On Homiletics, Prophetic Words, & the American Church

A while ago I preached a sermon. I’m not really a preacher, which is a caveat intended to keep expectations low. I haven’t honed my homiletical craft by any stretch of the imagination. Mostly, I worry about content when I stand before a congregation and hope that compensates for other deficiencies.

This sermon was a little different, though. It was different in that I attempted to do something rhetorically that I hadn’t done before. Perhaps consequently, it also provoked a different reaction than I’ve experienced before. Specifically, I was asked to preach from Isaiah, and I therefore decided to explore a prophetic tone, understanding full well that the message itself would be sufficiently difficult to hear without any rhetorical flare. Indeed, as the introduction to the sermon indicates, I set reasonable expectations about the audience’s reaction. But my belief is that the message we might hear from Isaiah actually comes to the church as forcefully as ever, and I’m not about to soften the blow when the impact is exactly what the prophet intends.

In any event, the responses to the sermon have caused a good deal of reflection, and now that a bit of time has passed, I’m going to blog some of my thoughts.

Here’s the sermon. Since it’s just audio, it will help to say that I’m wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
And here’s the slideshow, for the charts.

Five Reflections on My Sermon and the Reactions Thereto

1. Genre and rhetoric

One of the reactions came in the form of a loving, though somewhat patronizing, conversation in which a kind sister let me know she recognized from her experiences raising boys that I was angry. She didn’t know why I was angry with the congregation, but she loved me anyway and just wanted me to know it. This one deserves first mention, because it is one of the very few negative reactions that came to me directly. I deeply appreciate the courage of confrontation and the intention to communicate love despite disagreement. But this is also symptomatic of the church’s hearing loss. When did we become so captive to the cult of positivity that we lost the ability to recognize a prophetic tone, much less appreciate it?

This loving critique missed the point on two levels. The first is that my emotions aren’t what’s at stake; the tone of the text is. Indeed, one of our difficulties teaching the church hermeneutically about biblical genre is that we preach in monotone. I was attempting (and, I admit, probably failing) to do justice to the sense of the message by taking a certain tone. That tone was not in this instance anger but discontent, though anger absolutely has its place in the pulpit too. The second level of misunderstanding, thus, is the implicit belief that anger (or any “negative” emotion) would have been inappropriate. The rhetoric we employ from the pulpit ought, in fact, to echo the genre and style of Scripture’s composition, at least some of the time.

Yet, good cheer has become a kind of moral imperative. Preachers are expected to be exclusively positive and “encouraging” (on the audience’s terms). The pastoral role has disastrously become opposed to the prophetic role. Our understanding of gentleness has become sappy. At the first sign of conflict the messenger recants and says, “Blessed are the peacemakers,” with an air of beneficent spirituality. And to this, the prophet says:

They have treated the wound of my people carelessly, saying, “Peace, peace,” when there is no peace. (Jer 6:14)

We need to hear the anguish and outrage of the prophets, most of all Jesus. We need their urgency and bluntness alongside their solidarity and compassion. If the church’s ears have been trained to screen out certain tones and emotions, then here we have a barrier to hearing the prophetic voice that we so badly need to hear. Let’s confront the problem head-on.

2. Taking it personally

Some listeners thought I was attacking the congregation. Despite my rather sweeping statements about American Christianity in general, it seemed that I was castigating the specific people that my church home comprises. A number of people said I just don’t know Cedar Lane (the congregation where I preached). The problem is that I’m an outsider, not just that I have no right to take that tone but that I’m mistaken in the first place.

In the wake of this reaction, I had to ask myself, Do I want you to take it personally or not? I was, after all, preaching to a particular congregation with the hope that it might have an effect in this particular place. There is undeniably some judgement in the decision to say this message is relevant here. But that’s always the case, whether the message is about a moral issue or a doctrinal one: don’t do this, think like that, and so on. The rub is not really that I was judgmental but that the judgement was about the community as a whole and not subject to a personal veto. No one is allowed to say privately, “He’s not talking to me,” because it’s about all of us. So, no, I don’t really want anyone to take it personally, because it’s not about what any one person is or isn’t doing. Nor is it about whether the congregation is “doing enough” or making its “best effort” or whatever it is that makes us feel like we shouldn’t be under the text’s judgement. The point was whether or not the church—any congregation of the church, even this one—will embrace God’s holy discontent. Any response that says in so many words, “Hold on, we do a lot of good things around here,” simply misses the point. God is still doing a new thing.

