I am a pastor and a preacher. Every single week I write a sermon, lead a Bible study, and meet with others to teach, pray, organize, and lead. At the same time, I consistently wrestle with many of the givens of a full-time, paid pastoral position, including preparing those weekly sermons and receiving a regular paycheck. These questions often make people—especially other pastors—squirm uncomfortably or even tune out, so let me offer a reassurance. I question much of how we organize and live as the Church, but I passionately believe in God’s Church. God uses the ancient stories of Scripture, in which God is healing the sin, death, and sickness that have entered the world, to mold and empower the Church to be a part of God’s redeeming work. The Church is gathered today to follow in the Way of Jesus, just as throughout history, God continually gathers a community to bless the world.
I have shared many a cappuccino with other preachers or leaders over which I start to share my questions, and my conversation partner gets an interesting expression—one that says, are we still on the same team? Is your faith up for grabs? Without taking the time to articulate a complete statement of faith, I want to confirm that I do have nonnegotiables: I believe that the whole of Scripture tells a story of God’s creation of the world that sin then invaded, and of God’s work to heal it again. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus most fully show us the beauty and power of God’s healing work.
I became a pastor when I sensed a call, informed by my community’s discernment. I had witnessed that God uses the ancient stories of Scripture to mold and empower the Church to be a part of God’s redeeming or “shalom” work in the world. Throughout history, I saw, God gathers communities to bless the world, just as the Church is gathered today to follow in the Way of Jesus. Many of the great social movements that I admired within the United States had their foundation in the church communities living out an active understanding of God’s story. At the core, I wanted—and still want—to be a part of that movement.
Questions about the Way We Do Church
God’s people are formed, changed, and given direction through the Scriptures, which is why the majority of American congregations hear a sermon on those Scriptures each Sunday. But do sermons work? Do they achieve their purpose, or are they an archaic form of communication? Why are sermons in lecture format when most of us learn best through dialogue and inquiry? Does exposure to weekly doses of twenty to twenty-five minutes of unidirectional speech actually change lives? Countless sermons are given every Sunday, yet they don’t seem to prompt levels of peacemaking, truth-telling, generosity, and sacrifice that we see modeled in Jesus’s life. I grew up with a typical format and approach to preaching, which I was also taught in seminary; but as a thirty-five-year old pastor, I admit the sermon model feels irrelevant and ineffectual.
A Letter to Young Artists (And Preachers)
Dear Young Artist:
Remember your first love—how much you enjoyed creating as a child. If you ever lose that sense of joy, you will need to reflect on why you lost that spark. Of course, the craft of expression takes much “dying to self” and much discipline. A discipline of any form takes perseverance. But when we are going through a period of training, we must remember the reason for our training. Our journey needs to have a specific direction. Our direction need not be toward being successful and being famous. We need to start from our first love: what we cherish, what we are, and what we value. As T. S. Eliot wrote, “our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.”
Yet, every Monday I am back to preparing a new sermon for the following Sunday, while I wonder how we learn, imagine, grow, and reflect on Scripture through my typical twenty-minute sermon formats. When I listened to sermons before I was a pastor, I constantly scribbled down questions, wondered about interpretative decisions, or headed down rabbit trails in my mind. I wanted the chance to raise my hand and ask how the sermon illustration illuminated the story of Scripture. Is there a better way for the mystery and beauty and power of God’s ancient stories to come alive in the midst of our church communities?
Rarely a day goes by that I do not wrestle with these questions. Some days I am convinced that the persistence of these concerns means that I have chosen the wrong vocation, and on others I am equally convinced of the possibility that my questions are an integral part of my journey as a pastor. In the midst of these doubts God surprises me with conversation partners, shockingly prophetic preachers, wise authors, and graceful listeners to speak into my thoughts.
Preaching and Changing with the Never Ending Story
As a kid in the 1980s, I watched the movie The NeverEnding Story, where a boy named Bastian avoids school bullies by ducking into a second-hand bookstore. The bookstore owner tells Bastian that, unlike The NeverEnding Story, which the bookstore owner is reading, the books Bastian reads are “safe” books. Bastian’s curiosity is sparked; he “borrows” the bookstore owner’s copy of The NeverEnding Story and heads to the school attic to read the day away. As Bastian reads about the destruction of an imaginary world and the hope for one who could save this world, the boy slowly realizes that he has become a part of the book—he is drawn into the story and his own fate becomes connected to the fate of the imaginary world he has entered.
Now that I am an adult, I often wonder how I, like that bookstore owner, can invite others into the dangerous story of what God is doing in the world rather than merely reciting Scripture and telling them inspiring sermon illustrations? How might I facilitate being drawn into the incredible story of what God is doing in our world?
When I began preaching four years ago, I sought out different ways of engaging and teaching Scripture. I figured my teacher friends would understand how we learn best, so I sat in their classes and asked them what preachers could learn from educators. I studied visual artists and talked with my wife, an oil painter, about visual language and the power of art to transcend spoken word, to reveal deep meaning. I listened to Ira Glass, creator of the This American Life radio program, teach about storytelling. I wondered how we as a Church could pursue and learn the Scriptures in new ways.
