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Sentimentality Kills

In Rodney Clapp’s eclectic little book spanning the life and work of Johnny Cash, country music, American culture, and Christian identity he tackles the sentimentality that he believes is at the heart of ecclesial degeneration in America today:

“Because idolatry is the most destructive of sinful conditions, the greatest danger to the true faithfulness of the American church comes not from without but from within. That danger is not persecution or victimization or accusations of hypocrisy, but our own all-too-easy tendency to sentimentalize our faith. To sentimentalize the faith is to instrumentalize it, to make it a tool of our ambitions, our comfort, and our security. Sentimentalization is mild-mannered idolatry, sin sweetened and trivialized. Sentimentality kills vital faith with bland complacency.” (60)

My teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote,”The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” (The Hauerwas Reader, p. 526) He wrote a blurb on the back of Clapp’s book, and  I imagine he would agree with Clapp’s assessment.

What he describes as sentimentalization is all over North American protestantism. Many of the regnant forms of preaching and worship that pastors are encouraged to adopt are designed to comfort rather than convict, to sell self-actualization rather than exhort cruciform living.  Sentimentalization is the cross reduced to a decoration made of diamonds and silver; discipleship reduced to Instagram Bible verses; asceticism sacrificed on the altar of low expectations – it is Christian faith made into a series of Precious Moments figurines.

Sentimentality is a milquetoast approach to faith designed to be unobtrusive and inoffensive.  But a gospel that does not offend is no gospel; the Word brings not peace but a sword, and divides sinew from flesh. (Matthew 10:34, Hebrews 4:12) It is the kind of Christian life a marketer would design to sell to middle class Americans with overstuffed lives and underdeveloped souls.

Sentimentality is killing us.

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Lectionary vs. Series Preaching: Which is Better?

by Drew 5 Comments
Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew's German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Wine Glass style pulpit from St. Matthew’s German Evangelical Lutheran in Charleston, SC (1872), courtesy Cadetgray via Wikimedia Commons

Should the preacher follow the lectionary or preach topically, via series?

This is not a question with which every preacher is faced.  It’s largely a Mainline Protestant debate; Catholics and Orthodox follow pre-selected readings each week for the homilies that are attached to the primary liturgical action of the eucharist, while Baptists, charismatics, and “non-denominational” traditions are often completely unaware of what the lectionary is, much less its possible benefits.  In the gray zone are Methodists, Presbyterians, UCC, and perhaps a few others – I’m not as familiar with typical Lutheran practice, while most Episcopalians I know are strict lectionary preachers.

As a United Methodist, the lectionary is encouraged – particularly in seminary and at the denominational level – but it is certainly not required or even especially encouraged by our bishops and other supervisors.  Indeed, most of the pastors who are held up as exemplars for us rank-and-file preachers are almost exclusively series preachers.  Often these are folks like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter who have cut their teeth on the series ethos that dominates most church planting models.  You might find lectionary preaching at large, downtown “First” or “Central” UMCs, but I’m comfortable saying that the vast majority of our largest and fastest-growing churches see much more series/topical preaching than lectionary-based preaching.

Which is better?

In some ways, this is a foolish debate, a faux war akin to the “left Twix vs. right Twix” commercials.  There are benefits and drawbacks to both.  Some contexts lend themselves more to one or the other.  The giftedness, training, and method of preparation of different preachers will also have a role in which style best fits the voice and skills of a particular proclaimer.

If I’m honest, I think lectionary preaching is harder – but I tend to preach in series.  I like the long-term preparation I can put into series preaching, and I the musicians with whom I lead worship appreciate knowing, far in advance, my texts and themes.  For my first couple of years in full-time ministry, I preached almost exclusively lectionary, but since then, I’ve preached mostly series.  I tend to follow the themes of the liturgical calendar – hope and promise in Advent, discipleship and the cross in Lent, etc. – but without tying myself to lectionary texts.

Is this, in some ways, a false divide? Yes. One can certainly plan sermon series based on the lectionary.  I’ve done this in two ways: a) looking ahead for 4-6 weeks and seeing if a thread emerges from the various lectionary texts onto which I can hook, or b) sticking with a particular book for a period of time and making it a series on Mark, or the Psalms, or 1 Timothy, etc.  I’ve enjoyed both, and commend both methods to you.  But of course even this kind of planning, via, the lectionary, takes away some of the benefits for which proponents of the lectionary advocate.

