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Memorialist Preaching

Recently I wrote about communion in marriage (i.e. sex).

Modern, western approaches to sex are essentially memorialist (if you don't know what that means, hang in there, explanation is on the way).

Our culture doesn't believe that real union is effected by sex.  A union of bodies is not considered to be a union of persons - not necessarily.  And a vast amount of the sex that does happen is a remembrance of the real thing (i.e. porn).

In this post I want to examine the negative effects of memorialism in preaching.  But let's just remind ourselves of what memorialism is.  Let's consider the clash between Luther and Zwingli in the 16th century.

As these two men discussed the Lord's Supper, Luther advocated the real presence of Christ "in, with and under" the elements of bread and wine.  "This is my body" Luther would quote.  In fact he scratched it onto his desk as the last word on the subject.  Zwingli considered Luther's position to be "a perverse and impious superstition."

Mike Reeves writes:

Luther believed that Christ's body and blood are really present in the bread and wine, making the Lord's Supper a gift of grace from God. Those who receive Christ in faith are blessed, those who take the Supper without faith face special judgement for despising Christ when offered to them.  Zwingli maintained that Christ's body cannot literally be present in the bread, but is instead symbolized by the bread.  The Lord's Supper for him was a mere symbol to help us commemorate Christ's sacrifice and to signify our membership of his body.  Luther was horrified.  It looked to him as though Zwingli was turning the Supper into an opportunity for us to do something (i.e. commemorate and signify something about us). This, surely, meant that the Lord's Supper would no longer be about grace but works.  Believing that Zwingli had fatally compromised the gospel, Luther refused to partner with him. (The Unquenchable Flame, p70)

Later in the same book, Mike makes the point that in the 16th and 17th centuries "there were no Lutherans among all the refugee theologians who came to England (something still felt today in the almost total lack of Lutheran flavour to English evangelicalism, which has always been much more Zwinglian and Calvinist)." (p129)

Now Calvin did believe in the real presence of Christ in the Supper, but I have to say, when it comes to the sacraments, modern evangelicalism, as I've encountered it, is decidedly memorialist.  I've met many who proudly maintain the real absence of Christ.

This kind of view tends to go hand in hand with a view of ministry that is not "word and sacrament" but almost self-consciously, word and not sacrament.  There is a deeply ingrained anti-ritualistic and, yes, even anti-physical streak to our evangelicalism.  I'm not sure I'll be able to displace such thinking in this post - it's not in my tiny stable of hobby-horses so I won't be riding it very far.  Instead, let me direct attention away from the Lord's table and onto ground that should be firmer for us: the pulpit.  Yet it's my contention that Zwingli rules here also.  Our churches are beset by memorialist preaching.

If you ask me, this is the malady afflicting conservative evangelical churches today.  I know, I know, I'm a 34 year old nobody pontificating about the state of evangelicalism.  Well... allow a younger guy to let off some younger-guy steam.  If it makes you feel better, favourite the page and read it in 30 years when my opinion is worth slightly more than zero.  But if you want to take my rants for what they're worth, here comes said rant...

Preachers simply do not believe that Christ is really present in the word that they speak.  How can I possibly judge that?  I listen.  I listen to their tone, their content, their manner, their prayers and to the preaching concerns they speak of out of the pulpit.  In all this, there seems to be very little confidence or expectation that they're in the business of speaking God's own word with His authority and power.  Modern preachers don't even consider themselves to be heralds - let alone attempt the feat.  They are bible experts, textual critics, near eastern historians, cultural and ecclesiastical commentators and discipleship coaches.  They are anything and everything but bearers of God's living word.  In short - they are memorialists.  They don't think they're doing anything to their hearers in the moment.  They seek merely to bring spiritual truths to the minds of the flock.

What is offered from the pulpit is like what's offered at the table - mere tokens of a far-off reality.  The dispenser of such lifeless things hopes that spiritual sentiments will, somehow, be awakened in their hearers.  But it's the hearers who will have to work at it because there's no real presence in the word.  The action doesn't happen in the gift of the words (either audible or visible).  For the Zwinglian, all the action happens between the ears of the recipient.

