Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Six Things I Listen for in a Sermon

As someone who has preached for over 44 years, and one who has taught preaching along with writing numerous articles and blogs on the topic of preaching, you may think that I am tough on preachers and a harsh critic of their sermons.  Actually, I am not.  I approach the sermon in an expectant manner. 

First, I am eager to hear God’s word expounded.  I can and often have already read the scriptures for the day.  I want and look forward to the preacher’s expansion of the text(s).

Second, I want to be open to what God has to say to me through the sermon and the “me” can also mean “us” as a member of a congregation.  

Third, I hope to learn something.  

Fourth, I want to hear the good news proclaimed.   

 Here are the 6 things that I listen for in a sermon.  I don’t expect every sermon to have all of these, but I listen for them and I think others may be also.

First, I listen for an invitation into the preaching event
I want the preacher to engage me in some way.  Often a simple question can do this, for example, “What could Jesus have meant when he asked people to come and follow him?”  The invitation can also come as a narrative or story at the beginning that sets the tone and theme of the sermon. For example,  “The other day while in Walmart, I watched a mother stand completely helpless at the temper tantrum of her toddler. I’ve been there.”  I even find a vivid retelling of a parable or teaching a great introduction.  After all, Jesus’ sermons and teachings were often great stories. 

There are some things I don’t find helpful.  I don’t find an explanation of why “these three scriptures” were chosen for today remotely interesting.  I don’t find a humorous story or illustration useful if it doesn’t introduce and serve the sermon.  I don’t find complicated explanations about complex passages and what words really mean in Greek very engaging.  In short, I listen to hear why this sermon is important.

Second, I listen to whether the preacher has done his or her homework
Here I have a bias.  I notice that a lot of Episcopal clergy are topical preachers.  By this I mean they find a topic or issue or subject in a text and proceed to preach on the topic and not what the text means, or why it is there, or why it is being read.

For example, when Jesus said, “I am the bread of life” it may raise an interesting topic about the metaphor bread and what bread represents and can mean, but I want to know why he said it, or at least why John said he said it, and not about the art of bread making or the preachers attempt at baking break and what the preacher learned from it.  I want to know that the preacher has engaged the passage and its meaning. This comes from prayerful and scholarly engagement with the Scriptures.

Third, I listen for the big story
Christianity is about life and death.  It is about the big questions and issues that make living, loving, and even pain and suffering meaningful, so preach on this.  I don’t really care about the arcane of faith such as the colors of the Church Year or the trivia of the bible.  I listen hungry for meaning. Just as our culture often overloads us with mounds of data, some preachers seem more interested in the data of scripture or theology instead of its meaning. 

Fourth, I listen for to the content AND the delivery
A sermon is oral communication and as such it has two important dynamics that of content and delivery.  Episcopal clergy are fairly smart people, but we are also at times boring.  When I do teach preaching and evaluate sermons, I use these two scales.  First is content. Does the preacher have something to say?  Second, I ask has the preacher said it effectively?  Can the preacher communicate beyond mere words?  Effective delivery helps people listen.   Many of us have become so predictable in our form of preaching, what Fred Craddock called “Explain, Explore, Apply,” that we lull our congregations into passivity by our predictability.   Rhetoric is not a bad word, and learning to communicate effectively with its different rules and forms is a blessing to our listeners. 

Fifth, I want to leave knowing what the preacher intended to say
This is what Craddock called the sermonic sentence.  This is a one sentence or one phrase summary of the sermon that preachers should use to organize their thoughts.  This sentence may or may not actually be used in the sermon, but after hearing a sermon, we listeners should be able to say in one sentence the point of what we heard.  Of course, we all know of moments when God has spoken to us directly in a sermon beyond what the preacher intended, but poorly formed and badly organized sermons should not be justified by such anecdotal moments. 

Lastly, I want to hear good news!
I want to be encouraged, helped, and even inspired in my life in Christ.  I hear enough from our culture about sin, death, shame, suffering, humiliation, the vain pursuit of material things, and the evils of our world and of our own lives.  I want to hear what God in Christ has set right!  I want to leave believing my life matters and that faith enables me to face the world with courage and hope. 

