Preaching at the Crossroads

Preaching at the Crossroads; How the World — and Our Preaching — Is Changing (David J. Lose; © 2013 by Fortress Press)

In the spirit of of full disclosure: I was predisposed to like this book. The author has been a friend of the Rocky Mountain Synod (he has presented to our pastors and other leaders a number of times), he is scheduled to meet with my local clergy group and with my congregation this coming February, and he has worshipped with us occasionally (the older sister referenced on page 1 is a member of our congregation). That said, I found this to be a helpful resource for understanding better both the role of preaching in a faith community, and the struggles and challenges that mainline congregations face today.

His description of conversations taking place today about the state of the church mirrors conversations I have had in recent months with the leaders of our congregation:

Longstanding members of our congregations bemoan declines in attendance in general and grieve the absence of their children and grandchildren in particular. Leaders wonder what they have done wrong even as they struggle with fatigue from the monstrous hours they put in trying to revive stagnant congregations. There is, among our churches and people, a pervasive lack of hope regarding the future of the Christian tradition in these lands. (p. 49)

The “persistent question” that often comes up when he presents to adult classes in congregations (a question he describes as “also a lament”) is one that has been asked repeatedly at our Wednesday lunchtime Bible study:

“…many of our kids don’t go to church anymore, and almost none of our grandkids do, so what happened?” And then came the question behind the question: “What did we do wrong?” It’s the same question we as pastors and preachers and church leaders often ask ourselves. What did we do wrong? But he fact of the matter is that we didn’t do something wrong. The world just changed, and we haven’t really changed with it. The world offered us so many other places to look for meaning and significance and identity, often in intriguing, challenging, and compelling ways. But we continued to offer Sunday school and confirmation as if there were no other options. We continued to do worship as if folks have nowhere else to go. And we continued to preach as if our people already know the biblical story and just need a little more instruction and inspiration to live it. (pp. 97-98)

The central thesis of the book is that there are three cultural movements at work today which define our time, and have significant implications for what faithful Christian ministry must be: postmodernism (in a world of competing truth claims: “Can I be certain that anything is true?”), secularism (when religion has little or no place in the public sphere: “Where do I find hope?”) and pluralism (faced with a plethora of religious and spiritual options, “How does the Christian story help me make sense of and navigate my life?”). These movements place us at a crossroads, and call both preachers and congregations to to be honest, faithful and courageous as they explore what it means to “lead and live in this world as faithful Christians.” (p. 96)

For this preacher, his last chapter was especially helpful, as it offered some specific suggestions about how participating in a faith community could “meaningfully contribute to [our] understanding of, and life in, the world.” (p.101) Much of it had to do with creating a more interactive practice around the weekly sermon. He suggests that I, as the preacher, need to become more familiar with the day-to-day lives of those who worship with us, and worshippers need to become more actively engaged in making connections between their faith and their daily lives.

I’m looking forward to exploring some of this this with the leaders of my congregation, and with my colleagues in the Denver area. And I am especially looking forward to the author’s visit with us in February. I hope it will help us all to a clearer vision for how the ministries of our congregation can empower our faithfulness and our witness to the world.

In the spirit of a more active engagement with these issues: what do you think? How do you see  that these cultural movements are impacting our ability to do ministry? What could draw you more deeply into the weekly habit of delivering and receiving a sermon? How could we, as a community of faith, make a more lively connection between our faith and our daily lives? I’d love to hear from you!

Pastor Dave