Recently I was interviewed for a podcast in connection with a blog I write for a couple of times each month. The interviewer asked the question, “What is the difference between a blog and a sermon?” It was a good question and not one I’d thought about much before. Whether what I came up with by way of an answer was very good or complete I don’t know.
But one main thing I emphasized was that when I write a blog, I am venturing forth primarily my own opinion. A blog is like an op-ed article in a newspaper or like the regular column from the old Reformed Journal titled “As We See It.” The “we” and the “see” are key: This is about a certain perspective from a certain vantage point. Such a view may be temporary, may be flawed, may even change over time. But for the moment, this is how a certain subject strikes the writer.
Although I like to think my views are informed by a welter of sources—not least of which are my Christian faith and ultimately my connection to the biblical-theological tradition of the church—I recognize that on any given subject I have my own view of things. What’s more, that viewpoint is usually at least a little bit different—and sometimes significantly different—from the views of any number of fellow Christians. But in a blog my own ideas are front and center.
My hope is that this is not the case when I preach. Yes, at the end of any given sermon there will be a measure of “application.” Inevitably, such applications will be tinged at least a little by the pastor’s own thoughts on the subject at hand and as such do not represent the be-all or end-all of how the sermon could be applied.
A different preacher might come up with a different application, maybe even something close to an opposing notion. For instance, a sermon about adopting God’s heart for helping the poor could result in lots of different activities on the parts of those who listen to the sermon. One pastor’s sermon application might be influenced by her idea that volunteering at homeless shelters would be a good example of this even as another preacher might suggest that contributing to a robust local economy would help the poor the most. Both ideas might have merit, but the factors that influence why one preacher might emphasize one application over another are myriad.
But the main idea is that as opposed to a blog, a sermon is supposed to be not first or last about the preacher’s viewpoint but about what the Word of God has to say. If I write a blog and venture forth an idea about the best way to be a steward of God’s creation, and if that idea turns out to be wrong, well, then I was wrong. My mistake.
But in a sermon it is our job as preachers to do our level best to get God’s Word right first and foremost. If I misinterpret the text, if my exegesis is woefully inadequate and I end up teaching something at variance with what the Bible says, then I am not just a little embarrassed but devastated. We preachers really want to get God’s Word right. That is what we are called to do, are trained to do, and hopefully something that we are well practiced in doing, too. Yes, we all make minor errors along the way, but mainly preaching is about getting the gospel across and getting it across correctly to the glory of God.
Even at the level of exegesis there can be variation across traditions, of course. What my Reformed congregation might deem to be the “right” interpretation of a baptism text probably will not line up very well with what our sisters and brothers up the street at the First Baptist congregation would think about that same passage. But by their best theological lights, the preachers at both congregations are trying to get across not their own opinions but the Word of God.
All of the above was sparked by that podcast interview question. But here’s the thing: Even as I had not much pondered the difference between a blog and a sermon—despite the fact that on any given week I may be working on both blogs and sermons—so also I wonder how much the people who listen to sermons are pondering these distinctions. These days anyone can post a “comment” on most anything. Articles, Facebook posts, tweets, blogs—anyone can weigh in if they wish. And it seems sermons are now in this mix, too. People feel free to disagree with a sermon—even on the level of exegesis and even if they have never done much exegesis—only because they didn’t care for the message.
In other words, I am starting to wonder if even the Sunday sermon is not being tossed into the larger flurry of words we read and hear each week without many (if any) distinctions being made on the differences among those various genres of writing. It’s one thing to reject some writer’s opinion in an op-ed column or blog. But now we reject the facts journalists present equally as quickly if they run counter to some larger narrative we want to embrace. Recently I mentioned a well-documented news story from twenty years ago only to have someone claim it was just a “fabrication.”
In the tradition of the church, preachers used to claim about the biblical part of their sermons, “Thus saith the Lord.” But today it seems that increasing numbers of churchgoers may respond to that claim with, at best, “Maybe.” And if a given sermon seems challenging to some, they may reject it in favor of “#ThusSaithMe.”
True, all preachers need to earn the trust of their congregations by consistently displaying the careful exegesis they learned in seminary. Preachers need to be able to demonstrate that their take on a given passage is consonant with the millennia-old tradition of the church and with the best practices of Scriptural interpretation as have been practiced by faithful Christians from the apostles forward. Today of all times is not the moment for pastors to assert some blanket “If I say it from the pulpit, it’s right” attitude. Of course, we also need to grant that even on the level of exegesis, it is possible a preacher can get it wrong some week, so getting challenged is a good thing when warranted.
Even so, it may be a good time for pastors and church members to ponder these matters, to talk openly about them, to seek the Spirit’s guidance. If there is one thing the New Testament makes clear, it is that preaching has always been the Holy Spirit’s favorite tool for generating faith in the hearts of those who hear. The stakes for Christ’s church are too high for us to allow preaching to be dismissed by a culture that presumes we all get to choose our own truths and that everything is just a matter of private opinion. No one of us—starting with me—may have the answers to this situation. But maybe on this vital front it is time that we together seek the Spirit’s guidance.