I know we are unloving.  I know we are polluting the earth.  I know black lives matter. I know there is injustice in our world at every turn. I know we are indifferent to important causes and issues.  I know the world and our culture and lives are going to hell in a hand basket.  But I also know Christ and for Christians “to live is Christ and to die is gain” as Paul said.  Preaching is at the heart proclamation not condemnation.  Does good preaching sometimes convict us?  Of course it does, but even then it leads us to forgiveness, amendment, and a new life.  And when hurting, depressed, wounded, discouraged and weak, I want to know “there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin sick soul.” I listen for the good news that always brings with it hope. 

Hey fellow preachers, let’s make 2017 a year in which we improve the quality of our preaching!

Monday, November 14, 2016

The Three Conversions of the Christian Life

Christianity at its core is a religion of Conversion. The word conversion, as most of my readers already know, comes from the Latin conversio which means to turn, or a turning, especially a religious or moral turn of direction.  While this can begin with a significant event in a person’s life, such as Saul who became Paul on the road to Damascus, it most fully refers to an on-going process.  I would argue that conversion is the distinguishing characteristic of Christianity and of the life of a disciple of Jesus.

Of course, we Episcopalians are not often the Damascus Road kind of Christians. Most of us prefer to think about ourselves more like Barnabas; quietly faithful folks who are kind and want to help and encourage others.  However, we do know that Christianity does begin with conversion.  Even when we baptize an infant, we believe that this child will have to come to a moment when she or he turns to their faith, claims it for themselves, and must take on what was promised for them in Baptism.

Over the years, I have come to understand that Episcopalians do not have a very clear understanding of conversion and what the process involves.  I believe it is one of the primary tasks of clergy to help our people understand conversion and what is being formed in us through this process. 

The place to start is with is the realization that Christianity involves more than accepting Jesus as Savior and Lord and certainly more than becoming a member of the Church. What we fail to understand is that Christianity actually includes three conversions. What do I mean by this? Let me lay out what I understand these three conversions to be.

Turning to Christ

There is, of course, a conversion to Christ – to embrace him as our Savior and to consciously choose to follow him as his disciple.  The Episcopal Church’s official definition of evangelism communicates this.  “Evangelism is to present Jesus Christ in the Power of the Holy Spirit so that men and women are led to accept him as savior and follow him in the fellowship of his Church.

All of the Church’s official and historical formularies, whether we refer to the Creeds or the 39 Articles or the Baptismal Covenant, affirm this definition.  In the Risen Christ we find both a Savior who by his death and resurrection has given us a new life and a Lord who calls us to a new way of living.  Dean Urban Holmes rightfully caught the fullness of this in his extremely important book Turning to Christ. 

In North America, Evangelicals often put most emphasis on the first part of this, “being saved.”  Some even say that this being saved is the main thing because it guarantees us eternal life.  They even equate salvation with eternal life.  Jesus and his early followers, however, called people to discipleship; following after Jesus in a disciplined and intentional way.  “Come and follow me” was both Jesus’ invitation and that of the early Church.  Making accepting Christ to be only about going to heaven is a serious theological fault and one that lessens the fullness of Salvation which begins when we do turn to Jesus.

Turning to the Church

For Christians, there is also a necessary conversion to the Church.  In the New Testament, the writers make no distinction between being in Christ and being a member of his body the Church.  Of course, following the establishment of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire and the idea of Christendom, we see the sad development that people can be members of the Church, but not really followers of the Christ.  In our time, it is safe to say that such “nominal Christianity” is a major obstacle to non-Christians experiencing the full reality of real disciples who have a converted life. 

This artificial creation of “membership” should not deflect us from the call to conversion to the Church.  Christianity is a communal religion.  It is meant to be lived in a meaningful and on-going accountable set of relationships with other disciples.  “You are the body of Christ” Paul affirmed, “and individual members of it.”  The organic image of the body of Christ that Paul uses for the Church is a powerful expression of life lived in mutual love with others.  When one suffers, then we all suffer.  If one rejoices, we all rejoice.  It is certainly true that much of Church and congregational life that we see today falls far from this ideal, but that does not negate the reality of what the Church is called to be.  One cannot grow beyond a certain point in the Christian faith without this conversion.

