Wednesday, November 07, 2007

On NOT Reaching Our Culture Through Our Preaching

Recently I led a group of pastors in a discussion about our preaching. When I asked the pastors, "What areas would you like help with in your preaching?" most of them responded with, "I want help in making connection with my listeners, relating the gospel to their everyday lives."

"I want to preach sermons which really hit my people where they live."

In sum, these pastors wanted to preach in a way that addressed their culture. There was a time when I would have agreed that this was one of the primary purposes of Christian preaching--to relate the gospel to contemporary culture. However, I have come to question this way of construing the task of Christian preaching.

Sometimes in leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear that we may have fallen in! When, in our sermons, we sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the new modern world, the traffic was only moving in one direction on that interpretive bridge. It was always the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like "This relates to me," or, "I'm sorry, this is really impractical," or, "I really can't make sense out of that." It was always the modern world telling the Bible what's what.

I don't believe that the Bible wants to "speak to the modern world." Rather, I think the Bible wants to change, convert the modern world.

The modern world is not only the realm of the telephone, the telegraph, and allegedly "critical thinking," this world is also the habitat of Auschwitz, two of the bloodiest wars of history, and assorted totalitarian schemes which have consumed the lives of millions. Why would our preaching want to be comprehensible to that world?

Too often Christians have treated the modern world as if it is an unalterable fact, a reality to which we were obligated to adjust and adapt, rather than a point of view with which we might argue.

Fortunately, modern ways of knowing and thinking are gradually losing their privileged status in Western thought. We are realizing that modernity is only one way of describing what is going on in the world. Humanity has received many gifts from modern, scientific, technological ways of thinking. However, as we ended the twentieth century, we realized that modernity was not without its loses.

Rather than reaching out to speak to our culture, I think our time as preachers is better spent inculturating Twenty First Century Americans into that culture which is called church. There is no way that I can crank the gospel down to the level where any American can walk in off the street and know what it is all about within fifteen minutes. One can't even do that with baseball! You have to learn the vocabulary, the rules, and the culture in order to understand it. Being in church is something at least as different as baseball.

Forming the church through our speech, laying on contemporary Christians the stories, images, and practices which make us disciples is our most challenging task as preachers.

The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it. God's appointed means of producing change is called church. God's typical way of producing church is called preaching.

William H. Willimon


Lyndon said...

And here i was worrying that making you a bishop only made you a church administrator who is allowed to dress in purple (do Methodists even wear purple?)!

Thank you Bp. Willimon for this brief reminder of the task of preaching. Your comments provided a moment of redescription of my weekly struggle to make Jesus 'come our right' for people trained to think that being a Christian is about (1) being nice, and (2) knowing what wine goes with what food.

Be well.

Anonymous said...

Terrific post, especially the problems of a one-way hermeneutic highway!

Anonymous said...

William - Thanks for your thoughts. I had not considered the interpretive bridge quite in the way that you describe it. I agree that an important role of the preacher is to draw the congregation into God's vision or dream for the world - this is often a vision that is counter to current culture.

However, I also think that it is important that the worship and preaching life of the local church is not so foreign to someone experiencing the event that she or he is not interested at all in coming back.

What do you think?

Greg said...

Thanks for this outstanding post.

Anonymous said...

Matthew 23:5-10 Everything they do is done for men to see. They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues, they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi'. But you are not to be called 'Rabbi',for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth 'father', for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called 'teacher', for you have one Teacher, the Christ.

Pastor Chris Roberts said...

Bishop Willimon, you just don't seem to get it. I have been preached at for most of my life that "The family that prays together, stays together." I have been offered 6 steps to improve my marriage and 7 Biblical Principles to pay off my debt. What good is Jesus if it I can't take away some practical tips to apply to my life? I have become a very spiritual person. Jesus said that I would have a full life!
That kind of preaching already has changed our culture -- and our church culture—as you well know.
I mean that kind of preaching has taught me to be this sarcastic.
Chris Roberts
North Indiana Conference

Anonymous said...

This was vintage Willimon!

Anonymous said...

If we want to connect with someone we find common ground and make a connection based on that commonality. If however we want to change someone we can go about it in many different ways;

enforce change upon them which we know is the wrong way to go about things, coerce them into doing something they don't really want to do, which is also wrong and both of which the church has been found guilty of in the past.


we can show them something in who we are that causes them to say 'I no longer want to be what I am but want to be what they are'
Isn't that what Jesus did? He didn't engage culture He took it by the scruff of the neck and showed it what it could be...

Anonymous said...

Dear brother,

You cannot change the circumstance simply by changing the sylable you wish to ennunciate. The fact remains, we are not "connecting" with our culture - we are horribly irrelevant to too many people. The solution, church, is only half of the issue: The other half is still communication. How does the church speak to this culture? If you haven't noticed, they aren't listening! Neither are they going to "come to church" when we invite them to our assemblies. If I might suggest, we must find a way to help them see the relevancy of basic Christian principles - very practical ways in which everything from their finances to their love for sports could be greatly improved by "following Jesus."
By improved, I don't mean to suggest that they'll make more money, or that their favorite team will always win. I'm sure you know what I'm referring to.

Secondly, we've done too much preaching with our mouths, (I'm speaking generally of all Christians), and far too little modeling as servants. While the first century Christians certainly had times of assembly and fellow- ship, the records indicate they took their "religion" to the streets.

Thank you for another thought- provoking article.

