My experience attending the annual gatherings of the Society of Biblical Literature (SBL) have been both thrilling and daunting. Daunting because there is so much about the Bible and its contexts and languages that I do not know. Thrilling because I am eager to learn as much as possible. Daunting because the Powerful and the Published are everywhere, jostling about in the book stalls and riding on the hotel elevators. Thrilling because also jostling about are old friends.
The bifurcation of the Academy and the Church is unfortunate. I have found that inhabiting both realms is rewarding. As leading theologians, exegetes and pastors keep up the noble work of bridging the divide, there is much that can be learned from both sides.
Something pastors can learn from the academy is the discipline of rigorous accountability when it comes to writing and speaking. A preacher preaches primarily to laypersons. It is his or her job to proclaim a message premised on Scripture (hopefully!) to folks who lack the training of graduate-level supervision and coursework. But when a biblical scholar writes an article or delivers a paper, he or she does so before peers who are just as highly trained, if not more so. And when a well-known preacher wants to write a book, there are certain publishers out there who will happily mail out a contract because the preacher’s popularity ensures sales. When a biblical scholar wants to write a book or an article, the academic publishing world throws up a host of intimidating gauntlets through which the work must pass. Severe criticism often occurs all along the way (the genre of a book review seems to require that something negative be said even for the works that do make it to publication).
The training and expertise 0f the audience shapes the degree of accountability. So for preachers and popular Christian writers, the accountability for public communication is, sadly, not very rigorous. Since most Christians find their spiritual nourishment on sermons and devotional books, not from scholarly monographs or from articles in JBL, the most influential public communication among Christians is only slightly accountable to the gauntlets of peer review processes.
The peer review process is biblical. Paul writes in 1 Cor, “Let two or three prophets speak, and let the others weigh what is said” (14:29) and “the spirits of prophets are subject to prophets” (14:32). James is clear about the accountability to which speakers must be held—”we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (3:1). We do not need another poorly crafted sermon. We do not need anymore half-hearted, sloppily pieced together Sunday School lessons. We do not need anymore poorly written books dripping with platitudes and over-spiritualized sentimentalities.
So how can pastors apply the discipline of rigorous accountability to their writing and preaching ministries? When a pastor preaches on Sunday morning, his/her colleagues who also serve as pastors are doing the same thing at the same time—they cannot sit together in an SBL seminar and critique each others’ presentations. So how can peer review effectively scour bad (or so-so) preaching?
Here are some ideas… 1] If you are serving with multiple staff members, include a time of critique and affirmation for the past Sunday’s message in every staff meeting, humbly opening the door for your ministry co-workers to provide some accountability. 2] Find a group of fellow pastors and agree to listen to each others’ podcasts, or at least commit to listening to one podcast per month so that the pastors in that group know one of their peers will be listening to them at some point. 3] Find ways to allow the congregation to provide more feedback, perhaps picking a few mature lay leaders and charging them with the job of taking careful notes and thinking through suggestions for improvement. 4] Devote yourself to training up a congregation into such maturity that they become effect peer-reviewers. And most importantly, 5] Learn to acknowledge that our ultimate accountability is provided not by laypersons or peers but by God Himself. Fear and trembling should accompany any approach to the lectern or pulpit.
(Coming— Post-SBL (2): What Biblical Scholars Can Learn from Pastors)…