Preaching and Christian Identity

January 22nd, 2014


Postmodernism, secularism, pluralism—these are significant and complicated topics, and I am grateful if you’ve been willing to wrestle with them. But while their antecedents, causes, and outcomes can at times feel as convoluted as they are complex, their insuence in the lives of our people are often far more straightforward.

In recent years, for instance, I’ve been doing a lot of speaking about the phenomenon of “digital pluralism,” which I described in the previous chapter. Much of this has been with pastors at various continuing-education events or theological conferences, and by and large, these pastors have appreciated a framework by which to name things they have been experiencing. I’ve also presented much of the same material in adult classes in congregations. There, too, I find lots of heads nodding as the folks in attendance find names and categories by which to make sense of their experience. But there is also a persistent question that gets asked, often after the presentation as people are leaving. It is a question that is as simple as it is poignant: Why don’t my children and grandchildren go to church?

Of course, it’s not just a question, it’s also a lament, and I can almost always detect a note of grief in the voice of the questioner. During one adult forum I led, I was grateful not only that the gentleman who asked this question raised it during the class rather than afterward—so we could talk about it—but also that he continued and named what I think is often an unspoken second question. “When I was a kid,” he began, “my parents took me and my brothers and sister to church, Sunday school, and confirmation. We all went to church our whole lives. When we had kids, we did the same: church, Sunday school, conrrmation, and youth group. But many of our kids don’t go to church anymore, and almost none of our grandkids do. So what happened?” And then came the question behind the question: “What did we do wrong?”

 It’s the same question we as pastors and preachers and church leaders often ask ourselves. What did we do wrong? But the fact of the matter is that we didn’t do something wrong. The world just changed, and we haven’t really changed with it. The world offered us so many other places to look for meaning and significance and identity, often in intriguing, challenging, and compelling ways. But we continued to offer Sunday school and confirmation as if there were no other options. We continued to do worship as if folks have nowhere else to go. And we continued to preach as if our people already know the biblical story and just need a little more instruction and inspiration to live it. But as we’re discovering, that’s hardly the case. We now have a generation of parents and their children who do not know the biblical story well enough to find it useful and who will not devote one hour a week to an activity unless it shapes and informs and gives meaning to the other 167 hours of their week.

Nor is it simply the younger generation that is drifting from church. Consider the following e-mail I received from a reader of my blog, “. . . In the Meantime,” in response to some posts about how church as we know it does or does not serve us in nurturing our faith:

I’ve been a Christian all my life. Our children are adults now; one almost finished with college and two already graduated with jobs in cities far away. My husband and I have found ourselves skipping church frequently, although we rarely missed while our children were home. I’m starting to realize that our church attendance was “for” our kids . . . they attended confirmation and youth group and church camp and leadership school, and we took them to church every Sunday. And I’ve found myself drifting and doubting . . . and church just doesn’t seem relevant to my life. We frequently choose kayaking or biking over church attendance, feeling a little guilty as we do so.

I’ll be honest, stories like this one make me as nervous about our future as do the mounting statistics about church decline or the rise of the “Nones,” those folks who identify with no religious tradition whatsoever. Except that I’m not really just anxious about the church, I’m also anxious about my role as a leader in the church and, in particular, as one called to preach the gospel to this generation. As I said at the outset of Preaching at the Crossroads, I’ve been preaching for more than twenty years and teaching preaching for over a decade. Yet in recent years, I’ve grown increasingly convinced that I don’t really know how to preach anymore—at least not in a way that engages the children of my adult forum participant or the reader of my blog.

In saying that, I don’t mean that what I was taught was wrong. It’s more that the population for whom this kind of preaching works best is shrinking, while the population that doesn’t seem drawn in by the practices I was taught seems only to grow. Indeed, at times it feels as though the world I was trained to preach to no longer exists. But as daunting as it is to admit this, it is also rather freeing. While a diagnosis is certainly not the same as a prescription, it is nevertheless an indispensable first step toward prescription, treatment, and renewed health.

For this reason, I have tried throughout this book to explain and explore some of these cultural shifts in order to provide a diagnosis of our condition. Moreover, at various points, I’ve made more prescriptive suggestions—some general, others more specific—that I hope are both encouraging and practical. At this point, though, I want to venture something more ambitious by beginning to chart the kind of new homiletic I believe responds to the postmodern, secular, and above all else pluralistic age we live in. While I wouldn’t yet describe it as a comprehensive treatment plan, I am nevertheless excited about these preliminary steps. Moreover, I’m hopeful that if I share my thoughts with you, we might together engender a conversation about the changed and changing world in which we live and begin experimenting with our preaching for the sake of the proclamation of the church.

