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Something to Say

I preached my thirty-sixth sermon yesterday, which, in and of itself, is not a particularly momentous number or occasion, but which nonetheless, was an experience that provoked a bit of reflection. Preaching is a practice that has taken some time for me to grow into. I still find it incredibly odd that people actually entrust me with twenty minutes of their precious time on Sunday morning. And I often think that God has an incredible (or incredibly weird?) sense of humour in sticking the introverted kid who talks too fast and stutters too much in front of a microphone every Sunday.

Perhaps one of the hardest things to get used to is the expectation (perceived or real) that I ought to consistently and reliably have something to say, and that it ought to be inspiring or reassuring or transformative or whatever. I remember one of my professors in graduate school telling us to enjoy our time as students, when nobody really cared what we thought, when we had the luxury of trying out all kinds of ideas, when nothing really hung on what we thought or said! “When you’re out in the world of the church,” he said, “that all changes.” How very true.

On any given Sunday, there are as many different expectations about what ought to be said as there are people. And for anyone even remotely prone to self-doubt, the expectation to consistently have something relevant, comforting, challenging, or helpful to say can be psychologically exhausting. Perhaps it’s somehow related to the “omniscience fatigue” Douglas Coupland speaks of. Every preacher or writer sets forth the fruit of their labours knowing that their congregants/readers could probably find something more illuminating or interesting in ten minutes on Google. That sounds cynical, I know—probably more than it ought to. But there sure are a lot of options out there…

I’m not actually convinced that many of us have more than a few good ideas when it comes to matters of faith. Mostly what we do—those of us for whom writing or speaking about faith is part of our daily work—is recycle and repackage and regurgitate and reframe and renarrate some version of the same story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—in fact it’s probably unavoidable and good on some level. Perhaps it is a God-given mercy to save us from pride. But it is easy to get sick of the sound of my own voice—whether standing in front of a community of believers on Sunday morning, leading a study group, or even on this blog.

This isn’t an appeal for sympathy or a transparent exercise in fishing for compliments, so please don’t read or respond to it in that way. I suppose it is just an honest confession and a plea for understanding. Sometimes it feels like my thinking and believing is just as muddled as the next person’s and that I have no business whatsoever trying to “instruct” anyone about mysterious and impenetrable things like “God” and “faith” and “salvation.” Sometimes, I just don’t have anything to say.

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  1. LarryS #

    Ryan wrote: “I’m not actually convinced that many of us have more than a few good ideas when it comes to matters of faith. Mostly what we do—those of us for whom writing or speaking about faith is part of our daily work—is recycle and repackage and regurgitate and reframe and renarrate some version of the same story. That’s not necessarily a bad thing—in fact it’s probably unavoidable and good on some level. Perhaps it is a God-given mercy to save us from pride. But it is easy to get sick of the sound of my own voice—whether standing in front of a community of believers on Sunday morning……”

    For whatever it is worth: As someone sitting in the pews I’m certainly not looking for anything ‘new’ in fact too much newness would be treated with some suspicion. And although I’m not looking for a graduate level course, I want to hear enough to know you’ve done your homework and can tell that you’ve wrestled with the text, scholarship and real life. I’d like to know that there may be other interpretations out there other than the one you are presenting. And don’t forget to indicate once in awhile which branch of the Christian church you are perched on – Anabaptist. Oh, and don’t forget that you must also present so that people who come in off the street completely unaware of the biblical story can understand what you are going on about. Perhaps most intriguing to me is my wanting to hear you present your biblical text within its’ meta-narrative (i think this may have some relevance to the post-modern crowd). Just be sure you don’t show off doing so. And make sure you keep my wandering mind focussed. Perhaps you should start getting ready for your 37th sermon. Blessings Ryan have fun!

    November 29, 2010
    • Thanks for the checklist, Larry!

      (I do appreciate the “view from the pew.” Not surprisingly, I have many of the same expectations when I’m on the other side of the microphone.)

      November 29, 2010
      • Larry S #

        Ryan regarding my checklist –I hope my attempt at making the list humorous came through. I appreciate the spirit of your post. How would you compare your view of the ‘preaching moment’ to that of other Christian traditions (say the Reformed which seems to make the preaching moment supreme).

        p.s. only 4 more sleeps and I get to go the Regent book sale

        November 29, 2010
      • Oh yes, the humour came through. Not to worry :).

        Re: the “preaching moment,” I often wonder if we unnecessarily load up on the sermon at the expense of other important elements of a worship service. Personally, I would be happy if the Lord’s Supper was the focal point of each Sunday. Too often, the sermon just seems to disappear into a vacuum and you have no idea what effect, if any, it has on anyone. It’s too easy for sermons to be about the one delivering them. This isn’t to say that I don’t think preaching is important or valuable, but I am often far more deeply impacted by a personal testimony or a prayer or a piece of music than a sermon.

