Festival preaching

Posted on April 30, 2010

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Neil posted a comment today about what he hopes to get out of this year’s ‘Baptist’ (sic, ‘English and a few Welsh Baptist’) Assembly. In it he offered two version of a criterion for judging the quality of the preaching:

I trust that those who speak in the main celebrations will ensure that their words are driven by the Biblical text, showing an appreciation of the theological questions that surround the text and their subject and communicate with clarity, conviction and character in a way that inspires us with a grander vision of God. (My private test is whether I would want to invite them to preach in church here, which is a marginally more humble way of asking if I think they are better than me).

This caught my eye, because it chimed with one of my ongoing reflections from Spring Harvest. Dave Steell preached an excellent sermon to us one night; in trying to analyse what made it good, I commented to Heather that it was the first time I’ve heard a preacher at SH and wished s/he was my pastor. This is not quite the same as Neil’s ‘private’ criterion, of course, but it suggested to me that there might be an important sense in which everything else I’ve heard failed a basic test.

As soon as I made the comment, it struck me as odd – SH gets some great preachers, after all, and I’ve heard many sermons there (and at similar large events, including the BUGB/BMS Assembly) that were powerful, inspiring, Biblical, and engaging. (Those adjectives in no particular order…) Many of them were preached by people who I knew for a fact had done great work in local church ministry over the years and decades. But they were not, generally, sermons that made me want to listen to that preacher week by week. Does this make them bad sermons?

I have tentatively come to the conclusion in my musings that the answer was no, but that ‘festival preaching’ is a different genre from ‘normal preaching’. A festival sermon is a one-off, or at best a short stand-alone series, delivered to people you don’t know. There is thus a premium on offering something that is immediately accessible and engaging, that works to make the people comfortable with the preacher, trusting her and able to open themselves to the challenge she brings. (This is the function of the lengthy and amusing self-deprecating anecdote at the start, for instance, stuff sometimes dismissed as ‘entertainment’ – but to dismiss it like this is to miss the important homiletic function it is fulfilling.) There is also a heightened expectation – many people come to festivals expecting to hear challenge or direction from God in a way they don’t expect to hear Sunday by Sunday. This expectation seems to me to invite and almost require a level of directness and challenge that would be profoundly out-of-place if repeated every week. (I don’t need to be offered a new direction for my life every Sunday!) Being unable to build and develop and qualify a theme over weeks and months requires a high level of dexterity in handling exegesis and sermon construction: the text invites us to trust God in every circumstance; OK, but how to preach it as a one-off without either encouraging an unbiblical quietism, or weakening the force of the text by qualification?

This isn’t to say that festival preaching is harder or better than normal preaching – in many ways it is much easier. You can (and, mentioning no names, some have) sustain an entire ministry on a diet of about six funny stories, for instance. You can probably get away with a lower level of exegetical skill. The pastoral sensitivity needed is perhaps no less, but it is of a different sort. Festival preaching is different, with different challenges, and asks for different skills. Some people have both skill-sets, and can work well in both settings; there are others who are fantastic on stage, but could not serve a pulpit well week-by-week; others again who do a great work in their local church could not preach in the festival setting.

Of course, local church ministry is the primary place for the ministry of the Word and for growth in discipleship amongst the people. Festivals and assemblies, if they have any place at all, exist only to serve that primary context. But if they do have a place doing that, it is worth being aware that what goes on in the celebration is not the local congregational meeting writ large, but a different beast.

Dave preached a sermon that was masterful, in that it ticked all the boxes of both genres; I have heard other great sermons in Spring Harvest big tops, some delivered by people who I know could and did/do serve a local congregation excellently, but their festival sermons could not have transposed to the other context, at least not without extensive re-working. Two contexts; two genres; two sets of skills – so my present analysis runs.

(I suppose this is true of worship as well, but I don’t know enough to construct that argument.)

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