A few recent conversations have sparked some thoughts about going to church as a critically-engaged exegete.
Biblical exegesis is all about critical analysis of the details of a text and critical scrutiny of other exegetes’ work. Several times after intense and involved class discussions, someone has commented that it must be tough to go to church. If you’re analyzing the nitty-gritty of a text so closely, emphasizing each feature as crucial, how do you put up with sloppy preaching?
Here are a few scattered thoughts, in no particular order.
First, there’s a world of difference between a critical mind and a critical spirit. A critical mind is essential for the classroom and important for life. A critical spirit, however, is soul-corrupting and community-destroying. Hopefully, as I mature, I’m cultivating the first while avoiding the second.
Second, I don’t expect a classroom experience in church or an academic paper from a preacher. Further, my attention span on a Sunday morning is about eight minutes. The kid sitting in front of us usually reads Berenstain Bears books during the service, so I have to fight the urge to lean forward and find out what’s making Papa Bear freak out. Rather than a complex treatment of interpretive options, I love hearing someone trace the broad contours of a text to provide a sweet and simple glimpse into the grace of God in Christ.
Third, when I hear something I haven’t heard before, or even something I’ve previously dismissed as unworkable, I don’t pass judgment and shut down. I take it up and consider it. I look again at the biblical text and ask if it fits. Such opportunities force me to re-examine the text more closely and that’s always a good thing.
Fourth, ministry is hard. It’s lonely. Pastors hear far more criticisms than encouragements. Rather than an exegetical critique on the way out, what a pastor needs to hear at the end of a service is, “thank you. I appreciate that. I hope you have a good week.”
Finally, I go to the weekly gathering of my church family as a Christian. That is, my aim must be God’s aim, and his priority for my church is for it to grow in unity and love as a people called and brought together by the Spirit of God in Christ. That aim must orient my behaviors. So, when I’m at church, I try to have one or two good conversations, asking someone some good questions about how they’re doing. I try to have some good laughs.
Criticizing the sermon simply is not on the agenda.
Exegetes, new and experienced, how do you approach the Sunday gathering?
Pastors, what are your experiences with professors in the pew?