Constantine and Dr. Faustus

As a child I regularly listened to the radio broadcasts provided by the conservative Christain organisation, Focus on the Family, both the daily broadcast on family issues and the weekly broadcast of the radio drama for children: Adventures in Odyssey.

My understanding of family life and the meaning and content of Christian faith was heavily influenced by these broadcasts. I listened carefully to the dangers of straying beyond the strict confines of conservative Christian morality, and I can still hear the emphatic tone of voice in which Dr. Dobson warned his listeners that the process of falling in love that begins with holding hands will inevitably “end up in bed” if nothing is done to stop it.

Adventures in Odyssey was entertaining and funny with engaging characters and high quality production and story editing. I enjoyed listening to the adventures and getting to know the characters. It was only later in life that I began to sort out the potentially damaging messages within the drama from the more simple moralistic ideas of parental love and good behaviour. I still like to listen at times, for nostalgia’s sake, but I am increasingly concerned by how the blithe and joyful nature of the programme masks what frequently amounts to bigotry, ignorance and intolerance. I am grieved that such a special part of my childhood is turning into something that is little better than a propaganda tool for extreme right-wing Christianity.

Given this observation, perhaps I should not have been surprised to read of Dr. Dobson’s recent assurances to his massive flock that US presidential hopeful Donald Trump has been “born again.” When he followed up these assurances with the advice to fellow Christians to show him nurture and kindness as this “baby Christian” grows into his new faith, Dr. Dobson’s willingness to join the candidate’s evangelical advisory group was surely a logical next step.

Nevertheless, when I read the news I was mortified. The more so when I realised that I was not incredulous. Whether or not Mr. Trump’s vaunted conversion experience is genuine, these resultant bedfellows amount to a nightmare scenario. There is as yet no sign that his newfound faith has caused Mr. Trump to speak with any more kindness of the refugees and migrants seeking safety and freedom in the US or of the sizeable Muslim population already living there. One is forced to conclude that the nationalistic, intolerant, arrogant ignorance that has so far characterised his campaign is not likely to greatly alter.

Instead, there is every possibility that his negative, nationalistic campaign will gain momentum, backed by one of the most powerful voices of the Religious Right afirming his true faith and thus baptising his candidacy for president. Many of those who might have had second thoughts about Mr. Trump as president, will now, I have little doubt, jump on the bandwagon, sincere in the belief that what their priest says is true, is true, and failing to see the lack of true faith, true religion, true imitation of Christ in Mr. Trump or his ‘Christian’ backers.

For those of us with any familiarity of fourth century history, the parallels with the Emperor Constantine I are hard to miss. A political leader, fighting for supremecy, seeks to gain power and consolidate his influence over his empire. He choses a religion that is familiar to him and, in some ways, near to his values. He announces his conversion to this religion, persuades its most powerful leaders of his sincerety, and uses the influence he gains in this way to consolidate his control over the political and relgious lives of the empire.

On the other hand Dr. Dobson and his fellow right-wing evangelicals would appear to be playing the role of Dr. Faustus. They have made a deal with a man many would see as a danger and a threat to the modern world for the sake of their own sacred cows and fundamentalist understandings of faith and politics. They may not recognise Mr. Trump as an aspect of the devil, but, knowingly or not, I believe they have sold what is left of their souls for the advancement of their particular brand of politics and a mythical past when America was “great.” They have made the deal, but the whole country, and perhaps the whole world, will reap the inevitable consequences.

As an aside, these are precisely the people who trumpet the importance of religious freedom as their own right to believe whatever they choose and act however they like, while they attempt to force those beliefs on the wider American public through the legislative and executive brances of the government. They seem to have forgotten that the First Amendment reads “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” If they believe in the freedom of faith groups from government control, they should cease attempting to force the government to legislate their religious views into law. Equally, Mr. Trump’s attitude towards Muslims is clearly a violation of the First Amendment.

I watch all of this unfolding with horror. As the late triumph of the Leave campaign in the UK’s referendum on the EU can attest, appealing to incipient, injured national pride and playing on the fear of the “other” can have surprisingly powerful effects. Friends and acquaintances here in the UK have asked me for assurances that Mr. Trump can’t win the presidency, surely! But I was certain he couldn’t win the nomination. I was certain the UK would vote to remain in the EU. I am no longer certain, and if Mr. Trump really has persuaded the leaders of American Evangelical community and the Religious Right that his “conversion” is genuine. I fear for the future of humanity.

