Why I Don’t Always Preach the Expected Way

My daughter was part of a madrigal group in high school. For the high school baccalaureate service, her group planned to sing “When We Go Down to the River to Pray.”

I had seen them do this number several times and knew what to expect. A soprano would slowly walk into view alone, singing the first line of the song. My daughter would then enter from another direction, adding her alto voice. A tenor would enter from a third location, then a bass, and then the entire choir would converge from the shadows. When they had done this before, the effect was marvelous.

Something different happened at this service, however. As the soprano walked in singing, she was not alone. My daughter was right at her shoulder, although she did not join the singing until the usual time.

It seemed strange that they would do it that way. In my mind, it was not quite as effective. But it still worked and it was beautiful.

I asked her afterward what was the deal with that opening. It turned out the soprano was intimidated by the church. School and community stages were no problem for her, but this was a church that preached, shall we say, an aggressive, law-based brand of Christianity. She was so scared by the aura of the place that she could not bring herself to go out there by herself.

My daughter took her by the arm and said, “Then I’ll go out there with you.”

She knew that she was messing up the choreography; that was not how the number was supposed to go, but she knew what needed to happen to make the performance a reality. Her friend needed someone to walk with her into this unsettling situation, so that is what she did.

That story is my metaphor for preaching, worship, and evangelism in general. I know what most people expect from a sermon. I hear all the time what people expect from a worship service. I know the standard forms for proclaiming the Good News.

But I also know there are people who find church talk and conventions and customs intimidating and overwhelming. They cannot step out into the place where the usual sermon or the conventional service asks them to go.

I cannot just lay it out there “the way it is supposed to be” every week and expect them to suck it up and get with the program. What they need is someone to meet them in their reality. They need someone to walk with them, and if no one will walk with them, then nothing is going to happen.

So there are Sundays when some people in the congregation are not going to get what they expect from the service. They won’t get what they expect from the sermon. It won’t be “the way it’s supposed to be done.”

Because if a congregation is doing its job, on any given Sunday there are going to be people in church who do not get this religious stuff, who find it alien or unwelcoming or just plain confusing.

On the Sundays when I don’t preach the way the congregation expects, there is a reason for it. If the service is not quite the way it’s expected, there is a reason for it. I am trying to walk at the shoulder of people who can’t go it alone in an alien environment.

This is not a new, radical approach. I think it is exactly what Paul was saying when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”