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Never off-message in the pulpit

by
08 January 2016

Mike Starkey on an uncompromising view of the preacher’s task

Cutting to the Heart: Applying the Bible in teaching and preaching
Chris Green
IVP £14.99
(978-1-78359-293-7)
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

 

THERE is a gap on the bookshelves when it comes to preaching, Chris Green says. We have countless resources on topics ranging from careful exegesis to compelling delivery, but few on application — what changes a sermon might spark in the lives of our hearers. The Vicar of St James’s, Muswell Hill, and former lecturer at Oak Hill College pictures the unapplied sermon as a blunt sword. As a corrective, he points to the biblical theme of wisdom: truth as applied on the journey of life. So far, so good.

Whether Green’s book is the one to fill this gap is less clear. A common-sense approach to application might be to grasp something of the historical context of a Bible passage, then that of today’s hearer, and make creative connections between the two. Green is unconvinced. His interpretative key to understanding scripture is that ultimately it is all about Jesus. Jesus alone is the clue to interpreting all Old Testament passages, as well as New: “we must not preach about Elijah or David, Peter or Paul.”

Equally, Green is wary of delving too deeply into the life-contexts of the people listening to our sermons, shaped as they are by human sin. Instead, the preacher’s task is to tell people what their real agenda ought to be — their sinfulness and need of a Saviour. He writes: “Letting sinners set the agenda with their rights, ambitions and need for approval is a disastrous way to set a ministry.”

An obvious counter-argument might be that God takes the messy human context with absolute seriousness in the incarnation, as Jesus does in his parables, and as the apostle Paul does while preaching in Athens. But Green’s anxiety, which jumps out from almost every page, is that we allow human “felt needs” to trump divine revelation.

The result is a rather defensive book that effectively pre-determines the application of any passage — and warns against exploring too deeply the fallible humanity of Bible characters, congregation members, or the people living in our street. In a revealing aside, the author admits that some people criticise Old Testament sermons done his way as being all the same after the first ten minutes. Well, quite.

Whether or not you share Green’s particular take on conservative Evangelical theology, his approach to applied preaching feels narrowly prescriptive and strangely lacking in human empathy or cultural engagement. Can that really be what effective application looks like?

 

The Revd Mike Starkey is a tutor for the Church Army, and a freelance writer.

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