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Hip and Thigh: Smiting Theological Philistines with a Great Slaughter. Judges 15:8

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Horrible Preaching Stories

If you are a person who has been around preaching as long as I have, I am sure you can recall some fairly bad preaching. I have heard plenty; even from the pulpit of Grace Community Church (No. Not from John MacArthur if you are wondering).

I personally have never cared for those preachers who are equivalent to being a human tranquilizer. The preacher will drone on and on in a sleepy, monotone voice, never offering to the congregation any indication of when he will wrap things up. Even if the person may have something good to say, the listener is so lulled into a stupor, all important points are missed. I have also heard the shouter preachers who scream their sermons at the congregation, and of course the drama kings who are always entertaining to hear because they may do something unexpected and dramatic to make a point. For instance, I can recall one famous preacher, who after regaling us with irrelevant, but amusing, antidotes, told us with a crescendo that "if we don't believe the Bible we might as well do this" and proceeded to hurl his massive black leather Bible up the center aisle of the Church while everyone sat wide eyed and opened mouthed thinking he was crazy.

Those are personality issues of course, but the utterly worse kind of preaching is theologically unsound preaching. This is due primarily to muddled theology driving the preacher's thinking. The preacher may even be a dazzling speaker presenting the material, but the content is so theologically poor, his preaching is sadly inept.

This is the kind of bad preaching I have encountered the most over the years growing up and I believe a good bulk of it comes from pastors unwittingly saturated in Arminian philosophy. Perhaps we can haggle over the details of Arminian philosophy, but I believe it is the main factor driving horrible preaching stories. How do I know this? One: their sermons are consistently tailored for unbelievers even though all 198 people sitting in the congregation are members of the Church and consider themselves outstanding Christians. Two: the sermons use emotionally manipulative illustrations designed for one thing only: move a person down the aisle to the front no matter what and at all costs. These two perspectives work hand and hand, and they are designed to act upon the will of the unbeliever who must be convinced with reason (or in this case, emotion) to make a decision for Jesus one way or another.

I could say a lot about bad theological preaching in general, but I wish to introduce a recurring series entitled, Horrible Preaching Stories. We will be taking a look at some of the worse sermon illustrations I have heard over the years coming from the mouths of preachers. By the way, any readers out there who have heard some horrible preaching stories in sermons, please pass them along by either emailing me or leaving a comment. I would like to start a collection. Stories found in books can also count, so pass them along. My only condition for them is that they mangle some aspect of biblical theology, like God's saving grace, or God's sovereignty, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, total depravity, the Resurrection, Justification by Faith, etc.

The first Horrible Preaching Story I wish to consider is called The Draw Bridge.

I heard this story on many occasions growing up, generally at youth revivals, or some other Christian camp, where after the service, those kids really, really, really serious about living for Jesus were encouraged to write all their sins on a piece of paper and throw it in a bonfire. Once I can remember the preacher telling it claim the events were true. I have read alternate versions of the story on the Internet. Whatever the case, they all contain the same moralistic conclusion: A loving father sacrifices his son's life to save a freight train from disaster.

Once there was a man who was an attendant for a railroad drawbridge. His job entailed raising the bridge to allow the river boats to pass and making sure the bridge was in place for the trains. One day the man took his only son with him to work. He was a four year old boy who enjoyed watching his father raise the bridge to allow the boats pass and lowering it to let the trains rumble by.

As the day wore on, the man and his only son went to eat lunch out on the raised bridge. As they watched the boats pass underneath them, they both fell asleep. Sometime later, the man was awakened from his nap by the sound of a distant train whistle. "Oh no," he thought, "the bridge is still up, I need to get back to close it or all those people will be killed!" Making his way back to the control room, he started to lower the bridge when he heard a cry from outside. It was his only son, who had slipped through the catwalk when he started following his father back. He had fallen down onto the massive gears and he was unable to free his foot.

The man didn't know what he should do. He had to find a way to save his only son, but there would be no time to save him and then return to lower the bridge to let the train pass. As the train drew closer, the man remember how God sacrificed Jesus, His only son, to save humanity, so he made the fateful decision to sacrifice his son to save those hundreds of people on the train. The bridge closed, all the while the anguished father knowing it crushed to death his only son. As he wept for the death of his only son, the train rushed by safe and sound with all the passengers waving and laughing as they went by, completely oblivious to the great sacrifice that just occurred to save them.

