I was speaking with a brother who has been preaching for many years. He admitted that increasingly he felt there was something wrong with the model. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He reminded me of a comment made by Doug Pagitt a few years ago that “preaching is broken.” I mentioned this, and also recalled some of David Fitch thoughts in The Great Giveaway, and I told him that I have a number of concerns about preaching in the current context, and that my largest concern is the context itself.

Somewhere along the way I opined that preaching has to become interactive and has to move from lecture halls to small rooms. He looked puzzled. His question: but if preaching becomes dialogical, where is the authority? My answer: the authority is where it has always been, in Scripture, Tradition and the Body of believers. But since we have many congregations but few communities, we don’t experience the living Body, and this in conjunction with cultural forces, authority has simply dissolved into the mist. But first things first.

The problem of communication.

People who study learning tell us that we remember about 10% of what we hear. Ouch. Preachers take note. But for me an even larger issue is that communication by definition is a two-way process. If you are trying to communicate something important but have no idea what your hearer takes away you have not really communicated.

The problem of context.

Some things that were true in modernity are now untrue in the postmodern world. It is as if the climate of the world has changed. Hawaii now has the climate of Montreal. Attempting to grow palm trees in Honolulu was a no-brainer, but in this new world, it is nuts.

Or think of Brian McLaren’s bridge illustration (Argentina was it?). There it stands, a perfectly fine bridge: except that the river has changed course and the bridge is now entirely on land and is perfectly useless. It was supposed to get people from point A to point B and now takes them nowhere.

Some of my concerns about preaching, then, center around the shift in our culture itself. When preaching, and its current form, the sermon were given birth by the Reformers five hundred years ago, expressive individualism and our consumer culture had not been invented. Identity was conceived in communal terms. And the Scriptures themselves were the property of the Church. That is, Scripture was owned, and interpreted, by a community of people in a long line from the Apostles.

As a result, when people heard the Word, it had tremendous authority. Authority resided both in the text and in the preacher, who was conceived as the spokesman for God and in standing in distant relation to the Apostles (How distant varied a great deal after the Reformation, from Catholic to Reformed to Radical Reformers).

That was then. This is now. The river has shifted. Consider the new context of the sermon, post Enlightenment and post-Christendom.

We gather in a lecture hall. That setting itself has profound implications for the way we hear. We know from our educational experience that lecture halls and lecturers are simply one small voice in the great ocean of experts and professionals.

We listen to a professional. We know that professionals are fallible, and that they vary in expertise depending on their own history and experience. We understand that their opinion is one of many, and the more education we have, the more we realize this to be true. We also know that motivations vary: professionals are paid to do what they do. They have a vested interest in outcomes that may be fuzzy to us but which makes them suspect as purveyors of “truth.”

We listen as individuals. We don’t have forms for processing what we hear as a community. SO we enter this Cartesian frame where we become the sole judge of what we hear and we give it whatever weight we choose. We know our neighbor does the same.

We are passive listeners. There is no opportunity to question or respond. The lecture hall conditions us to passivity, and that passivity extends to our response.

The narrow context: isolated, individualistic, non-covenanted. We attend a lecture hall setting with hundreds of people we don’t know. The context tells us that this is “low commitment.” While the gathering may call itself a “community,” we know that real community requires many significant connections and ongoing interaction from day to day. Without that experience, we are simply hearing one more voice from a person we don’t know calling us to attend to something she may or may not be living into herself.

The wider context: market culture. Those of us who read, and even more so those of us who are Netizens, hear a thousand voices a day. Why should we assign special weight to the voice we hear on Sunday morning? Everyone has something to sell and a vested interest in some position: we are more critical listeners than our parents generation. And if we google today’s sermon topic we can hear an array of opinions. Who is right? How do I choose? It’s too much work, I give up.

The wider context: consumption. I come to a gathering trained in a consumer culture and I place myself at the center. It’s all about me. If I like what I hear I may take it onboard. If I don’t like it I’ll tune it out. There is no covenant community (shades of “there is no spoon”).

The Option

There are options, and they are part of an experiment that is aimed at recovering many things we have lost: covenant community, meaningful authority, the Scriptures as the birth-right of faith communities. The heart of most of these experiments is not to abandon teaching, but to make it interactive, so that the entire Body participates in some way and enters a conversation with the Word as if the Word is the third Person in the conversation.

We still have “experts” or professionals among us: those who have more training and wider reading and thus represent both the Word and the wider tradition, and who evidence teaching gifts and are thus “elders.” But because we enter a shared process of discernment, we move toward becoming an interpretive community. We invite the Holy Spirit and the Word and the Body into a dialogue in the gifted Body. We make context a part of that dialogue, because the important questions we bring to Scripture are generated by the mission environment. Moreover, we exercise faith believing that the Spirit will lead us into all truth and that this is a living and temporal process.

And because we are no longer passive, but active and engaged, we have the opportunity to learn through all our senses. We know that effective learning is more than rote and more than hearing: it must engage our whole being including our emotions. Conversation and debate generate emotion (we could learn from the Jews on this). We both think and feel our way into truth that is lived.

In this way we do not move beyond authority, but we recognize that authority is a complex reality that is authorized in at least three ways: by Text, Tradition and living Temple (Community). The Spirit of God dwells among the people of God to create God’s future. This perspective is a return to an older understanding of authority and Apostolicity. It moves beyond truth as propositional to an older sense of truth as Troth – truth as aleithea in its root sense of an unveiling. Truth must be embodied, and implies both relationality and covenant.

For further reading see Pagitt, Reimagining Spiritual Formation, Fitch, The Great Giveaway, Clapp, A Peculiar People, Raschke, The Next Reformation and Pagitt, Preaching Reimagined.

2 Comments on preaching, authority, learning and growth

  1. Jay Mumper says:

    I so enjoy the freshness of your perspective. I/we are deeply involved in a new community in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. We’ve been working to build a place in our small village – the Linglestown Gathering Place – to welcome folks into both a common place to meet and get to actually know one another and to worship and serve.

    Your discussion of teaching/preaching here is spot-on to our experience. Our teaching is interactive and our hope is to draw people into the conversation about what scripture means to how we live our lives. I am not a seminary-trained pastor (three other colleagues in the mission have various amounts of bible education) but we all teach from what we read from scripture and commentaries with the goal to provoke thoughtful discussion. There is a new freshness when in the midst of interactive teaching, a 15 year old mentions some insight that inspires questions from a 65 year old. Its obvious that we are all better together than separately and that the Spirit inspires all believers.

    Thanks for your work.

  2. len says:

    thanks Jay, sounds like an adventure! I’m encouraged by your story!