Good writing, with a strong point and with life oozing out.

Preaching Again

August 21, 2005

In his new book, Doug Pagitt is suggesting a kind of interaction with the Bible that is very engaging. He is championing the cause of a more discussion-based, decentralized experience of interaction between modern life and the Bible. The term he’s invented is Progressional Dialogue, which takes the sermon out of the realm of one person presenting The Truth to everyone, and opens the text up for the consideration and comment and application by everyone.

One of the best things about this is that the book itself is an embodiment of what it is suggesting. It starts with a couple of general chapters where the author makes his assertions in a very direct– and even unsubstantiated– manner. But these thought-provoking bits have little notations which refer the reader to shorter chapters in the back of the book. So it’s like a choose your own adventure book, and to back that up even further, there is a blog where folks can interact with the material as well as one another. I found myself engaging with the book in an entirely nonlinear manner. Since I’ve heard Doug talk this smack before, I skipped his intro and just thumbed through the shorter chapters, reading whichever one I felt like. Now, I’m slowly going through the book in the more traditional manner, stopping frequently to think about all of it, and visit the book blog, and write about it here.

Which got me thinking about my own journey with preaching.

I loved studying the Bible my freshman year, and so I declared myself a Bible Major, and kept on plugging away. Which was rather blind and more than a little scary, for I didn’t know quite what I wanted to do with this stuff. One thing I did know: I enjoyed teaching about the Bible, but really cringed at the idea of preaching a sermon. It just seemed so high-handed and alien that I resolved to find some way to avoid ever giving one. The summer after my senior year, I returned to my home church to act as interim youth pastor. When the senior pastor made the generous offer of a crack at the pulpit and an evaluation from him, I honestly wondered, “why would anyone ever want to do that?”.

The next year, I crossed the road (literally and metaphorically) to the Seminary, mostly to take advantage of a fifty-percent first-year discount for new grads. But I’m persistent and unimaginative, so I just continued on with my coursework for two more years. I mostly enjoyed my time there, with two mighty exceptions. Studying the Biblical languages (Greek, then Hebrew) was something I valued, but was really bad at. And the preaching labs were torturous. Knock-kneed, pale-faced students would be propped up behind a sheet metal pulpit, where judgmental students, pedigreed preaching professors, world class theologians, and an unblinking video camera would all wait with bated breath for the victim du jour to go down in flames. I’ll never forget the way time stood still as I actually froze up one day, literally stopping for several minutes of silence before I jolted myself back to life and an incoherent conclusion.

My internship came next, and the wife and I packed our car to the gills and drove to California. Still very unsure of this vocation, I waited until we were crossing the Sierras to confess my doubts. What if this doesn’t work out? “Well, we’ll just do something else,” she said, in one of the most loving and supportive statements I’ve ever heard.

The pastor there was great, and a wonderful preacher (if a bit dependent on recycled Rick Warren tapes). He got me up in the pulpit within the first couple of weeks so that I wouldn’t have more time to be scared. The sermon stunk, of course. It was jumbled, and stilted, and indecisive. I harbored some idealistic hope that somehow, my preaching could be unconventional, though I had no idea about anything. He kept working on me though, and by my third sermon I had adopted the ubiquitous half-sheet, fill-in-the-blanks sermon outline, and had switched my main points from abstract and indicative(God loves people) to direct and imperative (love God!). I cringed at my new aggressiveness (we called it conviction), but folks seemed to love it. And they were learning, and growing, and being encouraged. What more can you ask for?

When I completed my internship and exchanged my identity for Pastor Mike, I stayed more-or-less on this track. Opening illustration sans notes and leading straight into the proposition statement, delivered from the side of the stage, shoes shined, smile beaming, hands together and poised to gesture, but remember not to play with your wedding ring. Three main points (sometimes two or four or five, just to keep things lively) with illustrations for each one, and plenty of summaries along the way. Fortunately, I drew the line at acrostics and alliteration, though I always concluded out of the pulpit with a powerful illustration and restatement of the proposition. Once or twice, I even walked down the steps to the main floor level before ascending back to my notes. Without a sound system in the building, I essentially shouted each message, which added to my sense of conviction.

There were exceptions, of course. Once, I team-taught with a couple of high school students, each of whom preached wonderful sermons. Another time, I delivered a one-point sermon, which garnered some comment. At holidays, I’d do first-person sermons, dressing up as a shepherd or wise man or whatever, and those were cool. And once, I came as a modern-day Jonah, just escaped from the back of a garbage truck.

When we left that church to plant a new church in DC, I switched from preacher to frustrated preacher, and then to silent congregant. The sermons were great, but from my new seat (and with my newfound free time) I began to wonder if telling people what to do was really working. I followed a few hunches to an iconic preacher, Barbara Brown Taylor, who answered a few of my questions, stirred many more, and gave me a taste for truly engaging and compelling sermons.

Between my inactivity and exposure to BBT, I would never be quite the same. When I started getting occasional chances to preach, I found myself doing things quite differently. I still spent time with the original languages and with the pertinent theological issues, but my scope of work was somehow narrower. Instead of trying to present an exhaustive study of a particular Bible passage, I was content to try to communicate the main point, or the main feeling of the passage. On my better days, I would endeavor to help the listeners discover the main point for themselves. Yet if I spent less time on content, I was spending much more time on form. My fledgling conviction was that God’s Story deserved to be presented in as imaginative, evocative, and beautiful ways as possible. Call me crazy.

When that church plant failed, I naturally cast about for a time, without much urgency for finding another church. In time, we started the (for us, new) process of church shopping. Which was painful especially for the many sermons which made me want to get up and leave. Dry lectures by guys whose presumption seemed intended to hide the fact that they didn’t know their Bibles very well, high-volume motivational speeches by Shiny Happy Pastors, and guilt-ridden appeals to action from uninspiring Dilberts.

When we snuck into our current church, I kept my credentials a
secret in hopes that I might find time to lick my wounds and regain my strength. And here I found something new. Instead of a weekly sermon by the same tired guy, there was diversity of leadership, and diversity of content. Discussions, conversations, video, artistic expression, more discussions, and shared application. Before there was the term, there was progressional dialogue. More importantly (and not coincidentally), I found some real friends and true encouragement and strength to return to life.

So that, when my identity was known and I got the opportunity to be up front, no one needed convincing that the sermon shouldn’t have three points (or even one point), or that it shouldn’t be very long, or that it should be abductive rather than deductive. In fact, in spite of my training and experience, there was no assumption that I would preach at all. Come to think of it, I’m still not sure if many people there want to hear sermons, though everyone seems to endure them.

The meetings are planned and organized by a team, who collaborate on the whole service, and especially on the content for the week. They seek balance between direct and indirect communication, between static and creative elements, between communal and individual exercises, and between formal and informal experiences. So that, when someone does share their considered opinion on a particular subject, it is seen for what it is: one person’s passionate presentation of their perspective, which is still subject to consideration and disagreement. Which might happen right there in front of everyone, or just after the service, or at our post-church eucharistic meal, or on some email discussion list, or even on a blog.

So yeah, I still preach. It is much more enjoyable (and I think, productive) since I don’t do it every single week. I’m trying to find a way to present an idea from the Bible in a fresh, imaginative, passionate, and unapologetically perspectival way, yet with humility and implicit invitation to dialogue. And I also try to lead discussions and facilitate dialogues, though I’ve got even more to learn about this. Bottom line: we’ve all got a lot to learn, and we all need to lead one another.

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