Over on a previous post, there has been an interesting conversation going on about the nature of preaching and the role it plays (or ought to play) in the life of the church. A number of issues have been raised, but among the more interesting (and personally relevant!) ones, from my perspective, is the extent to which the task of preaching is used to legitimate the existence of religious “professionals.”
Does the sermon exist so the pastor has something to do all week? That’s a pretty crude way to put it, I know, but anyone who has ever stood in front of a congregation on a Sunday morning to deliver “the word” is well-familiar with the drowsy, barely-interested looks that may greet them from the pew. It’s not everyone, of course—thankfully there are those who seem genuinely interested and attentive—but some certainly give the impression that sitting through the sermon is little more than a weekly test of endurance. Does preaching have a point beyond giving people who are interested in “that kind of thing” something to do with their time and a stage on which to present the fruit of their peculiar labours?
I’m obviously not going to presume to pronounce authoritatively on the value of the sermon here. I think that, like any other human endeavour, “the sermon” can get flat and lifeless and become something we just do because it’s always been done. But I also think that the task of preaching can be understood and practiced in ways that are life-giving and vitally necessary. Quentin Schultze was undoubtedly thinking in much broader terms than preaching in this passage from Habits of the High-Tech Heart, but I think he ably summarizes some of the best of what I think preaching could be and do:
In the information age, we still need symbol brokers who are skilled at interpreting human life… who can help us separate the wheat from the chaff…. We depend on our storytellers, for instance, to grasp the inherent meaning and purpose of our existence. They can reveal our common humanity and our shared brokenness. Journalists, novelists, and playwrights are particularly important. Priests and prophets are no less critical to our social well-being today than they were in religious history. We also need oral storytellers—such as humorists, balladeers, and narrators—who can work within the live moments of our daily routines to resuscitate moral meaning in the midst of our instrumental endeavours. Most of all, we need empathetic communicators who are not merely brokers but are themselves deeply committed to the narratives they craft. In other words, we need authentic communicators who personally commune with others through the integrity of their stories.