And this conversion is not to an “Idealized Church,” but to a local congregation of real human beings.  Yes, this means sinners with all our imperfections.  Yet, it is also true that it is in living into this calling to community that our path of holiness of life and our vocation to the world is grounded.  Bonhoeffer’s book Life in Community about the underground seminary that he led before his arrest by the Nazi’s is a testimony to the power of such a life.  There are many other examples of rediscovered community as a means of revival throughout the history of Christianity.  One need only think of Benedict or Francis to find how community brought a revival of the Christian experience. 

One of the encouraging signs of our age can be found among a movement of new church plants that take on this more organic calling of community.  Sometimes they take on names like “the Abby” or use “fellowship” or “Community” to express something deeper than the word “Church.” For these planters, Church has come to mean much that falls short of this conversion. Truthfully, many of our members see Church as more like a club of like-minded individuals.  The Church is not such an organization.  It is a called community.

Turning to Mission

Third, there is also a conversion to Christ’s Mission to our world.  Jesus told his disciples that “as the Father has sent me into the world, so I send you into the world.” But how did the Father send the son?

God sent him to Love the world, to give his life for the world, to bring hope to the broken, lost, hurting and alienated of this world and to work as our Baptismal Covenant says, “For the dignity of every human being.”

I have known many in the Church over the years who genuinely seem to know Jesus and who are faithful Church members, but who are stunted in their spiritual growth because they fail to understand this third conversion.  Many Church members see acts of charity or participation in a ministry that touches hurting people as some sort of optional activity that some members might choose to take on.  Is this not what the word “outreach” often means? Yet, any reading of the New Testament makes it clear that to turn to Christ means to take up his work. 

And this work also includes working to have our world more in alignment with God’s Kingdom.  This is a Kingdom and Reign of justice and peace.  The early Christians stepped over every racial, ethnic, and cultural barrier to make Christ known.  Converts, who were slaves, women, outcast, and even some who were from the upper classes, lived, loved, and even died with one another.  It is true that the “blood of the martyrs were the seeds of the Church”, but it is also true that many saw how these Christians “loved one another” as a testimony to the transformative power of God to change lives – to convert the hearts of men and women.

Let me end this piece with a few observations that flow from what I have said about the converted life.

First, we often see people who have experienced one of these conversions, but not all three.  For example, some Evangelicals are good at proclaiming the conversion to Christ, but often take a very casual view of the Church, and almost no interest in the work of Christ’s mission among the poor and needy.  

There are also those who deeply love the Church, its liturgy and worship, the beauty of classical music, and even it organization and structures, but whom at the same time “know not Christ.” 

In our current setting, we must also acknowledge that there are many in the Episcopal Church among our Progressive leadership who are sacrificially dedicated to Christ’s Mission in the world, but who hold a kind of disdain for the local Church, and who forget whose mission this is, whose reign we proclaim, and for whom we do this work. 

The answer then is not to criticize those who hold such positions for after all they are partially right, but to fully embrace that Christianity must involve a three-fold conversion for the fullness of this new life to live in us.   All of us should seek a fuller turning to Christ, to his Church, and to his mission to this broken and hurting world?

Monday, March 7, 2016

Anglicans and Culture

Seeing the disputes, arguments, and disagreements among Episcopalians and other Anglicans in North America from the political and social divides of our society, between liberal and conservative, or in church language, progressive and orthodox fails to help us understand the different ways Anglicans view ourselves today.  I believe a better model is to remember Richard Niebuhr’s classic work on Christ and Culture and view our current situation in how we differ in the way we see our relationship to our culture.  

First, let me explore a little background to this issue.  1965 marks a significant year for Anglicanism in North America.  Historians often use this date as “the end of the Protestant Era.”  It marks the point in society were the assumption of a broad mainline Protestant consensus gave way to an emerging secular one.  Interestingly, almost all former mainline denominations can measure their numerical decline as starting in that year.  This is true of the Episcopal Church.  In 1965, the denomination reached its largest membership of 3.6 million.  From that year onward, it has been in steady decline with just under a million members today. The first decade and a half of this century has seen an accelerating decline of TEC and the formation of the Anglicans in North America (ACNA) made up of many former members of TEC and a coalition of varying Anglican spinoff groups.   