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Disbelieving Church: Kingdom Building

Disbelieving Church: Kingdom Building

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

As a Minister-in-training, I was involved in a church that was having extended talks with another local church about amalgamation, joining up, sharing resources, forming a new church. The conversations seemed endless and unfocused as we, all non-experts, tried to sort through a number of concerns and issues we didn’t fully understand.

As with all such things, we were a mixed band of people, some 100% for the merger, others 100% against, both impatient with the others, and most in the middle not quite committed to anything. Eventually it seemed that the most important thing to settle was a joint vision for going forward.

When the conversations had begun, both congregations had been aging and dwindling, but as they continued one church began to grow under a new ministry. The power imbalance was a stress on amalgamation conversations, and slowly, but surely, those in the smaller church began to feel we were discussing a take-over rather than a merger.

While some passionately objected to the idea on the grounds of individual identity, centred primary around the building (see Disbelieving Church: Buildings), others were more passionate that whatever form of church we created would be active and effective in reaching the lost. The church that was then growing was mostly by membership transfer, and concerns were expressed that such moving around of the local sheep did nothing to build the kingdom or save souls. Even the regular ministries run by the two churches – soup kitchen, mother and toddler group, café, etc. were deemed inadequate as not enough people entered the mainstream congregation through these channels.

Those who believed strongly in these social forms of mission and the call of Jesus to love and to serve were mortified by the assessment of their work as basically useless if they weren’t saving people from hell. I was livid, but afraid to speak out, as I knew my voice would be in the minority and my position and livelihood could potentially be at stake.

These were genuine concerns – for those who believe the message of Jesus is solely about being saved from the fires of hell, it is logical to conclude that any function of the church community must be aimed at this goal – and they are found in many corners of the Christian church. They often expressed using the language of “evangelism” or “mission” or “kingdom building.” While I acknowledge that, for some, this is a logical and largely unselfish out-working of their understanding of Christian faith, I believe it cloaks something far more sinister. The language of evangelism and mission and particularly “kingdom building” makes me cringe.

While Jesus talked about the “kingdom of God” and the “kingdom of heaven,” he didn’t talk about kingdom building. He spoke of seeking the kingdom, sacrificing for the kingdom, perhaps even growing the kingdom, but not building the kingdom. The kingdom of God is within. The kingdom of God is hard to enter. The kingdom of God is costly. The kingdom of God is not of this world.

It is with increasing discomfort that I have become aware of the use of the language of “kingdom building”in the contemporary church, focusing on numerical and financial success as markers of God’s favour. The kingdom that Jesus talked about was most often hidden, costly and unpredictable, yet Kingdom Building in our time seems to be about gaining a louder voice and a larger influence for the institution of church – power, prestige, respect, money and numbers.

Too often, kingdom building is about “my” church, “my” building, “my” fellow believers, and notching up saved souls for the same. Thus, people give passionate speeches in church meetings about how we should be “out there” saving people from hell. We seek power, prestige, respect, money and numbers for the Kingdom, not for ourselves, because these are the things we appear to believe God’s kingdom needs in order  to survive. Without them the church will die! So we must build the kingdom, get out there, be heard, influence people, save souls, etc. We must find a way to force our society to be more holy. We must protest the misrepresentation of our faith in the media. We must grow our churches so that we can save the world!

Even if there is a need to save people from hell, it is Jesus who saves them, not any kingdom, not any building, not any church, not any human being. Yes, Jesus may use you or me to reach people, but God is not dependant upon humanity to act or impotent if we do not.

But there is an even greater concern here for me. If we are followers of Jesus, if we seek first his kingdom, if we desire to grow in his garden and bear his fruit, surely our central longing must be to be like Jesus, and it seems to me, that imitation of Jesus would cause God’s people eschew power, ignore prestige, demand no respect, give away their money, and never bother to count who’s in or who’s out.

This is, after all, the Jesus who said that the one who wants to save his or her life will lose it, but the one who gives up life for his sake will find it again. What if, instead of “Kingdom Building” the truly faithful thing do to is destroy our little imitation kingdoms – give up all we have and seek the truth of the kingdom of heaven within us, hidden in a field, rising in the dough, or growing in our own gardens?

