3 Important Words (or, Concerning the Fantasy Lives of Preachers)

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

There’s a simple exchange that takes place in today’s gospel reading that is simultaneously critical to the health of the church and alarmingly rare. It’s short, it’s sweet, and at first glance, it doesn’t look to be that hard. Are you ready? Here it is, just near the end of the reading, as two of John’s disciples ask Jesus where he is abiding and, in response, Jesus says three simple words, “Come and see.”

Yeah. That’s it. And before you know it, Jesus’ invitation has rippled outward as Andrew invites Peter and, over time, Peter will invite countless others to come and see the one they believe is the Messiah. All this from three simple words. Notice, however, that these three words constitute not a threat but an invitation: “Come and see.” Not, “have you given your heart to me?” Not, “do you know the four spiritual laws?” And certainly not, “Do you know where you will spend eternity?” But rather just, “Come and see.”

As simple as these three words are, however, many of our hearers — and, truth be told, many of us — can’t imagine uttering them. Why? Two reasons. First, most of us, and I suspect even more of our hearers, would probably say that in our culture sharing our faith is at best unwelcome and all too often comes across as manipulative and offensive. But notice, Jesus employs no coercion, no threat, no intimidation, but instead says something that is second-nature to anyone wanting to introduce a friend to a new movie, book, or band: come and see. Cast in these terms, sharing our faith can be natural, easy, even pleasant.

In fact, I have a hunch that the reason most of us give for not sharing our faith — that it can feel pushy or manipulative — is actually something of a red herring. Not that we don’t feel that way; rather, beneath our nervousness about not wanting to offend is a more basic inhibitor: we haven’t been trained even to talk about our faith, let alone share it.

Which leads me to confess that most of preachers I know have active fantasy lives. Don’t be alarmed! The fantasy we entertain is wholesome, even holy. It goes like this: inspired by excellent worship, and even more our excellent preaching, our people will leave church making all kinds of connections between their faith and their everyday lives, want to share their faith with their friends, and invite those friends to church. You see what I mean? It really is a wholesome vision, but I would also call it a fantasy. Why? Because adults are typically anxious about engaging in activities in which they don’t feel competent. This explains why most of us get anxious about learning a musical instrument, singing in public, or learning a foreign language if we haven’t already been trained to do those activities. Further, even most congregational leaders I know, when you take us out of our roles, have difficulty sharing our faith with others. (And we’re the professionals! ) So why, then, would we believe that our parishioners, having perhaps never in their lives had any practice or training in talking about their faith, suddenly start doing so, particularly if we believe we live in a culture that discourages it?

So I think there are two tasks ahead of us this week, Working Preacher. First, we need to point out how remarkably simple and friendly Jesus’ invitation is. “Come and see.” This is something anyone can say, even you and me. Second, however, if we recognize that our holy fantasy is, indeed, both holy but also a fantasy, then we might engage in something curriculum experts call “backward design.” That is, rather than assume we know what to do and just keep on doing it regardless of the results, we might instead start with the desired outcome in mind — Christians confident of their ability to invite others to “come and see” what has proven meaningful for them — and work backwards to design worship services and sermons that help them practice making connections between their faith and their lives and then sharing their faith with others.

I don’t know yet what that will require of us as preachers, but I do have two suggestions, both stemming from today’s reading. First, notice that Jesus models the behavior his disciples will later enact. (Our reading doesn’t take us this far, but in a few verses Philip will make the same three-word invitation to Nathanael.) Perhaps the first thing we can do, then, is also to model the behavior we hope our people will adopt. I know what you’re probably thinking: Isn’t this what we do every time we preach? Maybe, but I think we do it so implicitly, so unconsciously, that it doesn’t seem like modeling to our people but instead like performing. That is, very few of our hearers listen to our sermons looking for clues about how to connect their faith and their lives or for hints about sharing their faith. Rather, they simply watch us do it. We are the trained professionals “doing” the faith for our people when I think we might better serve as coaches and conductors helping to train our people to share the faith themselves. What difference would this make in our preaching, teaching, and leading of worship? I’m not yet sure, but I invite you into the question.

Second, notice the important role that questions play throughout today’s reading and, indeed, the Fourth Gospel. Jesus asks Andrew a question. In turn, Andrew asks Peter. Before long, Nathanael will be asking questions of Philip, and so forth. Questions are not marks of ignorance in John’s gospel, the way they so often are perceived to be in our hyper-professional world; rather, they are marks of a lively and curious mind. So with that in mind, I would encourage you to ask your people questions. In particular, ask them what they feel they need to learn in order to connect their faith and their daily life? Ask them what experiences in worship would help them gain confidence in sharing their faith? Perhaps it will be time in the service to talk about what they see and hear in the readings or sermon. Perhaps it will be a chance to practice naming where they see God active in the world. I don’t know, and I suspect you don’t either. But I do know we can learn a lot from asking our people about these things and working them out together. In fact, I think if we actively ask our people how worship might better assist them in leading Christian lives, we might end up in a fascinating process of renewal of our worship and congregational life.

Most of us grew up hearing that the three most important words in life are “I love you,” and I believe they are. But when it comes to our lives of faith — and maybe even the future of the church — I suspect that the three second-most important words are “Come and see.” Thank you, Working Preacher, for your commitment to helping our people gain confidence in offering this simple but profound invitation.

Yours in Christ,