The audacity to preach the gospel

Will Willimon tells preachers to put aside sentimentality.

Will Willimon issues in this book a Barthian prescription for preachers: forego homiletic taxonomies and dare to proclaim Jesus Christ. Like Willimon’s other books, Preachers Dare is remarkably accessible and light on theological instruction yet uncompromising about its implications. Now is the time for preachers to “‘give witness’ to God’s revelation,” but not through “inchoate hankerings toward the transcendent.” When preachers ascend the pulpit, they must announce the good news in its glorious particularity and inconvenience: a Jew named Jesus who “lived briefly, died violently, rose unexpectedly” has promised to “return to us.”

This mode of preaching is described as daring not because the most effective or memorable sermons have the shock value of current events but because the courage implied by Karl Barth (who wrote in The Göttingen Dogmatics that “Christian preachers dare to talk about God”) is required when “the text is really having its way with you . . . those who have ears to hear will know it.” Fleming Rutledge, to whom Willimon dedicates this book, once said, “If you know you are dying, you will know the word of life when you hear it.” In this spirit, Willimon reflects on a God who “commanded cowards like us to speak of Jesus to the world.”

Preachers Dare is an indictment of counterproductive mainline Protestant practices—especially sentimental preaching, which in its cloying hallmarks “denies human enslavement to evil and sin and reduces the gospel to fantasies of earnest human striving or unjustified positive feelings about human capacity for goodness.” Sentimentality leaves congregations feeling better but never knowing better. As recidivists of what Barth called the “modern misunderstanding,” preachers use sentimentalism to “uncover a connection within the listener’s self and build a bridge to that innate point of contact.” They thus subordinate revelation to individual experience.