Preachers Dare

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.

3 Comments

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3 responses to “Preachers Dare

  1. James

    I’ll have to look up and read this book, sounds great!

    I wonder how strong the link is between the decline of standards in our theological colleges and the decline in preaching standards, especially in NZ. Knox College (Presbyterian) and St John’s Seminary (Anglican) long ago became very liberal, despite many conservative and evangelical students studying and attending. The end result was a focus on social justice and pastoral care rather than exegetical preaching of the Gospel.

    I don’t know too much about Laidlaw / Carey Baptist colleges, but I can see the results are similarly society-focused, with a heavy dose of Charismatic teachings. From my experience in attending two very large baptist churches in Christchurch, the preaching was, to be frank, poor. Poor in the way it was focused on being a better person, the Gospel being a side note.

    But I do know that Moore Theological College (NSW Anglican in Sydney) has a steady number of NZ students, who now form the rump of ministers in the Confessing Anglican Church of NZ. If you get the chance to hear preaching from one of their graduates, I think you’ll be impressed with their solid, sound and Gospel-focused preaching.

    The Nelson Diocese also has the small Bishopdale Theological College, which I understand was initiated with the goal of having an NZ-equivalent of Moore. But it remains small and still part of ACANZP, with the hang-ups of being part of that dying denomination.

    I also wonder if the renaissance in reformed teaching around the world, including here in NZ, might result in more solid preaching from the churches that do survive. Liberal churches are pretty much dead, Charismatic churches will always be around but I see a lot of people getting fed up with the lack of teaching, and the only growing churches (that I can see) in NZ are the CCANZ and non-denominational reformed churches drawing inspiration from the ‘young, restless and reformed’ movement in USA and other countries.

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    • Useful thoughts thanks. I’m always a little envious of Chch having those CCANZ congregations. Back in the day, when I used to hear Murray Robertson (Spreydon Baptist) preach from time to time I was quite impressed, but have little sense of what Spreydon (or whatever it is now called) is like these days. Carey seems to be a bit of a mixed bag, altho my impression is that Baptist ministers tend to be more equipped as mini-CEOs/equippers.

      In some ways, Willimon himself might earn the label “liberal”, but there is a profound seriousness about the transformative power, and call, of the gospel. He has a good line (can’t immediately find it to quote) about there being no courage at all in, say, denouncing Trump in the Duke University chapel. Strangely, perhaps the best preacher we ever sat under was the Rector of a somewhat-liberal Episcopal congregation we attended for a while when we lived in DC. Again, it was some sense of depth and of not just being a chaplain to the spirit of the age.

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  2. Pingback: Another Preachers Dare Review – Peculiar Prophet

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