Explore the story vs. expository: or preaching to the converted, the conformed, the confused and the contagious?

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What do you think of when you hear the terms sermon/preaching?

Maybe you think of helpful a verse by verse unpacking of a particular part of the bible? Maybe an exploration and unpacking of a particular text(s)? Possibly a short handy homily on how to have a better aspect of life with God? Perhaps with a reference to a handy mnemonic, acronym or 3 words beginning with the same letter? Perhaps even something that makes you stop, think, take stock, maybe even change/try something different?

Or, do you think of being lectured? Someone, let’s be honest probably a man, speaking through some amplifying equipment, the only voice in the room with no way of talking back? Funny voice? Rhetorical questions? A talk pitched at the lowest common denominator in the room or for an entirely different audience that it isn’t there full stop? An anachronism from a by gone age, which in a multi media age no one listens to really or cares much about?

Could it be you think of a word like ‘sermonising?’ Or phrases like ‘practicing what you preach’ or ‘preaching to the choir?’ With accompanying good/bad/indifferent feelings/reactions…

When it comes to it, emerging church or not, there are many people, I would guess who have ditched or want to ditch church sermons. Whether as part of removing negative church experiences, post church/post preaching - or as an engagement with a different form of practice i.e. one that is reflective or more emotionally rather than purely intellectually based.

My question is whether it is the practice that is flawed or whether in a reaction to whatever thoughts/experiences we have had we push to one extreme or t'other – either centering church on a sermon or the opposite, abandoning preaching altogether? Here are some of my thoughts on how, maybe, there is still a place for preaching in a post modern/emerging context and what that could maybe look/feel/smell like in practice:

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1. L plates for all? – in the UK when someone is learning to drive they have to display ‘L(earner) plates’ [red L's on the front/back of the car] to warn other road users. I wonder if part of the reaction against preaching is because the person preaching has assumed the role of having/providing the answer(s) – whilst they no longer need ‘L’ plates everyone they are talking too does – or to put it another way they are the instructor, the congregation the students. But what if the person preaching has an L plate on too, what if they are a fellow learner/explorer/searcher – how would that affect the dynamic and the presentation? Would it allow for doubt/mystery to be expressed more often? For a more honest road tested/ing presentation rather than the perfect theoretical theological propositional position? I also wonder whether such approach would turn the passive consumer of a religious service into something engaging, something to search, learn, journey together? Would it encourage us to interact, engage, and think? Would there be challenges to do together? Would there be things to share? Would we all just be a lil humbler?

2. Bible lite/light?– One of the criticisms of removing preaching from church is that it is making it a bible lite environment – we can reflect as individuals, we can study alone, we can even find good theology in music and conversation – but there does seem to be something profound about sharing a search through the bible together. Something of unpacking our faith, something about shaping our beliefs and therefore our actions as a missional community.

Of course there is the opposite reaction where we see the bible as some beaming spot light to guide our paths, a cheque book to cash in on God’s promises and blessings, something that just gives us an emotional hit… what happens I wonder if we see God’s word as a light to the paths of our journey, a guide to/on our mission - a light not as a beaming million watt spotlight throwing everything into stark dark/light, but as Jase said in one of his talks once, more of a tea light on our sandals. Just enough light to see where we are putting our next step, which means that we have to take that step to see – a teaching/preaching of the bible that informs and infills our journeys and leads us into taking one faltering step after another into the dark mystery of life together?

3. A proposition you can refuse or a story you can’t resist? – a modern sermon consisted of a carefully crafted propositional point with each text, illustration, story designed to nail that proposition in a little deeper… bang…bang…bang. Only problem is for a post modern all that banging does is give a headache – and rather than accepting propositions on their own it generates a crisis of rejection on the one hand to passive acceptance or the other. Even modern people struggle with propositional teaching when it comes to that teaching intersecting their life – the bible I have been taught says this but my experience says this – am I always in the wrong? Is it that I am in rebellion/sin? Or maybe that teaching that in the lab seemed so pure actually doesn’t work? Is the teacher maybe wrong?

On the other hand stories can be very powerful in revealing God in the context of a situation where we relate/react with the characters. One of the best examples of a story within a story is Nathan’s tale to King David of the great injustice of the rich man who had it all but still stole the only lamb his poor neighbour had – a tale that provoked David’s passion for justice (not to mention love of sheep) until Nathan (in true Poirot style) reveals that it is David who is the ‘rich man,’ who had stolen Bathsheba from her husband. Jesus was another one who seemed to either ask questions in response to questions or tell a story… Adrian Plass in his definition of Jesus parables said they were stories which entertained the listeners at the front door whist the truth tried to slip in round the back. There is of course a danger that stories become just stories, something to entertain rather than enlighten or worse do neither and therefore takes therefore skill to blend narrative and narration.

4. Modelling/ modulating? – in a time pressured society it is easy to see the church sermon as one’s engagement with the scriptures for the week, ready packaged and delivered, and if I can’t make church well there’s always the God/podcast takeaway option for the road. The limitations of the sermon are highlighted in how the audience interacts with it, it is often a one time listen and forget exercise.

What if the sermon becomes not a meal for the whole week but instead the raw ingredients whereby what is modelled is the art/skill of learning together, a communal exercise in cooking rather than consumption? What if each of us has some but not all the ingredients needed and therefore we need to ask/share/provide as well as eat together? And maybe not only is the art of cooking modelled but people are encouraged to experiment for themselves in modulating the method, the ingredients etc so that rather than just white bread there is brown, whole grain, French, foccacia etc etc bread being baked to be broken and shared with each other in the presence of Jesus.

5. Re-centred or self centred? – the style/content of preaching needs to be set in the wider context of the space called church – what is the point/purpose? Clearly the focus of the church in the modern age has been on the sermon, with the pulpit becoming the focal point of many church designs, often elevated and centrally placed.

What if church though is not so much now about focussing on the preaching but about the whole encounter/experience within that space? What if church is not so much about meeting my needs, consuming religious goods and services or just having a good time and more about connecting and interacting with God and community, about giving out and looking out, rather than receiving and looking in? What if church is about a space to re-centre ourselves as a community of faith before going out again to live out faith in the communities we inhabit for the rest of the week?

What then for the role of the sermon? Would it be one part of an experience to equip, encourage, envisage and encounter God – not just direct in my own individuality through the words of the sermon but something wider, deeper- allowing God to inhabit this space called church and initiate such encounters through my own service, self-giving, sharing and sacrifice?

Exploring futher together:

I'd love to hear your thoughts and reactions, what is your experience? What future do you see for the sermon? What do you think I've missed (I haven't touched on multi sensory practices for instance)?

For an alt insightful deconstruction/reconstruction of preaching I suggest Jonny Baker’s article on preaching entitled: throwing a hand grenade in the fruit bowl.

For some awesome examples of preaching which I think reflect +ive elements of all 5 of the points above, I recomend Jase's recent series on the Kingdom of God

Paul Mayers Guest Blogger