the Word of God as a campfire

I hate it when British Columbia has to enact a fire-ban at campsites in the summer.  While I completely agree with the reasons, I grieve the loss of one of the best parts of camping:  gathering with everyone around the fire at night.  I love the warmth, the laughter and fun, the “smoke follows beauty” comments, the story telling, and of course the smores.  Usually a few people move off into the night and head to bed, but a few of us will stay around the last and hottest coals, stoking the fire and sharing about what matters most to us in life.  I wish the church’s public habits of the Word were as magnetic and interactive, lively and refreshing, hot and reflective, relational and fun.

I have been following Ed Stezer’s blog and interview with Andy Stanley regarding Communicating for a Change and the ensuing comments with interest.  I believe the debate on what constitutes genuine preaching–expository and/or topical misses the point.  No matter the technical approach taken to preaching, we miss the point if the Word of God does not become the fire calling us into the very presence of God.  Our experience in the church of the  Bible should be the Word of God as campfire.

My favorite commentary on 1 Thessalonians, To Thessalonians with Love, by John D. Hendrix, was given to me by a campus minister at the University of Georgia after we processed what it meant to be in ministry with people and with the Word of God.  In the introduction Hendrix identifies the problem that I feel Andy Stanley is trying to get at in our preaching and the experience of the Church with Scripture.  Hendrix believes that “the Christian’s relationship to the Bible is in trouble.”  In fact he uses the term alienation to describe the situation.

Many Christians are attached to the Bible by an invisible ten-foot pole which joins them and keeps them apart.  The pole has been constructed through years of the dry, lifeless recounting of biblical material unrelated and irrelevant to the deep needs of the heart.  In this strange and bizarre position, the Christian maneuvers–swinging, punching, jabbing–keeping others away but unable to bring the living Word any closer….

I have listened to the message of the churches.  How does the Word of God do its “work” in personal and corporate church life?  I have listened for that through countless sermons, Bible Studies, small group discussion, and personal conversations.  And there is the strange silence.

There are moments of reflection which are vaguely connected with a biblical phrase, sentence, verse, or book.  Many discourses have the appearance of drawing from the biblical text.  But, in reality, they are topical exercises, a cafeteria of “junk foods,” full of artificial preservatives and additives, providing no nutritional value and an abundance of hyperactivity.  I have been listening for the transforming moment when a body of Scripture (a unit, paragraph, or text) actually touches the inner depths of a personal struggle.

It is simply not there.  Or it is a private experience that it cannot be expressed in a way that is helpful to others.  The Bible is primarily a public book to be read, proclaimed, and interpreted in the presence of others.  Like most of Paul’s letters, 1 Thessalonians is directed to a church.  Bible study loses much of its force unless it is spoken and heard in the company of God’s people.

I am not addressing the issues of inspiration, interpretation, and inerrancy.  I am addressing the issue of intimacy–personal and interpersonal closeness to the biblical text in daily life.  Unconscious alienation from the Bible is present in churches of all theological persuasions….

The crucial question remains in how intimately we deal with the text.  No matter how much lip service and respect is given to the biblical text, it still remains distant from the lives of many people.  In our most crucial specific life situations, we find Scripture irrelevant, unhelpful, or unapproachable.  We have neither the tools nor the time to learn it.  Our training has given us an appreciation for Scripture without the sills to access to it.  I am looking for a warm friendliness with Scripture, an increase in intimacy and closeness, a lively presence of Scripture in the midst of our life together.

(selected paragraphs pages 13-15, To the Thessalonians with Love: An Interpersonal Commentary on 1 Thessalonians, by John D. Hendrix, Broadman Press, 1982.)

Now that is a huge excerpt from Hendrix but I hope you are getting the picture.  Perhaps the preacher’s or the Bible study teacher or facilitator is job is to release the power of Scripture as a campfire.  In our often rainy setting building a campfire requires some planning, some protection, some work.  But the rewards are immense.  Perhaps the first thing a preacher or communicator of God’s Word must do is meet God in the burning coals of Scripture and be convicted in heart and transformed in deep places in order to gather people and apply the unfamiliar warmth of Scripture to their familiar patterns of life.  (Isaiah informs this picture; see Isaiah 6.)

Really I don’t care if the communicator of Scripture frames the fire of God’s Word by topic or by verse as long as the communicator rightly honours the voice of Scripture by giving due diligence to the text and to the people gathered around the campfire.  After a year of experimenting with Andy Stanley’s approach as presented in Communicating for a Change I can honestly say that the good skills of exegesis are better accompanied by story-line created by Me, You, God, You, We.  When I started using his communication strategy I felt like I was learning to ride a bike for the first time.  But now the pattern has energized my preaching and has enabled me to help other young communicators get a handle on delivering the warmth of God’s Word to others.