        (Enjoy the book sale. Alas, I don’t think I’ll make it over this year…)

        November 30, 2010
  2. mdaele #

    Maybe this vague disconnect that you are feeling regarding the function of preaching is largely due to the less than attentive work that preaching is. Crawford would tell you that the most virtuous work pays particular attention to the particulars. He’s more interested in addressing material culture. But the exercise of attentiveness or lack thereof may be at the root of feeling of alienation experienced. Preaching seems like an intrinsically inattentive type of work. Preaching seems focused on making a statement (having something to say) not about asking questions or about paying attention to real lives. In the pilgrimage that is following Jesus preaching appears as a bizarre idea. Having something to say, assumes a type of authority that seems distinctly un-servant-like. Even the ‘sermon’ on the mount – with its coy eloquence seems really much more provocation than preaching (at least the way we commonly understand teaching).
    When I read Crawford’s chapter I cannot help thinking back to the time I was doing preaching work. I remember the overwhelming restraint that impinged itself on me each time. I was always more careful about what I said from the pulpit than I would say in any other context of ministerial life. I think you and I can both recollect numerous sermons which were more apologetic than they were instructive. Crawford’s chapter “The Contradictions of the Cubicle” outlines the weird space that managers live in. For me this chapter seemed to capture much of disconnect that I often experienced as a minister (especially when called on to have something to say).
    I hope that your parishioners will appreciate the ‘wrestling’ that you are evidently doing regarding the ‘duties’ you are carrying –

    November 29, 2010
    • I’m not sure I agree that preaching is an “intrinsically inattentive type of work.” It sure feels like I’m paying attention when I’m preparing and delivering them… :). And I don’t think that authority and a servant-attitude are mutually exclusive things—at least they don’t need to be. Servants could, theoretically, have something important to say every now and then, couldn’t they? Having said that, I can certainly appreciate what you say about the restraint you felt when preaching—especially now that I’ve done it a few times.

      I lent out the Crawford book last week—I plan on reading the chapter you mention once I get it back. So far, from what I’ve read, he has a lot of very good (and sobering) things to say.

      November 30, 2010
      • mdaele #

        I don’t suppose that authority and servant-attitude must be mutually exclusive – except in a logical sense!
        Preaching seems to me to be more like the service counter at Canadian Tire and less like taking my van to Chic Regier. Canadian Tire aggregates a certain type of knowledge about vehicles that passes as attentive because it is appears extensive. I take my car in to get my muffler changed and receive a phone call to have an alignment, brake work, and two new tires installed. It seems like they have ‘paid attention’ to my car. This is not really the case however. What they have done is look for things that they can do to my car to increase their profit margin on the work they perform while the vehicle is still up on the hoist. The brakes may be worn but not enough to warrant replacement – at least not yet. Chic ‘attends’ to my car in a different way. If any of the above extra repairs are actually needed he not only can identify them but can also list in order of priority which repairs need to be done when. He knows my budget and he knows what my expectations given the usage that I have for that vehicle. Both Canadian Tire and Chic need to pay attention to how vehicles work and they both need to be able to recognize when problems exist – but clearly the nature of their attentiveness is distinct. Preaching is feels like Canadian Tire to me. I’m not convinced that a single message I ever preached was attentive to the individuals in my audience and the needs and expectations that were peculiar to them. I am convinced that I have yet to hear a message that was attentive in that way. I can concur that I paid attention to Scripture in my preparation and that I was often motivated my particular nuances of popular culture or current events and trends in shaping the content of my sermons. To me this type of attention is sort of like standard operating procedure -much like the common knowledge Chic and Canadian Tire have about cars.
        By this I am not suggesting that you are careless in your approach to the task of preaching – far from. Knowing you as I do – I think you bring as much integrity (and authentic struggle) to the process and delivery. What I am suggesting is that the job itself – preaching – is the problem.
        The reason my blood boils when I think of the Canadian Tire service center is because they not only identified these extra problems but made them seem critical to the safe function of my vehicle. They borrowed on what they hoped was my conviction that they were authorities on my car and cars in general to try to convince me that the work was essential. Preaching is not that different with respect to authority. The preacher is placed behind the pulpit and afforded a certain type of authority to speak, convince, admonish, provoke, correct, or ‘encourage’ the congregation sitting in front of (usually and sadly) him. That the preacher is given this authority is not problematic in itself. But this relationship to authority does change the nature of attentive labor that the preacher can perform in that context.
        So now there is, in my mind, another argument toward the mutual exclusivity of authority and servant attitude. If a servant attitude can be loosely equated with the type of attentiveness that Chic might perform (at my disposal to fix what I can afford and need to fix), then the authority that preaching assumes to borrow on to accomplish its function is also seen as not being able to be attentive in that servant-like way. So an authoritative stance like (the work of) preaching seems to reduce or negate servant-like attentiveness. Again this points to preaching being a problematic type of labor – regardless of how thoughtful (or at worse apologetic) the approach or preparation.
        I quickly got tired of the myriad ways that individuals seemed to superimpose some ideal spirituality on me because of my position as pastor. But I think this largely had to do with the fact that on occasion I would get up and preach. Not many people venture behind the great (usually) wooden yoke to deliver a speech. It scares them to consider it. I wonder if this fear elevates the work of preaching beyond what it might otherwise be afforded. This elevated status get transferred – although rather loosely – on to the person. In my own journey the ‘struggle’ that I experienced was the cognitive awareness of the distance between the projection of my identity and the more grounded reality of who I was. To me preaching often like little more than a complex marketing tool to reinforce the very projections that I was not comfortable with.

