In this essay, I want to explore a simple question: What if the assumptions that we have about what a good sermon should do and the models we have about what a good sermon is are, well, just plain wrong?
In late 2009, my colleague and mentor Rollie Martinson was on a flight returning from Australia. He turned to the man sitting next to him and asked, “So, do you go to church?”
The man should have said, “Woe be to you! For you have violated the implicit covenant of the airplane! We do not ask meaningful questions of those with whom we share this narrow, tubular space! We greet each other routinely and then stick the ear buds in our ears and ignore one another!”
But instead, the man said, “Funny you should ask. We just quit.” The man went on to explain that his California family of four had recently exceeded the red line on their stress meter. They realized that they had to create time in their schedules in order to have a better family life. At a family meeting, they reviewed their outside activities, assessing which ones were the most worthwhile. They decided to quit their Presbyterian church because they realized that they were not being fed by the sermons, teaching and worship at their church. “My daughter said that she gets more out of girl scouts than church.”
Rollie asked, “Did you tell your pastor? I think you owe it to him to tell him why you are quitting.”
Six months went by.
Then the you’ve-got-mail sound went off on Rollie’s computer. The man, who had taken Rollie’s business card, was writing to say that when he had told his pastor the reasons why the family was quitting church, the pastor said, “Can I interview you in front of the church?” The fellow agreed.
Following the interview, the man reported that eleven members of the congregation came up to the pastor and essentially agreed with the man. They, too, were not getting what they needed from the sermons and the worship.
I want to assume, for the sake of this essay, that the California preacher is just as fine of a preacher as everyone who uses WorkingPreacher. And I want to assume, for the sake of this essay, that the assumptions about and models for preaching that he was given in his seminary–was it Princeton? McCormick? San Francisco? Austin?–were pretty similar to the assumptions and models that most WorkingPreacher working preachers digested at the seminaries that they attended.
So let me ask again. What if the assumptions that we have about what a good sermon should do and the models we have about what a good sermon is are, well, just plain wrong?
What if–and I will just admit, that this question scares the living daylights out of me–what if the models and assumptions we were taught are the equivalent of, oh I don’t know, being taught how to pirouette and echappe´ for a performance, but finding out when the curtain goes up that the audience is expecting to see you break-dance (which my young friend, Willie, tells me is properly called “b-boying”)?
What I am asking in essence is this–what if the issue is not that we should preach better, richer, more passionate sermons? What if you were to preach the most perfect sermon that you could, but that sermon did not make a difference in the world because it was trying to do something that does not need to be done? To solve a problem that is not the real problem, to answer a question that does not need to be asked–because there is a more pressing problem that needs to be addressed and a more urgent question that demands to be answered.
Or maybe that in itself is the heart of the matter. We are preaching sermons that seek to answer questions, but the issue is not that questions need answers. But rather that the congregation is dying. And, as my favorite Dilbert cartoon says, “Monkeys dressed as life guards are throwing me anvils.” And I am the monkey, dressed in my white alb (or in my dark suit) and I am throwing them anvils?
What if the reason that I and my colleagues have experienced relative “career success” by being able to perform well at a model that is not helping? (And by relative career success, I suppose I mean something like getting higher paying calls, with more responsibility, at bigger congregations–or, in my case, getting to be a tenured professor at a seminary.)
What if what a sermon is supposed to do is invite people into the biblical text (into its narratives, its poems, its parables, its letters and proverbs and prophecies) so that people can both see themselves and their own lives in the Bible and also see God in their lives? What if what a sermon is supposed to do is give people eyes to see God at work in the world, to give them ears to hear God’s word when it is spoken in the workplace, to give them minds that can make sense of their daily lives in light of Jesus Christ?
If that is right–and maybe it is not right–then I will have to figure out some new ways to preach. It would not mean that I would have to give up all of the assumptions and ways that I currently preach, but I would have to change something.
For now, I just will leave you with these questions, which really is one question: What if the ways that we are preaching are the wrong ways?
Think about it. So will I. And next month I will offer a second article in which I explore a couple of ways that my own preaching might be different.