MINNEAPOLIS (ABP) — Clad in faded jeans, paisley shirt, and sandals, Doug Pagitt doesn't look much like a preacher. But Pagitt, 30-something pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis, is on the vanguard of an effort to help today's emerging, largely unchurched culture connect with the gospel.
At last February's Emergent Convention, a gathering of alternative church leaders in San Diego, Pagitt bluntly told 1,100 young participants that “preaching is broken.”
Pagitt and most other leaders of the emerging church movement come out of an evangelical background that values preaching. Could it be preaching really is broken? And if so, what's the answer?
Most of those young leaders are quick to point out it isn't about technique. Preaching is broken, they say, because the church has failed to take the cultural shifts of postmodernity seriously. In today's culture, they explain, people are increasingly distrustful of authority figures, especially preachers, with overarching explanations of how the world works.
“The thing that's changed is that Wizard of Oz part,” says Rudy Carrasco, a pastor and associate director of the inner-city Harambee Center in Pasadena, Calif. “The screen is pulled back, and you see who the wizard is. It's this guy pulling levers. That's changed.”
“The entire culture knows there's a curtain,” Carrasco says.
In such a culture, some doubt that conventional preaching can survive. For Pagitt, it is unhealthy — even abusive — to suggest that only a few, privileged individuals can speak for God. “Why do I get to speak for 30 minutes and you don't?”
“A sermon is often a violent act,” says Pagitt, a key figure among emerging leaders. “It's a violence toward the will of the people who have to sit there and take it.”
To treat the sermon as an oratorical performance delivered by a paid and trained professional who claims to speak for God sets up an artificial power imbalance within the congregation, says Pagitt, a Baptist by training. It's hard for a congregation to practice the priesthood of all believers when the preaching perpetuates an image of the pastor as somehow more authoritative or spiritual than his or her listeners.
In an emerging church culture that values authenticity above all else, such an approach to preaching creates an artificial distance with the congregation, Pagitt suggests.
Preaching is often “too packaged and clean” to connect with our listeners, Carrasco says. “Every day, every week, there's stuff that pops up in life, and it's not resolved, just crazy and confusing and painful. When people come across with three answers, and they know everything, and they have this iron sheen about them, I'm turned off. Period. I'm just turned off. And I think that's not unique to me.”
Tim Keel agrees. An experience three years ago on a mission trip to India led Keel, pastor of Jacob's Well in Kansas City, Mo., to change how he prepares sermons. He was asked to preach 14 times over an 11-day period. If he applied his seminary training to that task, he would have been overwhelmed, he said. But Keel said he sensed God telling him “not to prepare, but simply to show up and speak.”
When Keel returned to Kansas City, he began limiting his sermon preparation to the hours immediately preceding his church's Sunday night service. Keel “meditates on the text” through the week. Around noon on Sunday, he scribbles thoughts onto a yellow notepad, looks for connections and forms a rough outline from which to speak.
The result is impromptu and conversational, yet structured. At Jacob's Well, Keel stands at floor level with the congregation beside a small lectern. Occasionally he stumbles over words or changes thoughts in mid-sentence. But the young congregation, packed into a traditional Gothic sanctuary with pews and stained-glass windows, is fully engaged.
While many pastors devote considerable energy to crafting good content, what the congregation wants most, Keel says, “is you. They want God in you. And when you allow yourself to be vulnerable and imperfect, then all of a sudden there's connection, because that's who people feel like. They're full of shame. They're full of doubt. They're full of abuse and brokenness. And so to get up and be 'he of the white teeth' and the polished ideas is alienating.”
“My only qualification for ministry is my incompetence,” he says. “'When I am weak, he is strong.'”
Pagitt too believes preaching should be improvisational. “It's more like jazz,” he says. But for Pagitt, what matters most is hearing the biblical text. He disagrees with the familiar formula in which pastors read Scripture three minutes and “preach their own ideas” the remaining 27 minutes. “That's very odd to me to call that biblical preaching,” he says.