        December 1, 2010
      • I’m not sure I agree that the job of the sermon is to be attentive to you as an individual. I think there are other forums for that in the life of the church. A sermon, by its very nature, cannot be all things to all people. That doesn’t mean sermons are flawed or useless or “problematic types of labour,” it just means that they have limitations, like every other human endeavor.

        I also think that while your comparison between the Canadian Tire service centre and preachers has some traction, I don’t think it’s fair to say that it’s all about convincing you that their authority is legitimate in order to sell you something you don’t need. That might be true in this or that specific situation (tragically), but I think there are far more examples of pastors who genuinely want what is best for the people they are called to serve and preach with that intention.

        It’s possible that people’s fear of “the pulpit” might elevate the valuation of the task. I’m not sure I see a whole lot of evidence for that. I don’t think preaching is as highly esteemed these days as it once might have been. People feel pretty free to disagree, critique, complain, ignore, etc. Perhaps it was always that way, but my sense is that there is less of a sense that preaching is “authoritative” than there was in the past. I think that often it is seen more as one of many resources that can be accessed (or not) by people in their personal lives.

        Re: the gap between the projection/perception of pastoral identity and the reality of who we are as human beings, I think your point is well taken. As you say, it can become very easy to use preaching to justify/reinforce perceptions of what the pastor is supposed to be/do. It’s probably not healthy or entirely honest, but sometimes it seems unavoidable.

        December 1, 2010
      • mdaele #

        Perhaps, as you and others have pointed out in the comments, there is a space for that task that we normally associate with standing up at the front of the church and giving a speech. Many in the comments have spoken of the task itself as a worthwhile endeavor. I remain largely unconvinced. What we typically call preaching is a task that is profoundly tied to the preacher – his/her nature, character, and ability to provide spiritual guidance. The task of preaching is a central feature of any person in paid ministry – even if preaching is not outlined specifically in the job description.
        My aim here has not been the pastor but the task of preaching. It seems we agree that sermons are not (Chic Regier) attentive – that they likely can’t serve that function very well. You say that preaching may hold some value as an important function in the life of the church – or at least that it should not be written off as useless. Okay. What is the important function that it plays – if as you have pointed out preaching seems to be waning in importance?
        Again I am not as interested in drawing a parallel between position of Canadian Tire and the pastor as I am about identifying the similar qualities of attention (or lack thereof) that are accomplished in the two tasks. If fixing my car can be equated with fixing my spiritual life then the kind of fixing that Canadian Tire/Pastor can do is problematic if arbitrary repairs/preaching is the methodology. I know a few good mechanics that work at Canadian Tire just like I know a few good pastors. Preaching is not a very attentive or useful way to help people fix their spiritual lives. Fixing people’s spiritual lives seems to be a central focus of the church and especially of its specialists (the pastors). I wasn’t trying to draw a direct connection between the dishonesty in my experience of Canadian Tire to an allegation of dishonesty (or even salesmanship) superimposed on pastors. But I can see where that assumption could be made.
        My response, tiresome as it is, really focuses on the idea that the disconnect that you talked about originally might be a result of the problematic nature of the task of preaching itself. I think there significant parallels between some of Crawford’s ideas and the ‘art’ of preaching. Wendell Berry’s ‘The Loss of the University’ seems to resonate with the notions that I am trying to get at here – perhaps you’ve read that already…

        December 2, 2010
      • You say that preaching may hold some value as an important function in the life of the church – or at least that it should not be written off as useless. Okay. What is the important function that it plays – if as you have pointed out preaching seems to be waning in importance?

        Instruction, encouragement, exhortation, comfort… Nothing terribly new, but these are all things that sermons can do (and have done, if inconsistently, in my experience).

        If fixing my car can be equated with fixing my spiritual life then the kind of fixing that Canadian Tire/Pastor can do is problematic if arbitrary repairs/preaching is the methodology.

        It’s precisely this comparison that I do not accept as valid. I don’t think a sermon is the same as an oil change. People are not automobiles. “Fixing” spiritual lives (to whatever extent this is or ought to be the role of the church) is not a task that could ever be done (or should ever be expected to be done) in 20 minutes once a week. Sermons might play a role in the context of a faith community committed to being good neighbours, providing healthy relationships, offering a variety of spaces for conversation and service, but a lot of things go into any one healthy spiritual life, much less a healthy community. Preaching is only a part of this. It’s entirely possible that sometimes spiritual growth comes despite the preaching in a given community; I’m inclined to see this as having more to do with the quality of the preaching than the nature of the task itself, though.

        I actually don’t think your response is tiresome :). I think it’s good to discuss these kinds of things. I’m just not sure I’m prepared to go as far in my critique of the actual task of preaching as you are. I’m fully prepared to admit that it is a practice with limitations; I’m not ready to say that it is a task that is problematic in its very nature. I’ve seen it done well, and I aspire to do the same.