So memorialist preaching is aimed at educating, equipping and enthusing but not actually giving the hearer anything.  Christ is not handed over.  Not from the table and not from the pulpit.  Instead prompts, like post-it notes, are offered.  Little reminders.  Little to-do lists.  Little platitudes.  Little pep-talks.  "Now it's down to you.  Just remember what I taught you."

And perhaps the surest sign of memorialist preaching is a preacher who considers their job to be "explaining the Bible passage."  Like a mere dispenser of bread, the preacher moves through the verses, picking off interesting tit-bits along the way.  And somehow, by the end, we've been given a commentary and not Christ.  This is pure Zwingli.

As Mike notes in The Unquenchable Flame,

Where Luther opened the Bible to find Christ, Zwingli sought more simply to open the Bible. (p69)

What a tragedy.  The preacher's job is not to "preach Philippians".  The preacher's job is to preach Christ from Philippians.  So often the preacher just moves the bookmark forward, noting points of interest along the way. In so doing, they leave the listener to piece together whatever resolve or relief they can muster from the raw materials proffered.  This is not preaching.

Offer them Christ.  Hand Him over.  Placard Him from Scripture and say to the hearers "You want Him? He's yours, here He is."

You want to know what that sounds like?  I can't do any better than point you to Mike himself - preaching on Philippians as it happens.

Download Mike Reeves on Philippians.

And may his gospel preaching sweeten the after-taste of this here rant.

16 thoughts on “Memorialist Preaching

  1. Steve Martin

    Nice work, Glen.

    Memorialism is like raising a toast to Jesus. Big deal. I'd much rather have in there, actually in it...for me.

    Looking forward to listening to Mike later this evening.

    Thank you.

  2. Cal

    Good post!

    I use to be a memorialist and as I grow in Christ, I've become the opposite! Praise God!

    I do want to point out some of the reason for the Anabaptist resistance to this was that in interpreting that, it was apart of the laity-clergy divide that the Anabaptist sought to destroy (and some of the "heretic" factions like Hussites or Lollards too).

    So I agree, but only if we make the point that it doesn't take an ordination to preach the Gospel and to administer the sacraments. Even lowly I could break the bread, pass the cup and pronounce spiritual worship in the act of me and my brethren/sisteren(?) partaking of it.

    Speaking of Anabaptists, I think Zwingli was too busy being a memorialist killer by slaughtering them than worrying about memorialist preaching or memorialist sacrament-ing.

    I'm not a big fan of Zwingli.


  3. Chris E

    "There is a deeply ingrained anti-ritualistic and, yes, even anti-physical streak to our evangelicalism. "

    And so what we do instead is create alternative sacraments - like 'worship times'.

    I don't think it takes ordination to preach the gospel and administer sacraments. It does take a church though.

  4. Si Hollett

    I'm not sure 'worship times' are treated as an alternative sacrament (in a Lutheran sense) - certainly in charismatic (and even moderately conservative) circles there's talk of the Spirit coming and being present when we worship (I think the causation's backwards there). However the theology of worship in those circles that do treat it like a sacrament is that worship times are something that we do, remembering what God has done and praise him (and nothing wrong with that as part of worship) - that's not a Lutheran view of a sacrament, but a memorialist one.

    Prayer ministry, on the other hand, certainly fits the bill as an alternative sacrament - done to you by others. There's also the possible alt sacrament of 'waiting on the Lord's presence' - is waiting doing something?

    What is clear, is that there's a desire to meet with the Lord, but a refusal to do it in Word (except, perhaps, for when it's sung) and Sacrament.

  5. Chris E

    Si -

    I think the two divisions you are talking about are somewhat orthogonal to each other, you point at that when you mention that the causation is backwards.

    Luther differentiated between worship as beneficium and worship as sacrificum.

    Yes, charismatic circles have causation around the wrong way, but they still see worship as sacramental (at least in the sense that it is supposed to be something that God is somehow entwined in). Pre-Reformation worship was sacramental, but also had the causation around the wrong way.

