Or Will You Explore the Possibility That Your God is the Great Storyteller?
When we began to explore where is the best place to find the Christian story, we started in the wrong place.
We started by watching sermons of American preachers on the internet.
And it was a mistake! They are so often soooo boring!
But, we’re not the only ones who have had that experience…
A cynic once defined preaching as “the fine art of speaking in someone else’s sleep.” The problem with cynics is that sometimes they are correct. Congregants repeatedly complain of falling asleep during their pastor’s sermons. The unchurched choose to stay home Sunday mornings because they suspect what churchgoers already know: that it is more comfortable to sleep in a bed than in a pew.
The only thing worse than listening to long boring sermons is knowing that you are preaching one of them. It is a terrible experience to stand behind the pulpit on a beautiful Sunday morning and watch eyes glaze over and heads begin to nod. You don’t want to put people to sleep. It is certainly not your intent to bore your listeners with the Word of God.
Although not a friend of the church, Charles Templeton spoke truthfully when he made the following observation about today’s pulpit:
It is incredible that so much contemporary preaching is boring. That the Christian message should bore anyone is itself astonishing. The Old Testament is replete with high drama and tenanted by wonderfully colourful characters. …. Yet, somehow, many if not most preachers manage to transform the transforming message … into pallid, innocous moralism that proceeds from so many pulpits today.
Why are so many sermons that originate from narrative literature so boring? The problem is not with the text.Kent Edwards, Effective First-Person Biblical Preaching
Moreover, you had better be ready for a fierce counteroffensive as well as be prepared to take some casualties. God has not promised us safety, but participation in an adventure called the Kingdom. That seems to me to be great good news in a world that is literally dying of boredom.
God has entrusted us, His Church, with the best story in the world. With great ingenuity we have managed, with the aid of much theory, to make that story boring as hell.Preaching As Though We Had Enemies, by Stanley Hauerwas, First Things, May 1995
Polemical point one: the story is not your story or my story or “his-story” or “her-story” or some neat story someone read or made up. The story of the sermon and of the hymns and of the processions and of the sacramental acts and of the readings is to be God’s story, the story of the Bible. Preachers are the greatest sinners here: the text already is and belongs to the one true story, it does need to be helped out in this respect.How the World Lost Its Story, by Robert W. Jenson, First Things, October 1993
[M]ost modern preaching evokes little more than a wide yawn.
When you step behind the pulpit, you dare not assume that the members of your congregation sit expectantly on the edge of the pews waiting for your sermon. In reality they are probably a bit bored and harbor a suspicion that you will make matters worse.
Expositors who represent the creative God dare not become, in Robert Browning’s description, “clods untouched by a spark.” How can you shun the sin of boring people?Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching
And we’re guessing Robert McKee would agree…
The ultimate storytelling sin is boredom – a villainous violation of the law of diminishing returns.Robert McKee, Dialogue
And that sure seemed to fit with how one of the most renowned teachers of the Bible in the history of America saw things.
This guy’s name was Howard Hendricks, and he was a professor at Dallas Theological Seminary in Dallas, Texas.
Look what he wrote about the problem of the Bible and boredom…
It is sad but true that the average person thinks that reading the Bible is dreadfully boring. In fact, the only thing more boring would be listening to someone teach from the Bible.Living By The Book, Howard G. Hendricks and William D. Hendricks
And it’s interesting, by the way, how that parallels boredom in another sphere of learning…
“We think one of the sins of American education is intellectually underestimating children,” she says. “It’s so much more engaging for kids when they’re challenged.” Her other complaint about many traditional schools: “It’s incredibly boring.” While those public schools don’t have her flexibility to design a curriculum and hire and fire teachers, “engagement doesn’t cost any money. It can be done tomorrow if the adults decide that boredom is not acceptable and you embrace a curriculum that’s interesting and rigorous.”Eva Moskowitz: Teachers Union Enemy No. 1, by Matthew Kaminski, Wall Street Journal, February 14, 2014
One of the things Howard Hendricks is most remembered for by his students is repeating through the years that it is a sin to bore people with the Bible.
We found that Hendricks died in 2013, and the school he taught at created a tribute page for him, where our team found the following comments:
I will never forget his admonition that it is a crime to bore people with the Bible.
Never forgot it. Best and scariest class moment as a DTS student.
I never forgot it to…I think about that simple statement frequently.
It’s clear Hendricks was very serious about communicating the Bible as a compelling story…
Great teachers have a passion about teaching. …. They love what they do and they love to communicate it to others. In the world of Bible teaching and Christian education we can point to people like Howard Hendricks. Hendricks has often said, “If you are going to bore people, don’t bore them with the Gospel. Bore them with calculus, bore them with earth science, bore them with world history. But, it is a sin to bore people with the Gospel.” Hendricks could never be accused of that failing.Lawrence O. Richards & Gary J. Bredfeldt, Creative Bible Teaching
So, if it’s a sin to bore people with the Bible… and so many of your preachers stand up and do it week after week… well … that’s mind blowing.