        December 2, 2010
      • mdaele #

        I don’t mean to be obstinate…
        You said that, “Instruction, encouragement, exhortation, comfort… Nothing terribly new, but these are all things that sermons can do.” It seems to me that these functions are actually involved with help people adjust the practice of their spiritual identities. Call it fixing or call it something else – it matter little.
        Instruction, encouragement, exhortation and especially comfort are far better administered in a less public/general approach as can be accomplished through individual or smaller group interaction – it would seem. To me preaching is not the ideal task to accomplish the objectives you have outlined – these objectives are better achieved (more attentively) through other means. That’s why I argue against the central place of preaching a vital task of pastors and for churches to maintain in their gatherings.
        Some of the other commenters have hinted at the idea of preaching being an art form – like painting or music. This might recover a useful function for preaching as we currently concieve of it – but I would need to see that worked out to be convinced. If preaching was considered art – I think there would be less of an expectation of the preacher having to come up with statements that people generally agreed on. As art preaching would not have to be instructive or corrective in anyway whatsoever. From that perspective there might be room for a preacher to have something to say far more consistently. Preaching as art is intriguing if somewhat fuzzy…

        December 3, 2010
      • I’m not defending the centrality of preaching. As I’ve said, I think we load up far too much importance on “the sermon” on any given Sunday (a practice which is probably closely tied up with the professionalization of ministry). I already mentioned that I think the Lord’s Supper would be a better focal point.

        Having said that, I don’t think preaching is useless or unhelpful by definition. I have said all along that for anything like “spiritual fixing” or health to take place, preaching must be accompanied by precisely the smaller context interaction you speak of. You seem quite determined to argue that preaching plays no role whatsoever and that this uselessness is inherent to the task itself; it is this that I do not accept.

        Re: preaching as art, I too find that intriguing on some levels, although perhaps not in the same way you do. You seem drawn to it because it would move the sermon entirely into the subjective realm where it could be assessed and appreciated (or not) by those in attendance in the same way that they might approach a painting. This seems to locate all of the significance or meaning of the sermon (“art”) in the minds of the consumer. Is there room for the consumer to be confronted on this view? Convicted? Or is the “art” just one more thing to put into the ongoing soup of personal identity formation/definition?

        December 4, 2010
      • James #

        Interesting conversation, Mdaele. Reading through it, as a preacher, a comment jumped out- the “expectation of the preacher having to come up with statements that people generally agreed on.” That is completely off the radar in my preaching prep.
        #1 is the question- “What do the Scriptures say?” either with reference to a text or a topic.
        #2 is “Am understandable to those listening or am I just another noise?”
        #3 is “What difference does it make?” If it doesn’t I might as well go fishing 🙂
        Is preaching art? Probably in a older sense of art that included the didactic element expressed by Milton that his purpose was “justify the ways of God to man.”
        It shouldn’t surprise anyone that I, a preacher, should consider preaching important. I expect that a mechanic would also feel some chagrin if he/she were reading an essay diminishing the importance of their trade. In my opinion life without either would by poorer for the loss.

        December 4, 2010
      • mdaele #

        I wouldn’t characterize my blatherings on this subject as attempting to argue, “that preaching plays no role whatsoever.” But then I am likely not as ‘in control’ of that perception as I might desire to be.
        I think my strongest argument has been that perhaps the fact that you (and a number of other commenters) have encountered the phenomenon of not ‘having anything to say’ may be related to the fact that the task of preaching is functionally problematic in meaningful spiritual formation. My argument ( I have tried to suggest however poorly) has been that preaching may represent a type of inattentive form of labour which is ill suited for the way it is contextually used in the life of the church. There seems to me to be something (and mostly likely this sort of inattentiveness) about the task of preaching that allows for the kind of reflection that you gave in your original post. I am suggesting that there is something (although I am not sure what precisely) about preaching that may retain value in ongoing spiritual formation within the church. For me the potential that preaching might have might lie in it usage as an art form but I will admit that this is not something I am totally comfortable DECLARING. Certainly consumerism is a problematic dynamic of this sort of position but then it would be good to remember that this type of consumerism might be just as prevalent if it were to be considered art as it is in its current usage.
        It doesn’t particularly bother me if preaching stops (or never starts :)) serving the function of conviction.
        The wholesale abandonment of preaching would seem reduce a substantial site for the production of public perception of the nature of the church. Practically, I doubt it could ever be eliminated within the current wage based pastoral leadership that is common in Western churches. Abandonment and elimination are not my objectives either. If there is a motivation behind my argument it is that it is the recovery of the authoritative role that discerned spiritual leaders might be able to have within a church community. I think that pastoral leadership (in even some of the most hierarchical church structures) is essentially neutered of real spiritual authority (the ability to inform the spiritual direction of a church). In my experience the generally poor quality of preaching that exists in most church is a result of very nature of the type of work that preaching is. People can get away with saying some crazy stuff from behind the pulpit. And then it seems like those people who might have important contributions to the direction of the church (like you) find it difficult to find something to say. To riff on CS Lewis – perhaps our frustrations (with not having anything to say) might be an indication that we (and in this case YOU) were not made for this duty (there was just a hint of Nacho Libre in there too I guess).
        Preaching is not a sacred element of church life – of that you can fairly accuse me.

