By Alexander Carpenter
Criticizing the sermon, like sitting around the table and eating Sabbath lunch, is an essential aspect of our faith community life. But what do pastors think? How self-aware should we all be of the strengths and weaknesses, the past and future of the sermon. In a quixotic effort to turn critique to deconstruction, I invited two pastors over at the Just Pastors blog to reflect on their craft and role as Adventist preachers._________________
A pastor since 1984, Marty Thurber is the senior pastor of the Fargo and Valley City Adventist Churches in North Dakota.
I came across this recent (1933) article in Time on the future of preaching. The author, Navy Chaplain and pastor, Dr. Clausen suggested that television would elevate a group of preachers, about “half a dozen” of them, and they would “serve the whole world.” The rest of us paid preachers would “become executives, helping their parishioners to understand and live by the televised messages.” I wonder if Dr. Clausen had the gift of prophecy. Not a week goes by without someone asking me about Joel Osteen or Rick Warren, Robert Schuller, Doug Batchelor or some other well known Cave Man. (I hope I don’t offend any cavemen with that remark). I’m aware that each week, my listeners are quietly comparing me to something they have heard or seen among these elevated super speakers. That’s cool. That’s the world we’re in. Preach Up. Clausen was right, half right anyhow. Things have changed. And we’re crazy if we think they won’t continue to change. Yet, preachers are still here, for better or for worse, and people still fill pews, for better or for worse. Sometimes the whole thing amazes me, people coming to hear me speak about a God they can’t see and using a Book that’s still full of mystery. What do they seek anyhow? People need Good News, God News. Don’t they? The Bible has the best news in the universe. God doesn’t like prodigals, He loves them. He never stops thinking about me. I may forget Him, He can’t get me, little old me, out of His head. That’s addictingly powerful. That’s Happy Hour, Fine Wine at it’s best. Thank God for preachers who are willing to lay their lives on the line for that Word. I have no doubt that there is a bright future for that kind of preaching. Only preachers who love those they preach to will fulfill God’s calling. Anything less than love is abuse. It is terribly easy to waste time and abuse the preacher/listener relationship. It is terribly important that preachers get it right, not that they become great speakers or entertaining, but that they tell the Story, past, present and future with great clarity and consistency. A preacher stood on a hillside in Galilee a while back. When He was done speaking, they all marveled at what He said. He loved them, they knew it, He told them fantastic truths, they kept coming back. That kind of preaching isn’t going away. Allow me to close this post(sermon) with a quote from Calvin Millers book Preaching. The best preachers are heard before they preach, not during their sermon nor because of it. Did St. Francis really say, “Preach the Gospel. If necessary use words”? Who can say? Cliches, when they live long enough, become adages. Still, as old saws go this is a good one. Far more important than what is said is who said it. “Fire!” spoken even by a blackguard and charlatan will clear a theater. It is the shortest of speeches that may be uttered by a villain and liar and still be heeded by those who, given a choice would prefer to be saved by a person of good character. But generally speaking, preachers who preach the word will only be heeded if their manner of life convinces their hearers that they believe there really is a fire, and that they hold the extinguisher.
Does preaching have a future? Yes. What does the future of preaching look like? I’m not sure. It will involve listeners, participants, preachers, thinking, love, God and His Word, it will be Cross/Christ centered and driven by the Spirit. It will fill us with hope as we journey from Creation to Calvary to His Coming again. It’s counsel will call us to obedience and joy in that calling. The bells ring at church not for us to go and join a discussion club about the Bible, but to be transformed by the very Word of God as the sermon rings in new life._________________
Pastor David Hamstra ministers at the Grande Prairie and Fairview Adventist Churches in Alberta, Canada. Although he is an American, he enjoys the benefits universal health care and the rising (.94USD) Canadian dollar.
There’s at least two reasons why I don’t feel qualified to comment on the future of Adventist preaching. For one, I don’t like listening to sermons that much; I’d rather listen to a lecture from the ATS Podcast than watch an Adventist Preaching DVD. And for another, I’ve only been an Adventist preacher for three years and haven’t even got my M.Div. yet.
But I suppose it’s the last point that qualifies me to hold forth on the future of Adventist preaching, because, whether I like it or not, I am the future of Adventist preaching. Actually, I’m a part of the future of Adventist preaching, along with my peers, the other young pastors and elders preaching in Adventist congregations. So what I’d like to do is make a few observations (and generalizations) about the future of Adventist preaching in North America based on what I see myself and other pre-seminary, preachers doing in the “sacred desk.” First, I believe the future of Adventist preaching will be Biblical. Personally, I feel that I have no authority to say anything from the pulpit, because no one really cares what a wet-behind-the-ears preacher thinks about a particular topic. So what I do is help people hear what the Bible says about a particular topic and what that means in their life today. I’ve noticed that I and other young preachers tend to spend more time in our sermons explaining the cultural/historical context of scripture and using that understanding to make an application to today. We like to explore the full implications of passages rather than stringing together texts to support pre-determined conclusions. Our illustrations tend to be used to explain contextual ideas rather than the sometimes apocryphal, tear-jerker stories our elders use to explain theological concepts. Perhaps this is due to our proximity to theological education and our obsession with exegesis will fade away with time. This is true to a degree; exegetical training and Haddon Robinson’s landmark text, Biblical Preaching, are major influences on how I deliver sermons. But I hope that the cynics are wrong and I never substitute the Word of God for philosophy, psychology, or sentimentality. Second, I believe the future of the Adventist sermon will involve dialogue. Monologue has always seemed sort of un-Adventist to me, given our Bible as creed, anti-magisterial heritage. I think Adventists are at their best theologically in Sabbath School class and can’t but hope that a bit of that democratic attitude to truth will rub off on the Adventist sermon. Currently I see young Adventist preachers using notes (or nothing but a Bible) as opposed to manuscripts so they have flexibility to engage the audience with simple questions, to which they expect a verbal answer, and in rhetorical dialogue. Some, including myself, have gone farther and experimented with extended questions and dialogues during and after the monologue. Finally, I believe the future of the Adventist sermon will be confessional. The older generation of preachers relies on extraordinary tales to drive the appeal home; the new generation uses self-disclosure. Self-disclosure is risky and has it’s own dangerous pitfalls, but the result, if done properly, is an understanding that the preacher is not pushing something that he hasn’t tried him or herself. I grew up in a world where I had to endure an intense amount of marketing aimed at my demographic, and I don’t want to see myself as another pitchman, because a pitchman is phony. I can only be “real” in the “sacred desk” if I’m willing to be as honest about my faults as the Bible is about the faults of Abraham, David, Peter. Some church members don’t want to know that their pastor has struggles, but the majority are glad to know that the Word of God is living and active and able to save. I hope the future of Adventist preaching I’ve envisioned is bright to you. In some ways this vision is descriptive, but it’s also strongly shaped by the kind of Adventist preaching I would like to deliver and hear. So you may read this as both observation and manifesto. In closing, I’d like to thank the gracious people in my churches who found a blessing in more sub-par sermons than I’d like to admit so that I could develop into the preacher I am today.
In your comments below, feel free to share what you think is essential to the Sabbath homily, link to a favorite sermon (with the ease of online publishing, sermon sharing is moving from books to tapes and now to iPods), or offer your own prognostication for the future of the sermon. Do we need it at all? And why don't we have more traditional liturgies?
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/4241