Collaborative Preaching and Holy Conversation

January 25th, 2011

“What?! How can the Bible say that?! That’s complete garbage!”

This is something you might hear on a typical Tuesday night at Starbucks on Madison Street in Clarksville, Tennessee. That’s where members of Bethlehem United Methodist Church and their pastor (yours truly) gather each week to discuss the scripture passages that will be read and proclaimed the following Sunday in worship. We call this gathering the Roundtable Pulpit. Commonly heard are reactions of surprise, disgust, frustration, and confusion. That’s to be expected because sometimes the Bible can be surprising, frustrating, and confusing. Sometimes what it says even seems disgusting and offensive to those of us who live in a very different world than that in which the biblical writers lived. But just as common as the negative reactions are ones of amazement, wonder, awe, and beauty. The Bible is all of these things, too, so we gather each week to face it head-on in an attempt to know God better.

The Roundtable Pulpit is not your typical Bible study. The goal is not for us to leave with a nice, clean nugget of spiritual wisdom. Nor is it for us to leave sharing a common sense of what exactly a particular passage says. We recognize that each of us reads the Bible in very different ways because we bring different backgrounds and life experiences to the table. I read the Bible as a white, upper-middle-class male with a seminary education, with the vast majority of my vocational experience being in the local church. Reading the Bible from this location is not intrinsically any better than that of a person who never went to college and has spent most of his career in the military, or that of someone who has spent all her life on a farm. But my way of reading the Bible gets privileged because I am called to ordained ministry and have the proper credentials to preach. So if I prepare a sermon each week only considering my own insights, experiences, and opinions, the entire church misses out on the insights, experiences, and opinions of those who approach the Bible in different ways than I do.

So each week we get together to share our insights with one another, to learn from one another’s perspectives, and often to argue with and challenge one another’s readings of the biblical text. The practice of collaborative preaching—of eliciting the input of multiple people in the process of sermon preparation—requires as much or more background work before we sit down with our coffee on Tuesday nights than if I were simply writing the sermon in solitude. I have to plan weeks and months in advance to decide what scriptures and themes we’ll be discussing, generally following the Revised Common Lectionary but occasionally preaching a sermon series based on something people in the congregation have expressed interest in. At the beginning of each month, I post the texts and themes on a blog that is linked to our church website, listing what we’ll be talking about each month so participants can read the texts beforehand. Our discussions are not limited to the texts and themes I list, of course, but it gives us a common starting point. I also do quite a bit of exegetical work, consulting various commentaries and works of other writers so I can provide some context or ask some leading questions if the conversation stalls. When we gather on Tuesday nights, we read the passage out loud and begin to discuss. There is only one rule: respect. Even if you don’t like what someone else is saying, let them speak, and you will have your chance to respond and voice your disagreement. This way, instead of tearing one another down, we are mutually building one another up by examining and challenging one another’s views. We understand this kind of interaction to be holy conversation: dialogue during which people are simultaneously encouraged and challenged to grow deeper in their walk with God.

One Tuesday evening, the text in question was Job 19:23-27a. I had done my prep work and came in expecting to talk generally about suffering, how we experience suffering in our everyday lives, and how to find hope in the midst of it. This is a fairly meaty topic, so I was absolutely blown away at what happened. We had a lot of trouble getting going for the first twenty minutes. I asked some pretty generic questions about how we suffer and why we think it happens, hoping to kick-start some discussion. Finally, someone piped up and said, “Job makes me frustrated. I read this whole book, and at the end I was really mad at God. I mean, he puts Job through all this to win some kind of bet, and he never even bothers to explain why any of it happened. No wonder Job was angry!” This is when the conversation gets fun because most people get very uncomfortable when God’s character gets called into question. Then a teenage girl spoke: “I can’t help but wonder if Job’s faith in God actually made his suffering worse rather than better.” No, no, people responded. Faith in God makes our suffering better because it gives us hope. But is this true in Job’s case? The girl concluded it wasn’t helpful because Job’s faith in God was based on the idea that good things happen to good people. Job was a good person who had never offended God, and yet he lost his house, his cattle, and his children. So on top of the physical and emotional suffering Job was experiencing, his whole concept of God had been turned upside down. In this case, Job’s faith, or more accurately, what Job had faith in, actually compounded his suffering.

That insight, which came from a high-school girl without much familiarity with the Bible, set our conversation in a whole new direction. People began talking about how shallow concepts of God had failed them at different points in their lives, and how it’s easy to blame God when something bad happens. We began to talk about how God might not be the one who causes bad things to happen, and how the loving God is the one who sits down next to us and cries with us as we’re suffering. We began to talk about times in our lives when God has shown us how to make the best out of even the most painful and hopeless circumstances. At the end of the hour we had a much deeper appreciation of the richness of the biblical text. Although we agreed that the problem of suffering and God’s role in it still looms very large in Job, we somehow found a very hopeful note beneath the surface. As a result of this group conversation, my sermon went from being generally about hope in the midst of suffering to examining how our concepts of God influence the way we deal with difficult times. Because of people’s contributions at the Roundtable Pulpit the sermon went from being decent and somewhat inspiring to a meaningful and challenging and yet deeply hopeful sermon.

This is what happens when clergy and lay people begin to learn from one another. They challenge one another’s assumptions and lead one another to deeper understandings of the nature of God. The Lord can and does speak to every single one of his children, his image bearers. Therefore, those who are called to proclaim the Word of God on behalf of and to the community must honor and learn from what the members of that community bring to the table. None of us completely understands the nature of God. So each of us, incomplete as we are, are called to live in community together and help fill in the gaps in one another’s pictures of God. We’ll never arrive at a complete picture of the divine, of course, but our respective understandings will be much richer if we are willing to learn from one another.

A warning for preachers who want to try collaborative preaching: you will have to rethink how you and your community understand the authority of the pastor. In most churches, the pastor is seen as the chief, if not the sole interpreter of the Word of God to the people. It is true that the pastor is ultimately responsible that what is proclaimed in their church be faithful to their tradition, but it does not mean there is only one true and faithful way to understand and interpret the Christian faith. Collaborative preaching means stepping down off the proverbial pedestal that many clergy stand on and admitting to your people that you, too, have doubts and questions that others might help you answer. There’s no way around it: collaborative preaching is a risk.

However, the risks are greatly overshadowed by the benefits. Over time, regular participants in the Roundtable Pulpit have become theologians in their own right. They may not know lots of obscure Greek terms or be able to quote any of the ante-Nicene fathers, but they have begun to read the Bible very critically and ask deep questions about long-held assumptions. They have grown tremendously in their walk with God because they allow themselves to be fed on more than just what they hear on Sundays. They listen and read and think critically, and in so doing they listen for God’s still, small voice speaking to them, showing them their unique and special place in the Body of Christ. The end result is that people who take seriously their contribution to the sermon construction process learn the art of holy conversation, reflecting on and proclaiming the Word of God to one another in an atmosphere of mutual love and respect.

comments powered by Disqus