Participatory Preaching

Because the sermon is the most unscripted part of the worship service, it presents itself as an ideal candidate to provide the arena in which hearers can not only hear the biblical story but also grow in their ability to make sense of their lives in light of it. The goal is that, over time, hearers discover in Scripture a valid, compelling, and useful meaning-making narrative that helps them make sense of all the other options and stories in our postmodern, pluralistic world.

To help them grow toward such competence, I believe we will need to shift from what I would describe as a performative homiletic to a participatory one.13 In a performative homiletic, the preacher is the chief and often sole interpreter of Scripture. The emphasis is almost entirely upon the preacher’s role to study, interpret, and proclaim the text in our hearing. At its best, performative preaching “renders” the biblical text, making a passage written thousands of years ago three-dimensional, contemporary, and compelling.

As desirable as this most certainly is, however, it does not necessarily equip hearers to do this kind of interpreting for themselves in everyday life. Further, it may have the unintended consequence of impeding the hearers’ facility at interpretation either by promoting the preacher as the professional interpreter (in which case the hearer has no need to interpret) or by setting the bar for competent interpretation dauntingly high (in which case the hearer does not dare interpret for fear of failure).

On this next point I want to be most clear: it’s not that a performative homiletic is wrong; artful interpretation of the text is only to be esteemed. Rather, the performative homiletic is simply insufficient in and of itself to the demands of the day and therefore must be supplemented by a homiletic that invites, nurtures, and expects a lively interaction between hearer and text. Here we are perhaps not far from Kierkegaard’s oft-quoted affirmation that while most of us assume that in the divine drama of worship the minister is the performer, God the prompter, and the congregation the audience, in genuinely biblical worship God is the audience, the congregation the performers, and the minister the prompter.14 But if we don’t provide our people the chance to practice lively and useful interpretation of the biblical story in the relatively safe space of the sanctuary, how can we expect them to do so in their daily lives and amid all the competing contenders for religious identity?

And I don’t think I’m alone. Several developments in homiletical and theological literature in recent years signal openness to this move and provide assistance in making it. I will mention four briefly:

  1. In his Preaching Jesus, Charles Campbell invites us to “build up the church” by training hearers to understand and use the distinct language of the Christian faith so that through diligent practice our hearers can re-describe the world in terms of the patterns and figures of the biblical narrative.15
  2. John McClure and Lucy Rose have both advocated for including hearers in the interpretive work leading up to the preaching, with Rose inviting the participation of all of the gathered assembly in the proclamation.16
  3. Several theologians have taken up the topic of “Christian practice” to good effect, and those works open the door to conversation regarding how preaching can foster authentic Christian practice.17
  4. Thomas Long provides guidance to Christians seeking to speak and share their faith in the many venues that constitute their everyday lives.18

Given these encouraging developments, I think it’s high time that we move equipping our hearers to be competent, even fluent interpreters of the Christian faith to the center of our conversations about preaching. Toward this end, I offer the following handful of suggestions that invite greater participation in the sermon and engagement with the biblical story.

1. Visit people in the venues of their Christian vocations—at home, work, places of volunteer activity. While we discussed this in greater detail in the previous chapter, I want to say again that I think there is simply no better way to relate one’s preaching to the real lives of our congregants and thereby model making connections between faith and life than by knowing more about congregants’ “real lives” and referring to these in the sermon.

2. Invite congregants to leave worship to “look for” the biblical message they just heard interpreted in their daily lives. Where, that is, do we see a prodigal son (or daughter) in our midst, and what would it mean to run out to receive him or her back? In what ways are we tempted like Adam and Eve to secure for ourselves knowledge of the future to dispel our native insecurity apart from relationship with God? Even framing the outcome of the sermon in these terms—equipping people to make use of the biblical stories to interpret their lives—may stretch our own preaching.

3. Invite congregants not only to look for the biblical stories they are listening to but also to e-mail you and tell you what they have seen. Or perhaps you can hold an occasional Sunday adult class where you look ahead to coming texts and check back in regarding what people have been finding. However you do it, plan then to incorporate some of what you have learned in a future sermon, and tell folks that you plan to do so to encourage them to look, see, and report. Commission your hearers, that is, to be your eyes and ears in the world, reporting to you some of what they see to broaden your own pastoral and homiletical perspective and view.

4. Besides inviting people to participate after the sermon (looking for the biblical stories and characters in their lives) and before the sermon (sharing their thoughts and observations about upcoming texts with you), consider also inviting participation during the sermon. This, quite frankly, is where most of us—preachers and listeners alike—get nervous. The first kind of participation I’d suggest is nonverbal. This might be by inviting simple exercises like printing out the passage and inviting people to underline the words or phrases that stick out to them. It might be an invitation to write down a question they have on a three-by-five card and place it in the offering envelope. Or perhaps it’s an invitation for them to write down a central element of the sermon—that they are God’s people sent to care for the world—and inviting them to carry it with them. Or perhaps it’s a matter of inviting people to raise their hands as they choose among various answers to a question you pose. The idea at this point is simply to give congregants a low-level way to participate in the sermon that should not be terribly anxiety-provoking.