It makes the preachers bad guys in the story of your love crisis.
Because they certainly are boring.
And Paula showed us this passage from your New Testament…
Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.
And look at this…
On the other hand, some of God’s most condemning words were also spoken to leaders. The pursuit of leadership comes with severe warnings. James said leaders will be judged more harshly (3:1), and the writer of Hebrews said leaders will give an account for how they shepherd (13:17). Jesus addressed the religious leaders of His day as children of hell (Matt. 23:15). The point is that we should not assume anyone in a position of spiritual authority deserves to be there.Francis Chan, Letters to the Church
So, if Christianity is the story we are in, then our team wasn’t surprised to find that … there is a stunning crisis of morale among America’s preachers…
The pastoral vocation today is a sea of dead bodies. Consider these stats, which I’ve pulled from various surveys:
1,500 pastors leave the ministry for good each month, citing burnout or contention in their churches.
80 percent of pastors (and 84 percent of pastors’ spouses) are discouraged in their roles.
Almost half of all pastors have seriously considered leaving ministry for good in the past three months.
For every 20 pastors who go into ministry, only one retires from the ministry.
50 percent of pastors say they are unable to meet the demands of their job and are so discouraged that they would leave the ministry if they could, but have no other way of making a living.
When I share these statistics with pastors, they slowly, knowingly nod their heads.
Yet when I share these statistics with non-clergy, they are shocked: “How can this be? I had no idea!”Why Half of All Pastors Want to Quit Their Jobs, by J.R. Briggs, FaithStreet.com, June 25, 2014
We had no idea either.
But the more we began to study Robert McKee’s insights about story, the more we began to wonder whether this observation may have something to do with it…
Neither the preachers nor the scholars have bothered too much about what the story in question actually does within the larger and longer narrative the evangelist has constructed. (This is of course an overstatement. Many have done and continue to do this. I am talking about the large generality of preachers and teachers in the church and a fair proportion of scholars as well.) In part this may stem from personality. For a long time it has been much easier to get a Ph.D. in biblical studies if you’re a “details person” rather than a “big-picture person.” This has attracted into the field people with sharp eyes for small details; such an ability is a great asset for a scholar, but it needs to be balanced with the vision and imagination that will ask the big questions too, if scholarly study of the gospels is not to become seriously distorted. The meaning of a word is its use in a sentence; the meaning of a sentence is its use in a paragraph; and the meaning of a paragraph is its use in the larger document to which it contributes. Details are vitally important, but they are important as part of the overall picture. And the burden of my song in …. this book is that we’ve all forgotten what the big picture actually is.N.T. Wright, How God Became King
So apparently they prefer microscopes to telescopes.
And our team began to get a sense that the approach they are taking to the Bible sounds a lot like what science does…
I want, in this book, to argue that we need both religion and science; that they are compatible and more than compatible. They are the two essential perspectives that allow us to see the universe in its three-dimensional depth. The creative tension between the two is what keeps us sane, grounded in physical reality without losing our spiritual sensibility. It keeps us human and humane.
The story I am about to tell is about the human mind and its ability to do two quite different things. One is the ability to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact. The other is the ability to join things together so that they tell a story, and to join people together so that they form relationships.The best example of the first is science, of the second, religion.
Science takes things apart to see how they work. Religion puts things together to see what they mean.
The Bible is about truth as story. Systems are theoretical constructs, but stories are about people and the time it takes for them to change.Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership
So maybe what is happening is that, by failing to consider the possibility your God has given humanity the very kind of story which people deeply desire, you have inadvertently paid too much attention to the human “ability to break things down into their constituent parts and see how they mesh and interact.”
But it looks like focusing on that human ability has had a negative impact on Christians in America…
Many of our people are dying of spiritual starvation because they do not know the Bible’s whole story, and thus do not find themselves in the story. True, they know many little stories. They have bag[s] of facts. But a little bit of knowledge is not a big picture. As we preach, we need to bring every text into accountability with the big story of Scripture.Albert Mohler, Jr., He is Not Silent
And look at this…
Boring writing lies about God.
The invitation to write is not an easy one. Writing itself is not as simple as it may sound, and Christian writing (to benefit others, not just express self) is even harder. Just as we must not lie about God and his world theologically, the same is true emotionally. Boring writing about God borders on blasphemy. When we ourselves aren’t truly affected, and so we disaffect others with boring writing about the most wonderful truths in the universe, we lie about God. So, when we write as Christians, we work — and do we ever work! — to make it interesting and appropriately provocative to the regenerate palate.God Made You a Writer, By David Mathis, Desiring God, AUGUST 24, 2017
So, as you Christians continue to bore people with the Bible, have you considered the impact you may have had on the unfolding drama in America?…
The death of a culture begins when its normative institutions fail to communicate ideals in ways that remain inwardly compelling.Philip Rieff, The Triumph of the Therapeutic
And it looks like, if Christianity is the story we are in, you are not only killing your country, but also yourselves…
[W]e’re killing ourselves. It’s surely not for lack of resources; nevertheless, we are in fact starving ourselves to death.
