Monday, April 3, 2017

Preaching Matters. But . . .


I have always thought of myself—certainly with more than a little presumption—as a better than average preacher. Perhaps every preacher thinks so. 

But I’ve also studied preaching. I did it from a non-religious point of view, focussing on how preaching persuades, for my Ph.D. work. I’ve taught homiletics to aspiring preachers. And I’ve studied—again, mostly in non-religious settings—how contemporary media has changed both people’s ability to listen and read. 

         Along the way, as a minister, I’ve wondered long and hard about what attracts people to one church rather than another. Sometimes the reasons have little to do with “how good” a church is—however you define “good.” Lots of churches, for example, are tribal. People belong to them because “their people” belong. This is often true of immigrant churches and of ethnic churches in particular, though it may have to do with social standing and belonging to the right club. Sometimes—more often than you would think—people go to church out of long habit, and it is enough that there is one very close to them. That decides it. In my years as a minister, I’ve met people who go to one church or another because of architecture, because of a friend, because of the music, or because it has a great Sunday School for their children.

A few people choose their church for theological reasons. They want (for example) a really liberal church. Or a fire-breathing Primitive Baptist church that does revivals. Not many, but a few!

Put aside all these reasons for choosing a church, there are still two matters that count more than almost any other. First, people will make a judgement, upon visiting, about whether or not there is a community in that church that will fit them. A few weeks ago, for example, after attending my congregation a few times, a youngish millennial couple asked me how many other couples their age attended regularly. I gave an honest answer and have not seen them since. And, of course, people looking for community will stay if the community they find truly embraces them. 

Second, getting back to preaching, I realize more and more that over time people will make a judgement about where to go to church based on the preaching. If a church wants to maintain its size or grow it will need a preacher who connects on a very regular basis. The room for so-so preaching has shrunk, a lot. People want a preacher who will have them holding their breath to see how “it” turns out. Someone who can make them laugh at themselves. Someone who has something to say that is rooted in the heart of the gospel but that resonates with lived experience. Something more than self-help. Someone who is compelling but doesn’t nag. Someone who says the mystery in a way they feel it. Someone who connects with their fear and hopes.

So, though I like to think of myself as that preacher, as I enter my final season as a preacher, I have begun, in spite of what I’ve said so far, to question how much of a difference I can make as a preacher.

Let me explain the reasons why. Although they are informed by my studies, what I’m sharing now is my gut feeling about these things. I’m interested in what others may think.

First, it is harder to make an impression as a preacher because audiences don’t listen anymore with the same skill and attention that they used to. Once upon a time preachers created sermons in the image of the essay or book. This worked, because people tended to read a lot. They were deft at figuring out linear, rational, ordered arguments. 
But these sort of sermons work with a smaller and smaller demographic. Partly this is because attention spans are way shorter than they used to be. If you are not sure this is the case, check out the literature. It takes a lot more skill to gain the attention or your audience, keep it, and engage it than it used to.

Second, people also have a harder time attending to sermons because the most common model for sermons a generation ago was the book, but it isn’t anymore. Books—and good essays—are linear. They build their case cumulatively and rationally. They use reason and narrative. And when people used to listen to sermons, they listened with the ears of readers.

But people do not read as much as they used to. They find it difficult to attend to sustained narrative. The books they do read—just check out how many there are in any bookstore—are often self-help books that are long lists of “to do’s.” Books are far more fractured and less narratively sensible than they used to be. If narrative preaching is a partial answer to this reality, it has to be the sort of narrative that non-readers used to be able to listen to—legends, sagas, parables and so on. Walter Ong’s description of the psychodynamics of orality helps me here, but challenges me too. It’s hard.

Third, I’ve also become less sure of myself as a preacher because I’ve become acutely aware of my own uncertainties and waffling. I live with ambiguity when it comes to what and how to preach. I used to be able to count on people being interested in the truth of dogmas, for example, and spent time trying to get those dogmas across. But I’m done with dogma myself, so it doesn’t make for great preaching fodder anymore.

Fourth, I’ve become less sure of myself as a preacher because I know that my status—perhaps role is a better word—as preacher has changed over the years. I cannot rely, any longer, on being listened to because, well, I’m a preacher and I know. People don’t sit down convinced that they need to listen; they sit down to decide whether or not they will listen. People don't come to church believing that they are empty vessels that just need to be filled.

What to do about this? Well, I take longer to write than I used to. I pay more attention to how sagas and legends were told in an era before people read. I count on my current audience’s high level of literate education than I used to, so I can be forgiven a bit more. I try new things: preaching secular texts and songs, using drama, interactive exercises. But I’m an amateur at much of this, unsure of how to embrace it and make it work.


The bottom line? Preaching is harder than ever. There is no excuse for business as usual. We have to take risks. We have to speak to what people are really wondering about. And we have to keep on trying.

7 comments:

  1. But on Facebook is lots of preaching: Pema Chodron, Deepak Chopra. Many short feel good messages. Be kind. Avoid toxic people. Mediate in order to feel better. So much to believe, fairies, astrology, organic food, peace and love, yin and yang, karma.

    In the Netherlands Geert Mak in My father’s century (De eeuw van mijn vader: 1999) writes that the two hour sermons preached prior to World War I and II were never printed in book form because they lacked content.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. That is very funny. My Opa used to tell me that he would vote for the ARP because the preachers demanded it, and he was an obedient son of the church. But walking home from the polls he would pray that the socialists would win.

      Delete
    2. correction: meditate and add yoga, mindfulness

      Delete
    3. I liked "mediate in order to feel better". It had originality and some wisdom I thought. :)

      Thanks for the post John. It's nice to talk shop. :)

      Delete
    4. going to push back on the "short attention span"... people can be engaged and watch a movie marathon for hours and hours, same with sporting events... the problem is the lack of engagement in the traditional worship service for various reasons... which our "one man show" tradition accentuates... and is some degree of a control issue... there are other factors and dynamics as well that contribute the "hour" limitation for many 1st world, formal church services...

      Delete
  2. I agree that sharing responsibility for worship engages more people and is a good direction to follow. But the short attention span I refer to is not meant to suggest that people cannot attend to anything for a longer period of time. Rather, it I mean to suggest that the "teaching," that occurs in worship, via the sermon, is something people are not practiced at, and that paying attention to a linear, word-based "essay-like" sermon is not something people are very good at anymore--with notable exceptions, especially for older folks less immersed in contemporary media.

    ReplyDelete
  3. thanks for your response John... You are right in your last paragraph of the post that the Church can no longer do "business as usual" and there is no excuse for doing so...

    bless your heart as you take the risks to engage people in deeper and more meaningful ways in their journey of faith

    ReplyDelete

What do you think?