Actually, I so want to make this clear that I’m going to belabor it a bit. A few days before I preached this sermon I was in a conversation with someone who was considering whether they ought to look for a church in the community that is more outwardly oriented than Cedar Lane. My response was that they were underestimating the amount of outreach Cedar Lane does. I willingly defend the leadership of Steven Hovater, who preaches weekly at Cedar Lane with more skill and sensitivity than I could muster. I admire my brothers and sisters who serve in many ways, seen and unseen. But the direction Steven (or any other leader) sets or the good the church body does is quite beside the point. We’re all doing our best; it’s never good enough; God is gracious, and we’re in process. Fine. But whatever the case, God is doing a new thing. Our current way of life is not enough. Isaiah expresses God’s holy discontent. All of this is true no matter what else we want to say about any particular congregation. We are in the midst of an epochal shift, and the question is whether we can hear that truth and participate in the new thing that is different from other good things. It’s not supposed to be personal, but it is relevant to all of us.

3. Missing the point (or predictable deafness)

As for the primary message, there are also those who responded not to the style or the implicit judgement but the main idea. Despite my stating explicitly that I wasn’t preaching doom, I was told I preached too much doom and gloom. Despite spelling out that the decline of institutional Christianity is good news if God is leading the church into a new mode of existence, many people insist that it is bad news. Despite my claim that God is doing a new thing with the church for the good of creation, I was told I’m a pessimist. This is no different than preaching self-denial as good news, humility as glory, or suffering as joy. To some it is nonsense. I can only say: predictable and predicted. I can make no response to the denial, because it is a matter of perception, not argumentation. We can only pray that God heal our eyes and ears—and I sincerely include myself among the sick.

4. The measure of good

After preaching, the question everyone tries to answer is, Did I do a good job? In fact, “good job” is the standard positive response. This is tricky, though, because so many different questions are actually being answered with that phrase. Was the sermon well-crafted and well-executed? Did the sermon have the intended effect? Did people like it? And so on. But what is the measure of good?

Six years in Peru have led me to a few conclusions about serving God. The most important of these helps me answer the question for myself: faithfulness is more important than success. Particularly when I’m preaching with the assumption that many cannot hear the message, when the expected reaction is dislike, it is important to remember this. No matter how skillfully you communicate, when the message is hard, you’re not likely to hear “good job” afterward.

My wife will say that I have an advantage here: I don’t care what other people think. While that’s not strictly true, my rather strenuous self-critique does tend to diminish the weight of others’ opinions, whether positive or negative. For someone like me, the question is not usually whether others say I did a good job but whether I think I did. And the answer is probably going to be no. But faithfulness is more important than success. Could the delivery have been better? By miles. Did it have the intended effect? Not likely. Did people like it? Heheh. But I was faithful to the message. I think this is especially important to say in a church culture where people disliking a sermon can be construed as a failure because church leaders often experience upset members as a problem. In fact, in many churches there seems to be nothing worse than “offending” someone, which inevitably silences most of the prophets and a good deal of the Gospels. So I want to state here unequivocally: the avoidance of offense is not the measure of good. Faithfulness is. I do not hope to offend, but it’s a secondary concern.

5. The unheard positive

Since this is the first time I’ve preached a message that some disliked (as far as I know), it’s the first time I’ve noticed an interesting dynamic. In Churches of Christ, no one goes to the elders to say that a sermon was right and demand that the message be reiterated. They only go to complain and demand that the message be opposed. But the positive reaction does exist; it’s just that the elders never hear it. They hear only the negative.

I don’t actually know what the elders at Cedar Lane heard. I’m just making an educated guess that I caused them some concern and extra work. Yet, the sermon also provoked the most sincere positive responses I’ve ever received. The most poignant was a written message, which included this paragraph:

Your lesson today provided another spark of hope that all is not lost for the church. I didn’t have much confidence in the ability of CoC leaders to open their hearts and minds to the idea of the same “Old” God moving his people in a “New” way. Frankly, I still don’t expect any miracles, but the fact that you were allowed to present such “heresy” speaks volumes to my judgmental expectations. It also gave me the opportunity through some hallway conversations to find out that I am far from alone in welcoming a fresh movement of the Spirit.

My point is broader than the specifics of this case. Reflecting on the prophetic word in the American church, I truly wish church leadership could hear the positive response to hard messages as much as they inevitably hear the negative response. Going forward, given that I believe the whole church will be coming to terms with the new thing God is doing, it will be important for church members to move from privately encouraging the preacher to informing the elders.

One thought on “On Homiletics, Prophetic Words, & the American Church

  1. Maybe it wasn’t you! Generic Christianity of the denominational, institutionalized flavor — the kind that creates “kumbaya” — gives nothing of substance, and strips hope away from those who want to drink from the water of life.

    The first century called. It wants its church back.


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