Now the problems with this story, both practical and theological, are a multitude.

First, what sort of idiot father takes his only son, especially a four year old boy, out on the end of a raised drawbridge? Particularly when there is a great possibility for him to slip off a catwalk and be entangled in the gears of the bridge? This is highly irresponsible of the father. Moreover, what about his jumping up from his nap and running back to the control room without grabbing his kid? Are you telling me that he is so absent minded he would forget his boy laying there next to him?

Second, what sort of safety standards were the engineers of this drawbridge working under so that they could get away with building a bridge with exposed gears which in turn could potentially entangle a four year old who slips through a catwalk? Moreover, wouldn't this catwalk be considered poorly designed? If it is that easy for someone to slip through, I don't know if I want to be walking on it to begin with.

Third, was there a moron driving this train? Are you telling me he wouldn't take notice of a raised drawbridge in the distance? I mean, it's not like a raised drawbridge just sneaks up on you. Surely he would had been made aware of that section of the track where a drawbridge could possibly be raised, so that he could be alert to slow down if he needed to. Are you telling me this guy was so engrossed in his newspaper or book that he wasn't paying attention? This is gross incompetence. Additionally, the train company should be held criminal negligence for not having some warning system in place to alert a train engineer of a raised draw bridge a mile or so up the track. I smell a big pay off in a lawsuit with this one.

But these are sniggling little practical details. What about the mangled theological implications gleaned from this woeful tale? There are two serious ones:

Generally, the main point raised in the conclusion of the story is the great sacrifice of the father for the people on the train being likened to the great sacrifice God offered in Jesus Christ for all humanity. Yet if we allow that comparison, it makes Christ's death into a cosmic accident, something God the Father was not expecting and couldn't avoid. The Bible is clear God had planned Christ's death before the foundation of the world. It was not an unavoidable accident. Peter affirms this truth in his sermon on the Day of Pentecost when he said, Him [Jesus], being delivered by the determined purpose and foreknowledge of God, you have taken by lawless hands, have crucified, and put to death (Acts 2:23). The father in the story did not go to work that morning with the intention of crushing to death his only son in the gears of the bridge so as to save a passenger train from doom.

Then second, note the blatant universalism presented in the story. The train supposedly represents the whole of humanity; everyone in the entire world without exception. One point I have heard preachers make when relating this story is how all the folks on the train were smiling, waving and laughing as it drove over the bridge, all the while completely unaware of the death of a four year old boy to save their lives. This is how the world acts, the preacher will say, they don't realize God the Father sacrificed Jesus to save them and they go about their blissful lives completely unaware of what God did. This not only makes Christ death purposeless, but also implies everyone in the world is saved, they just don't know it. Am I to guess they all learn about it later, after they die and are in heaven? I imagine this would be similar to the people who were on the train once they reached their various destinations and read about what the father did in the newspaper. The Bible is also quite clear that Christ's death was not designed to be a universal atonement which saves all humanity, whose members are saved, but live their lives without Christ now, only to realize what Jesus did for them once they reach heaven. Such a notion is rank heresy.

If anything, this drawbridge story goes beyond the theological foibles of Arminianism to being one embracing the heretical teachings of open theism and universalism.

12 Comments:

Blogger Frank Martens said...

that's funny, i analyzed another version of this story here not to long ago.

10:22 AM, January 10, 2006  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Excellent analysis. I appreciate you link your take on it.

Fred

10:24 AM, January 10, 2006  
Blogger C-train said...

Somewhat unrelated, but I can recall an uncomfortable testimony. One time while in highschool I went to a friend's youth group where some of the students gave their testimony. One student went into shocking and disturbing detail about their life before Christ. Everyone in the room had a stunned and glazed appearance on their face.
Interestingly enough, after this testimony the leader of this youth group got up and told that same bride story only it was modified to fit in with Santa Clarita.

11:39 AM, January 10, 2006  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Ahhh, there is nothing quite like a disturbing testimony story from some person in the congregation. The person is just a little too open with his or her feelings. What is even worse is if the person starts bawling and blubbering all over himself in an uncomfortable, cathartic display.

Any time I hear a pastor say something like, "I want to opening it up for anyone to share if God's laid it on your heart..." I just cringe, because you never know what your going to get.

This is a subject all by itself.
I can't imagine how this pastor tied in the bridge story though. That I would like to have heard.