Before 1965 there were different styles and expressions of Anglicanism, high, low, and broad Church, but these still fit within the cultural context of the era and were mostly congruent with culture and an extension of historic Christendom.  While we Anglicans have never been the State Church in the U.S., we have understood ourselves to be the State Church of the highly educated including artists and political leaders.  Of course, another less kind way of saying this is that we have seen ourselves as the church of the cultural elite.  We were the Church of Presidents and the Country Club, and we remain the most highly educated denomination.  

Because of our close ties to higher education, Episcopalians are greatly influenced by the trends there, and especially those Universities that are the current cutting edge of secularism.  Hence the emergence of secularism deeply affected our sense of identity.  One only need remember the enthusiastic string of books in the mid 60’s that heralded this new trend, books like Harvey Cox’s The Secular City.  Of course, in light of the harsh realities for mainline churches in late 20th century, these books strike us today as simplistic and na├»ve.  

What then are the ways that Anglicans have differentiated amidst these immense changes?  I see that three dominant ones have emerged.

Chaplains to the Culture 

The dominant view at the present time in TEC is an attempt to extend the old role.  The Progressives of TEC are today’s traditionalists when it comes to culture.  They see our role as the Chaplains to the cultural elite.  Of course, it is now obvious that the cultural elite do not believe religion and especially the Church is important even if they embrace an interest in a kind of undifferentiated spirituality.  Perhaps Bishop John Spong best illustrates this understanding of the church.  He has proposed for years a non-theistic and  secular theology to replace our historic faith.  What he and others are doing is repositioning the Church to be the Church of Secularism.  This means that, like the University, our key concerns have become sex, gender, race, global warming, economic justice, and multiculturalism.   

Notice in all the controversy within TEC related to sexuality and gender, none of the leaders ever seriously thinks of doing away with Bishops, General Conventions and the present Church structures.  They believe that when women, gays, lesbians and bi-sexuals can be Bishops, the church is carrying out its mission.  It is giving a theological argument, or at least rational justification for the place of religion in such a society and the role of the Church.  After all, even a secular society needs at times Chaplains and Spiritual Guides.  This is the party in TEC that now controls almost all the political institutions of our church  Having gained ascendancy, they are pushing ahead with their view.  These folks are cultural adapters.

Preservers of High Culture 

There are Episcopalians and Anglicans who see the mission of the church as preserving high English Culture as expressed in the past Prayer Books and classical Church Music.  Many Anglo-Catholics fall into this category and so does the Prayer Book Society, some English Evangelicals, and many Morning Prayer traditionalists in our laity.  The best example of this group may be Prince Charles who is the patron of the Prayer Book Society in England.  The way he expresses it is that the language and aesthetics of the Church’s historic worship ennobles and raises society. It holds up something grand and beyond the mundane of every day.  Several of the continuing Anglican Churches are clearly in this camp.  In the days ahead, I predict that many of its advocates will find the Anglican Rite of the Roman Church attractive.  

However, there are many significant Episcopal congregations that remain vibrant and strong while following this model.  They clearly prefer historic forms of liturgy, often using only Rite I.  They offer outstanding classical church music.  Many support the work of liberal education through outstanding private schools.  The largest Episcopal Church in the U.S., St. Martin’s in Houston, follows this form of Anglican life.  I would also point out All Souls’ in Oklahoma City as another excellent strong congregation that offers much richness in this corporate style that attracts many new members.  Throughout TEC there are such examples and although their style often stands in stark contrast to the dominant view in TEC, their vibrant life gives testimony to the rich past they express.  I call this group the Cultural Preservers. 

Ancient/Future Missioners 

This last group has been emerging for the past thirty years.  They represent some of the fastest growing Episcopal/Anglican congregations.  These are Anglicans who draw on the ancient roots of the church in doctrine, practices, and principles, but are willing to use contemporary aspects of culture.  For example, they are willing to experiment with liturgy, music, and technology to reach un-churched people.  This has been a largely innovative and intuitive group.  Interestingly, the best spokespersons for this are often American Evangelicals who are on the Canterbury trail.  Robert Webber was a primary example of this, but there are many others.   

