How We Preach in Times Such as These

Emilie Bouvier, "Fertile Soil." (Split Rock Lighthouse State Park; Two Harbors, MN)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Post-modernity is a buzzword thrown around by many these days.

Modernity, to which post-modernity reacts, is widely believed to have started at the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 as an effort to use reason and logic to avert war in Europe.

Modernity relies on philosophy, knowledge, science, and that which is verifiable. Modernity has impacted Christian development by inspiring the Church to rationally explain the gospel using logical propositions. Just consider the countless books on doctrine, apologetics, and systematic theology.

But today, to such logical claims, many say, “You can explain all that to me until you’re blue in the face, but I still don’t buy it!” The reason is post-modernity esteems, above all else, experience. It is less concerned with what is logically correct and instead values what is meaningful and personal. Something is “true” when it “feels” true. Authenticity is more important than authority and “experience” trumps truths, principles, and sometimes even logic.

So how do we preach in times such as these? Appealing to the authority of the Bible, the Church−or your position as pastor−can be counter-productive. Instead, we must realize, as Tom Long has suggested, that the people listening to us today are a lot like a jury. They have a host of witnesses parading before them on any given day, all giving testimony to what they believe to be true. At the end of the day, the jury will render a verdict as to who gave their testimony most authentically. Of all these conflicting witness statements, whose testimony rings the most compelling?

Preaching today necessitates our personal involvement–it cannot be otherwise! One way of saying this is that we must be willing to preach “from within,” not “from afar.” God’s people must be made to see where it is that the Word of God touches down in their pastor’s life and experiences, even those that may be relatively uncomfortable or unpleasant. The sermon is not derived from a sterile and lifeless setting but is born as a result of scholarship, discovery, and personal engagement.

Another, more colloquial way of saying this is: “If the sermon hasn’t touched the preacher, it won’t touch the listener.” This is what gives integrity, authenticity, and credibility to the message and helps others to see the “incarnational” nature of the gospel. This also affords the preacher the use of appropriate kenosis−allowing others to see not only the passion and liveliness of their faith, but the humanity of the preacher, such that their lives can serve as a reliable lens through which to see God’s redemptive work.

I was once advised not to share my personal life from the pulpit. It is true–people do not care about our children’s witty repartee over their morning Cheerios. But the preacher must communicate an authentic and lively relationship with God. Naturally, the preacher should never be the focal point of a message. However, we must allow just enough of our faith, struggles and lives to shine forth so as to add much needed credence to our message and to give the Word an authentic power that will help others see that this Jesus is really making thy kingdom come; he really is making “up there” come “down here” in some very tangible ways.