Neo-Christian Myth #2: the Preaching Pickle

Poor Donald Miller has been web-torched for his post. It has, at this writing, 479 comments, and let’s just say some of them are not very nice. (In fact, he wrote a follow-up post as a defense, which you can read here. Believe me, though, he’s loving the traffic, even if he is in Yoda-with-a-light-saber mode.) While I continue to probe some of his remarks and what they reveal about contemporary Christian (American) spirituality, I’m not trying to call him out. This is not “his” problem; it’s our problem. We are reinventing the very core of what the Christian Church has found essential: the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.

I could be a scold here, and shame us all for these reinventions. Bad, bad Christians. And we can throw around accusations of narcissism all day long, but the much bigger question is this: In what sense are the historical traditions of Christian practice essential to Christian faith and in what sense are they only temporal expressions of faith that may or may not be necessary to support and foster Christian faith?

Let me be clear: I am not talking about cultural or time-bound articulations of Christian traditions. I am not talking, for instance, about “Church” as any of the following: buildings, Sunday mornings at 11.00am, pews, organs (or bands of any kind), coffee in the foyer, potlucks, etc. Church in Rwanda, or Church in Brazil, or Church in Malaysia may look very different.

But “Church” as I’m using it here, is assembly: gathering and celebrating. It is not just an amorphous connection between believers. Therefore while we may all be 24/7 members of Church and actors of Church, we are not always constituting Church unless we are in intentional assembly. Of some kind. In explaining his disinterest in going to church, Miller writes, “But I also believe the church is all around us, not to be confined by a specific tribe.”

I hear this a lot. Church is all around us. Church is who we are. Church is what we do. Church is what we believe. I do church at home with my family. I do church at my office. And there’s just enough truth to all that to assuage any sense of tiresome communal obligation.

While the Church is, of course, the Body of Christ, composed of all its members and evident (for good or ill) in all the actions of its members in all the places that they are, its synergy flows out of a communal identity that becomes visible in assembly. This means that when I gather with fellow believers over coffee and bagels, we may indeed all be in relationship as members of the Body of Christ (Church), but we are not assembling as the Church and doing the kinds of things together that simply cannot be done solo. It is that business of assembling that Donald Miller finds dispensable, and he does so, I believe, because he has bought into some of the myths of neo-Christianity, myths that feel quite natural and even spiritual, but which are ultimately perilous to the work of faith.

Myth #2: A sermon is a lecture, and it is only meaningful if you can remember it. Therefore it’s helpful to auditory learners, and not so helpful to kinesthetic or visual learners.

To say anything at all about a sermon is dangerous. Dangerous because there are so many bad sermons and so many bad preachers. Honestly. You and I both know this. So I can only address this myth by first acknowledging that many sermons are not what they’re supposed to be, and that we all too often have to live with that. And even when we hear a good sermon, we may erroneously call it good simply because it was witty, or entertaining, or passionate, or articulate. And yet that too isn’t what signifies the value of a sermon. So, shall we abandon the sermon all together?

Well, yes, perhaps we should if we think of it as a lecture. I’m all for lectures, especially when I’m the one giving them. And I most certainly hope my students remember my lectures, both at exam time, and, well, I hope they remember them forever!!! (Ahem, sorry, getting off topic here.)

Miller writes:

I can count on one hand the number of sermons I actually remember… [T]o be brutally honest, I don’t learn much about God hearing a sermon…. I’m fine with this, though. I’ve studied psychology and education reform long enough to know a traditional lecture isn’t for everybody. There’s an entire demographic of people who have to learn by doing, not by hearing. So you can lecture to them all day and they’re simply not going to get it.

Miller’s comments are completely understandable. Really. I get this, totally get this. The reformers, in their earnest desire to refocus our attention on the scriptures, made the sermon the highlight and center of assembly. And their emphasis on the text, and the exposition of it, combined with an academic inclination (who else studies Greek? learns how to think in three-points-and-a-poem patterns? and now PowerPoints an outline?) has led to our lecture mentality. Some of us like all of this; some of us don’t.

The myth here is not that traditional lectures aren’t for everybody; that part is true. The myth is that the point of “going to church” and listening to a sermon is that we get “information” about God, which we then file away and recall as necessary when faith gets cloudy. Sermons as lectures are about knowledge and categories and systems and facts. But this is not what sermons are really doing. (I’m including homilies here, and though some of you might smugly insist that homilies are a different animal and therefore free of these aspersions, they are not. Most of them are just shorter lectures, a little quippier, perhaps, but in the same genre.)

So to dispel the myth, we have to address the much larger issue of the niche that sermons fill. We have to talk about not only what sermons ought to be, but what they may even now serve as if we let them.

