The purpose of preaching

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Charles-Simeon

My endeavour is to bring out of scripture what is there, and not to thrust in what I think might be there. I have a great jealousy on this head; never to speak more or less what I believe to be the mind of the Spirit in the passage I am expounding.

Charles Simeon

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“I have never once feared the devil, but I tremble every time I enter the pulpit.”

John Knox on the weightiness of preaching

What is the optimal length of a sermon?

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If the data are to be trusted, I have a longer attention span than most. If the subject is interesting to me and well-presented, I can follow a 30-minute presentation fairly easily. However, I’m not most people. Over at Holy Soup, Thom Schultz shares data that suggest the optimal attention span for an aural presentation is–are you ready?–six minutes.

Educators have been studying this phenomenon for some time now. Some of the latest research comes from the University of Rochester. Research scientist Philip Guo recently studied the efficacy of online education, specifically the use of teaching videos. He found that the average engagement time with any teaching video maxes out at 6 minutes, regardless of the video’s total length. And engagement times actually decrease the longer the video. For example, students typically spend only 3 minutes on videos that are 12 minutes or longer.

A decade ago (2004) the attention span of most adults stood at about 12 minutes and since then has been halved. So, the question comes: what impact should this have on preaching?

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To some, a six minute sermon communicates a lack of value for the Bible. To others, it seems like an appropriate accommodation to the limits of our post-google brain. Pastors and sessions will need to decide precisely what they make of this data, but it seems wrong-headed to me to suggest that all sermons now ought not to exceed six minutes.

There are other options. Perhaps the sermon could be divided into something like four segments (that build on one another) and dispersed throughout the worship service? Perhaps greater use of video could minimize the sensation of talking heads? I’ve noticed that for many pastors, what is called “the sermon” is really a series of shorter messages bookended by a story–each segment lasting no more than six minutes and reset with a story and change of cadence/pause.

What do you think? How do the realities of our digital age require that we alter the recent tradition of sermon delivery?

The Gay Spring

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2013 saw incredible change in the legislative landscape of the United States with respect to marriage–a gay spring, if you will–that sharply divided the country along regional lines. Across the South and Central United States voters protected the traditional understanding of marriage as between a man and a woman and refused to extend that the definition to include same-sex couples. In the West and Northeast the definition was–sometimes against voter intent–expanded to allow for same sex marriages (as in California and Utah).

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This spring and summer–the time when Kings go off to war and denominations do too–Presbyterians will likely redefine marriage to allow for same sex weddings where civil law provides for it. And even where state law doesn’t permit it the option of sanctioning, blessing, consecrating, or otherwise attaching the churches endorsement to same sex unions will likely become an option for teaching elders in the Presbyterian Church (USA).

Since I live in North Carolina, this change will have little impact on me personally. Assuming, and it’s far from likely this would happen, that two men wanted me to marry them I could demur to state law without having to cite my own theological understanding of the issue. That’s a convenient position in which to find oneself. Of course, when ministers of the gospel look to the state for theological guidance it’s possible that the battle has already been lost.

Yet, there are many ministers across the country who will have lost the comfortable protection both of the state and the church in this regard. It is, however conceivable that with a change in marriage definition ministers will now be forced to be open about their views on marriage, even if they are not being asked to perform something that the state understands to be a wedding. This is difficult at the best of times, but in the face of opposition from both the state and the church it is onerous.

Mass culture has swung to affirm the GLBTQ community. Many Americans maintain traditional views with regard to sexuality, but it is now unacceptable to voice these in a public forum. I’m not talking about Duck Dynasty or some other pop culture person expressing views that are out of the “mainstream culture” as that culture constructed and communicated across media. I’m talking about a more general and diffuse pressure to join in with the chorus of affirmations of the sovereign right of the individual to discover (or construct?) his or her sexual identity.

I disagree with expanding the Equal Protection clause of the U.S. Constitution to encompass the right of same sex couples to marry. I disagree with it for a variety of reasons most of which are rooted in my theological understanding of God, humanity, creation, and the nature of marriage.

Since we don’t live in a Christian state, since what little moral consensus that once existed around this issue has evaporated, and since the line of precedent around this and other issues like it have unalterably led us to this place, I understand why many states are embracing this new reality of marriage.

I respect same sex people who choose to enter into legally-recognized partnerships. All things being equal–which of course they’re not–it’s better for a gay couple to enter into to some form of monogamous partnership or marriage than the alternative.

In the eyes of some states these are marriages, but in reality they are really only approximately equal to marriage. Those elements that are essential to marriage are missing from same sex relationships. As a result, to the church, these are really no marriage at all. On one level I’d prefer to not have to write this, but to do so would betray the Holy Scriptures that were handed to me as well as the churches theological reflection on Christ and the Scriptures for the last millennium.