 

 

She’s not one of them

She’s not one of them

We invented games and played them together. I helped her wash, train and walk her dog. We talked into the night when we were supposed to be sleeping. We shared inside jokes and wore matching dresses made to measure by our grandmother. We argued over whose piece of toast was in the toaster and any other ridiculous topic seemed important. We shared a room every night for 8 years. We baked together and memorised verses and poems together. We rolled around in the mud, shared a double bed when visiting the grandparents (I hogged the covers), washed together and talked about life, faith, emotions and anything else that came to mind.

My older sister was central and formative part of my childhood and coming of age. She saw the world differently from me and had a different personality, but I grew up imitating her. It became one of my favourite sayings that keeping my hair long when she had hers cut was one of the first times I consciously decided to do something different to the way my sister did it.

When she left home to do a degree in Biology, I was bereft. My sister seemed to slip away from me into another world. I knew it was dark. I knew she struggled with depression. I knew it impacted on her relationship with our parents, but I didn’t know much more than that. I got to know her again a few years later when I was doing a degree in music. In those years we laid the foundation to our adult friendship. When she left to spend two years in Africa with the Peace Corps, we wrote letters. I did a lot of growing up, and we slowly solidified that friendship.

Over the years our paths have taken us, at times, to opposite sides of the world, but through letters, emails and chatting on Skype (and latterly iMessage) we have maintained and strengthened our friendship. We watched one another grow and mature from a distance, and when I saw her becoming a more peaceful, grounded person, I felt a great joy for this period of growth and its impact on her future.

I was living in Cardiff at the time. With an ocean between us I watched the slow unfolding of this deeper and more peaceful side of my sister, but I wasn’t prepared for what came next. One May day, as I sat at my desk in my Cardiff student flat talking to my sister over the internet, it all came together. In retrospect I can see that the growth in each of our lives led to that pivotal moment, the moment my sister came out to me. The moment I knew I could choose a moral belief I was already questioning or I could choose to show my sister love. The moment I knew the next words I spoke would have a profound impact on the future of our relationship. The moment I knew that a loving response was all I could give. I don’t remember what I said, although I believe she told me some years afterwards that it was, “brilliant”. I will always be grateful that she couldn’t see my face.

So I began to adjust to the idea that my sister was gay. I repeated it to myself mentally. I looked back at life for clues, and I looked forward at life to see how it might change. I thought about the positive growth I had seen in her life, and was unable to deny that this admission must be a positive thing for her, whatever my conservative Christian training had taught me to believe.

When I saw her again seven months later, I chose to behave as if it made no difference to me, to treat her just the same, to laugh and joke, to play games, to sleep on the floor together. Every time that odd feeling of something not quite right came up, I simply ignored it and went on loving my sister as I always had.

As the years went by, I kept doing this. When she talked about her friends, gay or straight, when she talked about falling in love, when she talked about her life and I talked about mine, it wasn’t any different because I chose not to let it be. In fact, if I ignored the pronouns as she talked of falling in love, her story sounded a lot like mine.

And a funny thing happened after all those years of acting like it didn’t matter. One day I realised it really didn’t. I realised that “she’s gay” was no longer a thought I needed to manage or a reality that overshadowed “she’s my sister.” For years I have been careful about who I tell. I thought it was because I wasn’t quite comfortable, or I didn’t want to be judged or to have to answer questions. It may have been that for a while, but recently I have realised that there is another reason I don’t bring it up. Because it isn’t an issue, and I don’t want it to be.

When I heard about the horrible tragedy in Orlando, I found myself wondering if I should contact my sister, and ask if she was upset about what happened. I read the headlines about a “gay club” and the LGBT community. It made me think of her and of her wife. Vauge memories were stirred in my mind, stories she had told me of hiding, of fear, of tension, yet somehow I struggled to associate her with the subsection of humanity mentioned in those reports and articles.

All those stories talked about a minority population, a specialist group, a close-knit community; a sub-division of people, in short, that was somehow other than the general population. I can easily see the necessity for LGBT+ people to identify themselves, and each other, as belonging to this group. It is a core part of their identity that has been denied, suppressed and abused for far too long. The category only exists because the wider, hetero-normative society has denied these people the freedom to exist for so long.