Betty Newman said...

"The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it."


I have been a Methodist all of my life; a Christian for 40 years; and a Certified Lay Speaker for 30 years.

In the past 3-5 years I have felt myself being pulled "deeper." I am now praying about becoming a CLM.

There is nothing I love more than teaching God's Word and leading our "world" to understand the Word - not to make the Word "fit" the world.

(Oh how I have "fought" with Pastors over that issue through the years!)

On another note - I have heard a lot about you, but this is the first time I've read your blog - good stuff!


PS - I'm from the Holston Conference.

Anonymous said...

Dear Bishop Willimon,

I am completely in your theological orbit regarding preaching. We do not have to make the gospel relevant. The gospel is relevant. And we must trust that God will do God's work in the listeners, when the preaching moment occurs. We have to trust that the symbols of our faith--the font, the word, the table--are indeed enough to transform people. We are to be alive to the text and to God more than we are to be alive to the"needs" of our congregation, for these are usually needs that they have defined for themselves. Only the Biblical text can read and interpret our experience. We don't know what the human condition is or what our needs are except in relationship to the word of God.

However, it is just so difficult to overcome this call for relevancy, especially from a congregation. How do you explain to them this theology of preaching that begins with God--not us--and that doesn't really care about how you "feel" at this particular moment in time? How do you show them what it means to be alive to the text and how it's converting us and forming us rather than being alive to culture filled with, as you say Bishop W., stories that are opposed to the dying and rising story of Jesus Christ?

Marcy Nicholas

preacherman said...

Let me first start off my saying great post.
Second, I believe that believers want application. They come to church wanting to leaving saying okay that is how the text applies to my daily life. The Bible is relevant to my life. It is living and active.

As pastors, minister me being a Church of Christ minister we I believe we need to understand that Jesus used all different teaching methods to get his point accross to his crowd. He used parables. He used drawings. He used lecture. He used start forward right in your face woe to you. He used lecture. He used hands on healing, feeding 5000, doubting Thomas, etc. Object lessons.

So, are we going to change the way we preach and send the message to our people in the 21st century with the way they live. Are we going to meet them where they are?
We might need to use Power Point, Drama, Object Lessons, Stories (Parables), Hands on, Use the 5 senses, Show Music Video's or Slide Presentations, Spend the entire worship just doing communion, invite an artist while preaching. We need to change. We need to adjust to the needs of the Church and society. Have seeker services. Strive to be more mission minded. Maybe Emergant. Maybe open to new ideas. Maybe open to the way Jesus taught and discipled his disciples.

Unknown said...

I agree that we're not supposed to cater to the dominant culture, but if, as you so often suggest in your writings, there is such a large gap between the church and the world, what is wrong with bridge building? What is wrong with saying, "I understand where you are at because I'm there, too! Here is how we can move forward together!"? The only way we can be "relevant" (I don't really like that term either) is to listen to and dialouge with the people to whom we preach. I've discovered that they're pretty smart if we actually take the time to listen to them. Let's take some time to learn from our parishoners, and we'll become better bridge builders in the process.

Grace and Peace,

Anonymous said...

I disagree that you have to revise worship for a few seekers who might attend. Instead seekers should be inculcated into the church historical. Worship is not evangelism. Evangelism is evangelism. You can do bridge building but you don't have to use worship and the preaching moment, to make a message or service more palatable for the world. Instead, we should be emphasizing the symbols of our faith instead of downplaying them. Let them know what they are getting into--they must die and rise in Christ. They must learn a new language. Pastors and laity are stewards of the symbols of faith and these are the gifts that the church can share with the world.

Anonymous said...

From a book by Agnes Sanford called 'The Healing Light': A certain man had a faulty water system in his lakeside cottage. He knew that there was no lack of water in the hills. He knew, moreover, that it was in the nature of water to flow downhill into his kitchen sink. He did not stand before the faucet and cry, 'Oh water, please flow into my sink.' He looked for the break in his pipeline. He searched diligently and found it. Whereupon he uttered a whoop of joy. The source of the trouble having been found, it was then a simple matter to mend the pipeline so that the water could flow freely. We have located a great break in the Christian pipeline of power- the forsaking, by the church at large, of the stern law of love. This should cause us joy rather than mourning, for having found the cause of the leakage, we have the remedy already at hand. We need only go back to the teachings of the Highest Authority on this subject, check them over carefully and adjust our lives to them, and we can once more open the valve to the water of life.

Sejseveer said...

It is an excellent point from a man whom I join with many in admiring. However, it is always difficult for me to feel that I am not listing too far out of this culture or too accommodatingly close to the shoals, I agree in theory but find my effects in application less clear to discern
Peace, JReeves

Anonymous said...

Not connecting is what this was all about. Let's head straight for the throat here. stop talking rubbish and get back to the basics: social justice, stand up for the weak and inspire hope. Let us not forget the miracles that do happen. It is the lord that shows the believer the ripe fruits. When we do not connect, are we suffering with narcissism? Are we too self-absorbed? Stop quoting the Bible, quote everyday life!!! The examples are, at present, everywhere to see. Open thy eyes!!!

God Bless you all.

H. M. Dethmers

Quiet Monster said...

Wonderful post! I am helping a friend write a paper on Christian Humanism...the timing of your post helps us step back and gain some insight regarding the balance you need to find, as well as lines you must draw--otherwise, you will fall in!

Thak you again for you post,
Ann V