Doggone Idolatry

Last week, as I closed the gate behind me and obscured my dog’s despondent face, I said “I’ll be back later. I love you.”

Why is it so easy to express love for a dog, and so difficult to express love for the most important people in my life? Why is it easier to express affection for an irrational creature that cannot grasp or return my affection, than for a rational and volitional creature that can?

And then I realised – it is easier because the dog cannot grasp or return my affection.

Application to preaching about idolatry after the cut.

Sermon Structure: the abyss

So I preached on Psalm 41 recently, and today started work on a sermon on Psalm 72. The contrast between one sermon and one proto-sermon got me thinking about how sermon structure actually works.

I feel like I’ve been closing in on my preaching voice recently, gradually focusing on one meta-structure for my sermons. But it’s not a structure I would ever mention in a sermon.

Have a look at this sermon outline:

Telling the gospel

I was talking with some friends the other day about the difficulty of explaining the gospel to people without any shared frame of reference: no belief in God, no belief in the objective good, no belief in inherent wrongness or sin, etc. I’m not great this but I thought I’d give it a try.

Here is how I might explain the gospel and why I believe it to someone willing to listen for a bit.

Preacher, you can’t make fun of computer games

Maybe there was a time when you could do this in a godly and profitable way. Maybe there never was. But either way, you cannot any longer.


The people you’re trying to talk to won’t listen

Try to put yourself inside their head and heart. If you were playing computer games so much that it’s preventing you from living up to the responsibilities of your life, or you were valuing computer games so much that it was crowding out your devotion to Jesus, how well would you take it when someone made fun of computer games? Not well at all. Preacher, even if (for the sake of argument) it’s truthful to make fun of such games, it’s not particuarly likely to change hearts.

A bit of carefully considered mockery can be very helpful. But it needs to be alloyed with an appreciation of the spiritual goods of computer games (I’m serious, we’ll get into that) and a presentation of Christ’s call applying to the entirety of our lives as Christians. Making fun of young men in their parents’ basement playing video games may get laughs. But the people laughing aren’t the people you’re trying to change.


Do you apply an even standard?

“I saw these young men in a field the other day, just moving an oddly-shaped ball backwards and forwards. Backwards and forwards. Like two competing games of fetch.”

Any game can be described in a way that makes it sound silly. Games are inherently a little absurd. Do you make fun of soccer and rugby too? Do you laugh at the silliness of young men who think their skill at sport makes them real men, or successful human beings? Now, there are significant differences between physical team sports and computer games. I’m just pointing out that they’re equally absurd and (cosmically speaking) pointless enterprises. Let’s not pretend that goals need to be scored any more than zerglings need to be squished.


Computer games can be serious business

Syed Sumail “SumaiL” Hassan, born 1999

This is SumaiL. He is currently eighteen years old. He has won several major computer game tournaments with his team Evil Geniuses, earning millions in prize money. He is widely acknowledged within the Dota 2 community (his game of choice) as one of the most skilled players alive, a master not only of reaction time and manual dexterity but of tactical decision-making. How do you think he would respond if he was in your congregation, and you made fun of computer games as a time-wasting hobby that holds you back from real adult life?

Professional computer gamers (e-sports players) often practice ten or twelve hours a day. They make sacrifices for their careers. They build enduring friendships and rivalries in e-sports, just like physical athletes. It becomes a core part of their identity and self image; it becomes part of their vocation, their contribution to the wider world. And you can’t condemn them for that without condemning all professional athletes or sportspeople.

It’s unlikely that any of your congregants will turn gaming into a career. But it’s far from impossible. And if there are people whose lived experience contradicts the point you’re making, maybe it’s best not to make it.


It’s usually not about being alone

It’s easy to think of computer games as something that removes people from community. But these days, with Internet so fast and widely available, it usually doesn’t. Computer games are usually a place that gamers find a less difficult community: one where all that people expect from them is ability to play a game, and sometimes not even that. Because games can be very complex, particularly multiplayer games, dense webs of mentoring and explanation spring up between players. Gaming can be a chance for people to teach other people and feel valued and important; and because gaming interposes layers of absurd mechanics, it can be a chance for people to relate to others in a low-risk and depersonalised way.

