Midrash vs. Therapeutic

When I was pastoring, periodically I would do a message series about relationships and the challenges of living life together—whether it be dysfunctional relationships in marriages, family dynamics, friendships, work environments, and so on (a favorite series was called “Baggage” ).


It was part of shepherding: helping people build healthy families, friendships, and boundaries. The problem was: series like that can easily devolve into a list of helpful, prescriptive ideas that any good counselor or therapist would suggest....and usually sprinkled with cherry-picked scripture verses. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that, but as a spiritual leader I had to make sure I balanced that with the Kingdom-message that we are meant for more than self-actualization or attaining emotional health as an end in itself. The more is: humbling ourselves and fitting into God’s story and His work. It’s not surprising that those series were typically the more popular ones we offered. After all, most people want to know how to get better, that is, better at being a husband, a friend, a mother, an employee, a human being. After all, it’s our relationships that cause us the most pain. And truth is truth; Proverbs was written way before the Dr. Phils of the world. By contrast, rabbis often used an exegetical model called a midrash. An oversimplified description (forgive me, seminarians) would be storytelling that depends less on the authority of the text and zeroes in on the hearer’s intuitive ability and personal reflection created in the moment by the Spirit of God. There can be a potency in the interpretive story that allows God to give insight beyond the obvious, and may even create an inner tension for the listener that forces a deeper wrestling with the text. Some contemporary teachers/preachers use a therapeutic or prescriptive model. That style is more common to topical series, filled with advice that’s rooted in scripture. It’s a bit like Proverbs: if you do this, you’re a wise person and life will work better for you. This would have been especially reflective of many of the sermon series back in the 1990's-to-early 2000's: How to Affair-Proof Your Marriage, Building a Healthy Family, Five Steps to Avoid Burnout, etcetera. Not only were they practical and helpful, but they served as an attractional element for un- or de-churched people, as in: “Hey! Finally a church that has some relevance to my life…”. It moved beyond the altar-call, “get-out-of-this-world” salvation-only emphasis of many evangelical churches and created a context for invitation as well as developing emotionally healthier and more holistic people. But here’s a thought: I think the sermon on the mount—Matthew 5, 6 & 7—is actually a prime example of both approaches: midrash and therapeutic. There are moments of super-pragmatic counsel but wrapped in a powerful Kingdom overview that drives the meta-message. The first twelve verses—the Beatitudes—can create an inner conflict that is powerful. For you fresh young pastors, teachers and communicators, consider a balance in your speaking. Listen to some teachers who are polar-opposite of your style. Think of the differences between Francis Chan and Andy Stanley; both are wonderfully gifted communicators, but radically different in methodology, pacing and approach. Check out people who are not just different from you tribally and theologically, but communicate in a way that you might even preconceive as irritating. And wrestle a bit with your own exegetical baggage.

Dave Workman | Elemental Churches