5. As the congregants (and preacher) develop confidence in participating in the sermon, occasionally take time during the sermon to have listeners share with each other where they see connections between the biblical passage and their lives. It may be helpful, particularly for introverts, to prepare some tablets of paper so that those who are not ready to participate in conversation might journal their reflections. But the goal over time is to help folks grow comfortable with interpreting the Bible and sharing their reflections verbally.

6. During different parts of the worship service, invite persons to share some of the connections they are making between their faith and their daily lives. They can certainly offer the “mission moment” or “temple talk” or any of the various other ways we encourage laypeople to speak during church. But I would also encourage us to invite our people to talk about their faith during the sermon. One congregation I know regularly gives over the season of Epiphany, for existence, to sermons that are shaped around a prepared interview between the pastor and a congregant regarding the appointed text and how it affects the congregant’s life in the world.

7. From time to time, have this kind of sharing not only occur during the sermon but be offered as the sermon. Invite, that is, one or more persons to make connections between the biblical passage appointed for the day and their daily lives. Meet with them ahead of time, study the passages together, and provide resources, but then allow their interpretations not only to illustrate the sermon but actually to be the sermon. Few things will be more effective in boosting people’s confidence than a chance to share their faith in public. Moreover, the power of such an example for the rest of the congregation is hard to underestimate. In seeing someone “just like them,” as opposed to the “trained professional,” speak about his or her faith, our people begin to cultivate an imagination that they can do this, too. And with practice, they can.

As you’ve no doubt noticed, these options for participation increase in terms of what they expect from participants. And while these seven suggestions aren’t offered as a prescription, I think there’s some merit in considering initially starting with exercises that require less direct participation from our people. As they (and you) get used to this way of engaging the biblical text and as they (and you) gain confidence that they really can do this, you can move to higher levels of participation. Small steps sometimes move us forward more quickly than giant bounds.

But while a measured introduction to participatory preaching could be spread over several months or even a year, your people might adjust to a more active role in the sermon faster than we may think. After all, many of them have probably tweeted about presidential election debates, “liked” any number of products on Facebook in the last month, or checked in on a friend’s cancer treatment via CaringBridge. Given their familiarity with the interactive character of life in a Web 2.0 world, they may take these shifts in worship in stride and even appreciate your efforts to engage them more actively.

There are, of course, other places in the worship service (the prayers of the people, for instance) and congregational life (adult and youth education) where we can invite people to gain experience in bridging the gap between the biblical narrative and their daily lives. But the prominence and public nature of the sermon make it an ideal place to move from passive to active identity construction. If we can imagine making a leap similar to that made by users and programmers who left the static world of Web 1.0 to inhabit the more dynamic and interactive world of Web 2.0, we might be able to offer the sermon as, indeed, a “transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity [between God’s word and God’s people] happens.”

If so, our people might soon find themselves not just listening to the sermon, but actually creating it along with you. And that role as participant and co-creator may just lead to a more robust, intentional, and valued Christian identity even—or, perhaps, especially—in a pluralistic world.

13. In recent years, there have been several salutary treatments of the relationship between preaching and performance. See, for instance, Jana Childer and Clayton Schmit, eds., Performance in Preaching: Bringing the Semon to Life (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2008) and similar monographs by contributors to this volume. While I recognize that none of these authors advocates a homiletic that privileges the preacher over the hearer in the act of interpretation, the metaphor of "performance," while certainly highlighting a valid dimension of preaching, nevertheless shifts attention to the preacher as the primary "performer: in the "divine drama" enacted in the sermon.

14. Søren Kierkegaar, Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing (San Francisco: HarperOne, 1956), 180-81.

15. "A genuinely new hearing will require more than the technique of the preacher; it will also require a disciplined community of hearers grounded in the practice of Scripture, sacrament, and discipline." Campbell, Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei's Postliberal Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997), 247. The primary work of biblical interpretation in the church, however, rest with the preacher, who is the one to "perform" or "enact" Scripture and, in particular, the story of Jesus (see pp. 211-20).

16. See John S. McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995); and Lucy Atkinson Rose, Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1997), esp. p. 123.

17. See, for instance, Dorothy C. Bass, Practicing Our Faith: A Way of Life for a Searching People (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1997/2010); Diana Butler Bass, The Practicing Congregation: Imagining a New Old Church (Herndon, VA: Alban Institute, 2004). See also Thomas G. Long and Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, eds., Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice: A New Approach to Homiletical Pedagogy (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2008).

18. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004).

Excerpt from: Preaching at the Crossroads: How the World-And Our Preaching-Is Changing by David J. Lose Copyright©2013 by Fortress Press. Used with permission.

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