Major benefits of both kinds of preaching:

Lectionary Benefits

  • Challenge of being confronted with a text (or texts) rather than choosing them with a particular reading in mind
  • A plethora of liturgical, preaching, and other resources (many of them free)
  • Follows the liturgical calendar
  • Broad ranging texts across both Testaments
  • Week-to-week planning enables easier flexibility if something happens that necessitates homiletical flexibility (such as a sudden loss in the community or a national tragedy)
  • Revisiting the same texts every three years demands creativity and a depth of exegesis that can be lacking in other forms

Series Benefits

  • Ability to build on themes over a period of time
  • Freedom to preach texts not included or marginalized by the lectionary
  • Ability to tie preaching themes to the rhythms of time other than the liturgical (a New Years or Back to School series, for instance)
  • Long-range planning is (arguably) easier
  • Can speak to particular needs in a sustained manner (i.e. recovery, eschatology, theodicy, rather than waiting for them to pop up or twisting lectionary texts to find them)
  • Easier to communicate content and ethos to unchurched people

My own take is that lectionary preaching lends itself best to liturgical contexts.  There is clearly, from what we’ve already said, a correlation between liturgical worship and lectionary-based preaching.  Why might this be? Certainly a strong tether to the church calendar is part of it.  But also, lectionary preaching, which via most teachers is often tied strongly to just one text, lends itself naturally to the shorter 8-12 minute homilies one finds in more liturgical contexts – churches where, to be blunt, the eucharist takes precedence over proclamation.  More Protestant contexts where the preached Word is emphasized often expect sermons of 20-30 minutes, or even longer, which tend to range over a variety of Biblical texts rather than simply mining one pericope.

Which is better – for you, for your context? Should our bishops, synods, and denominational offices take a harder stand on this?

I won’t presume to answer the question for you, but I would conclude by offering this: try a kind of preaching that is outside your comfort zone, that stretches you.  Are you a series preacher? Make yourself stick to lectionary texts for a month.  Are you a lectionary preacher? Use the somewhat bland summer months to try a series, even if it is crafted from the lectionary readings themselves.

Both forms of preaching can be God-honoring and transformative to the listeners.  Both can also be dreadfully dull springboards for eisegesis, therapeutic indulgence, and personal agendas.

Which works best for you? Why? Where do you see excellence in series preaching? Who are our examples of quality lectionary preachers? Join the conversation below!

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David Mamet on Preaching

mamet bookWhat do acting and preaching have in common?

I am a fan of writer/director/playwright David Mamet’s work. This is the only reason I picked up his True and False: Heresy and Common Sense For the Actor when I came across it at a thrift store a couple of years ago.  I am not an actor by any means, though I hoped – besides just wanting to read something from the master storyteller – to get some notes on performance that might be useful to the preaching craft.

My hopes were well-founded.

Consider this jewel early on:

Acting is not a genteel profession. Actors used to be buried at the crossroads with a stake through the heart.  Those people’s performances so troubled the onlookers that they feared their ghosts. An awesome compliment. (6)

Preachers, at least in the post-Christian West, possess an increasingly unpopular vocation.  There was a time when actors were loathed and priests admired. Today the admiration is reversed.  Moreover, similar to actors of old, preachers possess a meddlesome calling.  While too many pastors see their role as primarily care-giving, the wise preacher knows her role is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

As such, preaching is not “about” us.  Like Mamet’s noble actor, the preacher’s intent should not be convincing the audience of one’s own talent or giftedness.  Only sanctified intentions lead to “pure and clear” performance in the preaching craft:

Art is an expression of joy and awe. It is not an attempt to share one’s virtues and accomplishments with the audience, but an act of selfless spirit. Our effect is not for us to know. It is not in our control. Only our intention is under our control. As we strive to make our intentions pure, devoid of the desire to manipulate….our performances become pure and clear. (24)

Great preaching, like inspired acting, points away from itself to something greater.  For that reason, the best sermons draw us, not to the skill of the proclaimer, but to the wonder of the Proclaimed.  Like great acting, truly transformative sermons are not dazzling but “simple and unassuming”:

The greatest performances are seldom noticed. Why? Because they do not draw attention to themselves, and do not seek to – like any real heroism, they are simple and unassuming, and seem to a be a natural and inevitable outgrowth of the actor.  They so fuse with the actor that we accept them as other-than-art. (79)

Mamet has been involved in number of successful projects, including writing the screenplay for The Untouchables.

Mamet has been involved in number of acclaimed projects, including The Untouchables.

Mamet goes on to make an interesting case about the relationship of the actor to the script.  Acting at its best neither adds to nor subtracts from the script, but rather the actor simply shows up and performs. The actress does her best by neither inventing nor denying, but by being “truthful.”

For preachers, our “script” is the canon of Scripture.

