After someone close to me preached his first sermon, he was approached by a man who made the following comment: “I work hard all week. When I come to church, I want to get spiritually fed. Your sermon did not feed me.” The man’s statement was revealing: many people come to church simply to feel affirmed and bolstered for the week to come.
“Spiritual Feeding” vs. “Bread of Life”
I propose that there are two kinds of sermons: those that simply set people at ease, and those that challenge the body of Christ.
Most pastors know (consciously or unconsciously) that if they want a big church, they should preach sermons of the first sort. Many people are attracted to preaching that affirms a hegemonic worldview. That way they can continue to think that they are better than others, and that they will be eternally blessed even if scorned by others for their worldview.
But should church growth be the most important goal of preaching? What is the actual purpose of church? Can a pastor gauge the effectiveness of his or her sermon by the number of people who pay forth compliments when it’s over? Should a sermon that makes listeners feel they have spiritually “arrived” even be congratulated?
I would answer all of these questions with an emphatic “no.” Popularity and large church attendance, though good for a pastor’s ego and career, are not necessarily signs of God’s blessing. If a pastor never makes the congregation uncomfortable, it may be that there are no complacent listeners in need of a prophetic wake-up call. However it may also be that the pastor is following the path of those religious leaders who scorned radical Jesus as a heretic. In Revelation 10 there is a little book that is sweet in the mouth, but bitter in the stomach. This is what the “spiritual feeding” model of preaching is like. It goes down nice and easy, but the end is bad. The church seems nice on the outside, but there is rot on the inside—rot that has never been cleaned out.
Jesus came to clean out the old. But people found it painful. New wine (truth) breaks old wineskins (paradigms). Sure, Jesus was popular with some people, but they were usually the people of the land: the poor, the oppressed. The religious people, who wanted a messiah to affirm their own worldview, could not stand him. They listened to his sermons in order to discredit him.
But what Jesus had was the bread of life. It was true food, which did not leave people hungry. It was not always sweet in the mouth (sometimes it even hurt going down). But those who truly received the bread of life felt satisfied and confident the pain was worth it. A good literary analogy is found in C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader,where the character Eustace stumbles upon a dragon’s hoard, and because of his greed, is transformed into a dragon. Aslan offers aid, but Eustace’s return to humanity is not without cost. For the restoration to be possible, his dragon scales must be torn off, the layers of selfishness painfully removed.
Proclaiming the Bread of Life
Desiring the bread of life is tough. First, we have to destroy the old person (die to self). We must deconstruct self-centeredness within our worldview, and reconstruct a lived experience of Jesus’ teachings. When we experience for ourselves the counter-cultural nature of what Jesus said about peace and violence, generosity and greed, we repent of past sin and try to live in accordance with the Word that is God.
Certain paradigm shifts in my own experience have caused me to cringe when I’ve remembered things I have thought, said or done in the past. It now makes me tear up when I think about the money America spends on war while people starve. I scream on the inside when I see people degrading each other. I struggle with the church when I see people disparaged for insignificant things by people who violate the Bible’s command to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with God (Micah 6:8). It makes me want to share the bread of life like the prophets of the Old Testament, to speak the Word with vigor and fire, to break the powers of the oppressing principalities and powers of the world. But I am scared to do this because I do not want to be ostracized. I do not want to offend people, and I certainly do not want to be crucified.
Jesus made people uncomfortable. He said things like “the last will be first, and the first will be last.” This does not fit well within a Western, capitalistic worldview. It has drastic implications for religion as well; it is challenging to any partisan religious paradigm that stratifies socio-religious groups or individuals based upon their distance from an insular “truth.” Though I am currently reluctant to live a life that could end in “persecution” from my own people, maybe together we can find the radical reformer courage that is needed to transform our church. C.S. Lewis expresses my sentiment right now when he says, “I write in the hope of rousing others to rebel.” (World’s Last Night and Other Essays, 49.)
Let us preach sermons with our lives that leave people feeling as they might have felt when Jesus preached: challenged, maybe even agitated, but in touch with the preposterous love and power of the Divine.
Landon Schnabel is a graduate of Walla Walla University. He is currently a student at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary in Berrien Springs, Michigan.
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/3760