    To throw the cat amongst the pigeons a little, I'd suggest that a lot of conservative circles still structure their Sunday services as times of sacrificum rather than beneficium, even if they have rather memorialist readings of the faith.

  6. James

    ”Now it’s down to you. Just remember what I taught you.”

    You've nailed one of the biggest problems in evangelical churches, I think. Perhaps if we started preaching Christ again, there'd be revival in England?!

  7. Steve Martin

    "Perhaps if we started preaching Christ again, there’d be revival in England?!"

    It's a worldwide problem. Lots of religion...but faith? Hmmm...reminds me of what Jesus said about when the Son of Man returns to each with His holy angels...what will He find?

  8. Tanya Marlow

    I have many thoughts on this. 
    The first is:  oh boy- they will have REALLY loved you at selection conference... So that's why you're an Anglican!

    The second is: I'm really wondering where The Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ fits into this. My big question when reading this was, why do you look for the presence of Christ particularly in the Word or bread when we have the Spirit of Christ in our hearts? How does that fit in? Or are you assuming that all conservative evangelicals, both preachers and listeners, do not have the Holy Spirit?

    My final one was, I agree with your criticism of the approach of many preachers, but I wonder if what you are actually saying is 'I wish people would be more worshipful and excited when they preach' - it may just be a stylistic thing that you're criticising, Certainly, of all the christian groups and denominations to criticise for not pointing to Christ, it baffles me that you focus on conservative evangelicals. (but perhaps that's cos you are one - we're always harshest on our own tribe.)

  9. Chris E

    "My big question when reading this was, why do you look for the presence of Christ particularly in the Word or bread when we have the Spirit of Christ in our hearts"

    Because, to paraphrase Bonhoeffer "The Christ in my own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of my brother"

    To his church Christ gives the word and sacrament to be the ordinary means by which we are to encounter him and have our faith built up.

  10. Glen

    Hi Tanya,

    on 1) I think Article 28 is a wonderful expression of the historic reformed position on the supper. We'd need very good reason to ditch it.

    on 2) Word and Spirit must go together. It's precisely a divorce of word and Spirit that leads to the legalism I fear. If the life of the Spirit is not explicitly united to the proclaimed word then we're left with moralism rather than a message. But no, the Spirit brings glory to the Son by taking what is His and /declaring/ it to us. The church ("the place of the called out") is centred on that call which comes in word and sacrament. Otherwise the life of the Spirit is just a Jesus-flavoured life-style - in other words, the gospel is lost.

    on 3) no, it's emphatically not about style. Not at root. I think 'exciting' can be just as secondary an issue (and potentially distracting) as 'educating' or 'equipping.' The real business (which involves excitement, education and equipping as secondary accompaniments) is handing over Jesus. This is what's lacking. The gospel is not preached week in and week out from our pulpits. The bible is opened, running commentaries are made, exhortations are given, but Christ is not offered - not regularly. Our preaching sounds a lot more like a military briefing than the heralding of a victory won. Of course style comes into that, but only as a sign of which model you really believe in. But style will not solve this problem.

    I'm harsh on conservative evangelicals because, a) they are my tribe, you're right, that's a factor. But also b) evangelicals should find it much more outrageous when /we/ forget the evangel, c) we promote ourselves as people of proclamation and yet incredibly few of our number have a theology of proclamation worth the name and d) Jesus could and did find fault with any number of different people. But with whom was He harshest? The morally conservative bible guys.

  11. Tanya Marlow

    Hi Glen
    1) you, Anglican, you...
    2) word and spirit go together - yes, no argument there. Not sure what you're saying in the other stuff. Bit nervous of all this 'sacrament' talk - how do you biblically justify that?
    3) here's the bit where I'm a liittle troubled. To accuse conservative evangelicals of preaching and 'not offering Christ' is a huge criticism to make.

    You brought up the Pharisees, which made me chuckle, partly because that means you are framing yourself as Jesus and all conservative evangelicals In the land as Pharisees, and partly because you seemed to do so without any hint of irony...

    I get it, really I do. I'm an evangelist too, (which means I'm right and people need to agree with me ;-) ). So I am saying this in a gentle tone, with a knowledge that I have a log and I'm pointing out a speck.