To my surprise, however, I have found that I can’t quite get my head around thinking of my sister as part of this group, this sub-section of society. Simply because I do not think of her as “other” than I am. She is no more different from me than any other of my family members or friends. She is not “one of them” – she is just my sister.

My mind’s refusal to list my sister under the heading LGBT made me stop and think. As parents, siblings, friends and loved ones mourn the dead from the Orlando tragedy, we would do well to remember that every member of the “gay community” is actually a person, an individual with his or her (or their) own unique identity. While it is culturally necessary to recognise their sub-group and affirm their identities in opposition to the long-oppressive voices of the wider culture, it is just as important to remember them as brothers, sisters, sons and daughters, human beings just like me.

It is time we stop labelling sub-groups of people in order to differentiate them from ourselves. Offering thoughts and prayers and moments of silence only goes so far. We must figure out how to defeat hate, how to silence fear, how to see every human as, fundamentally, just like me. As long as we insist on describing different groups of people as “them” (LGBT, Muslim, migrant, scrounger, redneck) in order to describe or illustrate how “they” differ from “us,” we will continue to breed hate and fear in our society, and the innocent will continue to die (whether at their own hands or the hands of others) because it is easier to believe the overwhelmingly prevalent, misguided or hate-filled lies than it is to combat them with the truth.

So perhaps I should make it an issue that my sister is gay for the very reason that it makes no difference. I should talk about her and her wife (rather than partner), because it shouldn’t be remarkable. I should bring it up and celebrate the beauty of who she is. If I do, maybe my voice will make a difference, albeit small. Maybe that is a step I can take towards turning the tide of hate. What about you?

Disbelieving Church: Buildings

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

Recently, I moved with my small family to a town in the Welsh marches. Our home is just around the corner from the local parish church, and sometimes I wander into the building to feel the cool, peaceful space on a warm day or to exercise my vocal chords and enjoy lovely acoustic of the vaulted ceiling. I wandered in one Saturday afternoon to find a lady patiently sorting wilting from perky flowers and creating a fresh arrangement. During our chat, we exchanged a few words about the building. I commented on the acoustic and the beauty; she brought up the difficulty heating such a large space.

Although costly to maintain, church buildings can be truly beautiful and breath-taking places. From the simplest, white-walled, puritan meeting-house to the oldest and most ornate ancient cathedral, they have been designed and constructed for the express purpose of facilitating humanity’s encounter with divinity. At their best they provide, inspiration, rest, peace, beauty.

Ideally church buildings are enlivened by a diverse and active family of believers. Among these people would be those with gifts to maintain the building in order to facilitate the continued meeting, growth and fellowship of those for whom the church functions as the (faith) family home. In such a context church buildings can be positive and healthy, a space for the faith family to be manifested and share important time together.

In recent years, an increasing number of church communities have actively opened their buildings to others around them. They offer the resource of space to bless others with hospitality, be that a local nursery or preschool, uniform groups, weight-loss clubs or even other faith groups who lack a place of worship. Congregations that share generously in this way without expectation of return, but only in hope of serving and getting to know their communities can be a blessing. They may even receive in return enough remuneration to maintain a building that they would otherwise struggle to keep open.

In an age now mostly gone, the church building was an important hub for the community. In a majority Christian society, church-going was an important ritual of cultural life as well as faith, and most in the community would go to the church regularly as naturally as they would go to work or to the shop or, perhaps, down the pub.

This is, however, the case no longer. Church, as we have inherited it, has become largely a fringe concern, a specialist club for those few who still feel their faith is tied to weekly worship in such buildings. As a result of this change in culture, I would like to suggest that the Building, for many congregations can become more of hindrance than a help.

In the context of ageing and/or dwindling congregations, buildings can become something quite negative. It is far too easy for people to become obsessed with maintaining them, filling them with people, returning them to their former glory. The building can become almost an extension of the psyche of the congregation. This is particularly true for those who have care of the building. It is unthinkable to change the building, give up the building, or use the building for anything not considered sacred. Even when a congregation is dwarfed by the building that once was full and financially crippled by its maintenance, the building must be kept at all costs.