To my mind, gay marriages are marriages in the same way that a corporation is a person–as a result of a legal fiction. A corporation may have rights like a person–political speech for example–but at the end of the day I think we can all agree that Goldman Sachs isn’t a person in the same way that Aunt Betty is.

So what of those whose views are popularly portrayed as slinking to occupy the hazy background of our current cultural snapshot? It simply remains for us to live peaceably with gentleness and respect.

My Augustinian view of history makes an awful lot of room for our culture to choose poorly, to favor error over truth. It happens in my own denomination and certainly within my country. In the end any law that violates God Law will be proven to be false and in the age that is to come will melt away. That is, of course, an eschatological statement, and we’re not in the eschaton yet. What remains is for those of us who are called and ordained to the work of preaching the Gospel to remain faithful to respect the civil authority while protecting the purity of the church’s teaching, worship, and sacraments. If I have to break civil or ecclesial law to do that, so be it.

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Five suggestions about plagiarism

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Celebrity preacher Mark Driscoll is in the news again. Surprise! Jonathan Merritt of the Religious News Service reports that more instances of plagiarism are alleged against the popular preacher and writer.

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The first allegations came to light during an interview conducted by Janet Mefferds. You can read coverage of the initial interview here or you can listen to the interview embedded below.

Here’s a summary of the allegation from Merrit’s account:

Syndicated Christian radio host Janet Mefferd accused Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll of plagiarism on her Nov. 21 broadcast. Mefferd claimed that Driscoll quoted extensively from the work of Dr. Peter Jones for at least 14 pages in his book, A Call to Resurgence, without direct or proper citation.

“In this book,” Driscoll responded, “I took [Jones’] big idea and worked it out through the cultural implications but I wasn’t working specifically from his text.”

Tyndale House, Driscoll’s publisher, is standing by him:

Tyndale House takes any accusation of plagiarism seriously and has therefore conducted a thorough in-house review of the original material and sources provided by the author. After this review we feel confident that the content in question has been properly cited in the printed book and conforms to market standards.

This story is likely not over. We’ll see what strange by-ways it takes in the coming weeks.

Plagiarism is a sticky business. Judging by the interactions I have with friends in higher education, the appropriation of someone else’s written work and intentionally passing it off as your own is quite common among college students. It has never been easier to lift text and insert it into you own document. I the quotes above were cut and pasted into wordpress. Simple. Ease, anonymity, and urgency create big incentives to take short cuts in research and to omit any or proper attribution. 

Where this gets interesting is in the case of oral documents like sermons. Good preachers do a lot of research in preparation for delivering a sermon. Giving attribution in a sermon can become cumbersome and turn a lively sermon into an AAR/SBL paper if it has too many phrases like “as Rowan Williams has noted,” or “to quote C. S. Lewis,” “Thomas Aquinas argued.” The same is true for a blog post, which is a more casual piece of writing than a published book.

How then can you avoid plagiarism in your writing, whether that content is received aurally or visually:

  1. Footnote. Footnote. Footnote. If you’re blogging do your best to link to the original source if you’re quoting it. If you can’t find it, say so. If you’re writing a paper or book chapter, make sure you footnote. My rule of thumb here is: if in doubt, footnote. In my academic writing, which I haven’t done much of lately, my rule of thumb was that the number of citations should be roughly twice to three times the number of pages (excluding introduction and conclusion) in the document.
  2. If you’re delivering a sermon and you directly quote someone, you must state that you’re doing so. For this reason, I suggest not having more than one to two direct quotes in a sermon. Use them sparingly because the value of the quote has to far exceed the cost of stating “Charles Williams states….”
  3. Always have down time between reading/research and writing. Some of you won’t struggle with this, but I find that if I read a chapter of a book or an article on a topic I’m researching, and then immediately try to incorporate that into my article I will disproportionately be influenced by that research. When you’re really concentrating on understanding the depths of another’s argument and even interacting with in a mental conversation or sparring match, I find it takes some time before I’m ready to integrate these new insights into my writing with the appropriate degree of differentiation.
  4. Don’t outsource research. Period. My advice is try to avoid outsourcing research, especially if you’re a pastor. If you’re a writer or academic then it’s more justifiable. Remember, if you outsource research then you’re also outsourcing your integrity and your reputation so be sure you trust your assistant and do your due diligence (i.e., double check).
  5. Remember, you only get one chance. Somehow I doubt that Driscoll will do what he’s told others to do and quite his ministry over this. However, his reputation has taken a hit and for a lot of people what he’s alleged to have done will be seen as one more reason to deride the Christian faith.

What do you think?