Difference-Making Preaching

Except when I'm on vacation or have some other good reason for not preaching, I'm in the pulpit most Sundays.  I preach on average about 45 sermons a year, and have done so for the better part of the past 12 years.  That's a few sermons.  Some of them have been, with all due modesty, pretty good, while some have been duds.  Interestingly, some sermons that I think have fallen flat, have received the most positive comments -- and well you know the other side.  That says to me that the power of the sermon is not totally in the hands of the preacher.  Once the words leave one's mouth, we preachers must entrust them to the care of the Holy Spirit.   I think that has to be true even for the great orators amongst us. 

That being said, we preachers do have a responsibility to the text, to the recipients of our message, and to the God who has called us to this place, to be diligent in our work.  Keith Watkins has, this past week, offered a masterful essay on preaching from a progressive point of view.  Turning to a decades old preaching textbook written by H. Grady Davis entitled Design for Preaching.  In this book, written about the time I was born, Davis offers four questions for the preacher to consider:  "Is it true? Do I believe it? Will my people believe it? Even if it is true, what difference does it make?"

Keith notes that progressive/liberal preachers, especially at a time when there are an abundance of conservative theologies present and when so many eschew faith because of its supposed anti-intellectualism, work hard on the first three questions.  We are, he suggests, intent on offering something to people that is believable, so we attend to this task with great relish.  And we do this in at least four ways:

We work at this in at least four ways: 1) Discount, deny, or argue against the ideas and practices which we think are inadequate; 2) Extract from the biblical record or theological tradition those kernels of truth that we think can be believed and practiced by people today; 3) Ignore the archaic or unbelievable elements, even if they include central elements of the biblical tradition, and replace them with elements from our own time; 4) Develop each text in the light of the major Christian story.
Where we have trouble is with the fourth question.  Even if we come up with a believable message, replacing for instance an ancient cosmology with a modern evolutionary one, does it actually make a difference?  At the end of the day, have we ended up with an intellectually pleasing lecture, but not something that makes a difference in the lives of the other.  Keith goes into greater detail, offering links to longer pieces that he has written, at his blog, which I would encourage you to read in its entirety.  Many preachers do offer a dry intellectualism devoid of spiritual benefit, but this isn't true of all.

As Keith notes:

Fortunately, however, many sermons in progressive worship do focus on the life-giving center of the gospel text and on the difference that this can make. On every Sunday in progressive churches, including those intended to be something other services, the work of preachers is to speak the central story of God’s love in Jesus Christ so that people can understand and experience it. Just as we translate the gospels from Greek to the vernacular speech of people in the worshiping assembly, so we search for metaphors and ideas from the cultural world in which the preacher and congregants live to translate the Word of God into the words of the people.

Our task is to do more than simply diagnose and prescribe, but also spend time "proclaiming, professing, and experiencing."  Some of this happens in a service outside the pulpit, but "the solo voice of a preacher will continue to be the most often heard. May its message speak the living Word of God to people in a way that gives life to all who hear it."

What Keith has done here is offer those of us who preach a word of encouragement to recognize that our voice is an instrument of God.  Whether it is booming (mine tends toward that direction) or soft, whether witty or not, the encouragement here is to continue looking to make the word intelligible, but not stop there.  The goal of preaching isn't education, it is offering a gospel that transforms lives.  That is, a word that is spiritually oriented.


Doug Sloan said…
(excerpted from RECLAIMING the GOOD NEWS by Doug Sloan)


So, what is the Good News?

The most concise answer and the best illustration is the entire chapter of Luke 15.

The lamb was lost. It was the shepherd who searched, found, retrieved, and celebrated the recovery of the lost lamb.

The coin was lost. It was the woman who searched, found, retrieved, and celebrated the recovery of the lost coin.

The younger child, the disobedient child, is lost – even before leaving home. The lost child rejects the Parent as though the Parent were dead. Even in rejection, the Parent is exceedingly accommodating and generous. Then, this wandering aimless child lives a selfish and self-directed life and, as the child desires, a life without the Parent. Finally, the life of the child reaches a place on the path where there are no options and there is no direction forward or out. There is no chance of rescue, no charity, no hope, no family, no meaningful life and no life with meaning. There is complete separation from love and kindness and family and friendship and companionship, it is an abomination of an existence – this is death and this is hell. At such a time under such circumstances, what happens next is natural and unavoidable – the child goes home. It is not a choice. It is an inevitable continuation of the path and journey that is traveled by every lost child. The Parent has been waiting and watching because the Parent knows that some day that lost child will reach the inevitable conclusion of the unavoidable journey, the last mile of which always brings the child home. When the Parent, who has been waiting and watching, catches that first distant glimpse of the returning child; the Parent rushes out to retrieve the child, once lost and now found, to shower the returning child, again, with generous hospitality and generous accommodation and a generous re-inclusion in the family and to begin a totally maxed-out celebration. In this parable, the child never even gets to finish a well-rehearsed speech of contrition and humility. All that matters is that the wayward child is home – for the child was never lost to the Parent, the son was only lost to himself, the daughter was only lost to herself.

The older sibling, the obedient child, is not happy. The obedient child wants to know: why is there a celebration for the lost when there has never been a celebration for that which was never lost? Why is there no harsh judgment? Why are there no punitive consequences for destructive decisions and a selfish unproductive wasteful life? Why is there a Parent’s happiness for a bad child – a disobedient child who never lived in accordance with the lessons and wisdom and will of the Parent? How could there possibly be room in the family for a stubborn and rebellious child who lived wastefully in rejection of the Parent’s abundance and generosity and hospitality and love? Why is there no final conclusive inescapable justice?

The Parent warmly affirms the unbroken love that the Parent has and will always have for the obedient child and gratefully acknowledges the value and sacredness of the accomplishments and stewardship of this steadfast sibling. The faithful life of the obedient child has immeasurable worth and divine appreciation. The life of the obedient child has not been in vain.

The Parent also rejects rejection. There has been enough separation. There will be no more separation – separation is finished. There will be a judgment. There will be justice that is final and conclusive and inescapable. Instead of an eternal punishment of bitter harshness, the judgment will be the repair and repatriation of the lost child. Instead of punitive isolation and abandonment, there will be acceptance and inclusion and accommodation – and a great party to which all are invited.
Ed Darrell said…
Interesting to me to see the parallels between those four rules and, say, the Rotary Club's Four-Way Test, or the Scout Law.
Keith Watkins said…
Bob, Thank you for highlighting my column on preaching that makes a difference. As I move forward in this series on an alternative way of worship for progressive churches, what is developing is a set of guidelines for any worship in progressive churches, whether it be an alternative pattern or one for the regular every-Sunday gathering. I've been away from my computer for several days and in a few minutes will move to a topic that is even more challenging: the long prayer, sometimes called the pastoral prayer, now often referred to as the intercessions.It could be that the main test of whether our preaching makes a difference is if it leads to praying.

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