        December 4, 2010
      • mdaele #

        James, I know that there are likely many preachers out there who aren’t particularly bothered by whether what they say from the pulpit will meet with general agreement to the ones that those words are spoken. However, there does seem some things that preachers don’t even consider saying because losing their jobs is at stake (or serious conflict lets say). So in some ways the range of topics themselves might be limited almost sub-consciously by some of these largely unwritten agreements between preacher and audience. It seems that nothing was taboo for Jesus – the sermon on the mount seems a good example of that.
        Certainly art can have elements of instruction built in to them. I think Milton also agreed that the instruction available in art was limited by the interpretive aptitude of the viewer – I think Ryan is not off at all in outlining the problematic nature of subjectivity if we elevate preaching to art…

        December 4, 2010
      • James #

        Hi Mdaele
        There is something intimidating in the expectation that one should have something to say given the rhythm that preaching entails. That I understand, but it is not in conflict with the truism that if one has nothing to say, it is better not to say anything.

        There are preachers and mechanics whose professions have become nothing more than “punching the clock.” I don’t want to denigrate those trapped in that place. We all have to pay the bills. Given this fact, is not a reason to dismiss either profession. It seems to me that your statement, “Preaching is not a sacred element of church life” is patently wrong. The assignments of life in the Kingdom of God are profoundly sacred- preaching among them. Maybe you mean something else by that.

        December 4, 2010
      • mdaele #

        I am also not interested in denigrating or dismissing any ‘profession’ either specifically or generally. I think I have made that clear in my comments above. In fact that you might conclude that this is somehow my intent further elucidates my earlier point that preaching seems to be inextricably tied to the position of pastor. To be clear, there seems to be a difference in the work that a mechanic does at Canadian Tire and the work that my ‘personal’ mechanic usually does on my vehicles. Both are mechanics but the labour they accomplish is different – in terms of attentiveness (which is the point that Berry and Crawford are making). A mechanic is a mechanic. A preacher is a preacher. Valuable roles both…
        To be sure the term ‘sacred’ is a loaded term. I used it to point to the notion that preaching (especially as it practiced today) does not seem to be a prescriptive element of church gatherings as per Scriptural instruction. Perhaps a better way to say what I intended would be that I don’t feel that preaching should be considered a part of an orthodox practice of church gathering times. Although there are instructions to preach the gospel to all nations, Scripture does not seem to indicate preaching as critical component of the gathering of believers. It does however seem to do that for the practice of communion.
        Certainly all activity consecrated to God should be called sacred. And even the most quotidian affairs of the day are then sacred acts – prayers, if you will. Drinking coffee, watching the ‘nucks game, and preaching all qualify nicely and they do so my mere fact of their being accomplished by a life devoted to the glory of God.

        December 4, 2010
      • James #

        I don’t know Barry and Crawford but I do know Canadian Tire and have a lot of experience with “Joe Mechanics.” In my experience, as a generalization, the latter have nothing up on Canadian Tire. In fact enough of the “Joe Mechanics” I have known are so full of BS that I know why Canadian Tire is so successful. I am glad your mechanic is the caring person he is and am sorry that your church experience has left such a bitter taste in your mouth. I guess at the end of the day, this is a battle of personal experiences. I suppose that is what you mean by “interpretive aptitude of the viewer.” Ours are clearly different. Mine doesn’t trump yours, of course but neither does yours trump mine.
        As for your comment, “preaching (especially as it practiced today) does not seem to be a prescriptive element of church gatherings as per Scriptural instruction.” That is an idea worth exploring but at first blush seems to be an argument from silence. I’m trying to imagine what sort of prescriptive elements would be included in a gathering.

