Monday, October 29, 2007

It's About God

In our Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Abingdon, 1990), Stanley Hauerwas and I said that there was much a-theism in the contemporary church. Atheism? We go about evoking vague spiritual sensibilities in our listeners (preaching), soothing the anxieties of the affluent (pastoral care), keeping the machinery oiled (church administration) as if God didn't matter.

Most of us began worrying about our membership loses with the publication of Dean Kelly's Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 1977). Kelly's thesis, as best I remember, was not simply that conservative churches were growing because they were strict and conservative (although their relatively high demands upon their members was a positive growth factor) but rather because these churches kept themselves energetically focused on the main business of religion -- making meaning for their members. When churches become distracted, seeing themselves as just another volunteer service organization, or one more friendly social club, they decline. The business of churches, said Kelly, is meaning in God.

In the succeeding years, we pastors were deluged by studies and books on church growth and decline. Some said Kelly had neglected certain sociological factors; that he had made too much of the intellectual/theological basis for church growth. They pointed out that the mainline protestant birthrates had declined since the 1950's. Most mainline growth comes through births to members, therefore the decline.

Then a book by C. Kirk Hadaway and David A. Roozen, Rerouting the Protestant Mainstream: Sources of Growth and Opportunities for Change (Abingdon, 1995) showed the fruit of decades of studies of church growth and decline. As their title shows, Hadaway and Roozen, two distinguished observers of the mainline church, tried to get beyond analysis and more toward positive prescription.

We live in a buyer's market, as far as religion is concerned, say Hadaway and Roozen. And that's not completely bad. Having had a virtual monopoly on American religious life, today's mainline protestants must now adapt to a consumeristic culture where people shop for a church, where people demand quality, and where people drop their church if it doesn't meet their demands.

Too often those demands are identified as an upbeat worship service, a clean nursery, a big parking lot -- which are important factors. However, Hadaway and Roozen highlight a demand that echoes some of Kelly's earlier claims. They say that, when all the factors are studied, "the key issue for the churches seems to be a compelling religious character...not whether the content of that character is liberal or conservative" (p. 69).

For some time I’ve believed that Mainline Protestantism is in trouble because we provided people with the theological rationale not to go to church. We gave them a theology of secularity. Hadaway and Roozen seem to agree. Church cannot be a sanctified form of Rotary. We must clearly, intentionally, relentlessly be determined to be a place where we meet God and God in Jesus Christ meets us.

Hadaway and Roozen tell the delightful story of a Roman Catholic congregation that opened their worship with a time of friendly community and handshaking. The priest said, "It would be a shame to leave here without knowing those around us."

Then, with a twinkle in his eye he said, "It would be a much greater shame to leave here without knowing God!"

The congregation erupted into applause as if to affirm this is the reason why we are here.

Hadaway and Roozen are explicit:

"To grow and to continue growing, it is necessary for each mainstream church to
become of vital religious institution, vibrant with the presence of God. It must
develop a clear religious identity, a compelling religious purpose, and a
coherent sense of direction that arises from that purpose" (p. 86).

A strong sense of identity and a compelling vision are the two essential characteristics for a vibrant congregation. Hadaway and Roozen are critical of Kelly and others who believe that high demands, conservative theology, or strict expectations are the key.

We desperately need leaders, say Hadaway and Roozen, leaders who are dissatisfied with decline, who refuse to bow to sociological determinism, who emphasize the distinctive, spiritual, God dimensions of church.

Halford Luccock, that great teacher and preacher, told the story of the Methodist congregation, somewhere in the remote Dakotas, who suffered a severe blizzard one winter. The snow was high. Even the mail did not get through for a week. That meant that the pastor and congregation had no clue what was the denominational emphasis for that week. They did not if know this Sunday in February was United Nations Sunday, or the Festival of the Christian Home Sunday, or what. So, said Luccock, the pastor strode embarrassed before the congregation that Sunday and said that, "In the absence of any other reason for gathering today, we'll just worship God."

