I don't help them understand it to the best of my ability under God, I fail.

Beyond argument, God has done exactly this, hasn't He? That is what Calvin was talking about when he said that God "lisps with us as nurses are wont to do with little children." He did not mean that Scripture communicates error, but that all words from God to us are necessarily accommodated. The Infinite is speaking to the finite. How does He do it? Well, you have read the Book, right? What do you see? Narratives, legal documents, letters, parables, poems, songs, often featuring the most striking and arresting and inescapably bold figures and images and turns of speech that one could ever hope for. God, we could say, is all over the map in assuring that we can connect with His truth.

So, shouldn't we do the same?

Do I dumb it down? Sure, I have to — in order for me to understand it! Don't tell anyone, but that's my secret, in writing and in preaching: I'm very, very dim. (Not much of a secret, the reader might observe unkindly.) So that makes it easy. Once I understand it, I'm ready to explain it to anyone, whether by book, blog or sermon.

So: should our sermons be pragmatic? When the text is, sure — and it often is. So should we preach on God's aseity, on the hypostatic union, on the Trinity, on predestination and election and the effectual call and the atonement and a hundred other lofty Biblical truths? Absolutely.

Just never forget the odd little man, and make sure that you do all you can to connect God's truth to his own understanding.

That's pretty much what you're there for, right?

Dan Phillips's signature


Robert said...

I can't help but to see a connection between this and yesterday's post from Frank. I mean, how can a multi-site pastor understand what level of understanding the congregations in other areas have? How can he connect with them to make sure that they understand?

Great post, Dan. I am assuming that if one were to add emphasis, one might state the three words like this: tell me how. This is in contrast to many modern churches seeing this emphasis: teach me how. I guess that nuance does count, huh?

Mizz Harpy said...

Good article. It reminds me of one of J. Vernon McGee's stories. He and another seminary student were sent to preach at a church in south Texas. A lady invited them over for Sunday dinner after church and they somehow found out she was illiterate so young Mr. McGee decided to impress her with his knowledge but she apparently knew more Bible than he did and she had them listening to her. I'd say she went to a good church.

Will an illiterate person who regularly attends the church for every available service know enough Bible to teach it?

robert valliere said...

Mizz Harpy hit the nail on the head. The bible is the only source for preaching and teaching. Not cute stories and other tall tales. Just feed the flock meat. That is a test for any pastor. Will an illiterate person who attends regularly know enough bible to teach it?

Nash Equilibrium said...

...and if you're looking for reminders of what odd little men look like, don't forget your local Walmart.

Larry Geiger said...

"Sister Show Mercy" just below this post is an example. Would that more preachers would show folks "How to". I appreciate flowery theological stuff occasionaly, but mostly I don't get it. Tell me how...

Do the young men even know what "fornication" means?
Do the young women know what "fornication" means?
Do the other folks even know what "gossip" means?

Robert Warren said...

One of the things our pastor has taught us about the Bible is that when it is preached expositionally, the preacher is forced to deal with the doctrine and the application all in due order.

By the way, where did you get that picture of Nick Saban near the end of the post?

mike said...

In the past you have blogged about how important it is to make the most of that time in the pulpit when the pastor has the (relatively) undivided attention of so many in the pews. I see some congruence between this post and that one. Whether one is a Sunday School teacher, preacher, etc. there are people who have put forth some effort to be in a certain place at a certain time in order to be spiritually nourished. It is important to use that time in a way that can be eternally productive.

And, as your last sentence implies and as Phil has blogged previously, making the most of that time means telling people what they need to hear, even if not always what they want to hear.

Louise said...

Couldn't help thinking that I am that odd little man repeating, "Tell me how" over and over again. And then it seemed to me that Christ came to show me how. Thanks for that reminder.


Aaron said...

I have only one question to help me put this into context for me.

Is the guy chewing gum?

DJP said...

No. He most certainly is not.

donsands said...

Keep on my pastor-brother. Good word. Your church is blessed to have you.

I have been listening to some Chicago this weekend, and I thought of you. I have been blessed manily by the Chicago II LP on Spotify.

I bumped into this page on the Web, and thought it was nice to see how another ranks their albums: http://www.timmwood.com/chialbums.html

Have a joy-filled Lord's day in His presence, through the Spirit, and in His truth, which is His Word.

Nonna said...


Chicago is great music! My husband and I have a Chicago favorite that we call our song - For the Glory of Love.

Van said...

My wife has been a blessing in this area, because she is the one who asks the question. Thankfully, she usually asks me to connect the dots on Monday, and I have time to sort out the words before I have to explain in public.