I am hoping that anyone who regularly gives sermons or anyone who somewhat regularly listens to them may find this essay of interest. The question is a continuation of the assertion that a previous post made: because of political and cultural influences, Mainline Protestant (MP) churches will veer towards being either more catholic or more charismatic in nature.
One way it is easiest to see which way a MP church may be headed is the preaching. Certainly in America, the sermon has come to be seen as the highlight of the worship service, the main event, the big ticket. No doubt good preaching has always been appreciated, but American preaching has taken the sermon to a whole new level, a level even preachers in liturgical churches (Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopalian) feel obligated to reach. Our love of charisma, our early Protestant emphasis of repentance and salvation (“hellfire and brimstone”), and our modern need for applicable spiritual advice have thrust the sermon to the top of importance for assemblies. The result? Two very different styles of preaching have emerged, one forging ahead with this style all its own, the other buried in the liturgy, happy mostly to comment on the assigned readings for the day (lectionary texts).
Before going any further, the question of whether or not there is a right or a wrong way to preach should be answered. For me, the answer is yes. We cannot merely say that there is good or bad preaching. We must also be able to say that there is right or wrong preaching. Within the context of right preaching, certainly there is good and bad; I consider all wrong preaching to be bad. There may be both right and wrong preaching in the same sermon. But this is not a matter of taste; I have not been so relativized. My point is that a fundamental misunderstanding of what preaching is can skew (sometimes severely) the spiritual lives of the listeners. It’s nothing the Holy Spirit can’t overcome, but it is a shame it happens at all.
For those who already know my bias, you may be assuming that I feel all “catholic” preaching is right and all charismatic preaching is wrong. Some catholic preaching is wrong, while some charismatic preaching is dead-on. It varies from preacher to preacher, depending on their fundamental understanding of what preaching is. So what is preaching?
Liturgical churches understand the sermon to be one part of the liturgy or ordo, and at that, really only one part of one part of the liturgy. Liturgical preachers understand that their sermons take place in a specific context, a context not easily duplicated or repeated outside of the assembly’s worship. The context is, of course, the gathered assembly, but moreso the liturgy itself. Surrounding the sermon are the greeting, hymns, prayers, confession and forgiveness, offering, the sharing of peace, Eucharist (and other sacraments), the sending, and most importantly, the lectionary texts. These texts (one from the Old Testament, one Psalm, one usually from a Pauline epistle, and finally the Gospel) have been appointed for centuries and all fall in place in the even larger context of the Church Year (Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, etc.).
So this liturgical preaching is humbled by all of the things that surround it. No wonder the sermons are so short! This in some ways may limit the preacher as to what he/she can discuss; the appointed text won’t always deal directly with the exact goings-on in the world. But more importantly, it keeps the focus on what the sermon should be about: God’s redemptive work in the world. This is the sweeping story of scripture, and preaching in that context is more about what God does for us than what we can do for God. This is liturgical preaching in a nutshell; contextual elaboration on appointed readings in a framework that limits the singular importance of the preaching itself.
Is this also true for charismatic preaching? From what I have seen, this is sometimes true. But other times, the things that surround the sermon place ourselves at the center of the action and not God. For example, contemporary Christian music so regularly places the first person singular pronoun as the subject of the song, that God comes in response to our own piety or works, not vice versa. The understanding of the sacraments has been diminished to the point where God’s redemptive work cannot be seen through them. Baptism by our choice, for example, puts the burden on us to choose Christ instead of being chosen first and responding. Eucharist is often merely a memorial meal, something we do as a pleasant reminder of the forgiveness of sins.
The architecture itself makes this style of preaching hint of worldliness. Elevated stages at the front, auditorium seating, and a lack of windows so artificial light can be manipulated all put the focus on the work of the people in front, not on the work of God. The apparel of the preacher can be reminiscent of worldly power. Whereas traditional clerics are understood to be servant’s clothing, business suits suggest just that: business. And without a context of a high sacramental theology and several extended readings of scripture, the pastor tends to choose texts arbitrarily, and sermons can be about just about anything. Hence, sermons about “living with integrity” or being “victorious” when we follow God.
It doesn’t mean that every sermon given this way will be wrong. In fact, sometimes too much ritual/liturgy/religion impedes a healthy relationship with God. Just read Amos’ criticism of Israel’s religious practices! But over time, this lack of liturgical discipline can malform the preacher and his/her listeners so that we may end up with an extreme of either “hellfire and brimstone” (Jerry Falwell) or “the power of positive thinking” (Joel Osteen).