William H. Willimon

Emerging Church

A comment raised about the emerging church:
"I'm not a minister, but just your ordinary lay Methodist who has just now been made aware of this thing called the emerging church movement -- and I'm not sure how I feel about it, one way or the other. Would you feel comfortable addressing this topic some time?"

I'm just an ordinary Methodist too! I know little firsthand about the so-called emergent church. Mostly what I know is from the books by Brian MacLauren. However, what I read I like, such as the Emergent church's ability to reach young adults, its stress upon the sacraments, its stress upon a recovery of the tradition of the faith, etc. I have a couple of churches that are exploring some of this emergent material. Sounds interesting to me. Thanks for writing. Wish I had more to share.

Will Willimon

Tuesday, October 23, 2007


A few years ago, John McClure had a good idea for a useful book for us preachers. Professor McClure interviewed a group of master preachers and teachers of preachers, seeking their best advice on various aspects of the homiletical task.

I was particularly struck by his section on sermon feedback from the laity. How do we get reliable, useable feedback from our listeners? How do we move beyond the conventional, “Good sermon, preacher” and toward worthwhile feedback that can be used in our sermon preparation?

Fred Craddock stresses that, in the congregation, we preachers are always receiving feedback, if we will be open and attentive to that lay response:

As to sermon feedback, I have two suggestions: First, if one is approachable and accessible, there will be feedback. At first it will not be profound or critical; the listener will have to test the preacher to see if feedback is welcomed and heard. Increasingly, feedback will be thoughtful and often full of memories, both painful and joyful. A sermon may thus evoke thoughts and feelings more associated with another time and place, and perhaps even another preacher, than with the present sermon. Response to such feedback may be immediate or may call for more extended conversation. Since feedback involves memory of not one but many depressed by any comments from listeners. Secondly, since the sermon grows out of and contributes to the congregational (and sometimes public) conversation, I suggest introducing into conversation with persons present or absent at its delivery portions of the sermon. This keeps the sermon alive and at work; it also removes the awkwardness some people feel about initiating response to the sermon with the one who preached it. (Fred Craddock)
Likewise, Barbara Brown Taylor reminds us that while we are preaching, in the very act of sermon delivery, we are also receiving congregational response:

I am acutely aware of the congregation’s eye contact with me, their stillness or
restlessness, their silence or coughing--even their breathing. While this does
not give me specific information about how my sermon is being heard, it does
tell me whether or not I am being listened to.

John Claypool stresses the need for pastoral habits and practices that encourage sermon feedback from the laity:

I am always very available at the end of the service at the back of the
worship space, and have made it a point to never be rushed here, but to stay t
the church as long as there is anyone who has something that they want to share.
I listen with keen attentiveness to the things that people say about the sermon
as they leave. Many times a person will ask me, “I heard what you said this
morning, but what about this or that?” Their question will often lead me to the
next word in our ongoing pastoral conversation. I work in the southern region of
the United States , which means that people have been conditioned to not be
totally frank in their face-to-face encounters.
(John R. Claypool)
Barbara Brown Taylor also stresses the possibility of a systematic attempt to get feedback:

From time to time I ask specific question of my listeners. I preach to one
women’s group twice each week, at an informal service on Thursday and again at a principal service on Sunday. I have asked them to pay attention to the
differences between the sermons (the first delivered from the altar rail without
notes, the second from the pulpit with full manuscript) and to tell me about the
difference in their hearing.
Many preachers make good use of an official sermon feedback group. Sunday is
not the best day for this, however. It seems easier to give and receive
responses to a sermon after it has had time to cool off
Lutheran preacher, Barbara Lundblad, with whom I have often done preaching workshops, is full of suggestions for preachers who really want feedback from their parishioners:

A weekly text study group within the congregation (we met on Wednesdays);
the first part of the session can be a reflection on last Sunday’s sermon. If a
preacher is open to genuine questions and disagreements, as well as compliments,
the group will begin to be more honest and helpful.