Buildings can also be unhelpful when they become the obsessive focus of evangelism as the sole mission of the church. If a building is welcoming, inclusive, full of various groups renting space or perhaps shares space in a community centre, the building has contact with the un-churched built-in. In such a situation, the missional focus of the congregation can narrow to those people as the church’s mission field. Too often this ends in treating those who stray within or near our church buildings as targets to be converted. One also frequently hears some discouraged church member bemoaning the lack of connection between foot traffic and bums on seats or more people to help maintain the building. Hospitality should never be conditional. We are called to give and to love because Jesus did, not in order to fill our buildings.

It is also possible for buildings to contribute to a sense of complacency. If the church building is a decent size and respectably full at each service, the congregation can feel safe and satisfied. Perhaps they might be sorry that more people do not come in to share in the wonders of church in their building, but they have no need of these people, so their absence is not difficult to ignore.

In these three and other situations church buildings can become more of a hindrance than a helpful tool. As congregations age, shrink or change in response to their communities, holding onto, fixing and filling the building can too easily become the paramount concern of the church members. It is cloaked as “mission” and preaching the gospel, but people desperately want bums on seats because that’s what keeps the doors open and the building in good repair.

In my experience, this priority too often sets aside the gospel, Jesus, and the kingdom of God (which is within us, not our buildings or denominational structures). Instead we become obsessed with continuing the build and maintain a finite, worldly kingdom of bricks or wood or stone, convinced that, as it has been a conduit of God’s glory and blessing in the past, it will be again.

Perhaps it is difficult to see beyond the walls. We feel we need the buildings to give shape to our mission or our relationship with the community. This may be the case, but it is a fine line to walk, and perhaps we would do better to ask ourselves or our congregations to consider, from time to time, if the building, its limits, its needs, its cost, has come to overshadow the mission of Jesus to love, serve, sacrifice, and help the people around us.

When buildings are taken for granted as part of our church structures and a necessary mark of the identity of any given congregation, they can easily do more harm than good. When they become the focus of and reason for what we do, they become idols. When we see them as too sacred to be disposable (or to be shared with a different faith group in need of space), there is a danger they will replace God, who alone is holy, in the life of the church.

In such and similar cases, church structures, whether concrete, brick, wooden, stone (or merely psychological), too easily become bastions in which we hide to preserve a long dead identity and perpetuate rites and sacrifices that are no longer applicable or understood in our culture and world.

If your building causes you to lose sight of God, burn it down, sell it or give it away. It is better for Jesus’ followers to be homeless than to be obsessed with preserving the past and so find themselves in a hell of their own making rather than working in the fields of the Kingdom of God.

[This reflection applies more directly to my experience of UK churches than US, but I think the topic is also applicable to many US congregations for whom the building is itself often a kind of kingdom, a destination, a stronghold of a certain identity in which people come and mass together. Too often this can feed into an ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality. If our buildings provide us with worship, coffee shop, school, counselling, and almost every other need, we can easily become isolated from the world to such an extent that our safe communities begin to foster hate and fear towards those who are outside our walls.]

An Epidemic of Miserly Nationalism

The US is building to a presidential election in November. It has been impossible to miss the inexplicable rise of Trump to the top of the Republican pile, nor to ignore the contest between the left and centre of the Democratic party personified in Clinton and Sanders. The nominations seems set, but nothing is in stone until the party conventions, and the war of words continues as the candidates seek to woo voters and discredit their opposition.

The UK is building to a referendum on its relationship with the European Union. Voters are being asked to decide if the UK should be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the EU. Both the Leave and Remain campaigns are chiefly focused on fear and greed. Both accuse the other of misusing facts or telling outright lies. There is little or no clear information from either campaign, and the national media isn’t helping with its daily interviews of another Joe (or Jane) on the Street who clearly has a strong opinion and very little information to back it up.

Naturally, I am hearing more about the later campaign at the moment than the former, but I admit to being deeply disturbed by the rhetoric I am hearing from both sides of both campaigns. The Leave campaign is railing about taking back our nation’s sovereignty. Trump is announcing that he will “make America great again”  while Clinton insists it still is and always has been great. The Remain campaign harps on incessantly about being “better in Europe” by which they mean stability and jobs, or, essentially, more money. The emphasis seems to be, almost exclusively, on nationalism, our own best interest, being ‘great’ (again?), whether a given decision will be better for my nation, my region, my pocketbook. It’s all me, me, me and mine, mine, mine and what can make my life better or my country more sovereign and protect me from the influence, influx and needs of those other people outside my nation’s borders.

