Chapter 1: The Crisis in Preaching

Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue
by Reuel L. Howe

Chapter 1: The Crisis in Preaching

The explosion of technology has produced so many changes in our society that none of us is able fully to keep up with them. As a result of technological advance, we have a whole new set of tools that we never had before. We have also not only new materials, new methods, and new machines, but new levels of education, new standards of living, and new ways of thinking as well.

These changes have reached into every department of our individual lives and into every manner of social organization, the church not excepted. Moreover, these changes have not only set up tensions between the traditional and the new ways of thinking and doing, but they also seem to have robbed certain of our acts of their meaning or else have left us puzzled about how to relate the new to the old. This is not surprising. In every age of change, people act out in their living the tensions and meanings of their age, and they always run the risk of losing traditional insights because they are unable to relate them to the contemporary patterns of their lives.

In order to see specifically just what this can mean in terms of traditional Christian belief and practice, and in terms of the church and the church’s preaching, we have only to eavesdrop on three couples at a dinner party who are old friends. Two of these couples are church members; the third has separated from the church. Here is their conversation:

Jack Spread: As an engineer I find it hard to keep up with the technical changes in my own field. My father lived in a world that didn’t change very fast. But ours? Phew!

Bill Needham: You’re right! And what’s more, I’d like to know where we’re headed. Everything is changing, but where are we going?

Mary Needham: One thing’s not changing, and that’s the church, and I’m glad. It’s good to have something that’s always the same that you can cling to.

Janet Spread: I disagree, Mary. I’m tired of the same old line that we get every Sunday morning. I’d like some help in figuring out what life’s all about. Jim Darling, our minister, tries hard. When I talk with him I feel that he understands what our questions and problems are, but when he gets in that pulpit of his, he loses me. Sometimes I think I’ll scream from trying to listen to all those meaningless words.

Fred Stickman: Beth and I stood it as long as we could, and then we quit -- the church, that is. I couldn’t make sense out of the Bible. I don’t see why we should accept an antique book as a guide to our life today. And I feel the same about theology. There’s something appealing about Jesus, but all that jazz about his being both human and divine gets in my way. All that stuff used to have meaning for people, I guess, but it doesn’t have any for me. When I get right down to it, I don’t think I need God any more.

Beth Stickman: Nor do I. The church and ministers don’t seem to realize that we’ve grown up and don’t need the old religious mumbo-jumbo. What’s more, there are a lot of hot issues that are important to me that the church seems afraid to tackle. I refuse to live in two worlds.

Bill Needham: Well, I sure feel as if I live in two worlds. One is the world that began in my childhood: a world of ideas and values learned at home and in Sunday school; and the other is the world I live in now. It’s a mixed up world that measures things largely in terms of what works and produces. And I can’t get these two worlds together. The church door that Mary and I go through almost every Sunday morning separates rather than connects my two worlds.

Mary Needham: Well, I don’t want mine connected. I know Bill and I never agree on these things. When I’m in church I want to feel safe. I want to check my responsibilities and problems at the door. I don’t want to think about anything in the outside world that would upset my sense of peace.

Fred Stickman: Damn it, Mary, that’s just the point of view that drove me out of the church. I quit because the church didn’t speak to my questions and hurts, and I couldn’t figure out what the hell they were talking about.

Bill Needham: I agree, Fred, but you’re being too hard on Mary. There ought to be a place in religion for refuge, and right now I guess she needs it.

Jack Spread: Sure, sure, we all need security, but what are you going to use your security for if not for facing the insecurities of life? I think the security of religion is for facing the challenges of life and will have to be built in response to the challenges and fears of our own day.

Janet Spread: Good, Jack! Tell them what you were telling me the other night. It made the world we live in sound so exciting.

Jack Spread: I don’t know if I can, Janet, but I’ll try. We’re all in our forties. None of us live in the world we were born in. Even within the last five years discoveries have been made in the fields of medicine, space, science, electronics, sociology, cybernetics, that have stirred some men to think on a new plane which fires their imagination for even more discoveries. The technical progress man is making is like a stampede. It can’t be stopped. It’ll only get worse. And it makes many past conclusions and methods obsolete. We need help in working out new ones. That’s where I would like help from the church.

Bill Needham: That’s right! Everything is changing. But as I asked a little while ago: Where are we going? What’s the meaning of it all?

Fred Stickman: They’re good questions -- and ones that we’ll have to sweat out as we go along. Certainly the church can’t help when it is preoccupied with itself and its obsolete system of ideas and practices. When I used to go to church there were times when the preacher said something that came close to speaking to me. I would like to have followed up on it but there was never an occasion to do so. And then he’d drift into his jargon again.

Bill Needham: You know, that illustrates what I meant earlier when I said that the church door never united the two worlds I live in: the world of values and the world of action.

Jack Spread: Yes! And that’s what I’d like -- some help in figuring out the meaning of what’s happening to us and some fixes for guiding our navigation through these strange waters.

Janet Spread: Honey, I’m afraid you’re expecting too much. The clergy we’ve known are not up to the job and I’m not sure the church is interested. It would have to give up a lot to get its leadership back.

Bill Needham: Wait a minute, now, before we wipe the church off the contemporary map. It exists, millions of people attend services, something must happen. I wonder what difference it does make. Let’s ask ourselves: What would we like from the church? Maybe we’re looking for the wrong thing.

Mary Needham: Well, I’ve told you what I want. I’m satisfied!

Janet Spread: Well, I’m not. I’d like our minister to seem not quite so sure he has all the answers. I’d like to feel that he and his church were in this human struggle, too.

