That’s the title of a new book – Preachers Dare: Speaking for God – by Will Willimon, the highly-regarded American Methodist preacher (and professor at Duke University Divinity School). It is a short book, based on a series of lectures at Yale, and if it is probably primarily aimed at Willimon’s fellow preachers, it deserves to be more widely read. My copy arrived in November and I’ve just read it – with lots of underlinings – for a second time.
I don’t preach these days, but from about age 18 or 19 until I was 40 I did a fair amount of lay-preaching in a variety of congregations. I often drive past the building – now converted to a house – where I preached my first sermon to the small congregation that still gathered each week, on the Benedictus, the prayer of Zechariah from Luke 1. And my wife occasionally reminds me of her first awareness of me: newly arrived at our local church, to hear an overly-long sermon from me on the resurrection of the body, drawing from I Corinthians 15 (not helped by having expected that she might be hearing from the provocative former Baptist minister with a very similar name to mine). Preachers should not, of course, preach primarily for themselves, and yet in the hours of preparation, study, and prayer, I know I was often the person primarily confronted afresh with God’s word.
But sermons matter – or should do – to the hearers. To this point in my life, I’ve probably heard more than 3000 Sunday morning sermons, many evening sermons (easily another 1000), and some weekday ones too. Perhaps I will hear another 1000 or even 1500. Through the sermon – although, of course, not only through the sermon – we should be expecting to hear God speak. There can be tendency to downplay sermons, but Willimon argues that churches (and pastors) would be quite wrong to do so.
In our age of mass literacy we might take for granted the ability of almost everyone in a congregation to read for themselves – the Bible, commentaries, other Christian books, even literature – but (a) for most of human history (even most of the history of the Christian era) that option wasn’t widely available, (b) realistically, probably most don’t even now, and (c) much as God can and does speak to the unaided reader, there is no sign that is a (His) preferred model. Take, as an example, the early church. It was several centuries until the canon of Scripture was considered closed, and for a long time few congregations would have had a copy of most of the writings that we now know as the New Testament. Sermons? Acts is full of them. That way God spoke, that way God speaks. Through preachers, proclaiming a God who has acted, who acts now, known only as revealed (supremely in Christ)
Willimon has a high view of preaching, and if I read him rightly his challenge is to preachers to live up to that high calling – and perhaps for congregations to demand it, to demand better. I think I’ve previously quoted on Twitter this line from the book
While it’s fair for preaching sometimes to offer helpful hints for persons in pain, therapeutic advice for the wounded, a reason to get out of bed in the morning, a spiritual boost for the sad, or a call to arms for social activists, human helpfulness can never be preaching’s main intent because such concerns are of little concern to Jesus. Besides, why get up, get dressed, and come to church at an inconvenient hour of the week to hear what is otherwise readily available anywhere else. At least Rotary serves lunch.
When preachers preach (much of) that sort of stuff, they shortchange themselves (to preach God’s word is a high calling), but more importantly they shortchange both God and his people in the pews. As Willimon also notes
[Once, at a busy graduation time] I took the easy way out and preached Jesus’s parable of the prodigal son as a story about what sometimes happens when graduates at last leave home. Jesus the helpful human relations expert. The congregations received my conventional wisdom with a collective yawn. If Paul’s claims for Christ are true, there’s no way Jesus would have told that parable for that purpose. Fretting over family life, what to do after graduation – such small potatoes for One on his way to a new heaven and earth.
While it is hard to imagine anyone preaching the prodigal son quite that way, the general point holds. Willimon’s famous book, with Stanley Hauerwas, Resident Aliens highlighted the profoundly scriptural teaching of the contrast between God’s purposes, his call to us as his disciples, and the interests, values, pressures etc of the world around us. We are aliens and strangers – or if we aren’t we’ve allowed the world to squeeze us into its mould. My reading this morning included James 4:4b “Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” – a verse I’m not sure I’ve ever heard preached,
And yet how much of the preaching we hear today rises even towards the standard Willimon calls preachers to? Between holiday times and combined services, I think I’ve listened to sermons in four different churches, from six different people, this year to date. At best, two sermons have even leaned in that high direction. In one case a pastor – called and chosen to lead, to preach – has lately reduced sermons to perhaps 7 to 10 minutes, not by relentlessly refining and honing his words so that each speaks deeply to us, but simply by doing little. But doing that little does almost nothing to speak God’s word, or to shape believers God’s way in an increasingly hostile age. Sometimes offering rather shoddy lines that seem to treat Scripture as some sort of pick and mix “promise box”, where context, the full passage, the narrative of God’s work through Israel and the early church seem to count for little.
Willimon draws heavily on Karl Barth – and not all his approach will be everyone’s cup of tea -but perhaps at least this quote will resonate
“Not every [preacher] can [speak the Word of God]….For not every [preacher] has heard it,” says Barth. Many contemporary pastors are only pastors – congregational caregivers, managers, organisational leaders – rather than preachers: those who, having heard, are compelled to preach.
When so much of the church is in such precipitous decline, we urgently need something more from those who accept the mantle of preacher.
As I read the book the first time a couple of months ago I jotted down a list of the congregations that existed when I first came to this part of Wellington in 1978 and have since closed down. It was a depressingly long list (including two churches in my own suburb, and the small outpost where I preached that first sermon). And perhaps as worrying, not many of the churches that are left – Catholic or Protestant – manage congregations as large as they had 40+ years ago, by when New Zealand Christianity was already well into its decline. The story has the odd brightspot, but they are few and far between. But how many preachers call their people back to the Scriptures, back to the works of God, the plans of God, and the call to live as distinctly different disciples of Christ? God has plans and purposes, But are our preachers proclaiming them, calling us to them. Or are they content to manage the social club, the social work, accommodating their people to the age, as one generation succeeds another and the decline of the gospel in New Zealand continues?
For anyone at all interested, I commend Willimon’s book to you. For evangelical readers, not everything he says in passing on specific points at issue in the church will be to your taste (or mine) but don’t let that detract from the challenge of this bishop, writer, and professor who seeks to live the conviction that God speaks, and that He wills to speak through faithful preachers today too.
UPDATE: Somewhat to my surprise (given that this blog does not have a vast readership), Willimon himself has noticed this post, in a brief post of his own.