It is hard to resist comparisons to the nationalistic attitudes that contributed to the two massive wars in Europe in the last century. The propaganda of almost every campaign seems to focus on objectifying (and so dehumanising) those who aren’t part of my nation. It’s the best interest of me and mine and the rest of the world can go hang if they aren’t going to contribute coins to my coffers or obey my country’s rules. Such language and ideas smack of hatred, sectarianism and bigotry.

In all the debates about the EU, I have longed to hear someone to explain how the UK’s decision could effect Europe and the rest of the world. Not just how it would effect the UK. Is it not more humane (not to mention more Christian) to consider whether the whole of Europe or the whole of the world would be better with the UK in or out of the EU? Should we not be asking what that decision would do to other countries as well as the UK itself?

And the Presidential campaign, as Trump pontificates about building walls and banning Muslims and Clinton plays on the historically novelty of a woman being so close to the White House, what about the world outside US borders? Surely it would be better, as Commander-in-Chief, to consider how best to use the considerable power and influence of the USA to make the world a better place. Surely the population of this rich and powerful nation would benefit from learning humility, practicing peace, and seeking to give out of its riches to help those less fortunate in the world.

If one thing is clear at this point in history it is that international relationships and international goodwill are more important than ever as enormous populations of refugees and migrants are on the move. Right now they flee war, bombs, poverty, but what will happen when the changing climate forces populations to flee rising seas or spreading deserts? The decisions these two powerful and influential nations make now will have a powerful impact on the rest of the world for years to come, and yet the rhetoric is all about me, and us, and my/our own nation.

The image of a miser gathering all his (or her) belongings close, brooding over them and snapping at anyone who comes near is applicable in both cases. The heartless selfishness of such rhetoric and politics bodes ill for the future of the world.

Why are we talking about building walls and not tables? Why are we seeking to close our borders not open them? How can we change this destructive rhetoric and learn to dismiss this erroneous idea of static national identity and sovereignty? We must learn to look past ourselves and past our own borders to see the naked human need in the world and practice basic respect for humanity – regardless of creed, colour or place of birth.

 

Disbelieving Church: Preaching

[This post is part of a series of reflections on Disbelieving Church. If you have not already done so, please check out the Introduction for a little background and a few disclaimers.]

I’m not sure how old I was when my parents began to take me regularly into “big church”. No older than six years, I’m sure. I was tiny. I remember preparing for Sunday morning: pretty dress and stockings, shiny black shoes and matching tiny handbag (just big enough for a box of crayons). The minister of the church where I grew up used a lot of what my mom called 64-dollar-words. Most of it went over my head, but I sat quietly with my crayons, colouring on the order of service, trying to illustrate whatever images came to mind as I listened, and absorbing as much of the sermon as I could understand.

In this way, I learned at a young age to sit and listen to the sermon, whether I understood it or not, whether I got pleasure from it or not, whether I learned from it or not. There was no question of whether it was ‘boring’ or critiquing the content, the point was to sit and listen and try to gain something from the discipline.

Roll on a few decades and several years of theological education, and sitting and listening to sermons got a whole lot more difficult. Nowadays, with a very few exceptions, I, almost invariably, wish to contradict the preacher. There are times when I have felt so strongly opposed to what was being preached that I have almost been (what I would once have called) moved by the Spirit to stand up and shout “no” in the middle of a sermon. The new discipline I have developed in place of sitting and listening, it is sitting and decidedly not listening for the sake of my own sanity.

Sometimes I accomplish this by selecting a theme or idea from the scripture reading or what is preached and reflecting on that in order to avoid listening to the sermon. When I cannot ignore what is being said, I sometimes vent my spleen by writing rebuttals on whatever bit of paper is handy. Sometimes I wonder what is wrong with me that everyone else is sitting and calmly listening to things that make my skin crawl. It makes me want to scream.

Of course, there are some preachers that I don’t find quite so difficult to listen to, they tend to be few and far between or concentrated in certain places, usually places with a strong academic emphasis, characterised by a questioning attitude and attention to the discipline of biblical studies. But such sermons are a rarity in the average Baptist church, and not much more common in local and national assemblies.

