Thursday, May 22, 2008

Sermons Should Call Us to Radical Discipleship

Perhaps it’s who I am, but when I sit in church trying to follow the sermon, I am often stunned by the blandness of many Sunday morning homilies. By using the term blandness, I don’t mean the lack of excitement and passion, although this is important. By blandness, I aim to say that many sermons I hear are so simplistic and unimaginative because they only scratch the surface of a biblical text, a theological idea, or an ethical question. And in doing so, these sermons miss the chance to challenge us to plunge the depths our faith.

I am an ordained minister who preaches on occasions when I am invited to fill in for pastors who are away on Sundays. In being a supply preacher, I do not face the grind each week of preparing a sermon on top of all the other duties a minister faces. But I have been in such a position before, so I can certainly sympathize with the pressures pastors deal with in preparing a word from the Lord for the congregation each week.

But there is nothing more important a pastor is called to do than to prepare a message that challenges the mind, pricks the heart, comforts the soul, and calls us to seek first the kingdom of God. And most pastors take this call very seriously and work hard to prepare sermons they feel meet the needs of the people of God. Yet, despite a serious commitment to preaching and the hard work many pastors put into preparing sermons, many sermons fall short of confronting our way of thinking about God, human existence, and the world.

There are several reasons why this may be true. For one thing, pastors often do not struggle with the theological questions inherent in the biblical texts, preferring to link together simplistic statements that only scratch the surface of a passage. They approach the text with theological assumptions and read those assumptions into the text instead of allowing the text to challenge their prescribed theological beliefs. All of us are guilty of this at some point, but many sermons use biblical texts only to reinforce assumed theological propositions instead of allowing the text to challenge our theological status quo.

Second, many preachers feel that they are called to provide authoritative answers on theological and ethical issues to their congregation. For sure, ministers must bring a prophetic word each week, but to be stringently dogmatic without considering other valid ideas and interpretations falls short of thought provoking sermons that challenge our assumptions on issues. Even the biblical texts are often not so clear on issues we face in the contemporary world. Indeed, the biblical writers demonstrate their own struggle to find answers to ultimate questions about God and life. Sermons that leave us with more questions are much more powerful because they not only remind us that the will and purpose of God cannot be limited to authoritative interpretations, but they also lead us to struggle to find our own faith.

Third, some sermons take on a quasi-psychological tenor, serving as nothing more than self-help sessions that do not provoke us to think of Jesus’ call to discipleship. These kinds of messages serve only to address our emotional conditions and solve our narcissistic needs. But the Scriptures witness to a God who loves the world, and Jesus framed his holistic healing of the hurting around his understanding of God and how God’s rule had come. Sermons are not primarily for the purpose of meeting our self-serving needs; they are to confront us with Jesus’ call to seek God’s kingdom through service and sacrifice.

Finally, sermons should construct a symbolic world through which believers see and experience the rule of God. If we believe that God’s rule has come in the incarnation of Jesus, then we must take seriously the symbolic existence Jesus created through his teachings and healings. Indeed, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is a good model of what it means to construct a symbolic world. A symbolic world is an alternative way of existing in the real world as we follow Jesus’ call to radical discipleship. Such a symbolic world does not remove us from life in the real world; however it does impinge on our real world by creating an alternative way of existing that will challenge our ways of living in the world and cause us to rethink the compartmentalization of our lives.

Paul declared that we should not be conformed to the world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds. Ministers have the responsibility and the opportunity to bring a word from God that can renew the minds of those who have ears to hear. Sermons that cause us to think, struggle, and ask questions about what it means to follow Jesus in radical discipleship may not be entertaining, but they can be transformative.


Ray said...

I agree with what you are saying in part. We do need to challenge our congregations to radical discipleship. But there is also an edge of how to communicate this across. However, I do think that there are many who do struggle with the texts. I struggle each week, and I'm friends with people who struggle and wrestle through texts each week, and who do challenge their congregations. I hear your argument a lot about preaching being watered down and weak, but my question is how do you know this is true unless you go to every church in America?

larryrant said...

Thanks so much for this article. I needed the encouragement it provided. Maybe the title should be more about how we hearers need for the text - and the whole Biblical context - to have wrestled the preacher to the ground, over and over.

Anyone of moderate intelligence can read a selected text a few times and come up with an exhortation. But to come up with reality is another matter entirely.

One of the nicest comments I get (from time to time) is along the lines of "well, that's not what I expected to hear from that text, but it truly is there and we need to hear it."

Thanks again for the seriousness and encouragement in your remarks.

larryrant said...

PS. String-of-cliche sermons are so common and SO unendurable. It's a wonder to me that people can walk out after them and not stumble around and even still talk rationally.

Sam (Opossum's Creed) said...

Re: "despite a serious commitment to preaching and the hard work many pastors put into preparing sermons, many sermons fall short of confronting our way of thinking about God, human existence, and the world" ...perhaps you're spot-on. I haven't heard the same sermons you've heard. But is it at all possible that the sermons fell short of confronting your thinking, but might have confronted the thinking of the average church member sitting in the pews? I've been preaching practically every Sunday for 20 years now, and I know that what I consider mundane is often horizon-broadening for some of the people who are listening to me, and what I consider to be slightly challenging is sometimes mind-blowing to someone who doesn't read theology all week.