Don’t think that gamers are fleeing community. Often they are fleeing from a community that they find too difficult or confusing to navigate, and to a community whose rules and goals they understand and enjoy. There is probably sin here. But it may be quite where you expect.

Audience and Congregation

I often encounter the word audience in books on preaching. Every time I do, I perform a sort of full-person wince (with body, soul, and mind) and desperately hope that the writer simply means the people that physically hear the preacher. In that sense the use of ‘audience’ is perfectly unexceptionable.

The reason I wince is the connotations of the word. These days audience is often shorthand for target audience: the subset of the population at whom you have aimed your communication – your marketing.

A communicator’s relationship with their target audience is adversarial. The object is to convince them of something or to alter their behaviour in a particular way. These are of course legitimate aims in preaching. But they are subordinate aims; the preacher mainly desires to display and offer Christ to the congregation.

The person of Jesus is the only means of spiritual worship, the only ground upon which we can approach God. All manner of right doctrine and right ethic is only dust and ashes if a congregant does not possess Christ. It is futile to preach for Christian truth or Christian love without preaching Christ himself. Where the person of Jesus is absent, only a rough facsimile of Christian life will follow.

Since connection with Christ necessarily changes our hearts and works, preaching him will involve convincing and convicting the congregation. The person of Jesus has incalculable effect upon what we can certainly know and need to certainly do. Jesus said this about himself repeatedly. But the effect of the person can only follow the person. So rather than an adversarial or agonistic relationship between preacher and congregation, we find a primarily declarative relationship.

The target audience is an inadequate view of the preacher’s congregation because it puts too much stress on discrimination of those who hear. The marketer matches their product to a target audience and fires their marketing at that audience like an arrow at a tiny bullseye.

In most situations, the preacher has no such ability. When speaking in church they are speaking to a congregation: an assembly of certain actual people. The preacher must preach to these people, and has no license to narrow or widen their scope artificially. God is concerned with all of these people. Jesus is on offer to all of them. And because Jesus stands beside us in all of human experience, if he is offered then the preacher will have something to offer any possible person.

The fact of a congregation constrains the preacher’s imagination. They cannot aim at one particular problem or life situation only; they are not preaching to a target audience but to a complex and confusing congregation. Nor can they take aim at one person or one subset of people in the congregation. To do this would forfeit their commission as the preacher for this congregation, the whole group. So the preacher will often be preaching for the benefit of people they dislike, or who dislike them; preaching for the occasional unbeliever and the more common slipshod Christian. None of these can be rejected by the preacher. No one can be ruled out of the congregation who receives the word. Some may receive it as judgement rather than grace; what is that to you?

I am not arguing against addressing more specific topics of Christian living or considering who is in your congregation before you preach. Both of these practices – if done rightly – are actually part of preaching to the whole congregation that is present. But topical preaching needs to be done in the context of the whole Christian and the whole Christian life – that is, it is no use preaching on marriage in a way that only considers married people. The fact is that Christian marriages do not exist in a vacuum; they ought to exist within a church. How does the whole church support and encourage and even discipline a married couple? This also is part of Christian topical preaching.

But more fundamentally, the question of topical preaching is whether Christ is the fountain and assessor of the topic. Does preaching on marriage flow from Christ’s love for his bride, the church? Does preaching on baptism begin with our baptism as a symbol for death to the old self and washing with the Spirit? Does preaching on the eucharist first show how Jesus became our spiritual food and drink?

As for knowing the congregation, this is vital for a preacher. It is why guest preaching can be useful but really ought to be uncommon. But when considering the congregation before preaching, the preacher should not focus on particular sins or difficulties that are present. Speaking to every one of these is impossible, in one sermon or five hundred. The main thing is for people to worship Christ and feed upon him spiritually. This will address every possible kind of congregant.

In conclusion, I greatly prefer the word congregation to audience because it carries with it a sense of limitation and particularity.