Recently, in conversation with a student, he discovered that I “did magic.” That is, over the years I have done everything from simple card tricks to full stage illusions. When I was a college student, my senior project was a full stage show of illusions I built. (And, yes, it included making my lovely assistant float into the air and disappear.)
This particular student was also interested in prestidigitation and he knew a few card tricks. So, we proceeded to “talk shop.” In the course of the conversation, I showed him a way to improve on a particular sleight he was using when doing card tricks. Even though he knew what I did, he was impressed. (Not saying that to brag . . . after all I have been doing card magic for more years than this young man had been alive!) And it was in that moment that I realized something quite simple . . . and profound.
Preaching should not be like a magician’s trick.
The beauty of a good trick–whether a simple card effect or a grand stage illusion–is to entertain those watching, leave them amazed (or at least happily stunned), and impress them with the competency and skill of the performer. The watchers should not be let in on how the trick was done–if so, the beauty and wonder will be lost. They should simply watch, be duly impressed, and walk away talking about what a superb performance they had just seen. And, in all honesty, that is what I hoped for every time I pulled out a deck of cards or stepped out on the stage. The audience should be content with being impressed . . . and happily puzzled that they did not know how it all was done.
As a magician, I was successful if the audience enjoyed the show, laughed and gasped when appropriate, thanked me for my efforts, and walked away talking about what they had just witnessed.
And I realized that is what some preachers seem to want as well.
Not only have I done magic in some form for decades, I have also been in vocational ministry for decades. I have sat under some great Bible teachers and preachers; but I have also sat under or served with some not so commendable ones. The good ones were not at all like a magician; but the others seemed to follow the pattern (whether intentionally or not).
The not-so-good teacher approaches preaching as if the goal is to entertain the congregation, leave them amazed (or at least happily stunned), and impress the congregation with his competency and skill (and command of the Biblical languages and mastery of arcane information about Bible times and his wealth of clever and memorable illustrations). The congregation should not be fully let in as to how the Scripture were handled and how the teacher came to such amazing conclusions or applications–if so, the beauty and wonder would be lost. The congregation should simply listen and watch, be duly impressed, and walk away talking about what a “gifted teacher” they had just heard.
But preaching should not be like a magician’s trick.
The goal of a Bible teacher or preacher should be to make clear what the text of Scripture actually says and to lead his hearers to see, for themselves, exactly how he got to the insights he did and how he came to the applications he did. Because the magician seeks to entertain and amaze, his methods must remain hidden. Because the preacher (should) seek to explain and inform, his methods must be absolutely transparent.
If there is any wonder or amazement, any delight or stunning impact, in the preacher’s “performance,” it should come because of the wonder and power and impact of the Word of God. And for that to happen well, every preacher needs to give away all his “secrets,” and every “sleight” he has learned to make sense of a text should be exposed. With “nothing up his sleeves,” the preacher should lay all his cards on the table and invite the congregation to see and know and understand everything he has heard from God in the text.
“For we are not like many, peddling the word of God . . .” (2 Corinthians 2:17)
“We have renounced the things hidden because of shame, not walking in craftiness or adulterating the word of God, but by the manifestation of truth ccommending ourselves to every man’s conscience in the sight of God.” (2 Corinthians 4:2)