(non)Corporate Best Practices: Preaching in the Age of Emergence

(non)Corporate Best Practices: Preaching in the Age of Emergence January 6, 2015

SoMOne of the hopes for this communal blog is for it to become a place where we can share what’s working in our communities of faith.  To that end, I’d like to share some thoughts about the evolution of preaching in emergence communities.  These independent groups are not all alike but they do share many similarities, even if they are unaware of one another.  In the parlance of emergence, this is known as ‘non-identical repetition’.  So these are notes from one particular person (me) about one particular community (Common Table, located outside Washington, DC) that has had an uneasy relationship with preaching.

The Reactivity. In years past, our emergence community was pretty outspoken in its resistance to the whole idea of a sermon.  It wasn’t a reaction against preaching per se, but against what is too often behind it.  Namely, autocratic preachers forcing their views on others, single voices performing an imaginary dialogue, and congregants turning off their brain as they pay for a kind of proxy spirituality and engagement with the world.  Folks wanted to think for themselves, to struggle with a text or a concept and connect it to their own spheres of engagement in the world.


(All of which was, frankly, a really good thing for this preacher, as it forced me to listen to people, as well as find mentors from the congregation to school me in the advanced art of group dialogue and discussion facilitation– a subject I never learned (or even heard mentioned) in seminary!) We did move toward homiletics, though in a careful, gradual way.  Not ever week, but when we did have a sermon they were shorter (5 to 10 minutes) which not only kept preachers out of the bully pulpit, but also allowed more time for engagement in worship and also discussion about the topic and/or text of the day.  Too, we worked hard to have more than just a single preacher so there was less of a danger and/or perception of an autocracy.

The Way Forward.  What we were enacting is something that Tony Jones calls “a chastened epistemology”– a kind of humility about what we know, and how we know it.  Preachers are encouraged to speak boldly and with conviction, but they and everyone else are reminded that their view doesn’t rule the day.  Insofar as the preacher’s ideas find resonance with the congregation, their words are given a kind of provisional authority, but no one is speaking on behalf of the church or on behalf of Christianity as a whole.
Too, we were helped by Doug Pagitt‘s description of “the preacher as poet”, where the preacher is encouraged to winsomely describe the shared experience of the congregation rather than telling everyone what to do.  In his more recent book “Preaching in the Inventive Age” Pagitt goes on to suggest that preachers set aside a preoccupation with application to instead explore the way in which both the preacher and the congregation are implicated by the text.
Another huge help is in providing a feedback loop once the content has been delivered.  This keeps the listeners engaged since they know that their ideas are valued and will be solicited. Furthermore, it benefits the whole group, who will hear from a variety of insights and expertises and perspectives.  Perhaps best of all, this opportunity for discussion disabuses the preacher of any notion that she or he is the smartest person in the room, or the one who has cornered God, orthodoxy, or truth.
The Path Ahead.  It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been fruitful.  One of the dreams planted in me by one of my preaching mentors Russell Rathbun is the importance of ‘hiding the gospel’.  In an internet age of direct communication and advertising and marketing flooding us as if from a fire hose, an intriguing way forward is for churches and preachers to be more indirect, reticent, and ironic.  I’m actually not sure what Russell means by ‘hiding the gospel’, because he is such a true teacher that he is hiding that direct information from me.  But I’m listening to the sermons from the team of preachers in the church he serves, and I think I’m starting to get it.
A few weeks ago I was preparing a sermon from Luke 2, and found my imagination captured by the shepherds.  Searching for a modern analogue to these kinds of nocturnal workers, I eventually wrote up a piece of first-person fiction from the perspective of an over-the-road trucker.  I won’t claim that the sermon was great, but it was a fun challenge for the preacher, and it was apparently effective as well.  Instead of sitting back and waiting for the preacher to give them the main point, the listeners seemed to be leaning forward, thinking, processing, and searching for the gospel themselves.  A good day by any account.

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