        December 4, 2010
      • mdaele #

        At the risk of eluding the not so subtle ‘analysis’ of my personal experience in the church, and with all due respect, my argument here regarding preaching has attempted to investigate the nature of the task as performed by particular type of labourer. Experience personal or otherwise is a useful co-identification tool that I employed to elicit a common understanding of the field. If however that experiential connection is not achieved (which I suspect in your case is true) then I trust that the argument that I have presented can still be available regardless of whatever bias you assume I bring to it.
        I am glad that your experience at Canadian Tire has been good. Mine most often has been frustrating. That experience is immaterial. Where you or I get our car serviced is immaterial. We are both looking for a mechanic that is attentive to the problems of our vehicle. We are also trusting that our mechanic will not fix a bunch of stuff that isn’t needed only to line his pocket. And we also expect that when the job is done it has been accomplished with as much precision as is possible – reliability. Attentiveness in the labour of mechanics is demonstrated through a focus on the nuanced needs of the individual and their vehicle. If you can get that from Canadian Tire – great! I will admit that my experiential bias would suggest that your experience of this sort of attentiveness at Canadian Tire is rare. If you are asking me to look more favorably on Canadian Tire in the future I will consider that prospect carefully. However, this bias does not discount my claims about attentiveness in this field of work because I assume that we are agreed that we are indeed looking for an attentive mechanic to fix our car.
        The Canadian Tire example used as an analogy breaks down just as any does. It seems crass (as Ryan pointed out) to compare the work of the church to fixing cars. It also might seem overly accusatory to suggest that churches might be trying to ‘up-sell’ their parishioners with spiritual extras (you might even say that I might have sounded vindictive). I agree that the transference of this analogy onto the field of pastor is inadequate. Nevertheless I did make certain almost direct comparisons which in my experience have been found to be true (I would also suggest that these comparisons are not unfamiliar to many if not most alert church attenders even if they may not be common). I don’t think I can be accused of suggesting that all pastors who preach are awful.
        My goal as I have already said was to use the quality of attentiveness comparatively to draw out certain nuances about preaching that seem comparable. A type of inattention seems evident in preaching given the objectives that it is trying to achieve. It is the same type of inattention that is evident in a mechanic who is ‘tuned’ in to my nuanced needs. So the comparison rests on the idea of attentiveness. I am open to being convinced that preaching can achieve this type of attentiveness but so far I remain…well you know.
        As for your last question…
        It seems that Jesus and Paul would advocate the centrality of communion in our gathering times. I also think Paul would add singing, mutual encouragement, and the reading of Scripture to the mix. Paul also seems very interested in people taking turns. I wonder how well preaching would fit into Paul’s idea of each taking turns – but that is trivial digression.

        December 5, 2010
      • mdaele #

        Apparently, it seems I have been too vitriolic in my responses here. I certainly did not mean to cast dispersion on the nature/quality of pastors/ministers – although I can see that I have done so regardless of intent.
        the idea of attentiveness as it pertains to the quality of labour performed in preaching does not seem to be something worthy of engagement – which is fair. That was the idea that I thought might be interesting to investigate in conversation here. But it does not bother me at all if it has gotten any traction at all.
        If in the process I have been impertinent to the honorable burden of pastoral ministry (or to employees of Canadian Tire for that matter) – accept my sincere apology.
        Perhaps I of all people have had way too much to say… 🙂

        December 5, 2010
      • James #

        I’ve enjoyed the chat, Mdaele. Sorry to give the impression I am analysing your private experience. That was not my intention and I don’t own Cdn Tire shares so don’t feel you should revisit it on my account.
        BTW I happen to think that the comparison between the mechanic and the preacher is a good one. Not crass at all. Growing up with a blue collar [and maybe a red neck 🙂 ] I prefer the language of “craft” to “art” but IMO properly understood they are the same thing.

        December 5, 2010
  3. Tyler Brown #

    “I remember one of my professors in graduate school telling us to enjoy our time as students, when nobody really cared what we thought, when we had the luxury of trying out all kinds of ideas, when nothing really hung on what we thought or said! “When you’re out in the world of the church,” he said, “that all changes.” How very true.”

    I find this interesting. Sure, as students we can try new ideas because we are being exposed to them and may not have been so before. As our exposure increases of course we begin to develop our own beliefs. However, one should never stop pondering new ideas for the sake of consistency. It is new ideas that challenge our old ones, maybe break them, maybe reinforce them. From an outsiders perspective, the general inability to have a serious discussion with those in the church, to have them consider a new point of the few, is the reason I don’t go. Its often a criticism that gets thrown at the church but it is very true.

    Pondering new ideas, or ideas outside of the one’s comfort, is all the more important when people do care about what you think. Obviously, there is various ways to do so, but there are ways that do not comprise a person’s integrity. If it is done in a respectful way, to examine a new thought, criticism, to doubt a piece of scripture or a certain stance on something, and this gets label as blasphemy or the process is out right rejected then to me thats a serious cause to take pause in any group. So I would take the opposite stance, it is because I do care what you think that I want you to try on some ideas. Rarely, would I ask my post delivery person what their opinion on Nietzche’s criticism of Christianity, or the theological interpretations of Calvinism, or the ramifications to missions in Africa.. . you get the idea. Allan Bloom, elegantly says “The liberally educated person is one who is able to resist the easy and preferred answers, not because he is obstinate but because he knows others worthy of consideration.”

    “I still find it incredibly odd that people actually entrust me with twenty minutes of their precious time on Sunday morning”

    I find it incredibly odd that people only want twenty minutes. One thing that has always imbedded itself in my mind, was once after twenty minutes of a sermon you delivered, standing outside in the post-sermon babble, someone boldly declared they had no questions about God asking Abraham to sacrifice his son, the sermon helped them understand Genesis and they had no more questions. All in twenty minutes. No disrespect to you, but I would have wanted an hour, a day, an entire year…. an impossibility of course, but the point I am trying to make is, your position, for better or worse is one that I would trust you with far more than twenty minutes of my life, because my questions far exceed what twenty minutes could ever provide and I turn to you as an expert. As I turn to a chemist when I need to know whether I should be blowing on my coffee or using a teaspoon as a radiator to cool my coffee the quickest (it’s the former in case you are wondering).

