By Amy Starr Russell
On Wednesday afternoon, over 200 people gathered for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s annual Leadership Institute. This year, the Institute was led by Dr. Tom Long, Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching & Director of the Early Career Pastoral Leadership Program at Candler School of Theology, Emory University.
Our session brought me back to the seminary classroom with Dr. Long’s in depth challenge to re-engage the New Testament epistles. He titled his lecture, “Reading Other People’s Mail: Preaching and Teaching the New Testament Epistles in a Changing Church.” Dr. Long began by inviting us into the narrative of our use of the New Testament epistles. Once relied upon to communicate such important doctrinal truths such as being saved by grace through faith in Jesus, the epistles have been shifted from the preacher’s starting line-up to the player that is called on only once or twice a season.
As part of a generation of ministers who tend to lean away from preaching the New Testament epistles, in favor of the narrative of the Gospels, to me, the message was clear. We are short-changing the church when we do not engage the breadth and depth of the New Testament canon.
At issue is the predominant style of narrative preaching that has re-emerged in the past 50 years. Narrative preaching, Dr. Long contends, cannot carry the freight for everything the church needs. Being trained in the narrative style of preaching, I was concerned as Dr. Long began to break down the weaknesses of this style. But much to my relief, Dr. Long did not suggest that we do away with narrative preaching. He suggested a needed refinement. Narrative preaching relies on characters to tell a story. In preaching from the New Testament epistles, the ideas become the characters in the story, helping us envision how these New Testament churches were trying to figure out what it meant to be formed by following in the way of Jesus.
After some time for reflection around our tables, Dr. Long shifted from a time of deconstruction to reconstruction, offering us some practical tips on what to consider when writing a sermon based on the epistles.
Dr. Long concluded by reminding us that Christianity is not a set of beliefs but a way of living together and the profound gift of the epistles are their ability to help us envision this gospel way of life.
Asking other participants what they took away from the session, many stated the need to re-imagine our use of the epistles while also being open to what shape this might take in the future.
This session spurred my theological imagination to consider the relational nature of these letters. These are not stagnant doctrinal truths but ideas that help us come alive in Christ, just as they did for the early church. I will go back to my church with a new perspective on these old letters, ready to do the work together of envisioning a gospel way of life.
Rev. Amy Starr Russell serves as the Associate Minister at First Baptist Church, Henderson, NC. She received her M.Div. from Wake Forest University School of Divinity in Winston-Salem, NC.