Skip to main content

Preaching in a Disorienting, Low-Competence Society

February 15th, 2022 | 2 min read

By Jake Meador


I think Newbigin was right. On Friday I was making Newbigin’s point by describing the modern world as “a moral vacuum.” And my point at the end of the post was to note that advice-giving has intrinsic appeal in a culture characterized by the fact/value split. My call for pastors to notice and understand this appeal was to ask them to become better missiologists. If you understand the culture of the modern world, as Newbigin described, you’ll immediately understand why Jordan Peterson and topical preaching has a broad appeal. Their advice-giving is inserting values into the void. Any pastor with a good missionary mind should be able to see that dynamic.

The fact-value split is a problem here. But I also am reminded of Illich’s concept of “abundant competence.” If you live in a community or society in which most people are competent in a wide range of skills, it is often easier to get through day-to-day life and manage the problems that occur. If, on the other hand, you live in a low-competence society, ordinary day-to-day things can seem daunting, even insurmountable, especially if you cannot afford to hire people to help you fix whatever needs fixing. In that kind of context, advice and practical mentoring is enormously powerful, I think.

On the other hand, my reformed protestant brain is firing now, reminding me that preachers, which is the context Beck is thinking of above, should not bind consciences where Scripture is silent and that, theologically, indicatives drive imperatives. So the “advice” we Christians offer, particularly in the ecclesial setting, would seem to be constrained by what Scripture says so that we don’t bind consciences and flows from an account of the Gospel first.

So I’m wondering: How can church leaders and especially pastors handle this dynamic?

On the one hand, if preaching and public Christian speech more generally, simply hangs in the intellectual ether, as it were, and simply tells people how to think, then I expect we run straight into the problem Beck is describing.

On the other hand, advice-giving seems like the sort of thing that will lend itself toward a genuine sort of legalism that will, overtime, corrode Christian discipleship (by simply giving people a kind of rote program to follow) and effectively baptize the arbitrary opinions of men.

Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).