    November 30, 2010
    • I appreciate your comment, Tyler. I absolutely agree that we should keep learning, keep thinking, keep stretching and growing. I don’t think that our minds can or should be perpetually open about everything, but I think that our minds are for much more than just preserving and protecting this thing called “the truth” that was given in final form once upon a time and which requires no further reflection or development. We are called to love God with our minds, after all. Apparently, God expects us to think!

      Having said that, I am well aware of the perception you speak of (i.e., why go to church or try to talk to anyone there… their minds are already made up, they’re not willing to consider different points of view, etc). I wish this was not the case as often as it is.

      I think the main thing the professor I cited was getting at was that intellectual curiosity can be given more of a free reign in academic life than it can in pastoral ministry—at least the public component of it. For example, I can (and did) entertain all kinds of strange theories about how or if God’s sovereignty relates to human suffering in a term paper; I can’t really do that (or shouldn’t, at least!) when dealing with someone who is actually suffering. There is something about the pastoral vocation that prevents my intellectual curiosity from trumping the needs of others. That’s not to say that people can’t be encouraged to consider different ideas, but it does get a bit trickier once you leave the academy.

      Re: twenty minutes… Well, again, I appreciate that your interest in hearing more and your suspicions that twenty minutes isn’t enough time to do an awful lot (a suspicion I happen to share, by the way). My sense is that you would be the exception rather than the rule in wanting to hear longer sermons ☺. Our attention spans have been assaulted for so long on so many different fronts that we very often are not prepared to listen to a longer sermon. Happily, there are other forums besides sermons to discuss the questions provoked by twenty minutes.

      November 30, 2010
  4. The most helpful comment I have come across regarding preaching is from Kathleen Norris: “The sermon is an oral art form, always more of a thought-in-progress than a finished product. Even more so than with literature, the listener is the one who completes the work.” (Amazing Grace, p. 182) This quote has freed me more and more to worry less and less about my sermons. The listener completes the work, under the guidance of the Spirit. The more I trust this, the less I worry whether my sermons are deep and profound enough. It’s important always to be reading, learning, searching and listening yourself, and this all has a way of seeping into your preaching. But the most important parts of preaching are outside of my control. This is a freeing thing for preachers.

    November 30, 2010
    • Funny you should cite these words from Norris—I used that exact quote in a sermon last year!

      Thank you for your words here, too. They are a very good reminder that sermons are not performances or artifacts submitted simply for public critique—they find their telos in the lives of those who hear them in many different ways. “The listener completes the work.” I like that. Perhaps, in forcing us back to the same texts and stories again and again, even when we feel like we have nothing to say, God is sparing us not only from pride but from temptations towards micromanaging the faith and understanding of our congregations.

      November 30, 2010
  5. Ian Lawson #

    Thanks Ryan. I feel the same after something like 360 sermons to the same congregation. You said it well. I routinely sense the truly awesome responsibility of the sacred task and am filled with self doubt and personal insecurities. I echoes Moses – “Who am I?” and “I have never been eloquent?” I think that such emotions are one of our occupational hazards.

    I have found 1 Corinthians 1,2 to be instructive and encouraging. “For Christ . . . sent me to preach the gospel – not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.” “The message of the cross is . . . to us who are being saved . . . the power of God.” “We preach Christ cricified: a stumbling blod to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” I recommend John Stott’s “Christian Leadership” (InterVarsity 2002) on 1 Corinthians 1-4.

    From the academy we understand homiletics as the art of preparing and delivering a sermon. The literal meaning of the word is “to say the same”. That notion has been of great help to me. There is nothing new or novel. I am responsible to take the text of Scripture and to say it again in my own words hopefully in a manner and structure that connects with a 21st Century gathering of God’s people. Further, I have found Piper’s little book “The Supremacy of God in Preaching” a source of encouragement and wisdom.

    Thanks for your introspective reflections. You have put words to my feelings. I feel it almost every Sunday. Here’s hoping that next Sunday I will have something to say!

    November 30, 2010
    • Thanks for this, Ian. It is both sobering to hear that 300 sermons from now things aren’t magically going to be different 🙂 as well as encouraging to hear that there are people such as yourself, with ordinary questions and doubts and insecurities, who continue to offer their words and themselves, week in and week out, for others. I am glad for such examples from those a bit further on the journey.

      Thanks for the reading recommendations. And blessings as you search out something to say for this Sunday.

      November 30, 2010
  6. Ken #

    I think in many churches preaching amounts to providing a lesson. It is called that in some churches.

    An one of your responses above you mentioned the idea of making communion, rather than the sermon, the focus of worship. That is an idea that appeals to me too.

    I think a sermon can be like communion (rather than a lesson.) We can think of communion as a reenactment of the Lord’s supper (memory) and of the heavenly banquet that awaits us (anticipation.) A sermon can be a reenactment too – either through narration or proclamation, and perhaps other ways too. A sermon can provide a kind of reenactment of any of the sacred events of the past, can take us to the sacred places and bring us to the sacred times. It becomes a ritual in a sense, one that takes place in the imaginations of the preacher and listeners. It is a ritual that can takes us into the presence of God and into eternity, just like communion.

