The more I read about preaching, the less my desire is to preach. Stanley Hauerwas is the main culprit in the attempt to curtail my sermonic aspirations. For example, treat the words below as gospel and I'm almost left wondering what else a preacher can do at a pulpit but stand there silently. Perhaps this only further supports Hauerwas's critique of the mind-numbing society that we live in.
...when a sermon is thought to be no more than a speech by the minister to provide advice to help us negotiate life, the content of sermons usually are exemplifications of the superficial and sentimental pieties of a liberal culture. Then we wonder why the mainstream church is dying. Why do you need to come to church to be told that we ought to treat everyone with dignity? Why do you need to come to church to be told we ought to share some of what we have with those who do not have as much as we have? Why do you need to come to church to be told that children say the darndest things? Why do you need to come to church to hear stories that give us insight into the human condition?
It is hard to re-imagine preaching. I recently completed a paper on discipleship, and one of the areas I briefly touched on was "preaching as discipleship" (see below). I'm not sure I avoided all the pitfalls that Hauerwas warned against (despite the fact that I quoted him numerous times!), but I suppose if I only think what Hauerwas thinks then one of us is irrelevent. No prizes for guessing which one.
Preaching is a time for the word of God to be uttered; a word which tears down and builds up, a word which is a summons away from and a call to follow. According to Stanley Hauerwas, “sermons…develop imaginative skills to help us see the world as judged and redeemed by Christ.” They should tell “a story that makes possible our ability to live lives we do understand”.
Yet too often our preaching is disconnected from people’s reality and fails to make sense of our life of discipleship in this world. An answer is given when there is no question, support is offered when there is no need, and an idea is given when there is no desire to know.
Thus my primary challenge to preachers is this:
Know your congregation. Know their fears, their worries, their insecurities, their hopes, their hurts, their needs, their desires, their joys and their sorrows. Preaching as discipleship can only happen in the context of honest, mutual relatedness. In this context, you do not become a disciple’s psychiatrist, but rather their friend who as a word from God for them [cf. Jer. 37:17].
Henri Nouwen wrote that “perhaps teachers can never be true teachers unless they are, to a certain degree, friends”. He wrote this in light of Jesus naming his own students “friends” (Jn. 15:15). Are church leaders today afraid to name the members of their congregation ‘friends’? Before we learn how to be good preachers and teachers we must first learn how to be good friends.
To preach as a formative act means teaching people the skill of “fitting their own small story into the larger story of God”. It is only within the context of this story that the commands of Jesus can be taught wisely. We need not resort to moralizing to get people to behave the right way. Understanding Jesus means understanding that “…the teachings of Jesus are not proposed as ethical principles, but as a summons to that radical commitment which the now-intruding kingdom of God demands…” As John Howard Yoder puts it, following the commands of Jesus “is not about some legalistic approach to copying Jesus, but rather about participating in Christ”.
Preachers proclaim the reality of the kingdom of God, and ultimately, the reality of the King and our participation with him in the life of the kingdom. Through such preaching we are discipling people by fulfilling what Hauerwas considers to be the task of the preacher – “to show how our lives are unintelligible if Jesus Christ is not the Lord”.
Our preaching should not “settle” matters, but should open up discussion and exploration and new pathways of obedience