Structured sermon discussion during coffee hour after worship once a month. As two or three people to be reflectors each week; one of them might read the gospel text aloud to the preacher on Monday so the preacher hears the text. It may be helpful to give these reflectors three questions or open-ended statements, such as, “I got lost when...” or “When the sermon was over I was thinking...” Try to vary the reflectors; retired people, teenagers, single people, married people, men,
women, newcomers, and old-timers.

Tape sermons and listen alone or with a colleague.

Trade sermons with a friend or mentor (trade tapes if there’s no manuscript); ask for specific feedback: Did this image work? Where were transitions unclear?

In order to grow as preachers, we must get good feedback to our preaching and then we must integrate that feedback into our work.

(The quotes are from John S. McClure, ed., Best Advice for Preaching, Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1998, pp. 135-145.)

William H. Willimon

I'll see you this Friday, October 26, at the North East District, to hear Dr. Peter Steinke lead an important seminar on Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times. You won't want to miss this event.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Our Bishop’s Convocation takes place this week when the pastors of our Conference will be focusing on the ministry of Preaching. Dr. Thomas G. Long of Emory will lead us, therefore for the next few weeks, my Bishop’s messages will reflect on the task of preaching.

When Aristotle was offering, in his Rhetoric the “available means of persuasion,” including reason, emotion, and the character of the speaker, Aristotle listed the character of the speaker as the most important. In fact, a later rhetorician would define a good speech as, “a good person speaking well.”

The credibility of the speaker continues to be one of the most powerful aspects of a persuasive speech. Sermons appeal to the emotions, appeal to the reason, cite scripture, and use story. However, both the opinions of classical rhetoric, and contemporary studies of public speaking agree that the personality, the character of the speaker is the key factor in credibility of the speech.

Even though credibility is a gift offered by the audience to the speaker that does not mean that the speaker has no control over credibility.

At least five factors influence the credibility of a speaker:

Character. The speaker must be perceived as trustworthy and true. There must be congruence between the listeners’ assessment of the personality of the speaker and what the speaker is saying. Parish pastors have great opportunity to influence through character. Listeners get to know you intimately in the daily activity of the congregation. Of course this can be a two-edged sword! Because they know you so well, in their daily interaction with you as their pastor, then they are apt to pick up phoniness, artificiality, and incongruent between what you say and who they perceive you to be.

Competence. Your audience must perceive you as a person who has control over the subject.
Composure. Speakers, who are nervous, are less trustworthy than speakers who appear confident and composed.

Likeability. We listen attentively and positively to people for whom we have positive feelings. This can be a great challenge for the Christian communicator. After all, to be faithful to the Gospel, at times we must say things that are not likeable, ideas and beliefs that will challenge our hearers, that our hearers hear as criticism. Nevertheless, if our hearers are positively disposed toward us as people, they will receive even our criticism much better than they would if they were negatively inclined toward us.

Extroversion. Speakers who reach out to their audience, are positively perceived by their audience. The audience perceives that the speaker really cares about them, really wants to be heard by them. However, extroverts in public speaking also note that it is possible to be too extroverted. A speaker who seems too intent on pleasing an audience, in being liked by the audience, can be perceived by the audience as disingenuous and artificial. The audience, feeling that the speaker is putting the make upon them, may resist the speaker. Defenses rise when we feel we are about to be manipulated by another person for that person’s own ends.

Although most preachers do not stand up and enumerate for the congregation all of their academic degrees, and all of the schools where they have studied, we will say things like, “In my study this week of today’s scripture, I had a tough task before me.”

Or we will say, “In my twenty years as a pastor I found that….”

Conversely credibility can be engendered by the speaker admitting to his or her shortcomings. The speaker says, “One of my weaknesses is I tend to judge people by their appearance. I will see someone shabbily dressed, and I think that this person is rather shabby. Have you ever done that?” Preachers who are sometimes perceived by their congregations as people who have solved all spiritual problems for themselves and are now, from their exalted perch of perfectionism, seeking to instruct the congregation. Letting some of our humanity come through in our speech is a means of establishing greater credibility.

