Wineskins Archive

December 18, 2013

Why Preaching Matters (July-Aug 2010)

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Reframing the Sermon as a Communal Event
by Wayne Beason
July – August, 2010

82 - What Really MattersEliciting positive opinions of church can be an incredibly daunting task, especially among members of my generation. As I have quickly discovered, questions such as “What do you think of the church?” are much more likely to prompt responses soaked in bitterness and cynicism than to produce heartwarming testimonials. However, by switching the question to “What do you like most about church?”, I’ve found that, even among American adolescents and young adults, there are many who express positive feelings towards certain elements of church. In particular, specific practices and traditions such as singing, service, communion, and fellowship (especially via potlucks!) are regularly held up as highlights of church experience. Amidst this diverse list of features, one theme consistently emerges: community. Each of these moments offers an opportunity for the individual members of the congregation to come together as one, to feel that they belong to something greater than themselves, and to share in others’ experiences of God’s love.

It is no wonder, then, that “preaching” is conspicuously absent from most lists of favorite aspects of church; in fact, the number of my peers who decidedly hate sermons far outweighs the number of those who express even remote esteem for the homily. Even I, who find myself behind a pulpit every Sunday, have a tendency to dislike sermons. There is something about preaching that seems to fly in the face of all the wonderful, communal elements of church. That a weekly gathering of Christians to worship and fellowship would include a disproportionately long moment during which one person’s experience of God is given unique superiority is utterly baffling to people like me. At best, it seems lopsided and at worst, it borders on oppression! The community and equality we have through Christ is temporarily adjourned while the congregation patiently and passively endures the exposition of the lone believer deemed worthy of faithfully expressing the nature of God.

At least, this is how many of us perceive it, resulting in a general contempt—or at least sleepy apathy—toward preaching. But, what if we were to look beyond the apparent individualistic nature of sermons? Is it possible that we might find, even in preaching, an exciting communal reality?

At first blush, the sermon seems to be the product of a sole contributor, the preacher. However, if we were to widen the lens with which we view the sermon, we are likely to find a whole host of voices speaking together in unison, harmony, and dissonance. For instance, it is hopefully safe to assume that the preacher includes text from the Bible as a major lynchpin on which the sermon hinges. If so, then through the sermon, we hear the echoing voices of the community through which the Bible emerged. From the mouth of the preacher, we hear not only the words of the apostles and prophets through whom Scripture was penned, but also the voices of the scribes through whom the Bible was preserved, the bishops and elders by whom the Bible was organized and canonized, and the scholars and translators through whom we understand these ancient words in our own language.

If we widen the lens a little more, we discover even more voices in the sermon. Few preachers attempt to compose a sermon without consulting a variety of sources, including commentaries, books, and articles. Through preaching, we are able to hear from men and women from every time and every nation, individuals whose lives were and are dedicated to uncovering and elaborating every beautiful, intricate nuance of the Christian story.

Likewise, and perhaps more significantly, we hear in the sermon the voices of those who are otherwise silenced. The mystics, prophets, and revolutionaries of bygone eras, whose words were muted by the church institutions they were called to challenge, may finally find listeners among today’s congregations. Believers from around the world, whose insights are otherwise drowned out by Euro-American-centrism, emerge as unique and powerful contributors to the sermon. And, oppressed or ignored individuals—women, children, ethnic minorities, cultural outcasts, the poor—are each given a voice from the pulpit.

Which leads us to widen the lens once more to include the congregation itself, as well as its surrounding community. After all, preachers may appear isolated for the moment they inhabit the pulpit, but during the rest of the week, they live and serve alongside you and I, sharing in our stories and experiencing the successes and tragedies of our communities. In the sermon, we hear the celebrations and lamentations of the people with whom we share a pew, are strengthened by the testimony of those whose faith is strong, and seek answers alongside those who wrestle with doubt. Thus, preaching offers a unique opportunity for a congregation to engage not only a vast community of believers past and present, but also itself.

“But,” a careful observer might respond, “whether a solo from the mind and mouth of the lone preacher or a symphony from the massive orchestra that is the body of Christ, doesn’t the sermon by nature relegate those in the pews to the passive role of audience? Even the most polyphonic homily can only be experienced as a communal event secondhand, the way a virtuoso performance subtly moves a crowd of concert-goers.”
If the sermon ends when the preacher stops speaking, then yes, the congregation is restricted to merely listening. But, if the congregation continues the conversation where the preacher leaves off, a fantastic dialog ensues, in which the congregants meet, wrestle, and harmonize with the chorus of voices introduced in the sermon. In other words, whenever a congregation responds to the message presented by the preacher—through formal discussions, small groups, or at home over lunch—they enter into the community of the sermon and the preaching continues.

Admittedly, this communal image of preaching assumes a sort of preacher and congregation not always found in our churches. I am embarrassed to consider how often my sermons are dominated by my voice and how rarely those who have different experiences, conflicting opinions, or greater wisdom than I are easily heard through my words. Likewise, I confess to habitually allowing any sermon I hear to die with the benediction, internalizing any meaning I gleaned from the message, and politely avoiding any further discussion whenever possible. When a sermon, in reality or in perception, functions merely as the product of the solitary preacher, all significance is lost and it becomes open to the criticism and scorn which so often accompany the word “sermon.” Yet, when preaching enables a church to hear and engage a rich community of believers, it offers a unique, transformative, communal experience that truly matters, even to people like me. New Wineskins

Wayne BeasonWayne Beason is a graduate student at Rochester College, interim pulpit minister at Greater Lansing Church of Christ in East Lansing, Michigan, and is currently seeking a full-time ministry position in the Chicago area.

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