The next Wineskins issue will discuss spiritual formation which is very much in line with our recent discussions - both within our fellowship and with our guests who spoke to us in this last week: Suha Jouaneh from Amman, Jordan, and Dr. Zhai Shiwei from central China. So here I am thinking . . . with thoughts still in the initial stages . . .
Preaching in general has often been 'too few attempting to direct too many in too little time'. In general we churchmen have put too much of our hopes for spiritual formation in the delivering of sermons.
If I look at how Jesus uses the times when he speaks to the masses, he regularly employs vague parables, paradoxical teachings, and provocative assertions which are not the mainstay of homiletics. The parables are intentionally designed to sift out of the crowd those who have ears to hear, the teachings puzzle as much as they clarify, and the assertions challenge people to rethink the status quo.
Continually Jesus seems to lure out of the crowd those seeking spiritual direction (e.g. Nicodemus, the rich young ruler) or he interjects himself into the lives of others (e.g. Zaccheus, the woman at the well) to initiate the same work. When Jesus speaks to the masses it is as if he uses that as a way to call out those who want to pursue spiritual formation. Individually and with smaller groups of his disciples, those who are committed to a long regime of receiving instruction, he does the formative work.
Of course, I am not recommending the abandonment of all preaching, but rather understanding the limits. Large mixed crowds of people of varying levels of interest and commitment are difficult to address, and real spiritual direction may be nearly impossible. Invitation to spiritual formation is appropriate, and giving people a taste for deeper things might be possible. Or like the sermon on the mount, perhaps we speak to the disciples and allow the conversation to be overheard with a ready acceptance of anyone willing to join the conversation.
Unfortunately, even well-crafted oratory presentations are forgotten quickly . . . and the vital work of spiritual formation cannot be trusted to something so impermanent.