In-Built Traditionalism

I am fortunate to get to meet Christian leaders from all around the UK. One question I regularly ask is where the get their ideas about spiritual leadership. What factors form their understanding and undergird their practise. The most common answer (by some way) is: how it is done where I am at the moment.

The reasons aren't hard to see. After all if you question the leadership paradigms in your church or denomination it is quite possible that you might not be able to lead within it. But what that points to is that environment can easily condition what it is possible to even think about leadership - or any other matter of church life - more so even than the scriptures. The local church then reads its practise back into the Bible and confuses how it does things with orthodoxy. At that point church culture has taken over from the Bible as the chief determining factor in church life. And, as I say, it can be very hard to challenge. Traditional ways of doing things are not just the preserve of atrophying churches that are past their sell-by date. The church that is flourishing and full but concludes that the critical thing is to keep doing everything exactly the same in order to remain where it is at present is in just as much danger.

A observation following up from my last post on the efficacy of preaching. The above argument makes it very hard indeed for preachers to step outside themselves and evaluate their preaching method. This is particularly so if your theological framework allows you to justify not seeing God at work. One line of reason goes like this:

1. The Bible is the Word of God, it is literally God's words, God speaking by the Holy Spirit (correct)
2. Therefore interacting with the Bible is what brings people (by the work of the Holy Spirit) under the good news of Jesus Christ which is the power for salvation (also correct)
3. Therefore people only need to hear the Bible being explained for the above process to kick in (argument starting to get a little thin here)
4. From the perspective of the human preacher the job is simple, therefore: just put in the work understanding for yourself and then explain it, and the rest is just done by God. This is, presumably, even true when you can't see any evidence for point 2 above (incorrect)
5. Because you have made not experiencing God - but rather mentally appropriating facts about God - the touchstone of whether this framework is correct, you needn't be concerned if you and your congregation experience nothing. You have decided that isn't how God or the Bible or the Holy Spirit work, so you don't notice any absence. Indeed if someone tells you something is missing you may be suspicious that they are wanting to add something to the plain testimony of scripture (argument incorrect)

There is real danger in the above. Namely that preaching and teaching the Bible is turned into a comprehension exercise, a matter of mere epistemology, and that exercise is confused with work of the Holy Spirit. The preacher who believes this easily assumes therefore that improving your preaching is only a matter of more accurate comprehension.

Now, does any preacher actually believe the above? In theory perhaps not. In practise a whole lot. As evidenced by how few expect to see God actually at work (remember that the framework allows - even encourages - low levels of expectation) or how much effort is giving to praying over the message as opposed to reading and studying for it. Many preachers' real practise reveals they secretly believe what Jonathan Edwards railed against: there is no real difference between the Holy Spirit working through the act of biblical preaching and the operation of their own minds. They assume he will only work secretly, silently and indiscernibly both because they have no other experience and because they adopted a theological framework that validates that lack of experience.

Beware the preaching that never seems used by God to actually produce anything discernible and yet has a framework which validates never examining itself.