Freddy

12:52 PM, January 10, 2006  
Blogger BlackCalvinist said...

Oh man...wait till I get home Fred. I have a brief story about a guy who came to my old church and was busy trying to flirt with the pastor's sister, all the ladies on the front row, bash all the ladies in the church (i.e. - "See...that's why Jesus wasn't married! He'd have gotten nagged to death and never got anything done!") and made a whole bunch of cultural mistakes and thought his audience was simply open to a nice emotional jarring....

Redeemed (over on the board) has a funny story - but it wasn't bad preaching, but a bad church.... Drop him a line and ask him about it. LOL

2:47 PM, January 10, 2006  
Blogger Daniel said...

Apart from incorrect theology, there is also (what I like to call) spurious theology.

I have heard it preached that Jesus created clothes for the naked and demon possessed man (when they returned they found him clothed - thus, Christ created a set of clothes for him...)

Likewise I have heard that Our resurrection bodies can walk through walls (or at least locked doors) because Christ entered a room in which the door was locked.

Certainly every preacher at some point explains how they think something in scripture played out - and most are honest enough to precede such an explanation with the caveat that this is just their own "guess" and not scripture.

The danger is when preachers give some explanation - then jump off of their own guess and preach on *that*

Imagine: Since Jesus created clothes for the naked demon possessed man, it behooves us to apply this truth to other scenarios... etc.

This sort of flummery annoys me to no end.

7:36 AM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger Stephen A Morse said...

As I have said before (On Frank's post) I HATE THIS STORY! How idiotic!?!
.......eeewwwwwww....
What about the story of the worldwide outbreak? Where everyone is dying because of some disease or something and the CDC finds out (somehow) that your son is the only one whose blood is immune and so you must decide whether or not to give him up for the world? STUPID! Why not take his blood, transfuse it with some other blood, make the antidote and them cure him too?

8:56 AM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger ThirstyDavid said...

I have a lot of experience with livestock - beef, dairy, swine - so I recognise a lot of gross ignorance when city preahers try to use agricultural illustrations or explain the historical context of Biblical events.

The worst was a pastor who described the humble birth of Christ in a manger. For those who don't know, a manger is a feed bunk. In a barn, it's the area in front of the cattle that they eat from. In Christ's case, they would have laid hay or straw in it for a soft bed under his blanket.

This preacher, in graphic detail, described the gutter behind the cattle. Needless to say, something entirely different goes in the gutter than in the manger.

I had just milked fifty cows that morning. Sitting in the congregation was a community of farmers, all dumbfounded. I think one of them "spoke to him" after.

Moral of the story: get your facts straight or keep quiet. I have heard some very well-known, respectable preachers make similiar, although far less obvious, errors.

3:53 PM, January 11, 2006  
Blogger Daniel said...

David, That reminds me of the time my friend's father preached Proverbs 15:17 to his farming community.

I didn't hear the sermon myself, but from what my friend says his Father apparently made quite a show of the "stalled ox" (Better is a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.)

Going on about how an ox who stubbornly refuses to move (not unlike a "stalled" car) is of no use to anyone, lazy, etc. Not to be that kind of Christian... Later some kind old farmer took him aside to explain exactly what a "stall" was and how it related to the text...

We laugh about it today.

1:39 PM, January 13, 2006  
Blogger Tom said...