When I was a preacher myself, I generally felt sermons were an exercise in futility. I spent hours in preparation and writing each week. I tried to craft my words to the needs or at least the context of my listeners. I attempted to challenge, exhort, inspire, always with a core value to love and not judge, to encourage and not condemn. Feedback was rare, apart from one man, not a church member, who consistently had a word to say about my messages. Others sat and listened with various expressions on their faces – smiles, frowns, blankness, confusion or the semblance of sleep. Some gave me a nod or a word of thanks at the end of the service, most said nothing at all, but more than once the comment was “I hope they were listening.” How tempting it was to retort that my words had been more apt for the speaker than those s/he hoped had taken them to heart. I wonder why I never did.

When my husband and I were first married, he was already in ministry, and I spent four years as the minister’s wife. I watched him spend hours, sometimes days, constructing messages to share with his congregation, yet for all the time he spent, I could count on the fingers of one hand the concrete changes his sermons appeared to bring about in his church and congregation. Perhaps that is looking at it wrong; the church itself certainly changed in many less tangible ways while he was minister. Perhaps some of that was due to the content of his messages, but life as a dripping tap can be seriously discouraging, especially when, inevitably, the ones who most need to hear are the ones who are least likely to listen.

In addition to this sense of futility, to be the a minister who preaches regularly was, for me, to live with a constant conflict of interest. Every week I prepared a sermon for a group of people who were, effectively, keeping a roof over my head and food on my table. However challenging I found myself wishing to be in my preaching, I was always held back by the gentle nudge of the consideration that, if I offend them too much, these people can make me homeless and destitute.

Congregations have expectations. Expectations of the language the preacher will use, the basic doctrinal content of his or her sermons, the worldview and values the preacher will inevitably uphold, but what if the preacher doesn’t have that worldview or share those values? A former principle in a Baptist College used to say that congregations pay ministers to believe for them, implying that the Baptist principle of “freedom of conscience” does not apply to the minister.

When, in a memorable sermon about avoiding easy answers, my husband questioned the traditional doctrine of heaven, he was afterwards rebuked for “taking people’s hope away.”(When he responded that “going to heaven when you die” or being reunited with loved ones has not, historically, been the chief reason to follow Jesus, one response was “I won’t believe that.”) Is the faith or hope of a Christian so tenuous that a simple question or alternative understanding presented from the pulpit is enough to destroy it?

In the same sermon, he reflected honestly about serving the unchurched as a funeral celebrant, sharing how helpful some people find the blunt phrase “sometimes life is shit,” rather than platitudes. In response, in spite of the sensitive context of the comment, its truth and applicability, people were threatening to leave the church if “that kind of langauge” was going to be used in the services. The response was so negative that he was forced to apologise for his honesty in a service a few weeks later. It was only after that apology that one or two congregants thanked him for using words and examples to which they could relate so well.

It is hardly possible to avoid the conclusion that the majority of the people in church congregations aren’t interested in honesty, difficult truths, or direct challenges to radically change from their preachers. Ironically, these were all hallmarks of Jesus’ preaching. It seems that preaching in church is not actually about deeply discomfiting and life-altering messages in imitation of Jesus. Instead, preaching in church would appear to be about shaking people up just enough to feel they have a bit to think about and improve in their lives, but not actually challenging people to change the way they live and believe or to take following Jesus seriously. The very way free churches are set up is a disincentive from this type of preaching – the congregation pay the minister to say what they want to hear. As a minister, aware of the need to shelter and feed oneself and one’s family, the potential consequences of offending one’s congregation are terrifyingly real.

Scripturally speaking, truly prophetic and challenging preaching would appear, more often than not, to lead to the preacher being excluded from the group, left at the bottom of a well or executed. From my point of view, this type of preaching is totally incompatible with the office of “minister” or “pastor.” If this isn’t what preaching is meant to be or do, then I have clearly missed the point.

[As an aside, I am aware that some (following Luther, if I remember my church history correctly) believe strongly in the importance of the spoken word – Kerygma – to an almost sacramental level. I can only say that this belief squares very little with my experience as either a preacher or a congregant. A truly prophetic word is indeed powerful, but that is not synonymous with “preaching” in my experience, and certainly not necessary for believers to learn, grow, encounter God or follow Jesus.]