Discover more from Churchatopia
On the Problem of Application
Newsletter #100 is right around the corner. It’s scheduled to appear the Monday before Christmas, which will make it the final newsletter of 2023. Please submit any of your favorite Churchatopia newsletters and/or posts from this year. I’d like to incorporate a look back over the year as part of that final newsletter. Also, be on the lookout for my top books of 2023.
Too Abstract or Too Practical?
I regularly hear complaints.They're often associated with a seminar, conference, or setting in which teaching is happening. The complaint? Nearly half of the time they're about how what was shared was too general, abstract, conceptual, or impractical. The other half of the time they’re about how what was shared was too specific, granular, tactical, or context dependent. Let me illustrate both.
“What the guy said was good. I think he’s right. I just wish he could have given a little fuller picture of what it might look like in practice. Some better takeaways or illustrations would have helped.”
“What the guy said was good. But I’m just not sure that would work in my context. It seems like it probably was something tailored for his specific audience and setting.”
Besides preaching and teaching in my own church, I perhaps have two or three speaking engagements a year. That’s not a lot. However, I do understand the challenge of trying to formulate a talk, speech, or sermon that has the potential of landing effectively in a unique setting.
We know that context matters. We want to know who will be present. We might like to know what they’re accustomed to, what they’re currently occupied with, or what season of life they’re in. The more diverse the audience, the harder it is to craft a message with the widest appeal.
Besides the general challenges of sizing up a crowd, the speaker must decide other things: am I going to aim for depth or breadth? Will I try to focus on a principle or principles, or process and practice? Or will I try to find the elusive sweet spot that delivers on all fronts? Easier said than done!
What Are You Expected to Do?
My first piece of advice for would-be speakers is to ask as many questions as they can about the prospective audience. Assuming you don’t already know the setting and players, learn as much as you can.
Is there a theme? If there are other speakers, what are they talking about?
Is there a current topic or controversy that is best avoided at this time, or would the audience benefit from having an outsider address it neutrally?
And by all means, consider how long you’re expected to speak! Isn’t it amazing that often the most memorable aspect of a talk, speech, lecture, or sermon is its length?
I can think of other potentially valuable questions, but these are some of the essentials.
The answers to the questions above will inevitably shape the talk you prepare to give. Nevertheless, it still may not fully resolve the question of how specific or general to be.
One fact that should alleviate some of the anxiety of speakers is that regardless of which approach you take, someone will be left wanting more (assuming it’s not a complete trainwreck!). Some will want more details, while others would balk at being too context dependent. Simply accept this, even if you seek to minimize it.
One of the reasons I generally prefer Q&A sessions is because they give occasion for speakers to respond to some of these mixed reactions. If someone wants you to go deeper, you can. If someone wants you to work outward to the level of principle or big picture, you can do that, too.
Broad Strokes in the Weeds
Ultimately, my own standard approach is to let the subject matter determine what proportion of general principles and concepts and specific applications and practices are ideal. Assuming I could speak about the theory of relativity or elasticity of demand, those would likely be a little more conceptual and theoretical. If I’m being asked how to construct a preaching calendar, it’s going to skew more practical.
Of course, the error I want to avoid in both scenarios is to recognize (1) people need illustrations and examples of the relevance of concepts and theories to their everyday existence, and (2) people need to sometimes see the underlying principles which must ground any practical pursuit, especially ministry pursuits.
If you fail to consider the first, you risk turning people off to things that really do matter to their lives, or just being a bore! If you fail to consider the second, you set people on a path toward a specific approach or method without knowing why that way has the greatest value or long-term benefit. They’ll eventually abandon thinking about the topic in the future or taking the approach you advocate for. We need to know the how behind the what, and the why behind the how!
The church may be a great illustration of this. We have many things we do because we are expressly commanded to (what and how). But why we do these things should be matters of frequent attention for a church. Otherwise it simply goes through the motions.
The church also has many things we’re called to know, believe, and preach (what and why), yet the practical application of these things isn’t always clear. What does Trinitarian ministry and life look like? How does the gender binary of Genesis 1-2 serve our lives in the world? These are matters that Christians have to flesh out. Rooted in Scripture and tradition, with an eye toward experience and context, we have to chart a path forward.
I don’t pretend to know exactly where the sweet spot is between a lot of principles and practices, but the application problem is real. We need wise teachers to help us think carefully about it, and we need to be wise listeners who don’t insist that teachers do all our thinking for us. Sometimes we just need to think a little more and not let ourselves off the hook when something isn’t entirely clear.
Sometimes—perhaps most of the time—there isn’t just one or two applications of a given principle. But we’re spiritually obliged to do something with what we know. Otherwise, the problem isn’t a theory, principle, or technique; the problem is us.
What I’m Reading (or Rereading):
Miriam Grossman, Lost in Trans Nation: A Child Psychiatrist’s Guide Out of Madness.
Mark Dever and Paul Alexander, How to Build a Healthy Church.
Quote of the Week:
There’s ample room to criticize Israel for myriad things. There’s no doubt that many campus progressives don’t deserve to be tarred with guilt by association with what the Hamas apologists say or do. But the simple fact remains: If a decades-long project of zero-tolerance for bigotry and bullying can produce such large numbers of bigots and bullies, that project is an utter failure. The virtue-signalers cannot have a carve-out for violence against Jews—linguistic or literal—and still claim that virtue is on their side.
Jonah Goldberg, “The MAGAfication of the Left.”
Common Grace Wisdom: The True Risks of Marijuana Use
I was among the many who were concerned several years ago about the casual way in which Americans were increasingly viewing marijuana. When efforts to legalize marijuana for medicinal use began ramping up years ago, I was in the number who say this as a slippery slope, inevitably culminating in a push for full legalization of recreational use. Well, here we are (in many states, at least).
I’ve chosen to share a voice today that isn’t an expert, but a high school student who testifies to what informed people know about marijuana exposure among teenagers and young adults: it’s nothing to be trifled with. Listen to Gideon Modisett:
Here’s the reality: I don’t know anyone 15 or 16 who hasn’t smoked, and they all know it’s not like their father’s (or grandfather’s) weed. It’s much stronger, and the consequences of smoking are getting worse. ‘Marijuana use disorder,’ as the experts call it, is now four to seven times likelier among people who smoke when they’re minors. Cannabis-related hospitalizations have “increased significantly” in the past decade, tripling among 18- to 25-year-olds.
For more on this very relevant problem, see the rest of the article: “You Can Be Addicted to Weed. I Was When I Was 12.”
On My Mind: Integrity
Integrity: A Journal of Christian Thought is a publication produced every few years by the Commission for Theological Integrity. Our Commission is in the early stages of selecting articles for this next edition. What have you heard presented in Free Will Baptist circles that really caught your ear in the last few years? A symposium paper? An article? A seminar? Let me know if there’s something you think deserves a wider hearing. Or, perhaps there is a topic you’d like to read more about. Either way, reach out if you have suggestions