Is Confrontation More Important than Contextualization?

My favorite preaching book that I never hear anyone talk about is Preaching Like Paul by James W. Thompson. The author is outside of the normal evangelical circles (he teaches at Abilene Christian University), and the book is not published by one of the evangelical publishing houses (Westminster John Knox Press). But his emphasis on preaching as didactic and propositional (with an appeal for a response) is spot on, and his beef with felt needs and narrative preaching styles is refreshingly contrarian.

If there is a dominant theme in the book it is that the Apostle Paul preached with authority, made his listeners uncomfortable, and did not tailor the thrust of his sermons to fit his audience.

Although Acts portrays Paul as carefully adapting his message to the listeners–even employing the Stoic categories of that culture–in the speech at Athens (Acts 17:22-33), the letters provide no indication that Paul’s evangelistic preaching involved allowing the listeners to set the agenda. From his perspective, their story consists of hopelessness (1 Thess. 4:13) and enslavement to idols (1 Thess. 1:9; 1 Cor. 12:2; Gal. 4:3, 8) and passions (1 Thess. 4:5). When he says that “Jews demand signs and Greek desire wisdom” (1 Cor. 1:22), he acknowledges an aspect of their story in the form of their common pursuits. Paul’s evangelistic preaching is a challenge to his listeners’ story, for his evangelistic preaching always culminates in a call for the listener to turn from the old existence to a new plot that is determined by the story of Jesus. (47-48)

Later, Thompson is even more provocative in arguing that Paul seemed more concerned to confront his hearers with the claims of the gospel than to contextualize those claims for them.

By refusing to treat the gospel as merchandise (2 Cor. 2:17) or to “tamper with God’s word” (2 Cor. 4:2), Paul demonstrated his concern to be faithful to a trust, even if his faithfulness produced few results. Although he knew that his audience considered his story “foolishness,” he nevertheless preached “Christ crucified” (1 Cor. 1:22-23) in a direct challenge to an alternative view of reality.

His proclamation was neither a response to the questions that the people were asking nor an attempt to present Christianity as the answer to their own pursuits. In his claim that God has acted in the events of the cross and resurrection, he knew that he was challenging a culture’s myths and that his listeners would consider the message scandalous (1 Cor. 1:18-25; Gal. 5:11). Paul gave his listeners a clear choice, a message that they could reject! We easily forget that most of them did. A challenge to the world’s view of reality and a summons for listeners to conform their story to the larger story is not likely to result in easy victories. . . .Paul is not the evangelist who depends on his cleverness, sermonic technique, audience manipulation, or adaptation of the message for the sake of having maximum results. His task is to confront the audience with a message that it does not want to hear, leaving the response to God. (48-49)

What does this mean for preaching today? Thompson offers three points of application: (1) Evangelistic preaching is not based on market analysis. (2) Evangelistic preaching offers a clear message for our hearers to either reject or accept. (3) Evangelistic preaching cannot program the results in advance; we must have faith in God’s role in the preaching event.

Like I said, it’s a good book. And this is very good advice.