[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.]