This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series: That’s not what I call preaching
Solomon’s Porch, Minneapolis, is a well-known ’emergent’ church, and Tony Jones one of the best-known leaders of the emergent movement/conversation.
So, we might assume that a recent sermon by Jones at Solomon’s Porch might provide a fair sample of how emergent people set about ‘improving’ the evangelical preaching they so despise.
The example in question is on John 4, a passage which features the account of Jesus’ interaction with the woman at the well. You can read Jones’ own comments on this experience here.
The hour-long ‘slot’ was referred to as ‘sermon time’. The ‘congregation’ was seated, not in pews, but on easy chairs and sofas. The sermon was accompanied by some projected material. This included the text of John 4 (TNIV). Various attendees volunteered to read sections of the text from time to time.
What did he think he was doing?
Jones begins the session by explaining how he understands ‘the preaching moment at Solomon’s Porch’. He says that in the ‘trajectory’ from the Old Testament to the New Testament, there is much less reliance on an official ‘priesthood’. Instead, there is what is taught by Peter as ‘the priesthood of all believers’ (1 Peter 2:9 is alluded to here, but not actually referenced). The implication of this, for Jones and for Solomon’s Porch, is that Christians need no human intermediaries in their quest for God’s truth: they go directly to God via the Spirit. Truth, then, is not something that is taught by some authoritative expert, but is discovered by the community of faith. God says, in effect, to his people, ‘You have the ability in your hands to interpret this experience you are having of me.’
For two thousand years, says Jones, the Christian church has had great difficulty in achieving this approach to understanding Scripture. But for the past ten years, Solomon’s Porch has been attempting to do make it happen. It is a ‘communal hermeneutic’. We interpret the text together. We figure out together what it means and what it means for us today. We should resist attempts to abdicate this function to an authority figure.
Jones sees his role, then, not as preaching a sermon, but guiding people through the passage. Discuss is encouraged throughout.
So what actually happened?
How this works in this particular example is as follows:-
Individual members of the ‘congregation’ read sections of the set passage. Jones offers explanatory comments on each section.
We are told a lot about the characteristics of John’s Gospel, about John’s intentions as an author/editor, about literary structure, about translation issues, about differences between Jews and Samaritans, about how this passage contrasts with the one (in Jn 3) about Nicodemus, about how John plays with language, about geography, about history, about differences between John and the synoptics.
If there is a strength to Jones’ approach it is that he refers a lot to the biblical text.
But Jones’ approach is surprisingly bookish. For a movement that disdains propositional and verbal knowledge, and that wants to be much more welcoming of the stranger, it is surprising to hear words such as ‘exegesis’, ‘hermeneutics’, ‘pericope’, ‘chiasm’, ‘Johanine’ and ‘eschatology’ being bandied about. (To give him his due, Jones does tend to explain such technical language). The sense is that Jones has read some books about John’s Gospel (his favourite being the commentary by R.E. Brown), and is presenting his hearers with a few of the interesting things he learned from those books.
In fact, Jones eschews all proclamation. What he gives us in its place is a lecture, albeit an informal one. There is no sense at all that this is the word of God. It is ironic that Jones says of the woman at the well, ‘The scales fall from her eyes and she sees who Jesus really is.’ But Jones’ hearers are never offered the same opportunity to see who Jesus really is. His interest is not in who Jesus is or what he might mean for us today, but in what John, writing 60-80 years after Jesus’ death, thinks. ‘John is playing with the language.’ John is building the drama. Indeed, there is no application whatsoever, and no encouragement for the hearers to find their own applications.
It is difficult to hear much of the discussion from the audience. However, a reasonable sample of interaction would be when Jones asks if someone wanted to say something about differences between the Samaritans and the Jews. I’m sorry, I don’t need a ‘hermeneutic community’ to do that: I can look it up in a book.
Summary: A message which merely offers information about the background of the biblical passage without taking it seriously as Holy Scripture and without applying it to people’s lives is not what I call preaching.
Whatever problems and weaknesses emergent people have found with evangelicalism (and I don’t doubt that there are many) if this is representative of how they think the word of God should be used in the church then I think they should think again. This is not an improvement on evangelical preaching. It may be interesting, and it may be informative, but it will not build up the people of God, or serve the work of the gospel in this generation. The people need to be fed. They need to hear a ‘thus says the Lord’. This is not preaching: it’s a travesty.