an ever-changing way of sharing...

So here's an odd question:  do other preachers radically change the way they share their
messages during worship over the years - or not? Are you essentially preaching the same way as when you started? What has changed - and why?  I realize these questions apply to only a handful of people in all of creation - and probably even fewer care - but I am curious.  Because, you see, after over 35 years of proclaiming the gospel I have found my preaching style has been transformed in significant ways.

When I was a young clergy person under the tutelage of James Forbes, professor of Homiletics
at Union Theological Seminary in NYC, and Ray Swartzback, supervisor of my urban ministry apprenticeship, working from a manuscript was essential. Swartzy came out what he called the "confrontational preaching" style born of post-WWII American culture. As women and men came home after living on the edge in combat - and confronting enormous evil - they found a self-absorbed, suburban America content to leave segregation, civil rights and social justice to someone else. The joke of that era was that people wanted safety, so you could stick a cross in the ground at any suburban crossroads and within hours a homogeneous church would gather.

Such spiritual isolation and selfishness, however, created an assertive backlash in both an
Anglo drive for radical ecumenism and an African-American push for civil rights. Soon both White clergy and Black church leaders were embracing a coalition of the committed when it came to injustice, racism and greed.  And as Caucasian preachers experienced the verve, courage and verbal audacity of their African-American colleagues, white preaching began to change into what Swartzy called "confrontational proclamation." The goal of such preaching was to "confront" individual and collective indecision and sin in ways that would impel us to make changes in the world informed by the radical inclusive love of Christ Jesus.  Brother Forbes, coming out of a Southern Pentecostal background without ever experiencing the "gift of glossolalia" (or tongues) during the early days of the civil rights movement, was equally sophisticated, challenging and passionate in his homiletics class. And even more so in whatever pulpit he was able to proclaim the word of the Lord. Listening to and learning from both men gave me a foundation and structure for preaching, but it took me years to find my own voice.

After each sermon I preached at First Presbyterian Church of Jamaica, NY, for example, Ray and a small advisory team wold meet with me to discuss, dissect and critique my message. It was in this loving but brutally honest circle that I learned about "box car" sermons - a string of separate ideas linked together with only the thinnest connection - or the dangers of slipping into "isogesis" - reading my own conclusions into the Scripture and then forcing the Bible to say what I wanted rather than letting the holy texts speak to me the word of the Lord. Thank God this was all done with affection and trust - Ray and his elders wanted to help shape a young preacher, not break him - but still their words were humbling and often devastating. Thank God, too for the 90 minute subway ride home after such encounters: by the time I got back to UTS and my children, I had mostly gotten over the collapse of confidence.

One of the working truths in my early sermon construction was the rubric: The Spirit can inspire you just as much in your study as in the pulpit. This was permission, of course, to do vigorous exegesis (bible study in context and syntax) and to construct eloquent and impassioned messages for Jesus.  We all agreed that the white preaching of suburban America in the 50s and 60s was wooden and mechanical. Another joke of the time was that preachers in that world used the formula of three hymns, a poem, a joke and a blessing before sending their flock back out into the world. And the confrontational preachers certainly created a measure of challenge and balance to an anemic homiletics.

But by the 80s, I was finding this style equally incomplete:  "It's like sermons have become the Democratic platform spewed in prayer language" said some of my contemporaries about what was taking place in so many pulpits. And as millions of once mainstream Protestants fled their sanctuaries for Roman Catholic and New Age retreat houses, it became clear that the quest for "spirituality" was beginning to trump confrontation. I know that after immersing myself in a variety of liberation theologies - and having my heart and eyes opened - I still needed to find an authentic voice for preaching. 

Enter the books of Henri Nouwen and later Kathleen Norris - as well as a Latin American liberation theologian I heard one night at the Catholic Worker in NYC (whose name I cannot recall) - because they gave me permission to explore a conversational style of preaching and a language to comprehend the emerging quest for authentic spirituality. In time, I found Elizabeth O'Connor and Clarence Jordan, too.  These preachers and teachers showed me how story telling was a more honest way of preaching for me - and I embraced this with gusto. And while I stilled prepared manuscripts - and used them - I was also learning to trust the arc of the Biblical story and let it lead me into periodic bouts of spontaneity

By the early 1990s, the lure of preaching without notes or manuscripts grabbed me and I worked that vein for nearly 15 years. I think there were two reasons:  first, I was doing a lot of campaign speeches for my school board work - many times in Black Cleveland, OH - and in order to keep my message fresh and connected, I started tossing away my prepared remarks and letting the Spirit carry me where she would. And second, I felt a need to connect with the people in my congregation more intimately - in a conversation - so I started leaving the pulpit and having structured conversations instead of sermons.

The first time I did this, using Psalm 37 as my text, convinced me that serious Bible study plus
honest pastoral conversation during worship was a winning combination.  So the more I practiced and learned how this style worked for me, the more organic it became. All through our years in Tucson (10) and into our time in Pittsfield (9) this was my go to style. But over the past six months I have found myself changing yet again. Now I am working hard each week on a manuscript and preaching back at the pulpit. Oddly, this wasn't a conscious choice. It just seemed that whenever I finished my sermon notes, the gravitas of the hour and the message required a more formal presentation. I had intended to be more informal after our sabbatical only to find the Spirit pushing me in another direction.

And in ways I could never have predicted, this shift is resonating with the folk in worship. In fact, it is starting to draw others from beyond our regular fold, too.. Clearly there is a need for carefully considered public theological in our era of fear-mongering and demagoguery.I find I am drawing clarity and sustenance from both Niebuhr and Bonhoeffer these days- maybe even a bit of William Sloane Coffin, too. But I think there is a nuance worth mentioning: while this is an hour that requires clarity, courage and moral conviction, the anxiety of this age also demands a message of mercy and tenderness, too. From time to time, I still step away from the pulpit and simply chat from the heart - there is a place in these harsh times for that, too - but I am truly astonished that this new/old style has become so central to my vocation.

I wonder if other preachers have experienced something similar over the year? I would love to hear your story...




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