Contemporary Christian homiletics has taken a wrong turn. Reaching out to speak to the world, we fell in—face down. Too troubled by what our audience could and could not hear, we reduced the gospel to a set of sappy platitudes that anybody could accept and no one could resist.
In a recent essay, Marilynne Robinson attributes the struggles of mainline Protestantism to preaching. She claims that the sermon, as the center of worship in the contemporary mainline church, is “pretty nearly defunct.” Is that true, and if so, why?
For the past few years the religion department at the Chautauqua Institution near Buffalo has sponsored a program for new clergy and their families. This summer I was invited to meet with the group, especially to talk with them about prophetic and pastoral preaching.
A student in one of my preaching courses was struggling terribly. The sermons he preached in class were plodding, disorganized and weakly supported exegetically and theologically. He was aware that he was not meeting expectations, and was frustrated and embarrassed. But then, in his final opportunity to redeem himself in the course, he surprised us all by preaching a stunning sermon, profound and lyrical. It was good—too good.
I am never quite sure what postmodernity is, but I was struck by Pamela Fickenscher’s delightful essay on postmodern ministry (Off-road ministry) and especially by her observations about preaching: “While many traditions have taught preachers to leave the ‘I’ out of their sermons, postmodern audiences are hungry for the messenger
This winter I had occasion to caress every one of my thousands of books, kiss thousands of them good-bye as I downsized my library, and decide which to save and which to give away. Reflection at such times can turn sentimental, as finding a long-buried book can let loose a flood of memories.
When I was young, the youth leader of our church would occasionally ask for someone to give a testimony during the worship service. All the kids would get quiet, shuffle their feet and squirm. For some reason I would feel the responsibility of the group shift slowly to my shoulders. The silence became more and more uncomfortable until at last I would give in and speak up.
Christopher Niebuhr of the well-known Niebuhr tribe wrote to me recently. He is celebrating the Yale University Press publication of Sermons and Discourses, 1743-1758 (edited by Wilson H. Kimnach), 800 pages of transcribed scripts and notes that make up the 25th and final volume of The Works of Jonathan Edwards.
He was not the young man they had known before. They were sizing him up, as people in small towns will do, when he stood up in the synagogue to read from the prophet Isaiah. He read a fantastic and otherworldly passage, plainly not about Nazareth, but about some other place. And then he startled them all: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” Was he talking about them? Or himself? And what did he mean by proclaiming right there, in his hometown, “the acceptable year of the Lord”?