Christians used to be known as “people of one book.” Sure, they read, studied and shared other books. But the book they cared about more than all others combined was the Bible. They memorized it, meditated on it, talked about it and taught it to others. We don’t do that anymore, and in a very real sense we’re starving ourselves to death.The Crisis of Biblical Illiteracy and What We Can Do About It, By Kenneth Berding, Biola Magazine, Spring 2014
No wonder America’s Christians are pushing the Bible away! They want an archplot, but the way your preachers and Bible teachers present it to them, well, they get a sense they are being presented with a Miniplot.
Discouraging, isn’t it?
Will You Try A Hollywood Project?
As our team was exploring some of these options you have if you decide to rethink and change, Paula began to wonder if one of your ways forward would be to begin a project centered in Hollywood, which then connected with Christians across America?
A project in which your teachers and preachers began to work with Christians in Hollywood who understand story?
You ought to pay those Christian screenwriters at least double what they are making now.
Look what Paula showed us from the Christian screenwriter Sean Gaffney…
My friend Jennifer is not only good for gritty soap recommendations, but also for finding bon mots online that she knows I will especially appreciate.
Such as this link to a Donald Miller essay on film and structure and Robert McKee. (You’ll remember Miller from such hits as BLUE LIKE JAZZ.)
Favorite moment from the blog– as Miller talks about the importance of story in the Bible:
Miller, McKee and Me, By Sean Gaffney, Gaffney Journal, March 23, 2007
“Right and wrong, then, are not often taught by lists (truth without meaningful context) but rather through the tools of story. The seminar made me wonder why religious institutions who aim to teach ancient texts don’t have story departments alongside their systematic pursuits. It seems that one might benefit from the other.”
My team thinks Gaffney is on to something. What if the Christians in the Hollywood area began to quietly build a network which engaged in developing your ability to see what God the Great Storyteller has given you?
After all, it doesn’t have to be some hugely funded project…
Often the biggest changes in history are the achievements of thinly documented, informally organized groups of people.Niall Ferguson, The Square and the Tower
And Paula showed us the following quote from Phil Cooke, one of the Christian players in Hollywood…
I’m in South Africa speaking at the African Christian Media Conference, and one of the biggest questions leaders in this country face is how to partner to make a greater impact in the culture. Getting churches, ministries, nonprofits and similar organizations to join together to launch a nationwide campaign – particularly in the media – is a challenge everywhere. But that challenge isn’t new. The Bible charts the story of leaders like Moses, David, Paul, and even Jesus struggling to unite the people of their time. After all, one of the last prayers of Jesus was for believers to be united as one. But today, trying to get major media (and other) ministries and/or churches to cooperate for a great cause is nearly impossible.
Remember that God has done incredible things through a single person or team so keep trying. In spite of the uncooperative children of Israel, Moses still believed God and kept moving. Some of the greatest filmmakers, writers, musicians, thinkers, and leaders throughout history have been turned down, criticized, and rejected. But they never gave up, kept on listening to God, and amazing things happened.Why Can’t Churches and Other Christian Organizations Work Together?, BY PHIL COOKE, CP CONTRIBUTOR, May 11, 2015
And then she showed us these…
One could look at the history of missions from the apostolic times to the present and be amazed at both the unity and the diversity of methods and contexts. To quote J. H. Bavinck, who spent so many years in Indonesia bringing the gospel to a people Westminster loves well: “The history of missions does not move smoothly and with a uniform rate of speed. It is subject to quick starts and stops, to shocks and obstacles. Its progress is at times arrested completely or seriously checked, and then again it proceeds with a sudden advance. God has set his mark upon its entire history.”A Braver Palace Than Before, By William Edgar, Westminster Theological Journal, Fall 2014
As we should certainly have learned from the biblical story, there will be both shocks and surprises. God’s action is disruptive at least as often as it is continuous with what might have been expected. In many ways, therefore, mission is not the imposing of predetermined patterns on to history, but openness to the incalculable ways of God in history.Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission
Somewhere along the way, we stopped aiming for radically impossible God-sized dreams and instead settled for realistically incremental man-sized progress.Phil Cooke and Jonathan Bock, The Way Back
And what if such an effort would also help you to pass this test? …
The test will be if we can engage the culture without losing the gospel.Russell Moore, Onward
So, if this guy is right…
I believe we are living in the age of story. People are responsive to messages in story form.Telling the Story for 21st-century Listeners, By Graham Johnston, Enrichment Journal
… then you have a way forward.
But — we don’t believe you will take it.