Sermons/homilies are proclamations of the Word. They are the apostles’ teaching rumbling and ruminating down through the centuries, and the sheer act of listening to them, week after week, year after year, is a slow seep of truth forming our faith, not necessarily informing it. We hear the Word, we receive the Word; we listen and we inwardly digest. We may not remember last week’s sermon, but if we’re in a community that really preaches the Word of God, we don’t have to remember last week’s sermon in order to move within this historical arc. We are being shaped by the proclamation through the very discipline of attending to it. Together. Yes, with our minds (it isn’t a magic spell), but also with our wills. As such, listening to a sermon is an act of worship.

Like a gentle massage of our souls, the work of being preached to loosens the tensions created by the other six days’ constant barrage of untruths, half-truths, warped truths, and warms our spiritual muscles to the greater work of worship. It is not mere serendipity that the Nicene Creed follows the sermon. We hear the Word, and then we stand and reaffirm our faith. This is why in the liturgical history of the Church, the proclamation of the Word, the liturgy of the Word, precedes—and must precede—the liturgy of the Eucharist, that culminating act of thanksgiving and remembrance and adoration.

The Word makes our hearts receptive and sanctifies them. Yes, I can study the Bible on my own or with friends, and yes, that is extremely valuable. But that is not the same as an assembly listening together to the proclamation of the Word and replenishing our faith.

My dad is a preacher. A really great preacher, I must say. I sat through many, many of his sermons. Sometimes our church provided little outlines in the bulletin so you could take notes. Sometimes I did that. Outlines were helpful; I wrote down some memorable things, some of which he said, and other really brilliant insights that came out of my own brain. It’s almost all gone from my mental file cabinets now. Out of all the sermons he preached, I can remember a small handful. (The one about Elijah comes to mind often.)

But do I feel therefore, that all those sermons were a waste of my time? That because I cannot pull out those notes and remember the lessons, I have failed somehow? No, oh no. Sermon after sermon after sermon has dripped down into the caverns of my soul and shaped the inner constructs of my faith, my practice, my very confidence in God, whose Word remains the same.



About K. Mulhern

Kathleen Mulhern teaches courses in world history, European history, and history of Christianity. She has taught at Denver Seminary, Colorado School of Mines, and Regis University. She particularly focuses on the historical roots of the political, economic, religious, and cultural systems that have contributed to contemporary society.

  • Tom Beckwith

    “Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witness, let us run with endurance the race set before us, fixing our eyes upon Jesus…” (Heb. xi, 1).

    “In the beginning, God created Man, and ever since, man has been returning the compliment” (Voltaire, Candide).

    I am not yet quite so old that I’ve been relegated to sitting on my front porch and waving a cane while shouting, “All you whippersnappers get off my grass!” But sometimes I feel like that.

    I agree with you, Kathy; I don’t need two hands to count the memorable sermons I have heard preached. I do remember, however, being in uncounted numbers of assemblies hearing the Word of God preached, being surrounded by my brothers and sisters stumbling along the Jesus Way beside me or before me or behind me. But always with me. St. Paul admonished, “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.”

    The vast multitude of creation praises and magnifies God solely by it existence. As human beings, we, too, appreciate the colors of sunrises and sunsets, of the fragile beauty of the small things around us: leaves and rocks; we are also stupefied by the large things: by mountains and oceans, and the overwhelming and magnificent violence that is nature. I have many friends who say, “My church is the outdoors.”

    It makes me want to slap them.

    This is because we are a special creation. Not only do we praise and magnify God by virtue of our creation, but we also have the duty, because we alone in all creation are aware of our status as created beings, of worshiping God with our minds and our wills.

    I’m not writing anything profound here. It’s basic Being A Human Being 101. However, it strikes me that these revisionist efforts to diminish the power of us coming together are pernicious precisely because the conditions they describe are so true. Being something of a liturgist and a musician, I want things to be perfect any time any two or three members of the Body of Christ assemble. Lordy, I can’t begin to tell you the number of times I’ve been disappointed–let alone slapped down when my efforts have failed.

    What I can tell you is that virtually every time I’ve been in a group assembled for the purpose of worshiping God, it has been a sacramental blessing–i.e., a blessing I couldn’t have gotten by any other means.

    • Anne Thulson

      Speaking as one of those non-auditory learners, sermons are a continuous narrative from individual priests and deacons, each telling the old, old story in different ways. On my Sundays at St. Andrew’s, Elizabeth somehow always turns the regular order of things upside down in the most poetic way possible, Wibb always keeps a longstanding image of the poor, front-and-center in my mind, and George seems to always be astonished at the absurdity of being human and equally astonished at the ways God meets us in our absurdity. These sermons are too short to have 3 main points. Does that make them homilies? But their singular stories carry on and change me over time.