Thursday, February 4, 2010

Dangerous or Messy?

My wife called to tell me the parking lot at Wal-Mart is packed this afternoon. Big sale? No, just the weather forecast.

Right now, I think they are calling for just about everything to blow into town between tonight and Saturday morning: snow, freezing rain, rain. After last weekend, most people around here have had enough of winter weather I believe. Still, the rush for bread and milk has begun. And then there are the inevitable decisions to be made: will the kids go to school? I have already had to inform one group that I was supposed to meet with tomorrow that I may not be able to get to the meeting 45 minutes away from where I am.

Still, as I read the forecast, I wondered how much of this preparation and worry is really appropriate. They really still don't know exactly what it will be like. Yes, there could be some dangerous conditions, but it is just as likely that things could just be a slushy mess. Of course, either way, does that change whether or not people want to get out in it? Even if things are not as treacherous tomorrow as they were last weekend, I still read the forecast and think to myself, "Man, it is going to be nasty. I really don't want to get out in that."

Makes me wonder ... what's the difference between dangerous and messy? I think that is sometimes a difficult line to identify. There are obvious dangerous situations that we should avoid, but I wonder if there are also messy situations that we would just rather not deal with, so we don't.

This afternoon, I delivered some food to a man who had called the church asking for help. I went to his house and he was waiting outside for me. There were several bags of food, and I offered to help him carry the food in a couple of times, but he politely refused. Instead, we stood outside talking for awhile. His clothes were dirty and it was obvious that he hadn't bathed in quite awhile. Yet his first words were to warn me to be careful tonight because of the ice. He talked about losing his job at the grocery store and not being able to find a new job. He asked how things were going at my church. He told a little bit of his own story and his struggles.

As I stood there, I found myself fighting a battle between the body and the spirit. The body wanted to run away from the smell and the dirt. The spirit wanted to stay right there as long as I could, spend time with this man, hear his story, offer at least some sense of community if I could not offer any more lasting comfort. Finally, I got back into the car and drove away, yet the battle waged on. Part of me was glad our visit was over, yet part of me was thinking about other ways to offer this man some help in the future.

It would be so easy to run away from any further interaction with this man and his family. Yet, honestly, to do so would be because I wouldn't want to get messy and not because I felt there was any threat. I don't believe that is a reason to stay way. Christ again and again walked among the people with "messy" lives. As I left his house to go back to my own church, I passed several other churches. I found myself asking, "How much do we Christians actively seek to avoid the messy? What are we missing in doing so?"

I think we confuse our fear of the dangerous and our fear of the messy, making them the same thing. I met a man today who reminded me that we may miss meeting Christ if we run from the messy.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Preaching: What Is It Good For? recently reported the results of a survey carried out for the College of Preachers in England. This story, headlined "Sermons May Be Popular But Rarely Lead to Action", says that a survey of 200 churchgoers revealed that fewer than 17% say that sermons frequently change the way they live or help them develop a fresh look at controversial issues or recent events. The same study showed that 2/3 of people look forward to the sermon and over half say that sermons frequently give them a sense of God's love and help them understand Jesus. One of the conclusions that the College of Preachers has drawn from this research is that sermons are "better at helping people to reflect than challenging them to act" and that "too much preaching is doing too little to motivate people to look at the world differently and therefore live in it differently."

It should be noted that this is a pilot survey of only 200 people from 16 churches in England. It is hard by any means to declare this an extensive study. However, I still find myself confronting strong but mixed reactions to this story.

A lot of discussion and feedback I hear about sermons focus on the question of whether or not people "like" the sermon. To me, if we talk about liking a sermon, then we are not expecting a sermon to challenge us but instead we are expecting the sermon to be in line with our preconceived notions and ideas. This can become an issue when we talk about the ministry as a profession. I once heard another pastor say that he would love to work another job and only preach on Sundays so that his primary means of making a living did not come from the church. Then, he said, he could say what he really wanted to say on Sundays and not worry about the possible repercussions in terms of his means of making a living and supporting his family. I don't know if I share this exact same line of thinking, but there have definitely been occasions when I have found myself questioning whether or not I should say something in a sermon based on whether or not I think people will like it. Can preaching really result in changed lives if the preacher does not feel that he can speak honestly? Is the fear of possible repercussions real or perceived?

And should a sermon's purpose be to motivate action? I think a dangerous line is approached when we allow sermons to focus on motivating action because it becomes easy for the message to become about doing what the preacher thinks we should do rather than acting as we perceive God calling us to act. I think that the reflective role of the preaching ministry is therefore extremely important and should not be made inferior to the "call to action." Does this mean that the sermon should not point out specific actions that the Christian should take? No, but I think that this task must be held in balance with the reflective part of the preaching act. I hear some ministers talk about being less concerned with theology in their sermons and more concerned with "daily, practical" living out of the faith. I am all for that, but it is the theology that helps us have an understanding of why we should try to daily live out our faith in a practical manner. My concern is that a study such a this can cause a push to the opposite extreme rather than an attempt at proper balance.

Finally, I would love to take those same 200 people and interview their pastors, review the sermons that they preached over the course of the year. How many of their sermons included a "call to action"? My point is: a sermon is not just about the word proclaimed, it is also the proclaimed word heard. Is it that this task is being ignored by preachers, or is it that congregations aren't hearing it, or that it is not being presented well?

Just a couple of thoughts. I welcome feedback.