In the coming weeks I will celebrate my one-year anniversary as Senior Minister at Redwood Church. At the one-year mark, I am reflecting a great deal on my emerging theology of preaching.
You’re likely saying, “Sean, you’ve been in ministry for a while now, don’t you already have a theology of preaching?” The answer is “yes” and “no.” “Yes,” in that I have long-held commitments about the preaching event but “No” in that each commitment must be localized in specific communities. Therefore, fresh theology emerges in each new proclamation in each new location. For example, commitments materialize differently in a church filled with PhD’s than it does in a church choc’ full of GED’s, or a congregation in southern Georgia than one in South Africa or even Oregon.
My commitments spring from two texts: Nehemiah 8 and Mark 1. Let’s being with the later, Mark 1. Mark announces, “…after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent, and believe in the good news (1.14-15 NRSV).” There is a great deal here to unpack, but let me unload a few key items.
First, Jesus begins His proclamations “after John was arrested.” Preaching engages the midst of reality and is frequently captured amongst life’s trials. Too many preachers – or cultural architects, soul-leaders, communicators, or whatever other new-fangled titles we’re giving ourselves these days to give people the illusion that we are not “preaching” – paint a picture of the world they wished we lived in; something on the sort of Ozzie and Harriet. In turn, the logic seems to go, a right reading of scripture and application thereof leads to a certain utopian fantasy.
Because of this kind of imagination, churches have largely become burning caldrons of the unreal – unreal being different and distinct from unrealized, mind you. “Everybody’s fine, no one sins except those heathens who never come to church, church leaders are nearly perfect, and the last thing we want to hear or say is that we are broken people or doubtful,” – these are the Rockwelian suppositions of the unreal.
These suppositions stand precisely because so much contemporary preaching does not deal with the dirt of life. Yet we don’t get that from Mark’s gospel. When Jesus comes “proclaiming the good news,” the world was in a pretty tough state. Jesus Himself suffered under an oppressive governmental system, the religious leaders had compounded the yoke of the Romans on God’s people, and His cousin, John, had been arrested with the axe of beheading dangling above him. This is real life. And with all apologies to the pimps of the prosperity gospel, Jesus does not promise that any bit of John’s suffering would be alleviated and the forerunner of God’s Christ would receive a new Bentley for his trouble. Jesus’ preaching dive-bombs into the middle of life’s complications and struggles and so should ours. Proclamation that begins and behaves as if “I’M OK, you’re OK” misses the point! All is not well.
Preaching, to be anything, presupposes that the world is in terrible tumult and trouble. At the same time, we should stand guard against the easy nihilism that could be read into this prescription. Suffice my launching preaching commitment to this: Preaching should not pretend! But here’s the good news, while the world is in trouble, preaching naïvely believes that preaching can help.
That’s where I start.