Jack Spread: Yes, and I’d like him to use a language I understand, and use illustrations out of my own experience.

Fred Stickman: I’d like some help in exploring the meaning of things and less rehearsing of old creeds. Like Janet, I’d like to have a minister that I felt was using what he believed to deal with present life instead of dragging us back to "religious" times.

This tension, this puzzlement about how to grapple with meaning, has affected not only laymen but also the clergy. If we were to listen in on the luncheon conversation of three young ministers as they discuss on a Monday their experiences of the preceding Sunday, we would hear something like this:

Jim Darling: I asked you to lunch today because I need to talk to somebody. I’ve about had it. The ministry is damned lonely. I poured out my guts yesterday. It was Whitsunday, you know! I tried to tell my people about the Holy Spirit and they looked as if they couldn’t care less. Several of them thanked me for my sermon and said that they "enjoyed" it, but I don’t know whether to believe them. They seem concerned about something else. A part of the trouble is that I don’t seem to know how to say what I believe in a way that makes sense to them. How do you guys feel about it?

Matt Gilford: I know what you mean. Currently our church suffers from an excessive tendency to look inward rather than outward. The problem is that most of our members, with a few exceptions, don’t seem to be really Christian; they see the church as a club, and a dispenser of sermons designed to make them feel good. Some of them are willing to listen to the old whether or not it has any meaning for them. They don’t want to think. And they are so damned judgmental. I preach grace to them, but they live by the meanest kind of a law. Preaching is a frustration for another reason, too. I have so many concerns to share with my people but no burning message. Sometimes I feel that my well has run dry.

Jim Darling: I’ve got some of those ingrown self-righteous church members. But I’ve some real comers, too -- men who are asking real questions. They’re involved in some of the most radical experiments and changes of our time. They’re looking for answers to some deep questions that our technological age is raising. I talk with them and am fascinated with what they tell me about their thoughts and questions, but when I try to preach the gospel I seem to operate in another world. I can tell that I’m not clicking with them. I’m sure they appreciate my efforts but I detect in them an embarrassed pity for my efforts. Getting across the relevance of God for this age is tough. More and more people seem to get along without him. The stuff I preach sounded good to me in seminary, but my people sure don’t listen to me the way I listened to my professors. I wish I knew what’s wrong.

Jerry McDuff: I think we have the same problem. And we ministers have the same problem that many of our members have. We’ve all learned to live in two worlds without any clear connection between them. I feel the pressure of my denomination to have a growing church and the pressure of tradition to preach the true faith; but if I preach the truth and minister to my people, my church might not grow. Already some people have withdrawn their support because of my stand on the question of open housing. I wonder whether the church as an institution will survive in our day as an effective instrument of God.

Jim Darling: Maybe we are being too pessimistic. Our talk depresses me. I need to be picked up, not knocked down! I’d like to learn how to motivate church people; how to stop them from substituting meaningless religious observance for vital worship; how to get them to act as Christians in the world. I’m also fed up with our liturgy. It’s dated, and doesn’t communicate enough with the modern world.

Matt Gilford: That’s right! How do you lead people who want the church to be the way it was "in the good old days" to see things as they really are in our society. One thing I’ve learned. You can’t tell them in so many words. There must be another way. If true, this means that the sermon is passé. Maybe we’ll have to find another method than preaching. Many of our best authorities seem to think so.

Jerry McDuff: Well, that doesn’t make sense. Think of all the thousands, even millions of people who attend church and who expect a sermon. You can’t say to them, "Go home! Your expectations are obsolete." There has to be another answer to the separation between church and society.

Jim Darling: Yeah, maybe there is. But if we don’t find it I predict that in fifty years the irrelevance of the church will have grown to the point where most people will have turned away from the church except for the ritual acts associated with the "hatching, matching, and dispatching" events of an individual’s life. Fifty years ago the churches in Britain and on the Continent were filled on Sunday, and now with a few exceptions they’re not. The same thing will happen to us if we don’t get on the ball. But how?

These two conversations -- the one between laymen and the other between ministers -- clearly focus for us the problem of relationship between the church and the world as it touches upon the church’s preaching responsibility. There are many in the church, like Mary Needham, who simply want to cling to old rituals, old formulations of truth and belief, and old forms of worship and witness that have hardened into the rigid framework of custom. And while we may admire their loyalty to the traditional, we must also be alert to the destructive element that lurks within it. For, as Raymond L. Bruckberger has observed, in his book The History of Jesus Christ, "It is custom that destroys us. The evangelical revelation should give us souls of fire, but custom creates in us the souls of automatons. The words of religion are worn down like pebbles, they no longer clash, they no longer wound, they simply roll with the stream."

In the conversations reported, the laymen are wrestling with the meaning of their lives and are unable to hear and understand the preaching of the church; and the preachers are struggling with the meaning of the gospel with such exclusive concentration that they are estranged from the meanings of their people. The results are obvious: There is no meeting of meaning between the preaching of the clergy and the experience of the people; and, therefore, no meeting between the Word of God and the word of man unless it occurs independently of the efforts of the preachers, which, of course, should also be expected.

This bypassing of meaning need not happen. Preachers need not be so frustrated that they are tempted to abandon either preaching or the ministry itself. Laymen can expect to have help in sorting out their meanings and be affirmed in their secular vocations. These results, however, call for cooperation between pulpit and pew. There will have to be a recognition that communication requires partnership between communicators. Entirely new concepts of the role of the preacher and the role of the congregation will also have to be formed. The following chapters provide a guide to the formation of these new concepts and their application to the relation of the gospel to secular life.