Friday, November 30, 2012

Stay in the Pulpit! When the Preacher Wanders from the Pulpit, He Often Strays From the Faith

It is hard to preach in an era when everybody already knows everything and when everyone demands to be entertained. Everybody already knows everything because all knowledge is now just a good Google search away. Whereas learned men once possessed "inside" knowledge that it took years to acquire, now anyone can acquire piecemeal information on their smartphone. Everyone demands to be entertained because an affluent society that is used to distraction and breeds a mentality of "if it isn't fun, it's not worth doing," being entertained is the crucible by which public discourse is assigned value. 

These are two serious challenges to the art of preaching in our time, and they explain a lot of the preaching we see in our pulpits, or on our stages. It helps to explain why fewer and fewer people consumed by the Entertainment and Information Ages are sitting through traditional preaching and it explains why pastors are changing their style of preaching…and fast. Pastors believe that traditional preaching that includes occasional doctrinal teaching and careful exegesis of scripture simply can't compete. So they script sermon "series" that find their origin not in scripture, but in a theme. These series are more palatable to an audience that prefers to think in story and can't be bothered with substantive points. They also allow the pastor to offer relevant life tips as a life coach might. (In truth, most pastors have watered down the office of preaching to a mass life coaching session.)

But without going down the road to critiquing megachurch preaching (go here and here for that), I want to speak to something more fundamental. When did this regression of sound preaching begin? It didn't start with the megachurches. It started when pastors who should have known better started wandering away from the pulpit. Probably to prove to the congregation that pastors were just one of the folks, they began to drift from the pulpit, free of a manuscript and free to be more emphatic, dramatic and climactic. They walked around like they owned the place, not wanting to be relegated to a distant wooden box any longer, but wanting to be near to his dear flock. 

The pastor wanted to become an entertainer, too, not content to merely remain a valuable teacher or authority figure. He was tired of the shackles of leadership and for once, he wanted to blend in. Now that the congregation had conferred authority to this pastor, he traded in his authority for a few cool points. If, in their preaching, they wandered among the congregation and their preaching became more accessible, the pastor could become a bit more like his parishioners. He could symbolically leave his office while he preached and become more like a friend or a companion or a colleague than a pastor. Amazingly, congregations obliged. 

Why? Because they understood what the pastor was doing. He was forsaking some authority (albeit symbolically at first) and they agreed to embrace him as a friend. Really, they were happy to do this because they were tired of "boring" sermons and they didn't really want anyone telling them what to do or think anyway. The parishioners should have been demanding the pastor stay in the pulpit; that is his proper place to address them. But they compromised because, in truth, they don't want a pastor as much as a life coach whose advice they can either reject or ignore. Pastors who speak with Godly authority can be neither rejected nor ignored. 

It's a deal that all in the congregation make, so all are guilty. The pastor agrees to be less of an authority and the congregation agrees to be his friend. Can I really tell all this just from a guy who leaves the pulpit? Well, of course, to a degree I am exaggerating. I've known great and faithful preachers who did not preach from the pulpit. 

But the pulpit is more than just a piece of liturgical furniture. It represents historically, liturgically and architecturally the entire office(s) of pastor and preacher. It represents the stability of the office from person to person. No matter the warm body that occupies that pulpit for 15 minutes a week, that pulpit will be with that congregation for generations, maybe centuries. Preaching is not about the pastor, much less his personality. It is about God's Word and the need for the people to hear that Word week in and week out. 

Ultimately, that is what the pulpit represents more than anything: the Word of God. That is what happens there. The Word is proclaimed in that place. Pulpits represent that which is unchanging, reliable and solid. If the pastor can arbitrarily leave the pulpit, he is forsaking that permanence, that solidity. And for what? A few jokes? A more conversational style? A "relevant" sermon series? 

More often than not, a pastor willing to forsake the pulpit is a pastor who may be on a glidepath to rebellion. If they aren't willing to commit to the permanence of the pulpit - even the symbolism of it! - then good theology may be next to go. Once preaching becomes person-centered and driven by the "felt needs" of the "audience", there is no way that the costs of discipleship, the cross, shed blood or matters of doctrine can be tolerated. Once the permanence of the pulpit is symbolically dislodged, it is that much easier to really dislodge it from the art of proclamation.

I can offer no proof. Only anecdotes. Virtually no megachurch pastor uses a pulpit. Mainline Protestants (whose track record is getting poorer by the day) abandon the pulpit more than use it. Charismatics have probably never seen a pulpit. Meanwhile, those tried and true, i.e. "traditional", more often than not will have a pastor willing to see himself as an office holder who uses the ancient symbols of that office. Orthodox preaching is simply more likely to come from such a man. 

I'm not promising that every problem will be solved by staying in the pulpit. Bad sermons, of course, will still be given from there. But it would be a great start if men called to proclaim the Word would do so from the place intended for that purpose.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Problem With Catholics: Do They Care if I'm There?

This piece, you will see, was written several months ago…after some encouragement, it is being posted now. 

I'm a Lutheran pastor, but when on vacation, I almost always hit up the most beautiful Catholic church I can for Sunday worship. That there will be a liturgical service is pretty much a given, and I get to appreciate historic architecture for an hour…all for free. It's also good to see how others worship, what they prize, what they value. And because I'm in the "evangelical catholic" category of Lutherans, seeing what Rome is up to (including the recent changes in the liturgy) is usually worthwhile.