“We have this treasure in earthen vessels” says Paul. We preachers are thoroughly human vessels, yet God has given us a treasure to communicate to our people and one way we communicate is through who we are. Character and credibility are thus closely linked.

William H. Willimon

Be sure to join me on October 26 at 9:00 am at the North East District Office to hear Dr. Peter Steinke as he leads a very important seminar on Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Jesus Christ as our way to God

Our thoughts on United Methodist Believing continue with these thoughts about Jesus Christ as our way to God.

The way Scripture tells the story (and nothing we know about Jesus would we know without Scripture - here is a story so wonderfully strange we could have never thought this up ourselves) Jesus is not only God with us but God actively doing something about the problem that exists between us and God. We call that divine work in Christ and on his cross “atonement” - at-one-ment. The atonement names that dramatic process of divine love through which God did something decisive in Jesus Christ about the separation between us and God. Note, in the above thickly packed quote from our Discipline that Jesus’ work is described as “redeeming,” “atoning,” work that is “triumph” as well as that which “judges” us, “summons…, pardons us, receives us” and “gives” us. God doesn’t just sit back and say, “You know, don’t you, how much I love you?”

God acts, moves, works, triumphs and gives and forgives. I note this because it is my impression that many Americans have had our theological imaginations truncated with a flaccid Deism that renders God into an allegedly compassionate, but essentially inactive and uninvolved sort of deity. Deism says that while God may have created the world, God fairly quickly retired and has left us to ourselves.

Deism always sent John Wesley into orbit. Wesley not only thought that, without the Trinity, we cannot follow God, but that without the self-revelation of God in Christ and the work of the Holy Spirit we can know nothing of God. Walk all in the woods, hug a tree or listen to the song of a bird, you will still not know much about God.

Against Deism of any stripe, United Methodists believe God is very, very busy. The name for God’s busyness among us in Christ and the Holy Spirit is atonement. Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection demonstrates that any God who would reach out in love to the likes of us has got to be a God who doesn’t mind much blood, sacrifice, and death, for we are murderous toward our would-be saviors. To redeem us, a high cost must be paid. Jesus risked all and got down and dirty with us sinners in order to embrace us and carry us home. He atoned and redeemed.

Who was Jesus? Jesus was a wonderful teacher and preacher. Many found in his words the words of life and words that wisely pointed the way to greater love of God and neighbor. However, when some sincerely tried to follow the way that was cast by this great teacher, they found it virtually impossible. It would have been one thing if the teacher had urged us simply “do not worry about tomorrow” (Mt. 6:34), which might have led us to greater peace of mind. But he went on to say that we should love our enemies (Lk. 6:35), pray for rather than revenge our enemies (Mt. 5:44), and hate our mothers (Lk. 14:26). Such talk forever disturbed our peace. Paul spoke for us all in saying, “I do not do the good that I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (Rom. 7:19). That many believe that Christianity is mostly about “trying to live a good life and being kind to your neighbor” suggests that they have never actually listened to or tried to practice the teachings of Jesus!

Who was Jesus? He was not just a great ethical teacher, he was the Redeemer who went to the cross and “died for our sins” as the church said from the first, attempting to account for the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross. We are, as we have admitted, sinners. What’s to be done about our rebellion and estrangement from God? Whatever is to be done, it can’t be done by us. Our debts are too great, our lives too corrupt and deformed. So somehow, in the cross of Christ, God took up our sin, our propensity to serve death rather than life, and redeemed us (bought us back from slavery to sin and death), atoned for us (did something about the great gap between us and God), judged us (our sin is deadly serious), and pardons us (writes off our debts that we have incurred through our sin).

