Submitting to Be More Vile, or How I Decided to Say Tacky Things from the Pulpit
Preaching Controversial Series
Of all John Wesley’s memorable lines, my favorite is from his April 2, 1739 journal entry, about having preached for the first time outside the confines of the pulpit:
“At four in the afternoon I submitted to be more vile, and proclaimed in the highways the glad tidings of salvation…”
Wesley’s decision to take his preaching on the road has reminded me more than once that preaching is ultimately a missional task. This is an easy thing to forget, sheltered as we are by a denominational institution and listeners who come to worship not necessarily expecting God to show up. Wesley’s decision reminds me that preaching is always the declaration of news, and so it fulfills its primary function best when it speaks a surprising word to unsuspecting hearers. Unfortunately for introverts like me, who do not like conflict, this means rethinking both the way we preach and what we cover in our sermons.
In the last four years, I have submitted to be more vile—not only preaching sermon series outside the lectionary, but tackling things I never heard in church. I now begin my sermon preparation in the world my listeners inhabit. And to keep myself from too easily preaching what folks want to hear, or remaining in my own canon of beloved Scripture, I have peppered my preaching calendar with things I don’t want to talk about: Sex. Violence. Politics. Money.
Our congregation is not some hip church plant, I don’t own a pair of skinny jeans, nor do I wear “product” in my hair. We are a 120-year-old charge, having started our ministry when this town was a mining village, not a busy suburb. We have many older adults in our congregation (who would rather sing out of the Cokesbury hymnal), and we are in the middle of the reddest county in one of the reddest states in the union. In short, we have as little business being “edgy” as any church in the connection.
But the lovely thing about the age in which we live is that the unchurched expect nothing from us. It is much easier to surprise them than it used to be. Like every other church in this country, we have one of those marquees in front of the church. A few weeks into my appointment here, I decided that the sign needed to be a conversation with the unchurched. As I asked myself what would grab their attention on the sign, I became convicted about what they needed to hear from the pulpit. A catchy sign outside needed to be backed up by a relevant word inside. So here is what I have learned.
1. Let Scripture speak.
Like all faithful preaching, missional preaching must be grounded in Scripture, and for me, that means often ignoring the lectionary. I recognize that abandoning the lectionary for a sermon series can be a painful process for many (it was for me), something like a proper Anglican spouting homilies among the hay. The lectionary, at its best, pushes us to address Scripture in the broadest sense. At its worst, however, it is a fence that keeps us safe from difficult texts.
I’ve come to realize that, many times, the lectionary keeps us out of Scripture’s bad neighborhoods and assumes that the Sunday listeners are reading the rest of the Bible on their own. In sterilizing the most violent and passionate scenes in the Bible, the lectionary leaves its scripturally illiterate listeners thinking the Bible is mostly a docile collection of spiritual reflections. There are exceptions to this, of course, but as I found when I did a recent series on the book of Judges (pairing each of the judges with increasingly flawed modern comic book heroes), the lectionary only gives us one lesson from that profound set of stories, and it is an uncharacteristic one, whitewashed of Judges’ bloody gore.
But preaching sermon series, especially controversial ones, is never an excuse to ignore Scripture. We must remember that we are modeling the theological task for our hearers as we preach. They are not only hearing our answers, they are paying attention to the way we approach the questions. Wesley stepped out of the pulpit, but he took God’s story with him. For his homiletical descendants, Scripture is never seasoning for the sermon—it is the main course, regardless of whether or not we begin in the lectionary.
2. Don’t preach controversial subjects for controversy’s sake.
Tackling tough subject material alone is not enough to reclaim the missional nature of the preaching task. The story of John Wesley is instructive again, reminding us that, while Wesley took several risks in his ministry, those decisions were never made for shock value. Preachers who choose to preach on controversial topics believing that controversy will cover up a weak sermon will be disappointed, as will those who have to suffer through their preaching.
3. Prepare yourself and your congregation.
Even for those of us who are not “planners,” preachers who want to tackle disruptive topics must give ample warning for several weeks before a series begins. The material will be shocking enough; don’t complicate it by preaching it to an unsuspecting crowd. Preparing them also begins a rich conversation before the start of the series that will ultimately strengthen the sermons.
I recently preached a series entitled “Great Sex,” and spent a month telling my congregation it was on its way. I spoke directly with older leaders in the church, asking for their wisdom as well as explaining my reasons for taking on such a risqué subject in the context of worship.
4. Finally, tough topics require you to be pastor first, then prophet.
When preaching will take listeners to a difficult place, we cannot be reckless with their trust. The easiest way to discount a prophet’s message is to think that he or she doesn’t care about you.
Knowing what our congregation and community are struggling with means knowing our congregation and our community better. When my congregation heard that we were going to address sex in the context of worship, my counseling calendar filled up quickly with struggling marriages, couples living together, and men dealing with pornography addiction. My warnings not only softened the initial impact of that first sermon, it also created space for pastoral dialogue that deeply influenced the direction of my preaching.
When your congregation feels that they are part of a shared mission (instead of just helpless victims strapped into the preacher’s homiletical roller coaster), they will not only be more patient sitting through your sermon, they may even re-envision their role as the Body of Christ.
During the sex series, an elderly member filled her pew with unchurched grandchildren and their friends. She had become a missionary, the fruit of her evangelism in tow. She came to worship asking not “What will there be for me today?” but “Who needs to hear the news?”
A hungry and broken world wants to know their questions are valid, and that God still has something to say—timid preaching whose only goal is congregational coddling isn’t enough anymore. In the shadow of that Oxford don, may the people called Methodists reclaim our vile reputation for being willing to preach where the people are.