But my experience several Sundays ago was less than dramatic. While I certainly witnessed no evil, and while the Romanesque space was awe-inspiring, the liturgy, preaching and hospitality left a lot to be desired. To me, it communicated a lack of thoughtfulness, a lack of care, and an arbitrary approach to the faith as a whole. I left with the very clear feeling that the church was there as some sort of favor to us, and we should appreciate it.

I'm not saying that was intentional, or that the presider, preacher and members wanted me to have anything but warm fuzzies towards them. And Lord knows the incredible devotion that most priests bring to their work, for which they are to be lauded. I'm just saying what I observed as an outsider. I say it in love, with no sour grapes and with no sense of competition. I say it so that Catholics may come to see how an outsider may view their worship for the first time at a Catholic service.

If I may, I'd like to break it down piece by piece. First, upon entering, there were no ushers, no one to say hello or offer a bulletin. Usually, Catholic bulletins help very little with the liturgy and are instead advertisements for parish member's businesses. I understand the financial pressures, but church bulletins really shouldn't resemble NASCAR drivers. The books in the pews are nice, but they are not always easy to use. And I'm a guy who loves perusing hymnals and missals. At three points before the sermon, we sung music that was not in the book. I followed along as best I could with my ear, but as a note-reader, I couldn't figure out why they didn't just use what was in the book. That follows only two verses of the first hymn (and every subsequent hymn) getting some love. To only sing 2 of 5 verses of a hymn is like reading 2 of 5 chapters of a book. Hymns are not ours to self-limit.

These decisions by priest and musician give a very arbitrary feeling to the worship. It's almost as though the worship leaders have given up: "Well, no one is going to sing anyway and whether or not they participate is irrelevant compared to the majesty of the mass, so who cares?" It is isolating when you want to sing, when you want to participate, and the leadership makes it either impossible (by self-selecting the verses) or difficult (by using unprinted music.) Many Protestants do this too, by the way. I just don't see how a culture of enthusiastic worship can be accomplished with these cultural norms in place. And that makes me wander if they even care if they offer enthusiastic worship. I had to ask, "Does the priest want me to sing along, or not?"

The sermon had some high points. The priest made contemporary connections to the Aurora shooting and the Olympics, which preachers should strive to do. He also spoke of the gifts of Baptism and the Eucharist, given to us by God through Christ. However, at the end, the only thing I really remembered were his injunctions to live differently in the wake of the Eucharist. Hint: if you have to tell them to live differently, it isn't naturally bearing the fruit it should.

I also remember his encouragement to follow the example of the Olympians, who were "good" people. Huh? Has he not heard of the rampant promiscuity among our celebrated athletes? Has he not seen Michael Phelps hitting the bong? Great athletes? Yes. Great people? Maybe. Hard workers? No doubt. Good moral examples? Um, sticking with the saints is a better bet.

It just seems like Catholic preaching rarely rises above the level of pithy moralism. Stop telling me how to live a better life and preach the Gospel with some passion. This should include the cross, some shed blood, and the FREE gift of grace. What Luther found in the 1500s is still true to this day. Catholics seem terrified or reluctant to preach the Gospel in all of its fullness (or the Law either, for that matter) because they just can't trust the people to be virtuous. We always need a little needling to be better and a reminder that we can - like the Olympians - achieve much with the right focus. The hardest thing to do in preaching is to trust that God's Word can accomplish much on its own, if it is simply proclaimed. Catholic preaching never seems to release that trust to God, always maintaining for itself a place of control.

From there, the Eucharist was celebrated quite well, though again, with different music I couldn't follow along. I won't hit that too hard. Many of my parishioners don't like the hymns I select. No pastor will ever get unanimity on that. There was the introduction of a dozen young volunteers to the congregation at the end that was uplifting. These recent college graduates lived in the convent and volunteered throughout the city for a year. Kudos!

But regarding the sacraments, I was surprised that immediately after the service, there was a private baptism. Have not most liturgical scholars - Catholic and Protestant - pretty much agreed that this rite should be part of the mass? Isn't a momentous and public rite like baptism best served in the midst of the entire assembly? The priest preached about the impending baptism with great joy, even comparing - weakly, I think - the baptismal candle to the Olympic torch. (There's that Olympic theme, again.) But no one other than immediate family participated. Again, the impression is that the Church passively provides services and the assembly's participation is nice, but not necessarily expected.

It communicates a sense of entitlement, a sense of power that I can't imagine helps the church when preaching to already entitled people. The Church has to present itself as the servant of the people, not God's gift. Yes, the Church presents God's gifts to the people, but it must do so in humility and with an earnest desire that others respond to a life poured out. I just did not get the impression at all that the leadership cared if I was there, cared if I participated or cared if I ever came back.

I don't necessarily mind the anonymity and I absolutely do not want my posterior romanced. And I'm not advocating the insane "user-friendliness" of the Church Growth Movement. Their watered-down pop Christianity with teams of greeters and contemporary worship is miles worse than even the most apathetic Catholic mass. I just doesn't seem like the Catholic church really cares if people are there or not. And as I ride the buses and the El in Chicago, I see a whole lot of entitled and apathetic people roaming the streets. How can we possibly reach them if we act like we have so much to offer? That may very well be the case. But instead of projecting that, we should convey in no uncertain terms a passion to reach all people and a humility that meets folks where they are. Shy of that, it is hard to imagine any institutional church making an impact on a broken and entitled culture.