The predicament of American preachers in our consumer context…

An artist owes only to his art.  Anything else is propaganda.

My favorite novel is My Name is Asher Lev by Chaim Potak. In that story I encountered the above quote.  Not only does this apply to the serious artist, it applies to the preacher as well. The preacher owes only to the message God has laid on his heart through careful, prayerful and Spirit-led preparation and attention to Scripture, tradition, reason and experience. Some people call this the preacher’s burden – that thing that God has laid on their heart that they cannot NOT say.  As someone who preaches regularly, I believe that delivering that message faithfully is the best measure of effective preaching

Unfortunately, the consumer context of early 21st. century America has infiltrated the church to such a degree that many preachers have their eye on a different measure of effectiveness.  That measure is how well they think people in the audience will received a given message.  John W. Wright gets at this better than I can when he writes;

In a market driven ecclesial economy the preacher knows that members of the audience (it’s hard to speak of congregations anymore) can and will go elsewhere to find preaching that will meet their perceived needs – or, worse, drop out of church all together.  It is not surprising then that contemporary preaching consistently seeks a comedic end – not through providing humor (although audiences usually enjoy a funny preacher) but through successfully fusing the horizon of the biblical text into the preexisting horizon of the audience/congregation

– John W. Wright, Telling God’s Story

The challenge created by  “fusing the biblical text into the preexisting horizon of the audience/congregation” is that the biblical text often becomes secondary to the preexisting horizon.  This is seen over and over in American congregations where the biblical witness, in the fullness of its prophetic power, is made to bow to the the “dominant scripts” (1) of American culture; especially in the form of the fusion of God and country through forms of Christian nationalism.

To further complicate matters, these dominant scripts enter our lives through ideological formation that is largely invisible.  Zizek defines ideology with this simple phrase “they do not know it, but they are doing it.” (2)  Most of the Christians I know (and love) are unaware of the ways they have been shaped to think and act in particular ways by the way they were taught the American story. Furthermore, the ideology that has shaped them goes largely unchallenged by the right or the left  – as both are different sides of the same ideological coin. Therefore, the dominant ideology that shapes their will and way in the world is reinforced constantly by the powers that continue to benefit from that ideology.  Dissenting voices are often marginalized, silenced (think the assassination of MLK), sanitized (think the legacy of MLK), and co-opted by the powers that be (think the way all in our culture claim the legacy of MLK).

I may have a high view of preaching, but I believe that the preacher stands at a crucial place and is called to proclaim a prophetic message to the church.  The proclamation of the Kingdom of God in all its power and fullness is intended to be a light shining in the darkness, not a night light that allows people to sleep better at night.  By subjecting the biblical texts into this preexisting horizon, the preacher is taking away the very event whereby, in the Christian tradition, the ideology of the principalities and powers is brought to the surface and subjected to the light of the good news of the Kingdom of God.

For the preacher, meeting this challenge -week in and week out – requires spiritual resources that come from places well beyond our degrees and preparation.  There is a battle – not against flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers – that is very real and very present in the preaching event.  Winning that battle requires, first of all, the willingness to fight it, and, second of all, the power of the Spirit in preparation and delivery of the preacher’s burden.

For the congregation, the challenge is to stop being individual consumers and become rooted to a people in a place.  We have to unwind the belief that preaching is about tickling ears or meeting my felt needs (which Peter warned us about). We need to embrace the spiritual practice of sitting under the preaching and teaching authority of the church (which itself is rooted in the authority of Jesus, extend by the Spirit, via the Scriptures, to the church – which is the body of Christ and the individuals who are a part of it).  That doesn’t mean becoming puppets controlled by ecclesial authorities and pastors. That means being open to the reality that God speaks through the preaching event, with power, and that when that happens we might not always like it. It may challenge our unspoken assumptions and commitments and that’s OK.  It’s better than OK, it is the way by which we become aware of the distance between the kingdoms of this world and the Kingdom of God. It is the way by which we see ourselves clearly in relation to those two kingdoms.  It is the moment where we can choose to repent, if need be, turn to God and participate fully in God’s Kingdom.

(1) See Walter Brueggemann’s 19 Thesis for more on this idea.

(2) See The Sublime Object of Ideology, Slavoj Zizek.

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