Informed but unformed — regaining the purpose of preaching

I was satisfied.

The preacher had provided extensive background to the biblical text and I had learned so much from it. The historical context. The use of certain language in the text. How Jewish and Roman cultures collided. My mind had a full belly and I was satisfied. Actually, my mind was stuffed. The sermon had reached an hour in length and my head was packed with information just like when I was in graduate school. And I loved those years at Regent College.

But then it occurred to me. None of this was livable.

Here I was, satisfied with what I’d received because it had filled my brain with new and fascinating things, when I should have felt like I was starving. I had been informed but remained unformed. My head had been filled, but my life was unshaped.

Yes, there was a bit of an application tacked on to the end of the sermon. But the length of it and the lack of attention that the preacher had given to it during his preparation showed it for the tacked-on thing that it was.

Or should I say “pasted on”? Isn’t that what we do when we apply things? When I apply a Band-Aid to my body, it remains on the surface. It doesn’t enter into who I am and change me from inside. It’s purpose is to keep my blood in my body and otherwise make me feel like I was before.

No one intends to preach only to the mind and to surface applications, but too often that’s what we end up with. An engagement with Scripture — and even more important, an engagement with the God of the Scriptures — should be more than a surface encounter.

We want two things to take place. We want to get inside of the text and we want the text to get inside of us.

From the first time I read it as a kid, C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe has been one of my favorite books. In it, a small wardrobe becomes a doorway into a whole world of its own. Narnia isn’t contained by the wardrobe. It is accessed by it.

Similarly, the Bible is a doorway into the world of God. But that’s not where we start out. We spend most of our time living in the small world of self. Everything and everyone revolves around the center of the universe: Me. But then we read the Bible and we enter into this much larger world of God. The Story spans all of history and we are included, but we’re not the main character. There are vast sweeping themes of creation and salvation that give our lives meaning and orientation, all of it starting and ending with God.

So, entering into this God-shaped world as we exit our small, cramped me-sized worlds is the first thing that the preacher invites us into. But that’s not all.

We want the Word inside of us, not just applied to the surface of us. Inside of us, it shapes our identities, our desires, our ways of thinking, our hopes, our loves. As it gets inside of us, it changes us and those changes are reflected in the way we live out these new identities, desires, ways of thinking, hopes, loves.

At its best, preaching draws out more than a nodding of the head to certain ideas. It invites its hearers to commit themselves, to enter into a world centered on God, to ingest the transforming Word.