By Alyce McKenzie
I was the guest preacher a few weeks ago at a United Methodist church half an hour from my home near Dallas, Texas. It was a small congregation by Texas standards, with about fifty people in worship. A friend of mine, Anna, is the pastor. She and I entered the sanctuary by the side door and paused reverently in front of the altar. I took the seat up front that she pointed me toward, while she did the welcome and announcements. She gave me a very nice introduction, mentioning that I'm a United Methodist elder who teaches preaching at Perkins School of Theology. She listed places I'd received my education and some of the things I've written. I thought I saw people's eyes glaze over a little, maybe thinking, "This woman really had a hard time leaving school!" Then it was time for the acolytes to come forward to light the candles.
In this church, everyone involved in the service sat on the dais around the altar, facing the congregation. There were two acolytes, girls about 10 years old. One had a meek, sweet face. The other wore a look of determination on her face. It said, "These candles are going to be lit, by God, and they're going to be lit right." She had a little trouble with the wick, which she quickly overcame, lit her candle, then came and stood in front of me, looked up into my face and said, "You are in my seat." Pastor Anna came over, took her arm and said, "Honey, come on over here and share a seat with Kayla." This obviously was not acceptable. To avoid the scene that was brewing, I went down in the congregation, praying that they were the kind of chairs that separate from each other (they were), got a chair, and brought it up for her to sit next to me.
Now, there are two interpretations of this liturgical scenario: one is that she is a bratty little girl who needs to learn to respect her elders. Judging by the glint in her mother's eye as she came forward to take her daughter by the elbow after church, I suspect this was the official parental interpretation. But I was preaching that week on 1 Corinthians 12, "Many members, One Body." So the interpretation I took was that maybe hers was a prophetic word: "I don't care who you are, guest preacher lady, you're in my seat!" Maybe it's a word that says everybody is a valued member of the Body of Christ. That's probably stretching it, but preachers can get a sermon illustration out of almost anything, especially humorous stories involving children.
My acolyte, whom I will refer to from now on as Ashley, sat behind me as I preached, so I don't know what she thought of my sermon. It lasted eighteen minutes, including the scripture reading. It was an inductive sermon that invited listeners to wonder why Paul chose the body as a metaphor for the church, introduced several good reasons for his choice, and ended with a challenge to suffer with and honor other members of the Body. So if she liked eighteen-minute, inductive sermons, then she made the right choice in worship attendance that morning. The truth is, when you're 10 years old, you probably don't have much choice. You go where your family goes. Or not.
What will Protestant mainline preaching will be like in twenty years? What homiletical options will there be for 30-year-old Ashley? Where will she sit? Where will the preacher sit? What kind of sermon will the preacher preach and the worshippers experience? I suspect that she may remember that Sunday in the summer of 2010 as the last time she ever had to compete with a preacher for a seat in worship!
Let's imagine some sermons with Ashley in the year 2030. One week Ashley will sit at home because that's where the preacher is sitting, too. Or the preacher may be sitting in the comfy corner chair at Starbucks. The preacher will be somewhere else, posting the sermon on her blog, or Skyping the sermon to others with no perceived need to gather in the same room.
Another Sunday, Ashley will sit in church with lots of other people watching the preacher preach, but, rather than being physically present in the same room, the preacher will be simulcast from the Mother Church to this satellite campus.
A third week, Ashley and her young children will be seated with other people on couches in a half-moon seating arrangement. The leader will get up from one of the couches and start the sermon off. Ashley won't be able to daydream and write mental grocery lists. She will be encouraged, even expected, to contribute her ideas and experiences. She and other worshippers will actually create the sermon together with the preacher.