I have watched with interest the storm of controversy regarding Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Barack Obama. To me, it is an interesting story not only because of the political issues but also as an examination of the relationship between pastor and congregation.
As a pastor, I am called to read and interpret the Scriptures each week from the pulpit. This is a huge responsibility that cannot and should not be entered into lightly. The purpose of the preaching ministry is the proclamation of the gospel, the equipping of the body of Christ, and to speak a prophetic word of repentance. I have a responsibility to God to make sure that each message is true to His word and will. However, is the sermon only an act of the preacher?
Just about anyone who preaches on a regular basis has had the experience of someone in the congregation discussing their sermon and finding a meaning that was nowhere in the stated message of the sermon. Sometimes this can frustrate a pastor, making them feel like no one is listening. Perhaps, instead, such experiences are reminders that the sermon is not just the proclaimed word, but the heard word as well. A sermon is not just an action of the preacher; it is an action of the congregation as well.
Scripture says that each Christian, minster or layperson, is a member of the "priesthood of the believers." As such, it is the calling of each Christian to study and interpret the Scriptures under the guidance of God's Holy Spirit. I believe that, with this in mind, the sermon should be an opportunity for the congregation to enter into Scripture and read and interpret God's word. The sermon should get people thinking about what the Bible has to say to us today and inspire them to continue to study God's word in the days that follows to find continued meaning for their lives. I think too often the sermon is seen as "the last word" on a topic. Perhaps, instead, it should be the first.
I disagree with a good amount of the things that I have heard Rev. Wright say. However, in hearing them, I have been forced to think about why I disagree with them. There are some who argue that Obama should have left this church when he heard Rev. Wright proclaim such words. Why has no one said that perhaps he should have gone to Rev. Wright and shared with him his disagreements and why he disagreed? It occurs to me that this is the more Biblical model for dealing with disagreement (Matthew 18:15-16). I think we sometimes take a very childlike approach to church: if somebody says something that upsets me or that I disagree with, my first response is to just pick up all my toys and go home. I remember reading a very interesting article in Christianity Today several years ago where the author encouraged people who were in a church that they disagreed with some of the things that were taught to stay in the church rather than just pick up and leave. The author's point was that, by staying, you would probably grow more in your faith because you would be more likely to search and study the Scripture in a church where not everything that was said was what you thought.
I do think that each person should find a church where they feel best able to grow and serve. Certainly that will require you to find a church where you feel you are able to stand in unity with the congregation. However, unity will never be uniformity - God has created us to be unique individuals. If we leave a church everytime the preacher says something we disagree with, we could be looking for a new church every month (or every week for that matter!). Perhaps there is an opportunity here for the church to think about and discuss anew the purpose of the preaching ministry.