    But are you really wanting to do this? You seem to be saying, (and your Twitter feed often communcates this), 'the only right way to preach is the way me and my friends are doing it, and everyone else has their theology wrong - not just slightly wrong, but disastrously wrong.' Is this really what you want to be saying to your conservative evangelical sisters and brothers who preach, weekly seeking to exalt Christ and open up the word of God, though with a slightly different style and theological emphasis to you?

  12. Glen

    Hi Tanya,

    I'm glad for your comments. I'm sure you're speaking for many who read and don't comment. And I shouldn't be allowed to rant like this without a solid come-back, so thank you.

    I tried to flag up the fact I'm raising issues beyond my pay-grade at a couple of points in the post (e.g. "I'm a 34 year old nobody, etc, etc). I don't do it in a jokey way cos I don't feel particularly jokey about it.

    Now maybe this is just a 'slight' 'style' and 'emphasis' issue and "me and my friends" preach with a bit more panache and I just have a prickly evangelist's personality and need other people to agree... Maybe... That's one side of your assessment.... Or, maybe I'm making 'huge' theological criticisms of those who get things 'disastrously wrong'.

    Well if it's one or the other, it's far more the latter. I don't think it's a style thing. In fact what gets my goat is constant discussions of style, when the substance of a proper theology of proclamation goes completely unconsidered.

    But if it's a serious matter, as I contend, Am I allowed to raise it without someone saying "Look who thinks they're Jesus"?

    I'm certainly not saying that 'every conservative evangelical in the land' is guilty of these criticisms at all. But the thing is, we all know what I'm talking about. And to the degree that the shoe fits in my preaching and in any preaching - to that degree we need to address the problem. And we shouldn't address it as a style problem, nor as a slight problem. It is a John 5:37ff problem - which is serious. And should be discussed seriously.

    Again let me say - I'm not pointing the finger at every preacher in the land. Not at all. To generalize about a movement is not to criticize everyone in it. And, as you say, sisters and brothers exalting Christ warms my heart. What's more I see it all over the place. But there are those claiming to "exalt Christ" when actually they just give a running bible-commentary with discipleship coaching thrown in. This *is* the John 5 error. And I want to say, Can we at least name this for the problem that it is?

  13. Howard

    Some days you come home from work and check what's happening, and get on with your evening. Other days, you look and you are genuinely delighted. Nice one, Glen. What you've touched on here is totally crucial to the faith and the value of relationship(s). No wonder I've been enjoying my recent return to an Anglican church! It looks like Luther's rich and keen theology on this vital truth is finally getting a hearing. Many thanks.

  14. John B

    Article 28 is great. So is Article 29. They present a clear stand against Zwinglian ideas; transubstantiation; Roman Catholic practices; and the Lutheran idea of substantial presence. The Church took their stand in rejecting all of these views as being in error. So, there is precedence for calling error, error! (Or at least a "problem".)

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  16. Phil

    (coming to this a few years after being linked to it from a tweet a couple of days ago)

    Hi Glen,

    Is part of the issue here a backdrop of materialism we have, in that we struggle to recognize things beyond the material and so seek to explain/limit the supernature of God? We are surrounded by a culture that does not see the metaphysical and have become contaminated by its thinking. To be honest, although I can see you have a point, I struggle to understand you - I feel myself asking "what does he mean? how does that work physically?".

    Likewise with communion, perhaps our memorialism is because if we are used to seeing things in terms of the material (as everyone around us is), then we are faced with two positions - either the bread and wine become Christ's physical body and blood or they are symbols of it. The idea of "real presence" possibly doesn't actually compute - it just sounds like goobledegook.

    With regard to preaching, this causes us to turn around in confusion - it's not that I don't want to offer Christ, but I don't understand what that means. The distinction you give (in another post) between the offer of forgiveness and the offer of Christ becomes blurred - in physical terms I can no more call people to take Christ than I can to receive the abstract concept of salvation.

    Thanks for your posts, they are still helpful. I hope you can make sense of my half formed thoughts.

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