The Irrelevance of Relevant Preaching

David Mills, editor of Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity has written an insightful piece called Preaching without Reaching: The Irrelevance of Relevant Preaching. Here are just a few sample quotes to give you the gist of his argument.

As a writer, I do not believe in relevance. I especially do not believe in relevance as a criterion for preaching, when that means the attempt to translate the biblical and theological language into words the average man already uses, from fear that he will not listen if the inherited language is used instead. Few preachers are good enough with words to do this without losing truths they should not be losing.

Let me give one example. A friend once praised a sermon warning against both legalism and licentiousness, vices he thought too little rebuked from the pulpit, but worried that such words would not “communicate to the person in the pew.” He urged preachers to use “relevant, contemporary language” because “finding the right word for the right point is crucial.”

A few paragraphs later, he continues:

The preacher’s problem is that relevance is decided not only by what the hearer can and will hear, but what he needs to hear whether or not he wants to, and the latter may not be communicable in language he will naturally understand. The language can be bent only so far, till it is bent out of shape. The apostles of relevance do not see this problem, and hence toss away the truths they genuinely want to convey.

Because the right word is often the unusual or technical or “outdated” word, the preacher should not abandon a specifically Christian vocabulary even though the man in the pew may not understand it right away, and even though he may find it off-putting or even offensive. These words will be the language of the insider, and therefore almost by definition irrelevant to the outsider the preacher wishes to bring inside and many of those who are already inside but lack the conscious and energetic commitment of the real insider.

I think, from many years of listening to preachers good and bad (and the friend I began with was a good preacher), that the preacher almost inevitably loses the Christian meanings when he replaces the biblical and traditional language. Some may be able to translate without great loss, but this requires not only considerable verbal gifts but also synoptic knowledge and sufficient holiness to see the reality to which the words point.

There are many men in our pulpits who are holy and knowledgeable but not verbally gifted. The few who are have a gift so personal that the rest of us would be wise not to imitate them, partly because, language being what it is, we are not good enough to see our failure to do what they can do.

This was true of my friend, who had a creative but not a verbally precise mind. He was worried that the technical terms—the insider language—would drive people away. He told the preacher whose sermon he praised to replace “legalism” with “perfectionism,” and “licentiousness” with “permissiveness,” because most people would much more easily understand the new words.

My friend did not see the problem with this, and most of the preachers on the e-mail list to which my friend posted his comments did not, and several academics with whom I discussed it did not. The preachers and the academics, whose vocations depend upon knowing what words mean, did not see any difference between the old words and the new, and indeed approved my friend’s attempt at translation.

I am sure the man in the pew would understand the new words more easily. Of course. But he would not understand nearly so clearly the truths the preacher was trying to convey to him—the biblical truths the preacher is by his commission as a minister required to convey to him—because the new words do not mean the religious problems the original words define.

A preacher might want to preach on perfectionism and permissiveness, but those were not, given the passage of the day, the problems on which the preacher was trying that day to preach. He had been given God’s needed word to say about legalism and licentiousness.

Very Different Things

“Perfectionism” is a very different thing from “legalism.” One is a psychological problem, the other a spiritual choice and theological error. The perfectionist will expect too much of himself and of others; the legalist will act as if God were not a gracious God but one whose favor could be won by obeying all the rules.

These are both problems, but they are not the same problem, though a man may be both a perfectionist and a legalist. The perfectionist should talk to a pastor or a therapist to learn to distinguish the pious pursuit of the good from the neurotic; the legalist should learn, or relearn, the doctrine and reality of grace.

In the same way, “permissiveness” is a very different thing from “licentiousness.” The first means relaxing the rules too much, the other means actions characterized by license and lawlessness, and usually in a lewd, lustful, and dissolute way. They are not even close to the same thing.

The depravity of the licentious is not at all expressed by calling them permissive. The licentious leer at young women in short skirts (or long skirts, for that matter); the permissive only permit people to do what they want, when they know they shouldn’t, with a genial smile and a forgiving wave of the hand.

Again, these are both problems, but they are not the same problem. The permissive man should enforce the rules he is given to enforce. The licentious man should repent of his sins and adopt such disciplines as will help him bring his appetites under control.

My friend’s substitutes are not synonyms. “Perfectionism” does not accurately translate “legalism” into the language of the day, nor does “permissiveness” translate “licentiousness.” The substitutes are not nearly close enough in meaning to replace the biblical and traditional terms.

The ideas are related but they are not the same. One cannot do the work of the other. You might as well, in a professional baseball game, send in Barry Manilow to replace Barry Bonds, because they are both rich, famous, talented men named Barry.

Well said. The entire article is worth reading.


chucklawrence said...

I understand the point the author is trying to make but surely the argument only goes so far. We understand that new translations of the Bible are necessary due to the change in the meanings and definitions of words. I also would add a caveat that this might only apply when speaking to native speakers of the language (english in this case)? In which case translation or multiple words (to describe one word) are necessary.

Brian G. Hedges said...

It is true that new translations are needed because of changes in language. But the argument is not that we preserve inherently archaic words, but inherently theological words. "Thee" and "thou" and should give way to "you," but words like atonement, propitiation, reconciliation, redemption, justification, etc. are not so easily replaced. They should be explained, but not dumbed down. I think that's the point Mills is trying to make.

Thanks for the comment. It's nice to know someone is actually reading!!!

revolution said...

i would prefer to see Biblical language made relevant.

i think the relevance is made by an understanding of both the text and the culture. sadly, most preachers focus on one or the other, but not both.