Here is where I find the parallel to Mamet’s advice the most helpful.  Preachers also should neither invent nor deny.  Similarly, it is not the preacher’s job to make the text “interesting.” Our vocation is to preach truthfully:

Here is the best acting advice i know. And when I am moved by a genius performance, this is what I see the actor doing: Invent nothing, deny nothing. This is the meaning of character…[i]t is the writer’s job to make the play interesting. It is the actor’s job to make the performance truthful. (41)

That’s why preaching, like acting, is not about talent but truth and bravery:

I don’t know what talent is, and, frankly, I don’t care. I do not think it is the actor’s job to be interesting. I think that is the job of the script. I think it is the actor’s job to be truthful and brave – both qualities that can be developed and exercised through the will. (98)

Truth and bravery both induce fear. It is easier to be inauthentic. Going with the grain is usually met with reward.  In preaching and in acting, it’s almost natural to feel like a fraud.  Thus, Mamet notes,

Most actors are terrified of their jobs. Not some, most. They don’t know what to do, and it makes them crazed. They feel like frauds. (118)

Feeling fraudulent or not, the show must go on.  Courage is only possible in the presence of fear, not its absence. I have heard of acclaimed preachers who still vomit every Sunday morning.  Nagging lies always come with us when we seek to give our best to a craft.

Get out on stage anyway:

You are going to bring your unpreparedness, your insecurities, your insufficiency to the stage whatever you do. When you step onstage, they come with you. Go onstage and act in spite of them. Nothing you can do can conceal them. Nor should they be concealed. There is nothing ignoble about honest sweat, you don’t have to drench it in cheap scent. (119)

No preacher or actor should ever get too comfortable. The script, biblical or otherwise, challenges us to performance that is truthful. Whatever the craft, any attempt at excellence will be be met with resistance.

Go out to the pulpit anyway, be true to the script, and preach from joy and awe.

 

What other connections are there between preaching and acting? Are their other arts whose habits are relevant to preaching? Leave a comment below! Don’t forget to subscribe and get new posts sent directly to your inbox.

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Preachers: Don’t be a Hack

I think there are a lot of connections that can be helpfully made between the work of excellent stand-up comics and that of preachers.  Particularly helpful is the term “hack.”  A universal definition would be difficult to find, but this one from About.com is sufficient for my purposes:

Definition: “Hack” comes from the word “hackneyed,” which means that something has lost its meaning or impact by being overused or repeated too many times. Jokes can be “hacky” when they are too obvious or familiar, but comics can be considered “hacks” as well. Comics who use the same old material, or who use jokes that are known to everyone (and which that comic most likely did not write — they more likely came from an off-the-shelf joke book) are typically known as hacks. Some comics quickly develop the reputation as hacks for other reasons. Dane Cook has widely been called a hack by his detractors mostly as a shorthand for comparing his massive success to his perceived lack of talent (and also for often falling back on the same kind of shtick). Carlos Mencia has been called a hack after being accused of stealing material from other comics; even without those allegations, his reliance on Latino stereotypes for his comedy has a reputation for being “hacky.” Carrot Top has been labeled a hack in some comedy circles because his comedy is dependent on props; the same goes for watermelon-smashing Gallagher. Being called a “hack” is about as dismissive a label a comic can receive, at least among other comedians.
Also Known As: cliched, tired, familiar, corny, outdated, unoriginal
A preacher I respect very much once said in preaching seminar: “Don’t do the sermon that everyone is expecting you to do.  Don’t take it some place everyone has been.” That is, I think, “hack” preaching. Like hack comedy routines, hack preaching relies on established directions that are crowd-pleasers, very accepted and established, i.e. “successful.”  Done well, “hack” preaching is very popular.  But it isn’t what Seth Godin would call art.  It isn’t original. It isn’t bold.  And since the congregation has likely heard it time and time again, it is unlikely to be transformative.
Pulpit colleagues: our calling is high. Our work is complex. We deal in texts with intimidating pedigrees, with which many servants of the gospel have wrestled for centuries.  It is hard not to be a hack.  But our calling is worthy of that effort.
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Preaching and Theology: Let the Twain Meet

by Drew 0 Comments

Unite the pair so long disjoined,
Knowledge and vital piety:”

-Charles Wesley

Are you a preacher? Are you a Christian? You should read this.

Today I was privileged to spend the day listening to Bishop Will Willimon lecture on Barth & preaching.  He reminded us that Barth’s own preaching was gloriously naive in technique, and unapologetically theological in content.  Too often, preaching is considered a pragmatic task and theology as an academic or purely intellectual pursuit.  True theology, however,  is always wedded to proclamation, because it is concerned with speaking truthfully about the God revealed in Christ Jesus. As the Orthodox say, “The one who prays is a theologian, and the theologian is the one who prays.”

Similarly, preaching that is not theological will descend into mere sentimentality or utility (sermons that are either aimed at making people “feel good” or being “useful”).  We have far too many theologians who have lost their vocation as teachers of the church and proclaimers of the Word made flesh, and certainly a plethora of preachers who have forgotten that the center of their preaching is a crucified Jew from Nazareth who came neither to make us feel good nor to give us useful ideas about life.

