Open-Source Preaching

There is something really comforting about a church pulpit.

After a while it feels like that old comfy chair that you have had since college.

When you curl up into that pulpit space on Sunday morning, you know where you can lean, you know every nook and cranny and there is protection from all that might ail you in the world. For preachers it is the place that is “ours,” a place where no one else can tell us what to say, it’s all between me, the text and the Holy Spirit. With fear and trembling we get up there each week and pray that the Holy Spirits shows up.

If you are a preacher, it is in that moment of proclamation that we find our calling to a particular congregation. They called us there to inspire people to action, to tease out the nuances of the text and to share God’s gift of hope for the world. Preaching is an honorable and awesome task.

But what if not everyone to whom we speak has those same expectations about our role as preacher? Maybe they want to take part in the inspiring, the teasing and the sharing . . . and what if adding their voices to the preaching moment did just that? Many of us are discovering that one way of preaching does just that, invites the entire congregation, not into a metaphorical conversation about the text, but an actual one.

When I was in seminary, I was taught how to construct and deliver a solid sermon. We studied the text, took into account the life of the congregation and then we determined what they needed to hear from the pulpit on any given Sunday. This is a fine form of preaching and many people still gain a great deal from hearing a good sermon whether it is a creative narrative or a heady three-pointer. But . . . in a growing culture where “open-source” community is becoming more the norm — “open source” being the idea that the more voices engaged in seeking the truth, the closer we come to discovering what that truth is — it seems wise to also encourage an open-source style of preaching.

The conversational preacher
When I was serving what many would call an emergent-style church, the traditional sermon time lasted about 25 minutes. My role was not to talk that entire time, but to frame scripture and context in a way that invited and encouraged people to engage in conversations during worship. I would ask questions for which I did not have some preset answer in mind — no fill-in-the-blank sermons here — and then moderate the flow of interaction between the congregation as they mused about the text.

While it took a while for me to get used to, in a sense, “giving up” the security and comfort of my unidirectional pulpit space, I found that the church discovered its inspiration, nuance and hope in one another. I had my role as the seminary-trained person, but it was not to gift wrap the Word of God, give it to them and see what happens; rather, it was to allow each and every person in the church to gift one another with their particular insights, stories and perspectives.

Getting there is not easy. The preacher must be prepared to respond to the outlandish and the tangential, the congregation must be willing to engage in church conversations as they most likely do in their day-to-day living, and the entire congregation must see the value in their own voices and the voices of others. Shifting to this style of preaching requires the preacher to be better prepared in order to respond well to questions, nimble in word and thought in order to help a group of individuals to stay focused and willing to give up the traditional authority of the pulpit. It’s hard to do, but well worth it when it works.

Emergent gimmick?
I know that for many, this conversational style might seem like a gimmick of the emergent church, but it is so much more than that. It’s about recognizing that, while that old comfy chair has been good to us for so long, there is a time when it must be moved to another room, reupholstered, or given away all together. Preaching has never been about the preacher’s technical skills but about the gathered community discovering God’s hopes and intentions for us all.

It is time that we find new ways to help this happen. Enjoy the conversations!