Two weeks ago, we hosted the Spring 2017 Talking Points Conference, focusing on the theme “Bridging Worlds: Preaching the Ancient Story Today.” What a fantastic day! We were blessed to have seven speakers engage a room full of pastors, teachers, and students.
Here are some highlights from the conference with audio recording links (click here for a full playlist).
1. CROSS-CULTURAL, RELATIONAL EXEGESIS
Dr. Jonathan Greer opened the day by describing an approach to exegesis that recognizes both the cross-cultural and relational nature of reading the Bible. This text was written to people and places far removed from us today, so we need to approach it cross-culturally and relationally. The Bible isn’t a puzzle to solve or a body of knowledge to master. It’s God’s relational Word communicated to real people in real, cross-cultural places. How would we seek to get to know someone from another culture? We’d ask questions, listen carefully, and learn their language, customs, music, humor, and more. We’d learn how they think so that we can relate to them well. The same is true for the Bible. We need to pay attention to the cultural context, beliefs, and assumptions if we want to truly understand the text. Dr. Greer explored the Old Testament background with this in mind.
2. KNOWING AND TELLING STORY
Several of the speakers emphasized the critical need for story in both studying and preaching the Bible. We need to know the Story well, know our own story (and culture) well, and tell these stories effectively. Story is both how the Bible is revealed to us and the primary way people relate to and embrace the truth of Scripture. As preachers, we are storytellers, and we must pursue faithfulness to that calling.
3. EMOTIONAL EXEGESIS OR ANALYSIS
Pastor Jeff Manion discussed an approach to studying Scripture that can often get lost in the grammar and history. Not only should we explore the words each writer used (the grammar), not only should we explore the context (the history)—we also should pay attention to the emotion. What was it like for the people in the story? What were they going through? What were the authors wrestling with? How did these written words meet and impact the recipients of each text? In two sermons, Jeff explored Paul’s writings to Timothy while he was incarcerated. What could it mean for Paul to say he has learned to be content (1 Timothy 6:6-8) when he’s sitting in prison? Exploring this “human element,” as Jeff would put it, is powerful because it can quickly connect to our lives as well. We can, as Eugene Peterson has put it, move from “looking at the words to entering the world of the text” (Eat This Book, p. 99).
4. THE VALUE AND LIMITS OF TECHNOLOGY
During our two panel discussions, I asked the presenters how technology or other resources can help bring the cultural background of a passage to life. This stirred up a fun and interesting exchange, which demonstrated there is more one way to preach faithfully! Some use supports like pictures, video, and maps when they preach; others don’t. To a person, though, each presenter expressed confidence in the Word of God that we don’t need fancy or glamorous technology to preach effectively. The Word itself is sufficient and powerful on low budgets too! However, there was also an acknowledgement that without visuals our word choices are all the more important. We must paint a picture with our words that people can see, feel, and relate to. Likewise, technology can be valuable in a visual culture for keeping the story clear and interesting. But as one speaker put it, “a good visual does not make a bad sermon good.” The content of the sermon is key, and the visuals only provide support. Each preacher, Rod Vansolkema, Howard Earle, Jennifer Greer, Royce Evans, and Jeff Manion demonstrated effectively how they approach this.
5. THE NEED FOR AND OPPORTUNITY OF HUMILITY
Humility was both discussed and demonstrated at the conference. Given the nature of God’s Word as our authority for life and faith, and given its cultural distance from us, we must practice humility as we study, teach, and preach it. The easy route is to let what we already think shape our reading of the text. The harder and more faithful route is to submit our beliefs and assumptions to the text every time we read/study, asking God to continually teach and refine our thoughts so that we can communicate his to our people. The opportunities are greater than the potential challenges, though. As Dr. Greer put it, when we engage the cultural backgrounds of the text, we will find that while some of our assumptions get refined, the central core of the Gospel of Jesus Christ will burn all the brighter.
6. ENCOURAGEMENT TO WEARY PREACHERS
Many attendees came away from the conference both equipped with ideas and encouraged in their callings. One student mentioned to me the relief he felt when Pastor Rod Vansolkema described preaching as “agony.” Although pastors often feel energized for preaching, it is a weighty thing to present God’s Word to the people you love and serve. This student felt that agony, and it was empowering for him to hear “successful” preachers express that, too. At the end of the conference, Jeff Manion gave a word on “preaching that transforms the heart.” He discussed mistakes we make that both drain our hearts as preachers and kill the story for our listeners. Avoiding them will re-engage our own souls in the text and help our listeners connect with the Story as well.