I’ve read/heard many admonitions over the years to keep sermons practical. People are having trouble in their marriages, in raising their kids, in dealing with work: they need wisdom. Now this is doubtless true. In a relativistic age ruled by “everyone has their own opinion” and “I know what I want” wisdom has gone out of style. Even out of style, however, at least some feel the need of it, even if they no longer use the word. In such an environment, we need to preach wisdom. We need to teach the basic biblical principles of life – how to do marriage and family, how to handle the stresses of work, how to handle money, and how to have a good life. Our preaching needs to be centered on these things if we want to attract the people from our communities.
But is wisdom enough? Surely the Bible gives wisdom, having several books in the genre called “wisdom literature.” Some have even framed Jesus as a wisdom teacher (I think here of Ben Witherington’s Jesus the Sage, though given the great diversity of Witherington’s output on Jesus, his is far from a reductionist “Jesus is only a wisdom teacher” approach).
In a blog post this week Derwin Gray claims that if we want to produce fully Christian adults in our ministry with youth we need to move our teaching from “Jesus as life coach” to “Jesus as God and King.” Does my life need a “coach?” Do I need someone who will impart wisdom to me? Sure I do – so will many others out there. But I’ll take Gray’s claim a step farther. It’s not just our ministry with youth that needs more than a “Jesus as life coach” approach. We need it in our ministry with all ages; we need it in our preaching.
As long as our basic ministry approach is attractional, some variant of “if you build it, they will come,” then we’ll have to build our preaching and ministry around the felt needs of our target audience. If we want them to come, we have to figure out what they want (wisdom; life coaching) and give it to them. But what if the attractional model isn’t the only option? What if we, like Jesus, like the apostles, had going as our primary model? What if we went where people were and allowed God to treat us as levers in their lives, as billboards of grace and mercy, as living and walking invitations to join the story of Jesus? Then, after already having “messed” with their lives, we bring them “to church,” they will be looking, perhaps, not merely for wisdom (we still need that), but for clarity on what God is up to in their lives and in the world.
Most cultures around the world and through the ages have had some sort of wisdom tradition. Some have noted the commonalities between the wisdom of ancient Israel and surrounding cultures (with a mix of motives: some to debunk the Old Testament and the faiths flowing from it, others wanting to tie in a “natural law” approach). What makes biblical wisdom unique, whether in the OT or NT, is the narrative/historical context in which it’s found. If we listened only to the “preach wisdom to meet felt needs” crowd we might think the narrative was expendable, that we could simply reason: Is X a wise thing to do? (Or personalized as, Is X a wise thing for me to do?) I’m suggesting a different kind of reasoning, one parasitic on the ongoing story of God: Is X a wise thing in light of who God is and what God has done/is doing? What is the wise thing for me to do in light of who I am in Christ?
If we are looking for this kind of reasoning in our disciples, we will need a ministry – including a preaching ministry – that enables people to learn that there is an ongoing story of God’s engagement with the world and how they fit into that story. We need a ministry that helps people form and center their identity on who they are in Christ. Surely this is hard work. We’re more often shaped to form our identity based on our place of origin, our race/ethnicity, our profession/job, our hobbies, our desires, etc. At least part of what it means to be formed as a disciple of Christ is to have all these other elements of identity relativized and reformed in terms of the Lordship of Christ. If all we offer people is, “Here’s some advice from Jesus and the Bible on how you can better achieve your own life project,” we’re missing the gospel and short-changing people, cheating them of the full salvation Jesus offers (much more than a “get out of hell free” card).