This group could best be described as Cultural Transformers in that they are willing to take aspects of contemporary culture and use it for their ends. In service of the Gospel, they would say.  This always brings a certain tension in that some adaptations may bring more of the current culture than the Gospel, but that has always been a tension between the Church and Culture in every age. Another issue is whether some expressions of current culture are simply not redeemable.  For example, do certain forms of hard rock music or Rap express sub-currents of violence and negativity to a point that they cannot be used in service of Jesus Christ?  Many would say they do.   Or another issue is whether contemporary music tends toward performance and whether performance is really an Anglican value in worship. Cultural Transformers have decided to live with these questions. 

Because of this willingness to use culture, they share much in common with the Global South’s versions of Anglicanism.  Anglican Churches formed in countries that were not part of or only temporarily part of the English Empire have to constantly adapt themselves to the cultural context in which they live.  The vibrancy of these Churches and their rapid growth give testimony to the importance of such a mission directed existence.  There are people in this group in almost every camp of Anglicans in North America today, many in the ACNA and The Mission.  This group uses modern elements of culture in service of Cultural Transformation.

Into the Future 

While I do not pretend to be able to see far into the future, I do think we can see some immediate developments for these groups.  There are now many groups in North America that claim Anglicanism as their heritage and express their identity through one of these three ways of being.  The ACNA makes an attempt to shepherd these groups into a common community, but within it, these different views exist amidst some tension especially over the role of cultural preservation and cultural adaptation.  Only the future will show if this coalition can stay together under some consensus of what it means to be Anglican.  Right now mutual anger and denigration of TEC gives them a kind of magnetic force field.  

And of course, I should point out that any individual Episcopalian or Anglican may, in reading these distinctions, find oneself identified with more than one.  In one sense, all of us have some hold of the Cultural Preservers in our DNA. Hence, I think the Cultural Preservers have the clearest task before them and they will find allies in a number of places.  This would include burned-out evangelicals, alienated Roman Catholics, and disillusioned conservative Christians.  To worship God “in beauty and holiness” is a very biblical concept and a very Anglican mindset.  The Church of the King James Bible and the 1662 Prayer Book has had tremendous effect and influence for those who speak the English language.  Of course, Cultural Preservation can become precious and arcane, but when one listens to present American public discourse, especially in politics and in entertainment, we can see the contribution such people can add to making us a more gracious, kind, and reflective community where thoughtful intellectual discourse takes the place of what we now like to call “reality.”  

TEC seems committed to becoming more strongly identified with the Cultural Adapters, Chaplains to the Culture, even though its institutional life is in serious decline.  It remains to be seen if a godless culture will have need for a church.  Many in TEC have placed their future in this direction finding common cause in anti-racism, environment advocacy, and multicultural (and multi-religion) inclusiveness and advocacy.  They see this as prophetic and cutting edge.  Forgive me when I observe that it is hardly prophetic and cutting edge among Progressive Democrats, and it plays out as extremely alien to many in the wider Anglican Communion.   

We will have to see if the children of these Cultural Adapters will wish to retain a Church among their causes and concerns. There is plenty of evidence that the children of many of the leaders of this movement have not. It is apparent that at the present time the current leaders of TEC have not found the tools and skills necessary to preserve its membership and offset the decline of congregations.  Many are hoping the new Presiding Bishop will bring energy to this task while holding to the passions of Progressives for a just expression of God’s Kingdom upon earth.  

The Cultural Transformers have work to do on their identity.  Yet within both TEC and the ACNA are a number of vigorous and growing congregations making new converts and disciples, and leading a major new church planting effort. Personally, I see among some of the 30 and 40 year old leaders of these churches real hope and future for our Communion on these shores. There are also new expressions of local community life with names such as Abby, Fellowship, and Community instead of merely “Church.”  These express a realization that Anglicans need a new way of living in relationship with one another on the local level and with other Christians.  In Canada, there is the work of Fresh Expressions bringing a renewed concentration on disciple making congregations as opposed to the historic concern with having members.  

What I hope that I have shown here is the polarization between liberal and conservative, or progressive and evangelical is a false dichotomy that does little to help these groups communicate with each other and among themselves. I hope that I have offered a better way of understanding our current situation and have pointed a way forward in discussing the work and mission of the Anglican Church in North American in the 21st Century. I am eager to hear what others have to say about these distinctions.