There was a time in our culture when the preacher was held with as much esteem as a physician or lawyer.
(Okay, a lawyer may never have been liked, but she or he does have intellectual esteem.) It seems that now the only esteem that preachers get is either from fellow seminarians or parishioners shopping for a new church. (“The preaching is really good here.”) But of course, these can only be seen as periphery in our culture; the preacher today, unlike in the 19th century, has been forcefully pushed from central focus in the public square.
A preacher now seems to exist in two categories in the mind of those in our culture. The preacher is a flamboyant front-man who is able to oddly blend rants with either sophisticated or campy showmanship. Think, for example, of the soapbox preacher outside a sporting event, or the sharply dressed Joel Osteen standing before a stadium of people. Or, the preacher is the stuffy white man or woman who dresses in loafers, with perfectly styled hair, and no personal life.
In the first perspective, the preacher is able to merge entertainment and religion, in the second, the preacher is the protector of religious tradition. These two perspectives can be seen clearly in a Simpsons episode called “Faith-off.” In this episode, Bart accidentally stumbles into a charismatic church service with fiery preaching, dramatic healing, and boisterous singing. This service is like nothing Bart has ever seen; it’s exciting and entertaining! Returning to his church, listening to another Reverend Lovejoy classic about the letter to the Corinthians, Bart yawns and turns to his sister, Lisa, to state how lame the sermon is. Noticing this, Reverend Lovejoy stops to ask Bart if he is boring him. “Actually, yes,” Bart states honestly. “Well, I am doing the best I can with the material I have,” says Lovejoy, lifting his bible and revealing that he sees the preaching office as the protector of a tradition (even if it is boring and irrelevant). Bart responds, remembering his experience days earlier, “But church can be fun!” The whole congregation laughs as though such a thought is preposterous to their mainline ears; they, too, are just here because it is routine, they expect neither entertainment nor relevance. “No, really,” Bart continues, “it can be a crazy party with clowns, lasers, and miracles.” “And chili fries,” Homer adds from the background. “A real preacher knows how to bring the bible alive,” Bart states passionately, “through music, dancing, and Tae Bo!”
If the preacher no longer has a place central within the public square and is uneasy being either an up-front entertainer or a stiff protector of a boring tradition, what then is the preacher? And what should be the preacher’s objective (if it isn’t entertainment or protection)? What the preacher offers those in our context is an opportunity to encounter the word of God as an event that calls the community into a profession of thinking deeply about who they are and what God is up to in their specific location. Rather than seeking to fortify a tradition, the preacher draws from the tradition to speak of a God who is active now, encountering concrete people in love and mercy. Preaching is the brave task of inviting the community to think about deeply existential questions (like, what is lifetime and why do I live it?) alongside the biblical narrative. The preacher, rather than protecting a tradition, seeks to draw the community into facing questions with no answers, confessing within them the abundance of God’s grace and future. And instead of seeking to entertain, the preacher seeks to bear reality for people, pulling what we all feel and know (but fear to express) into moments of thought, reflection and prayer. The preacher confronts questions of suffering, death, fear, and theodicy, alongside our confessions of God’s future of restoration. Beyond the glitz of good or bad entertainment and the protection of the tradition, the preaching moment should be the moment where truth is sought and life is faced.