Post-Partisan Preaching in a Mainline Church

It was in Antioch that the disciples were first called “Christians” (Acts 11:26).

The Sunday following another troubled American election was a good day to worship at the Castleton United Methodist Church in Indianapolis. The sermon that day was a strong declaration of the Christian gospel in a manner that had immediate relevance to  issues at the center of the political debate. Yet, this was done in a manner that transcends partisan politics and prepares the way for serious Christian conversation.

Furthermore, this sermon was set in a straightforward, spiritually alive celebration of Holy Communion. All in all, the forty-five minute service of worship was a health-giving alternative to the deadening, partisan commentary that has dominated the public media during this election season. It demonstrates a form of “prophetic preaching” that avoids confrontation and can lead to the transforming of attitudes and behavior.

Once located in Castleton village far out in the country, this church has successively ridden the demographic waves that have transformed its natural parish. With its historic site now covered by a freeway exchange, the congregation occupies a strategic location with Indiana’s capital city over its left shoulder and one of the city’s richest suburban sprawls over its right. A second worship center provides a focal point in the  more distant population base. On weekends, six services of worship are conducted with four distinct modes of celebration.

The 9:40 service at the main campus follows a format and uses music and ceremonial style that are consistent with long-standing patterns in mainline Protestant churches. It includes primary leadership by the church’s senior pastor, music led by organ and large choir, and a comfortably filled worship space with attendance pushing toward 400 (according to my eyeball estimate). The skillful use of projected images made it possible for congregants to participate fully in singing hymns and responsive portions of the liturgy without the need of hymnals or paper orders of worship (although both were available).

On November 7, following the highly-charged 2010 bi-election, the sermon seemed to ignore the harsh rhetoric of previous weeks and the barrage of political commentary that had dominated all of the news reports. Instead, it focused attention upon an incident that happened at the church in Antioch described in Acts 11. This was, the preacher suggested, the first time that the church had found it advantageous to “rebrand” itself. The reason seemed to be that the disciples felt the need to accent their relationship with Jesus and the way of life that he exemplified, which was to love God, love one another, and care for the world.

Noting that at least 25% of the American people have an unfavorable attitude toward Christians because of their anti-intellectual and narrow ideas, attitudes, and practices, the preacher proposed that we live in a time when we too might consider rebranding so that our Christ-likeness would be more evident. Rather than summarize the sermon (which can be accessed on the church’s website), I want to summarize characteristics that made it effective and that are worthy of emulation.

First, the pastor’s style was personal, conversational (but with push and polish), and extemporaneous (but with a full manuscript as part of his preparation). Second, the sermon was obviously rooted in a biblical text and supported by other biblical references. Third, the preacher used recent studies of American religious ideas and attitudes, intertwining Bible and current culture in a carefully constructed, polished piece of public prose.

Fourth, he framed the religious issues that are at the heart of current electoral politics (without any reference to them), but he left it to his hearers to connect the dots and draw their conclusions. The sermon was declarative rather than hortatory, which means that the hearers were neither condemned nor pressured. Clearly, however, they were paying attention and would leave with much to think about.

Fifth, the sermon was fully integrated into the congregation’s monthly celebration of the eucharist. The other parts of the service, including the eucharistic prayer, were thematically consistent with the ideas in the sermon. This connection was made explicit at the close of the sermon and at the invitation to the table a little later. The pastor-celebrant declared that whatever their politics and cultural convictions, Christians are called to follow Jesus, do the kind of things that he did, and bear the name Christian in ways that honor him. We come to the table because of Christ’s love that transcends and overcomes all that separates us.

On any post-election Sunday, this is a good message for all of us to receive. It would serve us well on pre-election Sundays, too.

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