Note that the Discipline doesn’t spend much verbiage in attempting to explain just how this happens. For us, God’s reconciling the world in Christ is a great mystery that we Wesleyans would rather experience and live into rather than explain. All we know is that, from the testimony of Scripture and in our own experience, God in Christ did something decisive at Calvary, wrought a victory that totally rearranged relations between God and humanity.

Whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served by to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many. (Mark 10:43-45)

William H. Willimon

United Methodists Worship the Incarnate Christ

John Wesley often spoke of preaching as “offering Christ.” For Wesley, preaching was more than a string of interesting ideas, even interesting ideas about Christ; it was experience of and engagement with Christ as a living, relational being. With other Christians we join in basing all that we say and know about God on the Incarnation, the enfleshment of God in a Jew from Nazareth in whom we believe we have seen as much of God as we ever hope to see. Jesus is “the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14). He is not only the definitive revelation of God, but he is God, so much so that he was called “the Son of God.” When the Creator said something decisive to Creation, God said, “Jesus Christ,” so much so that the Gospel of John calls Jesus, “the Word,” saying that “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).

At the heart of the gospel of salvation is God’s incarnation in Jesus of Nazareth.

All Christian theology, for certain all Wesleyan theology, is a series of implications and expositions on the primal, originating wonder that the Word was made flesh and moved in with us and we beheld in him the great glory of God. We believe that those dear folk who say -- presuming intellectual humility - that God is ultimate, distant, ineffable and unknowable, are wrong. God is not vague and indistinct, aloof and indiscernible. God has a face, a name, a certain way of talking and living, and dying, and rising. Jesus Christ - who lived briefly, died violently and rose unexpectedly - is the One in whom “all the fullness of God chose to dwell” (Col. 1:19).
Let’s be honest. When you listen, really listen to Jesus, as you get to know him as he is revealed in Scripture and present in the church in word and sacrament, there is part of you that wishes that God had remained vague, indistinct, aloof, and indiscernible! What with Jesus’ forgiveness of enemies, his nonresistance to evil, his denigration of the powerful, and reaching to the outcasts, well, Christians are those who are still getting over the shock that when God came and showed us the fullness of divine glory it was Jesus!

“Incarnation” is a word whereby we join other orthodox Christians in maintaining a difficult but saving truth: Jesus Christ was completely human and fully God. Jesus was not God in disguise, or a man who was almost divine; he was truly human, truly divine.

God came to us as a baby, born in a human family. Jesus hungered, thirsted, and hurt, just like us. He was tested and temped like us (Heb. 4:15). He was no make-believe person and the final proof of that was his horrendous death on a cross. True, he was rightly human in a way none of us are. Though he was “tested as we are” says the Letter to the Hebrews “yet he was without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Though we “walked in darkness,” (Isa. 9:2) he was radiant light. Though we have this propensity to rebel against God and try to be gods unto ourselves, he was fully obedient, even obedient to death on a cross.

When we stand and affirm in the Apostles’ Creed that he was “born of the Virgin Mary,” we are telling the story that is Incarnation. The “Virgin Birth” both claims Jesus’ godly nature - he was not something that we worked for or thought up - and Jesus’ human nature - he was born as we are born and died as we must die. The story of Jesus begins with a woman, an obedient woman who said in effect, “I don’t know all that you are going to do for the world through me, but here I am, send me.” (Luke 1-2) This is why the church traditionally spoke of Mary as the very first disciple. She was the first to hear the call of God in Christ and to say, “yes.”

Just when we were all set to worship a God who seemed distant, indistinct, therefore undemanding and irrelevant, a God who could be utilized in our pet causes and to fulfill our assumed needs, we met God in the flesh, Jesus the Christ. He managed to be both very close to us, very much like us and absolutely distant from us, very unlike us. He both stood next to us in our suffering and walked on ahead of us in our complacency. So if you are aggravated with Christians in general for talking in such seemingly convoluted and complex ways, and with United Methodists in particular, please know that we are trying to think about the almost unthinkable - “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor. 5:19).

William H. Willimon