Instead, his Solomon's Porch congregation reads lengthy portions of Scripture. Pagitt follows with a few words of commentary. “My hope is that what I do during that time doesn't ruin what happened in the rest of the night,” he says.
The use of Scripture also is central to worship at Church of the Apostles in Seattle, a new “post-denominational” congregation with ties to the Episcopal Church and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.
“The Word is like a living voice,” says Karen Ward, the pastor. Ward's church closely follows the lectionary, an ancient assignment of biblical readings for each week of the year, followed by many mainline denominations. “We can receive that as a gift, not as stricture,” she says.
At Church of the Apostles, preaching is known as “Reverb” and it can take on many forms. The church might discuss the lectionary reading talk-show style, watch a film clip, hear a sermon, or interview a community member. In a recent service, they used a clip from the cable TV cartoon South Park “to explicate holy communion.”
But the focus is Scripture, not methodology. Ward, like the other young leaders, is technologically savvy. But like the others, she keeps the sermon low-tech. PowerPoint? “Gross!” she says. “There's nothing worse that I could think of than making a sermon into a classroom lecture. To me, it's more like you speaking from your heart and telling a story, telling a story about God, about the world.”
Tony Jones, author of “Postmodern Youth Ministry,” contrasts his present preaching with what he was taught in seminary. In seminary he learned to analyze the Bible, to position himself “over the text” through critical study. Instead, suggests Jones, “let the lectionary assign the text. And then you get under it and let it teach you all week.”
Jones adapts his preaching style to the biblical narrative. “I try to embody the text,” he says. “It's whatever I think the text demands.”
Sometimes that's wearing a robe and preaching from a carefully worded manuscript. Sometimes it's sitting on a stool telling stories. Occasionally it means leaving the sermon totally open-ended.
“If the text is an unresolved text,” he says, “don't tie it up in a neat little package. A friend of mine calls it the 'Aesop's fable-ization' of Scripture, where you feel like every time you teach something, you have to have a moral at the end.
“There's not a moral at the end of a lot of these [biblical] stories. It's just confusing, weird.”
If there is no moral, why do we feel angst about finding one? “Everybody's looking for behavior modification,” suggests Jones. Some preachers use instruction-heavy, fill-in-the-blank outlines, he says, while others use emotionalism to produce moral change in the congregation. Neither approach, he says, is particularly effective.
So what is effective at long-term behavior modification?
“Well, I don't know if preaching is at all,” Jones offers. “I think the verdict is out on whether preaching is at all. I think relationships are. The only preaching that could be …” — he grasps for the right words — “would be preaching that comes out of an embodied life lived authentically in community.”
“It's like water over rocks,” Karen Ward adds. “Effective preaching takes course over time. It's not some sort of instant gratification, some sort of, 'This is a high point, and I better nail this sermon or else.'”
All five young leaders emphasize the importance of involving the listener — before, during and after the sermon.
On Tuesday nights, Pagitt meets with church members to study the text for the upcoming service. Those discussions largely shape his comments at the worship gathering.
For Keel, lay involvement comes afterward, as small groups continue the discussion initiated in the sermon. Keel also interjects questions as he preaches, and people actually answer him.
Ward, who meets with church leaders to plan her sermons, believes preaching should be a dialogue. Ward, who is African-American, compares the interaction of her predominantly white congregation to that in historically black churches.
“You're not up there alone,” she says of her preaching. “It's a community event around the Word.”
What about the academic community? Does she consult commentaries as she prepares? “No, never,” she laughs. “Hardly ever. I used to do that, you know, for like three years after I got out of seminary.” Chris Seay, pastor of Ecclesia, an experimental church in Houston, finds a model for preaching in the Jewish tradition of midrash, in which the rabbis offered opposing viewpoints on Scripture for the sake of discussion. This approach “explores the tension” within a biblical passage rather than trying to resolve it, Seay explains. “So preaching doesn't become an event but a launching pad.”