Hello,
I stumbled upon you blog looking for the particular story you were bashing. I must say that I find your critique misleading and your arguments about how untheologically sound the story is, flat out wrong. I will now make my case by critiquing you critique. First and foremost, I have never heard of the version you posted but have heard the version that Frank Martens posted, so I will be using that version. Your first point against the story is that the father in the story did not go to work that morning with the intention of crushing to death his only son in the gears of the bridge so as to save a passenger train from doom where as God planned everything and the death of Jesus was not an accident. While the way you phrase it makes it sound like the story has horrible theology, you are leaving out some of the imagery of the story. God the father created the world and he created the world perfect. I assume you will agree with that. And if you agree with that I think you would also agree then that God the father did not create the world perfect for the soul purpose of having it fall so that he could sacrifice his son. I think it is much better theology to say that God created the world perfect in order for us to glorify him. However, upon humanities fall, God had to set the long plan of reconciliation by sacrificing his son. Why is this important? Because in the story the imagery you are suppose to be seeing is that the train is humanity fallen into sin. Once we fell into sin, God had the chose to make, save his son from death or save us from death. The point I am trying to make here is, God didn't create humanity so that he had the opportunity to sacrifice his son, we fell and then the father had to make the decision. It is the same in the story, the father did not become a bridge man in order to sacrifice his son, but it was simply how the events occurred. You can argue God's omnipotence and all-knowing nature but the bible has several examples where humanity plays a role in God's plan and God then has to adjust. Example: Tower of Babel. It is one of the beauties of the faith, we are predestined but we also have choices.
To your second point of universalism, this is where your version of the story is wrong, read the other (more popular) version and you will see that the father did have to decide to either save his son or save the people but "saving" in this context means saving us from death. Christ Jesus did save all of humanity from death--that is firm theology and is why all of humanity will see the resurrection from the dead and the Day of Judgment. We will either have eternity in heaven or eternity in hell; this was Jesus’ gift to all of humanity. He faced death so that we do not have to.
My final request and hope is that all of you people that leave comments on this blog start encouraging your fellow believers rather than mocking those who have been touched by God and then have enough faith and humility to share with others who are just as broken and may just need to here that they are not alone in their struggles. You guys are missing many simple truths of faith. First off, it is not about how "comfortable" you are (especially when someone is telling you about how God has worked in their life) but about how the Spirit is moving in this world and around your community. Secondly, always keep love first. Some of you sound bitter for the fact that many seem to find joy, hope, and peace from these "Horrible Preaching Stories" and you don't. Don't get made at the stories for this, but humble yourself and unharden you hearts and try to find God instead of shutting down right away when someone tells you a story because you are somehow "above" the theology of the story. Remember Christ Jesus may have been the biggest storyteller to ever roam this world. Finally, take the story for what the story is trying to portray--God loved us so much that he gave up his only son so that we can overcome death. Once again this is a very Biblical approach. Jesus did not tell only one parable that portrayed all of the truths of God. No, he told many stories all designed to express a truth of life, Christ, or God. They each had a purpose but none were all encompassing on their own.
Take these critiques for what they are worth; I am simply a 19 year old college student.
Shalom,
Tom

6:04 PM, October 22, 2006  
Blogger Fred Butler said...

Greetings Tom, thanks for commenting.

I stumbled upon you blog looking for the particular story you were bashing.

(Fred) Bashing may be a tad harsh. More like criticizing. But I believe my criticisms, regardless if I am attempting a bit of humor, are warranted and acurate.

Let me respond to a handful of your critiques:


Your first point against the story is that the father in the story did not go to work that morning with the intention of crushing to death his only son in the gears of the bridge so as to save a passenger train from doom where as God planned everything and the death of Jesus was not an accident. While the way you phrase it makes it sound like the story has horrible theology, you are leaving out some of the imagery of the story. God the father created the world and he created the world perfect. I assume you will agree with that. And if you agree with that I think you would also agree then that God the father did not create the world perfect for the soul purpose of having it fall so that he could sacrifice his son. I think it is much better theology to say that God created the world perfect in order for us to glorify him. However, upon humanities fall, God had to set the long plan of reconciliation by sacrificing his son. Why is this important? Because in the story the imagery you are suppose to be seeing is that the train is humanity fallen into sin. Once we fell into sin, God had the chose to make, save his son from death or save us from death. The point I am trying to make here is, God didn't create humanity so that he had the opportunity to sacrifice his son, we fell and then the father had to make the decision. It is the same in the story, the father did not become a bridge man in order to sacrifice his son, but it was simply how the events occurred. You can argue God's omnipotence and all-knowing nature but the bible has several examples where humanity plays a role in God's plan and God then has to adjust. Example: Tower of Babel. It is one of the beauties of the faith, we are predestined but we also have choices.

(Fred) Well Tom, we need to develop our theology from a thorough exegesis of the biblical text. The Bible makes it quite clear that Christ was the lamb slain before the foundation of the world. This is stated plainly in Revelation 13:8 and implied explicitly in such chapters as John 17. Moreover, the plan of salvation was enacted by the eternal Godhead before God created the world. See for instance Ephesians 1, where the plan of redemption and the role each member of Trinity will play in accomplishing that redemption is set forth before God did any creating. That means God was fully aware of what was happening because he was ordaining it to be so.

