Today’s theme: Preaching
Pastors in the Emergent/Emerging church respect and believe in the historical authenticity of the Bible and therefore aim to faithfully interpret and creatively apply biblical texts. In Emergent contexts pastors often engage in a theological and practical conversation about a biblical text or theme, and the application of the text often comes when members of a community offer their own experiences as they relate to the text. The sermon thus appears more like a discussion as opposed to a theological lecture, and on occasion takes the form of a parable, a contemporary story with biblical resonance, meaning, and application.
Emerging leader Dan Kimball (The Emerging Church ) explains how preaching in an Emerging setting remains faithful to the Bible’s message while interpreting and applying that message in contemporary contexts. Kimball urges pastors to imagine themselves as storytellers, as heralds of God sent to proclaim a message of grace and forgiveness. Such storytelling speaks a religious language that both insiders and outsiders can understand. Communication is critical in Kimball’s opinion, and as such ministers should not neglect the public proclamation, in various forms, of the Bible. “The emerging church needs to elevate public reading, preaching, and teaching,” Kimball writes, “[i]n a culture devoid of truth and lacking understanding of the scriptural story, we need to proclaim, herald, and preach all the more. But the way we do this needs to change because the audience has changed.”1
According to Kimball, much like Paul’s address to the philosophers of Athens as told in Acts 17, tending to the needs of today’s listeners allows for a variety of approaches to presenting the stories of Christianity. Even with the freedom to experiment with delivery styles (discussed below), Kimball contends that preaching to today’s listeners demands that Christ remain the central focus of the message, that the Trinitarian equation animate all discussion, that the physicality of being human frame spiritual pondering (especially issues surrounding sexuality), that the scriptures remain in an authoritative position, that hell and perdition frequent conversations, and that ministers acknowledge that the Christian spiritual journey is one of highs and lows, a life of “messy spirituality” and constant striving for obedience and holiness.2
With respect to modes of communicating the message, Kimball believes that ultimately the Holy Spirit brings conviction and guides consciences to faith; it is the pastor’s role to consider “how [to] present truth to the people we hope to see transformed.” This consideration leads Kimball to posit that “experience” far outweighs the “facts” of a presentation. “We need to approach Scripture in a holistic way,” Kimball argues, “thinking through how the sermon fits within the worship experience. We need to blend our propositions of truth with experiences of truth.” On this point Kimball suggests the incorporation of more visual elements into worship experiences, from images of stained glass, to icons, to contemporary art infused with biblical texts. Kimball believes this better engages today’s listeners, highlights the importance of the biblical narrative, and encourages communal participation in services with corporate reading or private meditation, and attempts to remove the pastoral cult of personality that inhabits many Protestant churches today. Kimball also asserts that this approach to worship creates an environment that embraces dialogue and allows a genuine “struggle” with scriptures, much like the Hebrew Midrash. “To a modern mindset this might sound dangerous,” Kimball admits, “but I believe this is healthy and sharpens our thinking. It also admits that we may not have all the answers about God neatly packaged.”3
While Kimball describes the role of a preacher as storyteller, Emerging leader Spencer Burke, in Making Sense of the Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture (2003), prefers to imagine preachers as facilitators because facilitators do not merely “impart information, [they] create opportunities for learning.” Burke suggests that most sermons are “thinly disguised university lecture[s],” and that many modern Christians idolize knowledge above praxis. This approach, in Burke’s estimation, often obscures a community’s focus “on the Word become flesh,” a kind of focus that creates space for more displays of Christian symbolism in the form of things like icons. Burke’s approach, from preacher as facilitator to a more thoroughgoing use of symbols and signs above all sets Christian worship in an egalitarian and in his view a more biblical mode. “For years,” Burkes writes, “we have elevated teaching to the exclusion of other gifts. Paul described the church in terms of a body. Whether we realize it or not, we’re walking around with a body that’s grossly out of proportion to our head. Our obsession with teaching has made us a caricature of what God intended.”4 Both Burke and Kimball agree that delivery styles might undergo experiment or improvisation, and invite those who communicate messages to reformulate pastoral identity.
If Kimball and Burke offer a kind of theoretical framework for preaching, teaching, and application in an Emerging setting, Doug Pagitt describes what this looks like in an Emerging church in Minneapolis, Minnesota. In Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church, Pagitt discusses the sacred spaces in which the Solomon’s Porch community worships and the ways these spaces frame discussion and dialogue. Intentionally eschewing the festive feel of megachurches, the worship experience at Solomon’s Porch aims to be more “interactive and participatory.” This means that stages and other architectural displays of power give way to meeting “in the round” where couches enclose and encapsulate the community, and all in attendance are invited to speak and share at various times during the service. This structure also translates into a worship experience where the music comes from the lips and instruments of “local” musicians, where Psalm readings (only by female members of the community) become weekly expressions of “the poetry of [the Christian] faith,” where communion exists as the weekly meal of spiritual sustenance, where communal and individual prayer becomes a collective utterance of community, and where the sermon becomes a “story” framed by a Biblical passage and interpreted to fit with a contemporary settings.5
This series continues with another look at the Emerging/Emergent churches and missionality and with forthcoming posts about my travel through Lent 2005 with the faithful at Ecclesia Houston.
1 Dan Kimball, The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 171-173.
2 Ibid., 174-183.
3 Ibid., 185-194, quoting 187, 188, 193.
4 Spencer Burke, Making Sense of Church: Eavesdropping on Emerging Conversations about God, Community, and Culture (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 51-66, quoting 52-54, 65.
5 Doug Pagitt, Reimagining Spiritual Formation: A Week in the Life of an Experimental Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004), 49-64, 113-124.