blah.jpgWell, that might be overstating the case a bit, but I have been kicking this around this question for awhile: Why do we preach? I ask this not only as someone whose vocation includes preaching every week, but as someone who wants to encounter God in the community of believers during our weekly gatherings. I know, I know — we preach for the glory of God, sola Scriptura, etc. — but where does preaching really fit into all of this?

I have experienced a wide range of feelings towards preaching. When I entered seminary, I was so excited to preach — while part of me probably just wanted to be that guy up front, I felt genuinely honored to deliver God’s Word week in and week out. However, as many preachers have undoubtedly experienced themselves, it didn’t take long for cynicism to kick in — Why should I put in all the time and effort when no one (myself included) seems to remember what I preached last week? Does any of this sermonizing actually change a person? Should it really take an hour to make just a couple of points? Should the vast majority of our gatherings be spent with one person up in front doing all the talking while everyone else sits passively? Very few things generate within me more ill-will than a sermon that drags on endlessly, teasing you with the possibility of closure but shutting that door with the death knoll, “And now for my second point.”

My wife, daughter and I had dinner with Marko and his family the other week and the conversation turned to church, worship and preaching. My wife made a comment that has stuck with me since then: As the church, we are called to be a worshiping community but, unfortunately, there often isn’t a whole lot of worship going on in our churches. We talked about not needing the preacher to create a set of three nicely manageable takeaways or to fill in all the blanks with a pithy “thought for the day.”

I have made a sincere effort over the last couple of years to shorten my sermons which, ironically, takes more preparation. While my tone might suggest otherwise, I am not inherently opposed to long sermons, nor do I feel like I must be entertained by them. A pastor back in Jersey for whom I have much respect preaches really long and boring sermons every single week — but their community is alive. I can feel it when I preach too long, though — even I get sick of hearing me talk at that point.

Lisa Takeuchi Cullen recently wrote a piece for Time where she confesses she wishes for a return to the Latin Mass — not so much out of nostalgia but, in her words, “I want to hear Mass sung in a language I don’t understand because too often I don’t like what I hear in English.” The fact that she grew up in a church where she did not understand the language (traditional Japanese, in her story) was not a hindrance to her faith. Just the opposite, rather, as it gave her ample time to think:

Not understanding all the words spoken during the endless sermons, I had little choice but to spend the time in thought about myself, my family, my God. There’s something to be said for that, isn’t there? Mass became for me an hour-long meditation in the community of the faithful, reaffirming ancient beliefs in familiar if inscrutable chant. I’m not so sure that isn’t what the Apostles intended.

While I disagree with some of what she wrote, Cullen makes an important observation: Often, we encounter God not through someone else’s words about Him, but through our own pursuit of and reflection upon God. We have heard the stories of people who, after several years, trade the seeker-friendly megachurch environments at which they became followers of Christ for high church, liturgy and mystery.

Some churches carve out sacred space through more singing, others through contemplative exercises. Regardless of the methodology, the common themes of worship seem to be participation and interaction — both of which can be glaringly absent during a sermon. So, I’m left with the question — How can my preaching help others to love God and people more?

I’m just starting through Preaching Re-Imagined, and I resonate with a lot of what Doug Pagitt has to say about preaching. Hopefully, I will be able to share some of my thoughts about this book soon. Until then, here is a great passage from the introduction:

I am a pastor who seeks to live in a community of people who are living out the hopes and aspirations of God in the world. Like many of you I play a particular role in my community. As the pastor I’m often referred to as “the preacher.” And frankly, this is a role I no longer relish. There was a time when I did. There was a time when I felt my ability to deliver sermons was a high calling that I sought to refine but didn’t need to redefine.

Those days are gone. Now I find myself regularly redefining my role and the role of preaching. I find myself wanting to live life with the people of my community where I can preach — along with the other preachers of our community — but not allow that to become an act of speech making. Instead I want it to be a living interaction of the story of God and the story of our community being connected by our truth telling, our vulnerability, and our open minds, ears, and eyes — all brought together by the active work of the Spirit of God as we “Let the message of Christ dwell among us richly as we teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in our hearts” (Colossians 3:16).