    This is the way I dealt with the difficulty you describe. I also use this approach when I lead a Bible study.

    There is a line in Revelation 1 that says something like, “Blessed is the one who reads these words aloud and blessed are those who hear them and keep them in their hearts.” I think of a communion-like sermon as fitting in that context.

    December 1, 2010
  7. Ian Lawson #

    Ken brings a helpful perspective. However, rather than seeing preaching like communion, I prefer to see it as an act of worship. Perhaps it’s a subtle difference. I suggest that Paul’s mandate to Timothy (2 Tim 3:16-2:2) is instructive. “Preach the word!” (vs 2) which is “God-breathed” (vs 16). When we proclaim the word of God we are speaking on His behalf and thereby lead His people into His presence in worship. I have found this to be particularly true when the sermon is God focused, Christ exalting and cross centred. I wish that that kind of worship could be the outcome of all the sermons I deliver and hear. But I have had enough of those exhilerating worship experiences to believe that it is possible and desireable. May God help us.

    December 1, 2010
    • EDH #

      Huh, I was just contemplating this. I tend to view both the sermon and communion as worship. But this particular idea of communion as the focus of worship is appealing to me. In a sense, the sermon should lead us and prepare us for communion. Even before the Lords Supper, I find it interesting that whenever Jesus teaches there seems to be a meal to follow.

      But I also like the idea of communion as the focus of worship because if I am sleepy, or my mind wanders in the sermon, you still actively participate in the Supper, and you can’t miss the proclamation of God’s forgiveness which is also Christ centered and cross focused.

      December 2, 2010
      • I agree—active participation is important. We are not just minds that receive information. And the life-giving reality of forgiveness is unmistakable when we observe the Lord’s Supper.

        December 2, 2010
  8. Thanks, Ken and Ian, for the helpful and thoughtful comments. Both speak to the possibilities of the sermon at its best.

    December 1, 2010
  9. Larry S #

    Following up on the ‘authority’ issue that Mdaele was posting about. After I had been preaching for a number of years, I was used to having people listen to me both in larger/smaller settings.

    When I stepped out of f/time pastoral work it took a bit of time getting used to the change. Since then I’ve noticed that some (not all) f/time pastoral types seem to carry a sense of authority with them when they deal with me in my secular setting. When they speak it tended to be paragraphs rather than sentences. They seem to expect to be afforded a degree of dignity due to who they are. By the way, I’ve noticed this attitude (if i can call it that) in religious people from other religons also – not just Christian.

    I might be reading Mdaele wrong but that was a bit of what I got from his posts.

    Observations from the other side of the podium.

    December 2, 2010
    • Ken #

      Same is true about university faculty. We like to talk:)

      December 2, 2010
    • Obviously, I don’t think the sense of entitlement you refer to is warranted or appropriate, Larry. Having said that, I can’t help but observe that I seem to prefer paragraphs to sentences as well—at least on this blog :)!

      Maybe it’s an occupational hazard…

      December 2, 2010
    • mdaele #

      reading Wendell Berry’s ‘The Loss of the University’ is a particularly valuable read. If you can read it with a lense toward the tasks accomplished by those whom we have placed in roles of greater esteem…

      December 3, 2010
  10. Perhaps one final reflection on this thread…

    The initial themes of the post came out of the context of preaching so it’s perhaps to be expected that some of the conversation here revolved around the value/usefulness of the practice of preaching. As I said above, I’m not prepared to write preaching off as an inherently problematic task, whether with respect to some of the uneasiness I conveyed in the initial post, or more generally. At the same time, I think the practice is worth subjecting to a bit of scrutiny. What does preaching do? What should it do? Is it effective in the process of disciple-making or does it prop up and legitimize a paid class of religious professionals? Not easy questions, but certainly worth asking and reflecting upon…

    At any rate, we had a a baptism service at our church today, and the “sermon” came in the form of six testimonies shared by six very different people from very different places in life about how the same God had led and guided them. It wasn’t a paid “professional” expositing a text, but I think it was preaching nonetheless—and very good preaching at that.

    December 5, 2010
  11. Paul Johnston #

    Hi Ryan,

    Long time no comment. Just wanted to drop in on a friend 🙂 and perhaps recapture some of the insight and blessings your blog has provided. Hope things are well with you and your family…nice to read that Ken and James are still a part of your community…

    If through the process of sermonizing ( hmm, sounds suspiciously like a car waxing procedure) the preacher can reinvigorate his own faith, perhaps that is enough. In the end, the life lived has more influence than the words spoken.

    I like your thoughts regarding the priority of the, “Lord’s Supper”. Catholic to the core. 🙂

    December 6, 2010
    • Hey Paul, good to hear from you again! I, too, hope that all is well on your end.

      I’m not surprised you liked that comment :). In all seriousness, though, I think that the prominence of the Eucharist is one of those areas where we Protestants could profit from the wisdom and practices of our high church brethren.

      December 6, 2010

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