My teacher Michael Pasquarello* has a beautifully rich vision of preaching, of which I was reminded today.  In his excellent Christian Preaching, he argues for a rediscovery of preaching as a theological task of the Church which is centered on the Triune God, exclusive of all other homiletic foci:

“Christian preaching, then, is theological rhetoric, a gift of the Spirit in which Christ, the incarnate Word spoken by the Father, condescended to indwell Scripture and the church, himself speaking the restoration and fulfillment of creation by confessing the praise of the Creator.” (p. 56)

Like the best preaching, that definition is beautiful, wonderfully deep, and thoroughly Trinitarian.  The wall between preaching and theology has been, in many places, been erected for too long.  Tear down this wall.  Let the twain meet.

 

 

*By a happy accident, I was able to take preaching with Pasquarello even though I was at Duke and he teaches at Asbury.  It’s a story that is longer than it is interesting, but suffice it to say he is an excellent teacher and a preacher-theologian I greatly respect.

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“Have you met the Lord today?”

In his brief but potent book The Lord’s Supper, Martin Marty has some too-close-to-home comments about the presence of the preacher at the Table.  Describing the preaching that takes place before the meal, he comments,

If you are unfortunate, you will get a book review, a comment on world affairs, some how-to advice for personal success, or some doctrinal comment about the word.  A good homily or sermon relentlessly plumbs a text and lets its depths reach you…preachers are fallible, but this meal is also for them and for their forgiveness, including forgiveness for sins they may demonstrate in the very act of preaching.  And yet we call what they are doing “preaching the word of God.”

…[Afterwords,] someone asks, “Have you met the Lord today?”  “Yes,” you say, “in the stumbling words of a laborious preacher.”

Thanks, Dr. Marty, for the reassurance that God can be met in bumbling, flawed folks like me.  And thanks be to God, who uses our weakness for His greater glory. “For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.” (1 Cor. 1:25)

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Authority for Preaching

I’ve been struck recently by the close relationship between pastoral care and preaching authority.  My previous church responsibilities involved only very limited pastoral functions.  This is the first time I’ve been a “one man show,” so to speak.  And I’m convinced that it matters.  It matters than the pastor who visits you in the hospital also teaches your Bible study, also spends time with your children, also visits your mother at the nursing home, and also attempts to preach the Word each Sunday.  I believe it matters greatly.

I think this is what makes small church ministry simpler in a number of ways than role-related ministries in larger churches.  If your people only see you preach and lead the occassional meeting or funeral, it’s unlikely they will have little personal investment in hearing what Word the Lord has that Sunday.  Let’s face it: it is the rare Christian (relatively speaking) who comes Church with ears to hear.  I believe that is why preaching is in such poor shape: we feel forced to bend our sermons (please don’t dumb them down more and refer to them as “messages”) to hardly creative, culture-oriented and chimerically “practical” advice or storytelling with very little chance of revealing anything of the Divine.

I believe that this pastoral authority also lends itself to preaching authority.  When your people know that you care about them – that you have sat with them in their homes, in the hospital, married and buried their loved ones – then real homiletic freedom is possible.  We are not bound by the need to impress or dazzle because our hearers are already convinced that we are genuinely concerned for them as fellow Christians.  We also do not fear to step on toes and push our people if that is what the text demands, because we are confident that our people trust us enough to speak the truth in love.

There is a strain of Protestant Christianity right now that is, I believe, self-conciously and dangerously “radical.”  It follows, to some extent from a Barthian perspective (I believe Tom Long calls it the “herald” model of preacher) that would prefer to damn the torpedoes and fire away with the percieved “truth” of the Gospel without any thought to how it is heard or the lives of the flesh-and-blood people sitting in the pews.  This has recieved a boost, I believe, from Stanley Hauerwas and others in the ‘radical’ orthodoxy and/or postliberal strain.  Conciously taking up a place that is neither theologically conservative  nor liberal, such preachers are susceptible to believing their word is the Word.

I have heard horror stories of many such pastors who, in their zeal for being radical, forgot to be pastors.  Case in point: the uproar among everyday Americans over the Jeremiah Wright scandal.  Maybe he said what needed to be said, but certainly his manner and his context can be legitimately called into question.

On beginning in the ministry, someone told me the oft-repeated phrase “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.”  It is trite, to be sure, but there is wisdom in that phrase.  It is especially important wisdom for people like myself just out of seminary and eager to prove that we do indeed know something worth hearing.  Our authority for preaching in a local church, especially a small congregation, will largely rise and fall with our relationships with the people in the pews.  This can be a great terror, or a great tool.  The choice is ours.

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