What’s an example?
In high-end quantum physics they believe matter isn’t stable. The atoms in a chair are connected in a pattern of relationships. And the Bible begins with a triune God—a relationship of loving, giving, creative energy. Ah ha, there’s something there.
Drops Like Stars began when I realized that basic art theory has all of these connections with suffering. And so it generally starts with some odd moment of connection. And then from there it’s just the hard work of hunting things down, digging things up, becoming aware of all that’s going on around us all the time. I have journals filled with fragments, and over time they grow.
How is that different from how you were originally trained to preach?
A lot of pastors were trained to read the verse and then read the commentaries. But after a while the two are just talking to each other. One’s focus can actually become smaller and smaller until everything is funneled into the particular text. The movement then becomes in rather than out. So it’s Tuesday afternoon and a pastor is sitting in the office reading James 2 and four or five commentaries hoping to find that little nugget. When all the while there’s a huge world of insight and implication and ideas out there.
Rather than shrinking our vision, the text should become a pair of eyes with which we are able to see even more. There’s a great big world out there with quantum physics, and architecture, and economic theory, and the thread count of clothing, and the fact that refrigerators in Europe are smaller—all of these seemingly random events and occurrences and happenings are all connected and help us see how this really is God’s world.
That covers content, but what about the sermon structure?
There’s a whole world of screenwriting wisdom that we can tap into as preachers. There are storytelling insights about arc, tension, narrative, perspective, point of view—these things aren’t taught in most seminaries, but they’re essential to understanding how stories work, which means they’re incredibly helpful in understanding the Bible.
Imagine a pastor on Thursday staring at this obscure passage in the life of David trying to figure out where the sermon is. One playwright says, “When in doubt, just have a different character give the line.” And suddenly it clicks—do the sermon from the perspective of Uriah. Boom! Just one little adjustment and all of a sudden the whole thing works. My experience has been that the modern preaching, teaching, training system doesn’t tap people into all this. The imagination involved in the art of the sermon can end up being stifled.
There’s a lot of emphasis today on practical preaching, helping people address their felt-needs, and giving direct application. Is that foremost in your mind when you prepare a message?
When I prepare to teach a text there are a few questions I always ask. First, “What’s the thing behind the thing?” and “What’s the truth behind the truth?” So if we’re talking about tithing, we’re really talking about generosity and participation. And if we’re talking about generosity and participation, then we’re really talking about whether you view the world as a scarcity or as a world governed by a Trinitarian God. Is the universe at its core a sliced-up pie where you grab your slice and then protect and defend it? Or do you believe that at the core there is an endlessly self-giving, loving community of God we are invited to step into?
So you can talk about tithing—giving your 10 percent. Or you can wrestle with a scarcity versus a Trinitarian view of the universe with tithing perhaps being an implication at the end of the message.
So you’re trying to help people see a larger view of reality, through the lens of the gospel, rather than just giving them practical application.
Yes, exactly. I call it the truth behind the truth; the mystery behind the mystery; reality behind the reality. If you say we’re going to do a series on marriage for the next five weeks, there’s a chance that people who’s aren’t married, who are single, or who are divorced are going to think, Well, I guess I don’t have to show up for five weeks.
Another way to approach the subject is to see marriage as one of the applications of the truth behind the truth. The truth behind the truth would lead you to preach one week on being honest, the next on apologizing, and the next on serving others. Those truths apply to everyone. And then each week you might include a point on how it applies to marriage.
Does our inability to find the truth behind the truth explain why we ignore large sections of the Bible in our preaching? We just don’t see much practical how-to in Obadiah?
It’s interesting you bring this up because when our church started, I spent the first year and a half preaching through Leviticus verse by verse. But now it’s a part of our church’s DNA to assume that every text has something for us—even ones that make no sense the first time you read them.
“I always assume that there is way more going on in the text than we see on the first reading.”—Rob Bell
It may be my own warped sense of humor, but it was always the odd places in the Bible that I found most compelling. It’s God’s inspired Word, and it’s all useful. But to really believe that—that’s when things get interesting. I’d rather trust God, jump into those texts, and discover what God has for us.
I really like the idea of throwing yourself at its mercy. I’m just assuming there will be things here. Last year we did Philippians verse by verse. It took the whole year. I always begin with the assumption that there is way more going on in the text than we see on the first reading.
With more familiar texts, like Philippians, you have a different challenge. How do you bring forward new insights without deteriorating into novelty?
We use phrases like “historic orthodox Christian faith” a lot, and we ask how Christians before us have understood the text. What did the church fathers say about this? For example, we did Lamentations for Lent. For thousands of years Christians have taken the season leading up to Resurrection Sunday for reflection.
We frame many things like that. Here are ways people have thought about this, understood this, expressed this over the years.
So you’re not just trying to be different or innovative, you’re trying to be rooted?
Right. We’re interested in the way of Jesus and being true to the way of Jesus. If what we dig up is rattling or provocative or surprising, great, but setting out to be shocking or controversial, that’s not a goal God honors.
What else have you found unhelpful when preaching?
Focusing too much on something in the text that is an issue of hairsplitting debate among theologians. You are assuming that people care as much about the debate as you do. Somebody may be sitting there thinking, “Dude, I’m a plumber. I didn’t know that was a debate, and I didn’t know that it needed to be resolved. I’m just trying to figure out life with God and you spent sixteen minutes letting me know that you understood the origins of this particular Greek word.” Some things just aren’t helpful.
Why do we get sucked into those unhelpful debates?
In some sense we are justifying our existence. We want to appear smart and authoritative. We want to display what we know and prove that we deserve to be up here on the stage rather than humbly receiving the role as a gift.
I have definitely been guilty of trying to show people how much I know about a verse, and that’s different than allowing them to see how the truth of it has impacted my life and can transform theirs. When we put language on our experience with a text, then it becomes life-giving preaching.
So for legitimacy as leaders we rely on our intelligence rather than our intimacy with Christ.
“Church is actually about caring for one another, speaking the truth with one another in love.”—Rob Bell
Right. It’s about walking with God. As a pastor it is easy to fall into a pattern of life that is isolating, and in a weird way “Church, Inc.” becomes your sphere of life. Before you know it, as pastor you’re out of touch with what other people are really struggling with.