Wednesday, September 06, 2006

How Practical is "Practical Preaching"?

On the Leadership Blog Out of Ur, Lee Eclov, pastor of Village Church of Lincolnshire in Illinois, discusses what he calls the Bottom Line Fallacy and the Practical Fallacy regarding preaching. The Bottom Line Fallacy might be summarized by Prince Humperdink in The Princess Bride: "Skip to the end." All we need is the application; all the biblical, logical, and theoretical reasoning behind it is irrelevant to daily life. The Practical Fallacy is similar: give us a numbered list of application points that we can use to accomplish a practical goal: as songwriter Chris Christian (now I'm really dating myself!) once wrote, "Seven steps to the Holy Spirit / It's easy if you try."

To summarize Lee's points, both fallacies give us the "how" but not the "why." We may get some basic principles on living, but without the "truth trails" that get us to that point, we are likely to be unable to apply the principles in a different situation. Our thinking won't really be changed.

It seems to me that the trouble is even deeper than Lee suggests. The essence of scripture is to be transformational, not merely informational: God wants to change who we are, not just help us to live the lives we're alreadly living more efficiently. I once wondered why God hadn't chosen for the Bible to be written as a systematic theology, rather than a collection of stories, laws, poetry, letters, biographies and histories. If the Bible is supposed to have the answers, I thought, why is it so hard to get to them?

I now believe that God chose for the Bible to be written as it was partly for cultural reasons (various forms of literature speak to people from various cultural backgrounds), but also partly in order to be difficult. It is in grappling with the scripture itself, wrestling with it, that we are changed. We recognize that some of the questions we once asked have no answers in the way we once would have framed the question, because we did not yet have an understanding of the issues. Other questions do have answers, but they are not answers that would have made sense to us until we had grappled with the scriptures involved.

The practical and bottom line mentalities also treat scriptural principles as a means to an end--the end being a life that is better, where "better" is defined by us, as though we were the arbiter of what our lives should be. Scriptural principles are intended to "transform us by the renewing of our minds" and help us to be "conformed to the image of His Son." Almost by definition, this is a development that will not appear positive to us until after the transformation takes place. We have to be transformed to recognize why transformation is a good thing. We want to know, "How can I arrange my circumstances to better suit the life I'd like to have?" God wants us to be changed, so that we're asking, "How can I bring the light of Christ into the situation at hand?" This is not a "practical" consideration, in the terms in which most people understand "practical"; it is, however, "practical" in terms of God's overall plan for this world and our place in it.

This is not to say that preaching should be impractical or should never reach a conclusion. It is not even to say that proper application of biblical principles cannot ever have positive effects from our own human point of view. It is merely to say that the practicality and the conclusion cannot be separated from the transformation God wants to make in us.


  1. Great post. The whole "preaching to felt needs" trend seems me to miss the point. Scripture addresses our needs, but it also helps us redefine our needs. The latter is (or should be) the dominant effect of scripture, but preaching to "felt needs" ignores that.

    It is in grappling with the scripture itself, wrestling with it, that we are changed.

    I love that.

    Chris, that was a flashback. :-)

  2. I love your mind.