Thursday, 20 October 2011

Thinking Thursday: WGIHE Preaching

The college near where I live is now called Swansea Metropolitan University. A long time ago it was known as West Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education, shortened to WGIHE, and pronounced by its students as 'wiggy.' One day during a free period, some students sat round and decided to think up alternative meanings for WGIHE. It was decided that the best one was 'We Give Indians Happy Experiences', particularly because of the foreign students. To generalise it, you could say 'We Give Individuals Happy Experiences.'

What has this got to do with Christianity? Well, over the years, I came to use that phrase to myself to describe the way that some people preach. When we go to church, ideally we should be informed, challenged and warned, as well as encouraged and uplifted. Sometimes pastors find it easier to only preach the uplifting stuff.

So often I have heard sermons full of anecdotes, with little or no reference to scripture. The aim of the sermon seems to be 'this person had this great experience, and you can have it too.' Anecdotes are great as illustrations to support a sermon based on scripture. Without scripture, they are empty promises. The message that 'God loves you and has a plan for your life', seems to have risen in prominence in recent years. None of this is actually false, but the way it is put over, and the lack of deeper teaching, makes it very unbalanced.

The Christian life is not all about happy experiences. Jesus said, "In this world you will have trouble." (John 16:33). If Christians are not taught how to handle adversity, but expect only good things, it can break their faith when something goes wrong. Jesus goes on to say, "But take heart! I have overcome the world."

There is even greater danger when these messages are preached to non-Christians. Becoming a Christian is not like joining a social club, where we choose to join because we like the people and the activities on offer. God's 'plan' for our lives begins with repentance, and if the bad news of sin is not preached, how will people know they need a saviour?

A favourite scripture used by the 'WGIHE' preachers is Jeremiah 29:11 '"For I know the plans I have for you," declares the Lord, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you a hope and a future."' Firstly, this was written to the elders, priests, and other people in exile from Jerusalem (see Jer.29:1), so this verse is not for use among those who do not already belong to God. Secondly, all of God's promises to Israel were dependent on their faithfulness. I have heard this scripture used to lift the hearts of non-Christians and unrepentant Christians, and it is a false hope.

The Christian life has many happy experiences, some of them, perversely, in the midst of trouble. So it is important that we teach the whole gospel, so that we are all fully equipped to deal with life and to serve with faith. "Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." (Eph.4:15).

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