This post will explore the first of what I have called three “sins” of the contemporary mainline church: relevant preaching. Subsequent posts will explore accessible liturgy, and pastoral care as a membership privilege.
As a preacher, one of the most common responses I heard at the door after Sunday worship was, “Thank you for your sermon, pastor. You’ve given me something to think about.”
In congregational settings with large numbers of teachers, nurses, and other professionals of the Boomer generation and older, this seemed like high praise indeed. Members of these congregations seemed to value intellectual stimulation and took pride in both the reasonableness and the rationality of their faith.
They also appreciated sermons that offered guidance and commentary and a Christian perspective on social, economic, political and ethical issues.
Lately, as I have been preaching less, I have become suspicious of this former praise.
I see a pattern here . . .
As someone who is now more of an observer of preaching than a practitioner, I have become suspicious of mainline preaching in general. As I watch other preachers I detect a certain sameness in the genre of mainline preaching.
It’s beginning to seem to me as though there is an underlying pattern of mainline preaching that goes something like this:
God loves you, just as you are. But, if you are interested, here are one or two things you can do to be a better person, and to make the world a better place. But only if you want to—there is no obligation.
To which a normal response is, “Ah, thank you. You’ve given me something to think about.”
I’ve also detected an over-reliance on abstract concepts in our preaching. Preachers tell us that as Christians we ought to “support justice for the marginalized.” But each element of that phrase is an abstraction!
To such a sermon one might respond by writing a check or signing a petition.
The sermon I want to hear
Those are the sermons I am hearing. The sermon I want to hear goes something like this:
If it is true that God is the Creator of all that is, and that Jesus Christ is Lord of all, how then shall we live?
I don’t know if this makes any sense to you as you read this, but I think what I am getting at is this: it’s no longer enough for me to hear—or preach—sermons that lead to thinking. I want sermons that lead to repentance.
Now I recognize that repentance is something of a trigger word but I don’t want to sugar-coat it. I want preaching that goes beyond mere philosophical engagement and instead reminds us of our commitments and even obligations as Christians.
Good preaching recalls us to our fundamental covenant relationship with God, and the obligations that covenant sets for our relationships with our neighbours.
Stunned and shocked and heartsick
I am thinking about the scene described in Nehemiah, chapter 8. All of God’s people are gathered together in a public square and the book of the Law is read out to them. They are stunned and shocked and heartsick when they hear the story.
They are stunned and shocked and heartsick because they hear—as if for the first time— God’s original intentions for them and for the world. And they recognize how far they have fallen, how far they have travelled away from the life God intended.
Good preaching should not make us think. Good preaching should make us weep.
It doesn’t end there, of course. In the Nehemiah story the people are told not to weep, but to celebrate the recovery of their connection to God. Repentance opens the way to reconciliation with God and neighbour.
Good preaching should lead us to do more than think about things, and more than writing checks or signing petitions. Sure, those are all good things, and they are better than doing nothing—but God’s people are called to something more.
Reconnecting with God and our neighbour
That’s part of what separates us from any other non-profit society contributing to the social good. Relevant preaching, preaching that offers commentary on issues, preaching that remains in the abstract—these approaches all keep us moored in the safety of secular philosophical outlooks.
They impose no obligation on us. They give us something to think about for a few days and then are quickly forgotten.
Such sermons keep us safely distanced from the all-powerful, all-loving God and from our neighbours. Writing checks and signing petitions and thinking about the plight of the marginalized are all fairly disembodied, disconnected acts.
Good Christian preaching should evoke for us the faces and names and stories of “the marginalized.” Good Christian preaching should cause to ask what “justice” requires of us in concrete terms. Good Christian preaching should give us something for our hearts to feel and our hands to do.
Good preaching should help us recover our connection to God and to our neighbours.
This time of the year we are reminded of the key opening scene of the Christian story: the birth of a baby in Bethlehem, Emmanuel, God-with-us, God in human flesh. This story reminds us that it is in the flesh and through the flesh that God means to reconcile the world to himself.
May our preaching bring this truth to our congregations.
In the next post, we will consider the “sin” of accessible liturgy.
Rev. Dr. Jeff Seaton is an Anglican priest and former United Church of Canada minister, church leadership consultant, and author of Who’s Minding the Story? (Wipf & Stock, 2018).