The scheme you are suggesting is one that has God unaware of what will happen in the future. He was not anticipating the fall of man, nor did he forsee it, and he had no ability to stop it. This just makes the God of the Bible who is revealed in Isaiah 46:9,10 as the one who declares the end from the beginning just like that human father in the story who did not go to work that morning anticipating having to kill his son to "save" a train of blissfully unaware passengers. Do you see God as the open theists do, as a god unaware of the future?

To your second point of universalism, this is where your version of the story is wrong, read the other (more popular) version and you will see that the father did have to decide to either save his son or save the people but "saving" in this context means saving us from death. Christ Jesus did save all of humanity from death--that is firm theology and is why all of humanity will see the resurrection from the dead and the Day of Judgment. We will either have eternity in heaven or eternity in hell; this was Jesus’ gift to all of humanity. He faced death so that we do not have to.

(Fred) This is where you are in serious danger of affirming universalism. If Christ died to save everyone without exception, then Christ's death should save everyone. No one should go to hell, because all judgment was given to the son and it was finished on the cross. This is heretical doctrine.

A much better question you need to ask yourself, Tom, is what exactly was it that Christ accomplished in His death? Did he die to save everyone, only to loose those who won't believe, thus they have to atone for their sins in hell that were already atoned for on the cross? Or was it that His death was perfect and satisfying for the Father and saves all those for whom it is intended? The biblical data supports the second.

My final request and hope is that all of you people that leave comments on this blog start encouraging your fellow believers rather than mocking those who have been touched by God and then have enough faith and humility to share with others who are just as broken and may just need to here that they are not alone in their struggles. You guys are missing many simple truths of faith. First off, it is not about how "comfortable" you are (especially when someone is telling you about how God has worked in their life) but about how the Spirit is moving in this world and around your community. Secondly, always keep love first. Some of you sound bitter for the fact that many seem to find joy, hope, and peace from these "Horrible Preaching Stories" and you don't. Don't get made at the stories for this, but humble yourself and unharden you hearts and try to find God instead of shutting down right away when someone tells you a story because you are somehow "above" the theology of the story. Remember Christ Jesus may have been the biggest storyteller to ever roam this world. Finally, take the story for what the story is trying to portray--God loved us so much that he gave up his only son so that we can overcome death. Once again this is a very Biblical approach. Jesus did not tell only one parable that portrayed all of the truths of God. No, he told many stories all designed to express a truth of life, Christ, or God. They each had a purpose but none were all encompassing on their own.

(Fred) I am not sure what to make of this last paragraph. The preaching stories are horrible in that they don't reflect an accurate theology. Though they may be touchy-feely, the emotional draw of a particular story does not make it correct. An emotionally heart string pulling story could very well teach error. To compare horrible preaching stories to the parables of Jesus also doesn't save them. Christ's parable illustrated truth, particularly to those for whom they were told. Only a certain few, the ones with the "ears to hear" - meaning God gave them the ability to "hear" - could understand them. A sentimental story about an unwitting father who foolishly allowed his 4 year old child to become entangled in the gears of an open draw bridge does not equate to the parables Christ told. We should not be thinking in this manner.

Take these critiques for what they are worth; I am simply a 19 year old college student.

(Fred) Have hope, I was once a 19 year old. I can only pray you will take these rebuttals to your criticisms with warm regards and learn from what I am telling you.

Fred

10:21 AM, October 23, 2006  
Blogger kiwi51 said...

hi there..

I think this story is not meant to be a deep theological allegory for the sacrifice of Christ Jesus. Instead, i think we could call it a modern day parable for the people of today to relate to. The story challenges people emotionally as shocking and - if left alone, invokes thought and wonder about just how huge the sacrifice of GOD:S son must have been.
My father was the headmaster at my school - and at his last easter service, he delivered this story on its own - without tying it up in (what can sometimes be) a very cliche and cheesy way.

This story touched a good friend of mine that day in such away that she turned to Christ, and is now a passionate beliver, and servant of Christ.

I know that there are faults in the validity of this story, but i also know that it can and does have profound effect on people who disregard the sacrifice of Christ.

I am also a 19yr old uni student - an im doing a singer/songwriter course - was researching this story to use in one of my songs.. perhaps, however, it is too widely known.

Certainly, however 'theologically' weak it may be, this story has had a profound effect on some people close to me, and perhaps it should be targeted at a non-Christian audience?

what do you think?

Zac,
Auckland, NZ

4:16 PM, April 09, 2008  

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