Preaching that makes a difference

Is it true? Do I believe it? Will my people believe it? Even if it is true, what difference does it make?

I first encountered these four questions in a book that H. Grady Davis published near the end of a career that had included two decades as pastor and two decades as professor of preaching in a seminary that later became part of the Lutheran School of Theology in Chicago.

For many of us of liberal theological persuasion, the first three questions are especially important, especially at a time when conservative theologies abound. When many people reject Christian faith because of its apparent anti-intellectualism, preachers in progressive churches try to speak a positive, believable message.

We work at this in at least four ways: 1) Discount, deny, or argue against the ideas and practices which we think are inadequate; 2) Extract from the biblical record or theological tradition those kernels of truth that we think can be believed and practiced by people today; 3) Ignore the archaic or unbelievable elements, even if they include central elements of the biblical tradition, and replace them with elements from our own time; 4) Develop each  text in the light of the major Christian story. Each of these methods can be useful to the work of preaching and probably are used by nearly all preachers along the liberal-conservative continuum.

As preachers in progressive churches, however, we face a special occupational hazard. By emphasizing the first three questions, we may neglect the fourth: even if true, what difference does this message make in the lives of the people who have come to church today? As long ago as the 1930s, Charles Clayton Morrison addressed this question in a long-forgotten book, The Social Gospel and the Christian Cultus, stating that when we restate the gospel in a new form, such as the psychology of religion, we had accomplished only “a clever trick of legerdemain.” In the process, we have lost the gospel.

In a perceptive essay, “Towards a Definition of the Church’s Liturgy,” Massey H. Shepherd, Jr., pointed out “that piety and devotion in the act of worship again and again exhibit a richer doctrine than does the exposition of the theologian. A congregation in worship senses a Real Presence which its confessional theologian often denies in his systematic treatises. In prayer and hymn it confesses a discernment of spiritual realities which the dogmatician may rationalize out of existence.”

Substitute “preacher” for “dogmatician” and we have a clear statement of the tendency for preaching in progressive churches. Our preaching is described as too  intellectual, fixated on ideas rather than experience, stodgy and boring. Having listened to a lot of sermons in sixty years of every-Sunday church going, I know that the accusations often are correct.

Fortunately, however, many sermons in progressive worship do focus on the life-giving center of the gospel text and on the difference that this can make. On every Sunday in progressive churches, including those intended to be something other services, the work of preachers is to speak the central story of God’s love in Jesus Christ so that people can understand and experience it. Just as we translate the gospels from Greek to the vernacular speech of people in the worshiping assembly, so we search for metaphors and ideas from the cultural world in which the preacher and congregants live to translate the Word of God into the words of the people.

My effort to understand this translating process draws upon the work of sociologist Peter Berger and historian Diana Butler Bass. (See my paper entitled “Fluid Retraditioning.”) Berger uses Friedrich Schleiermacher as the prototype for the inductive process that he recommends.

This same scholar, usually considered the progenitor of modern theology, is also invoked by C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen in their book Rerouting the Protestant Main Stream. They describe one group of mainstream churches that are growing, referring to them as “spiritually oriented.” These churches “draw from the best of liberal mainstream tradition and provide a compelling alternative to the evangelical mode of congregational vitality.” They also are “a compelling alternative” to mainline Protestant churches that spend most of their time diagnosing and prescribing while simultaneously minimizing the time they devote to proclaiming, professing, and experiencing.

While the something other service may use other forms of gospel proclamation, including drama, dialogue, and demonstration, the solo voice of a preacher will continue to be the most often heard. May its message speak the living Word of God to people in a way that gives life to all who hear it.

One Response to Preaching that makes a difference

  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    Keith, thank you for this challenging assessment of preaching. My greatest struggle is with falling into a “professorial” role.

    I think this fourth question is key. If we focus on the first three questions all we’ve done is offer a religiously oriented lecture. While there is a place for such a thing, the sermon is supposed to be the proclamation of the Gospel! Much to think about.

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