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Finding the pulse; feeling the pull

Thank God for Daniel Strange.

John Woods, Training Director at The School of Preachers, who blogs weekly at www.schoolofpreachers.org

Figure Image

Five Hidden Themes Our Culture Can’t Stop
Talking About...And How to Connect Them to
By Daniel Strange
The Good Book Company. 160 pages. £8.99
ISBN 978 1 784 986 506
Buy online from The Good Book Company

I found his book Plugged In useful for sharpening my thinking about training preachers. I use his tool of Enter, Explore, Expose, Evangelise for the Apologetic Preaching Module of our School of Preachers Course in Latvia. My students found this a great tool for engaging with culture in their communication of the gospel. All preachers need help with this task, and I am always looking for assistance in this area. Therefore, I was delighted to see that Daniel has just produced a companion volume to Plugged In Making Faith Magnetic. I found myself drawn to this book. I couldn’t put it down (okay, those are the magnetic jokes out of the way).

The invaluable tools provided in this book are five themes that are part of the human conversation and can be used to point people to Christ:

Totality – a way to connect?

Norm – a way to live?

Deliverance – a way out?

Destiny – a way we control?

Higher power – a way beyond?

‘Our created human-being-ness is what we have in common possession and means we can always communicate with one another, because our humanity is jointly “ours” and not just “mine” or “yours”.’

Remaining traces

These ideas are not original, Strange has been drilling deep into the mission theology of J.H. Bavinck, who identified this idea of ‘magnetic points’. These are the remaining traces of our being made in the image of God that the river of secular life has failed to wash away.

Strange is clear that he is not interested in a superficial relevance; rather he wants to make substantial connections between these points and the gospel, which responds to each faint trace with absolute clarity. These points that people can’t stop talking about are the God-planted itches that only the gospel can scratch.

Sermon scaffolding

The book concludes with a final brief chapter on magnetic preaching, using Philip’s message to the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8 as a steer on how we can make connection to the message of the gospel. The chapter suggests that these magnetic points are to be used as scaffolding for constructing a sermon. It is important to take the scaffolding down so that people see the house that has been built. Otherwise the congregation will roll their eyes and say: ‘Not magnetic points again’!

Tip 1 for preachers: make sure that we are theologically aware. By this I do not mean a full shelf of systematic theology books, but the development of a mindset that helps us to think theologically about our preaching. Strange is insistent that what he is not offering in this book is an apologetic technique. Instead, these points ‘are profoundly theological as we look at our world through God’s word.’

Tip 2 for preachers: being Biblically literate. There is a need to read the Bible carefully. There can be a tendency to read it with our minds already made up. We look in the window of God’s word and all we see is a reflection of our opinions. Scripture is a powerful lens which we can learn to see God’s world through God’s eyes. Strange models this way of looking at and through Scripture.

Tip 3 for preachers: learn how to join the dots. Connecting the dots is one of the biggest challenges that preachers face today. Preachers can sometimes be like a sophisticated piece of computerised communication technology; the only thing that is lacking are the leads that connect everything up. Without those vital connections, nobody hears anything. Have you ever felt that some preaching is like using an Amstrad in a smartphone world? I remember John Blanchard commenting on a radio sermon by a famous preacher from Northern Ireland: ‘He preached a first-century message to a 20th-century congregation using 19th century-language’ – ouch!

Even conservative evangelical preachers can be theologically shallow. The failure to dig deep will show up in shallow sermons.

Even conservative evangelical preachers can be Biblically shallow. The failure to engage carefully with Biblical texts can result in sermons that all sound the same.

Even conservative evangelical preachers can be culturally shallow. Think about the stock of illustrative material used in many sermons. How many come from history, preachers, and missionaries? Where do our congregations live? Where do they breathe, live, listen, watch, and read?

Interesting and readable

One of the things I appreciated about Dan Strange’s book is that it is interesting and readable. It is readable because he is a good writer. It is interesting because he is interested in all of life.

Paying attention to life around us is Biblical; who was it who said: ‘consider the birds?’ The use of vivid imagery by the Biblical writers is another example of how they lived their lives with their eyes wide open.

Strange talks about things he sees on a walk, music he has heard, books he has read, and films he has seen. This is the soundtrack of the lives of most of the people in our congregations. Hey, wait a minute we are thinking; I can’t find all the time to do all that research for my sermons. Nor can Dan Strange; he admits that many of the examples in his book are from a group of friends who pass stuff on to him. Would it be beyond us to recruit such a group in our church, who might keep us supplied with stimulus for our sermons?

Who has the pulse?

I suggest that in the 21st century it is novelists, musicians, artists, and film makers who often have the pulse of what is going on in our world. They use this awareness to speak to our society, while preachers often fail to feel the pulse at all. The key is to see that this pulse in some way connects with the magnetic points discussed in this book. Readers must take care not to see this book as a sourcebook to plunder for spicing up our sermons. It needs to be viewed as a primer that develops an instinct to see the word and the world in a fresh way.

Tip 4 for preachers: invest in living life in Christ in such a way that every part of our existence is connected to Him, so that we think, feel, see, and speak in ways that connect the dots of human life. Via that connection the precious data of saving truth can be communicated. As Dan Strange puts it: ‘If I’m applying the gospel to my life so that I have a full, rich relationship with Jesus through all the moments of mundane everyday living, then I’ll be able to minister to others. If I’m connecting the dots in my everyday story, then I’ll be much better equipped to connect the dots in your everyday story.’

Amen to that. Thanks Dan.

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