In hopes of learning how we learn and engage with sermons, our church community, where I am pastor, is experimenting. Within the traditional mainline church setting where I serve, it amazes me to witness how these experiments in participation have been embraced and enjoyed. Sure, there are Sundays when some threaten to walk out because they don’t like the latest interactive art project (which might be canvasses stenciled with AK-47s and grenades displayed on the sanctuary walls as a modern-day interpretation of Micah’s prophetic words about swords and spears), but other members come with anticipation for new ways of hearing and responding to God’s Scriptures. We experiment with times of silence to reflect on Scripture before someone begins to preach; we break into groups to share questions and observations during the sermon; and following a time of preaching we open the conversation for questions, testimony, and the work of finding ourselves within God’s story. I am so often surprised by God’s Spirit during times of testimony and sharing that I no longer plan the entirety of a sermon but wait to see how the community continues the conversation that my sermon only starts. These experiments invite me to move beyond cynical questions about outmoded forms of preaching to ponder deeper questions of how a church community can hear and live the Scriptures together.
A fellow pastor has written about how for many centuries Christian and Jewish communities have included people who are able to “host the Scriptures.” They may not be the ones speaking, but in this role these hosts remember the history of Scripture and its interpretation within that community. I resonate with this idea of hosting Scripture rather than preaching sermons, and ask, “could hosting Scripture allow more room for the Scriptures to be prophetic in the lives of the preacher and community alike?” For me, it puts the emphasis on God’s use of Scripture in our lives rather than my work and role as the pastor. I wondered, how might I host the Scripture so that it comes alive and challenges my own life as well as others? I try not to wrestle meaning out of the text but tell the story and see how God forms us as the church through our engagement with his Word.
My own experiences in different contexts cemented the idea in my mind that social location, upbringing, education, and racial and ethnic background influence how we read, hear, study, and live the Scriptures. For me, reading the Bible with a middle-class youth group as a teenager, talking about Jesus with Mexican subsistence farmers, and learning the exegetical method of Scripture with seminary students all has informed my unique view. As the sole paid pastor within my current church community, I am primarily responsible for hosting the Scriptures week to week, so how do I host knowing that my life experiences and background are limited? Even as I teach others to host the Scriptures, I am the one encouraging and guiding them in this process. We try to study the Scriptures together in preparation for our weekly gathering, and I invite different voices into the preparation process by reading a diversity of writings on a given text, but still this is a huge limitation. Do I find similar themes throughout Scripture because these are the ways that God works and moves in the world or because of my own biases?
Preaching is typically seen as a way of providing predictable answers: here is what the text means, here is how to live it out. I am finding that a role for preaching is to continue the conversation the congregation is already having with Scripture and God. Preaching should invite meaningful and difficult questions about our lives and following Jesus. Recently, after speaking of how the exiles in Babylon heard God’s words of hope to return one day, one member asked, “How could the people trust God again after God took them into exile?” I caught myself before immediately responding: it was clearly a question that needed to be reflected upon. How do any of us trust God again after horrible things happen in our lives? Preaching that is a part of a congregational conversation must encourage and allow all types of questions. Even weeks later, the conversation may still continue.
One question that continues to concern me (though it is one by which I may be compromised), is how the church would change if pastors were not financially compensated. I humbly recognize the gift it is to have my bills paid by a congregation—especially when so many who long to find full-time work are unable to. Because I am paid, my time is freed up to study, teach, and lead. Yet many times I am expected to fulfill the ministry of the church rather than equipping the congregation to do ministry. Sometimes I wonder if my position inhibits deeper growth and service within the community where I serve. I hear the adage that clergy are set apart from, not above the rest of the church, but in practice this does not seem the case. Paying a pastor also seems to highlight one set of specific gifts over other gifts within the church body. I dream of experiments by churches where financial support enables others besides the pastor to use their time to bless the community; for instance, rather than paying a pastor, paying the salary of an artist, teacher, or community organizer to work and build up the Kingdom of God within our neighborhoods and congregations.
The God of the Bible made us with the capacity to ask questions, sometimes even as a sign of commitment, of faith trusting enough to inquire and probe. We see this in Abraham questioning God’s judgment, the psalmist screaming laments, and Jesus’s wrestling with God’s will in Gethsemane. Maybe my questions are actually gifts that need to be protected and asked anew by each generation of congregations and pastors. As a church we have biblical models of the early church experimenting in the exact areas where I struggle to find clarity. Perhaps continually reevaluating the relationship between pastor and congregation and how we learn, teach, and live Scripture without expecting easy answers opens us up to what God is doing right here, right now, rather than relying on precedents that may tire out and leave us deaf to the transforming power of the gospel.
This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2011, “Empowering Wise Preachers: For a Vigorous Church in a Volatile World.”