None of these ideas sounds new to preaching icon Fred Craddock.
A professor emeritus at Emory University and one of Time magazine's 10 best preachers in America, Craddock quietly digests the comments from these young preachers.
“Well,” he says finally, “everything you've said thus far sounds like the '60s.”
Craddock describes worship gatherings in the 1960s that incorporated drawings on easels, images projected onto walls, and people sitting on floor cushions, as a minister reads Scripture and music is played on a recorder.
In the 1960s, Craddock wrote “As One Without Authority,” an influential book in which he advocates an inductive, incarnational preaching approach. “If [emerging church pastors] would read some work in the area of preaching and church life from the '60s and '70s,” suggests Craddock, “they would find a lot of friends.”
But Craddock concedes that the new approach never carried the day. “That was just late '60s, early '70s,” he says. “That was in the seminaries, it was in a lot of the churches, but apparently it didn't catch hold in enough places to make a difference, because the church just went on preaching the same way and building bigger buildings and family-life centers and huge congregations and nothing essentially changed.”
Karen Ward is too young to remember the '60s, but she's unfazed by Craddock's critique. “If you believe this theory of when the postmodern era supposedly began, it began in the '60s. … But it's really only now taking hold 40 years later.”
The difference is that today, “instead of [being] counterculture, it is the culture,” she says. The earlier generation may have started it, she laughs, “but we're finishing it.”
Is she open to dialogue with professors from Craddock's generation? “That would be fabulous,” she says. “That would be amazing!”
Craddock doesn't entirely dismiss the critique offered by the Emergent leaders. “I think those are legitimate reactions to some terrible preaching that's out of the Middle Ages,” he says. But he also believes their characterization of preaching is exaggerated. It's “a cartoon of preaching,” he says flatly.
Charles Bugg, preaching professor at Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, agrees. “It's very, very hard to talk about preaching as a monolithic thing.”
Both Bugg and Craddock point to many examples of excellent preaching in more traditional settings. Bugg insists authenticity and quality can go together. “There is a balance,” he says, “between being prepared and being so over-prepared that the words that you may have thought about for the sermon come out just as a sequence of words rather than as an occasion for experience and transformation.”
George Mason, 40-something pastor of Wilshire Baptist Church in Dallas, worries that too much emphasis on spontaneity could easily become “an excuse for sloppiness and laziness.” Mason compares the preacher's preparation to that of an actor or musician.
But could preaching be more like jazz, as Pagitt suggests?
“Let's talk about jazz,” says Mason, who is considered a skilled preacher in a traditional setting. “There is no such thing as jazz improvisation without a jazz musician who knows already what the score is, who understands the bass line, who knows the melody, and who has spent lots of time and energy mastering the scales, the basics and how the instrument is played.
“Improvisation comes out of an incredible mastery that has already been undertaken. Otherwise, it's like putting a child in front of a piano and saying, 'Play whatever you want.' That's not improvisation.”
But if it's good jazz? “Sure,” says Mason. “Why not?”
Craddock and Bugg warn the creativity and informality of the emerging church pastors might not be transferable to traditional churches. “You have to be incarnational and indigenous in your work,” adds Mason.
On that point, Rudy Carrasco seems to agree. “Three-point sermons? I'm starting to practice those again. You know why? Because there are people who are just locked into that. … I feel like the Lord's saying to me, 'Feed my sheep.'”
Before implementing new approaches to preaching, Craddock suggests discussing them with respected laity.
Neither the younger nor older preachers are certain about the direction of preaching in the future. Even if the sermon undergoes major remodeling, they caution, there will be counter-trends and local variations. “The good part in all of it,” says Craddock, “is a re-accent on the church as a community where everybody participates and is listened to and is respected. And preaching and programming and teaching and administration — and everything — has to pay attention to that.
“However shocking it may be.”
— Tom Allen is a Baptist pastor in Mt. Vernon, Ga.