One of my friends, a Church of Christ preacher in Michigan, remembers a Sunday morning service in which a guest preacher was preaching at the top of his lungs, red face, intent on his lesson, when a five year old on the front row commented loudly, “He doesn’t has to yell at us!”
When I was a minister I composed sermons and preached them aimed at all of the false doctrines in all of the denominations around us. (My father still preaches about the Church of Christ split in the 1950s.) But those sermons did not convert people. So I tried to figure out what would convert people. I had heard of a mass mailing campaign that enrolled people in a Bible correspondence course that converted people. So I went to intern in a new church that was using that method. And we baptized people! It was exhilarating. The only problem was they wouldn’t come to church. And coming to church was the whole point, wasn’t it? I mean, besides baptism.
So I studied in their homes week after week. This was in a white suburb of Detroit, during a previous downturn in the economy, with an unemployment rate of 17%. Sound familiar? The people, although they had enough food, were struggling to survive emotionally. The people who would study the Bible with us were sometimes drunk when we showed up for Bible study. Many were unemployed. Most were divorced or going through a divorce. The TV stayed on for the children throughout the Bible study.
I slowly realized that studying about the evils of denominationalism, Catholicism and saved by faith alone, was not what these people needed right then. They needed faith that God cared, and that there was a better way to survive. Baptism for the forgiveness of all their sins was a good start, but they needed more. So my lessons started to change. We studied through the life of Christ.
The more I looked at the reality of what Jesus was saying to these people, hunkered down in their homes, TV blaring, beer soothing, barricaded against a hostile world, the more I realized that the issues we were championing in our lessons at church were more like the issues that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for championing. And so my preaching changed. I had found a new audience. No more was I preaching for those who had grown up in the non-institutional a cappella Churches of Christ (though we usually spelled churches with a little “c”), now I was preaching for a different audience, and after about a year was asked to leave. And why not? I wasn’t preaching for them any more, was I?
Eventually I left the Restoration Movement altogether, and my problems really began. Who were these preachers in these denominations preaching to? One preacher insisted that his religious heritage was neither Catholic, nor Reformation, but a Third Way, the correct way. Another was a caricature of knee-jerk conservatism without any Christian thoughtfulness. He was against abortion, homosexuality, and masturbation, and definitely for the Iraq war. But he never referred to a single teaching from the Bible about any one of those subjects.
Finally we decided we would start our own church, but this time we would aim it at non-Christian young people. Only one problem: we forgot to ask non-Christian young people if they wanted a church. They did not. Yes, we addressed world issues and ethical problems from a postmodern perspective. Yes, we focussed on experiencing God and prayer and worship over doctrine. No, we did not regress into easy answers.
Now I find sermons irritating. They are addressed to people who have grown up evangelical. They assume acceptance of basic doctrines that our world does not accept. The sermons do not address issues and questions that non-Christians ask today in ways that are meaningful to non-Christians. And why should they? Very few non-Christians ever wander into one of our services. Our services are filled with 95% people who grew up evangelical and need a place to go every Sunday to hear the same sermons and sing the same songs we grew up with.
Our culture is not looking to churches for answers, especially where I live in the United States. Only 14% of the population of my state is a conservative Christian, a figure that continues to decline. So why would they pay attention to our sermons? Across the border in Canada there are so few people going to church they are selling some of the Catholic church buildings. Leonard Sweet, past dean of Duke Divinity School, in his book Soul Tsunami, said that our culture cannot fathom why we go to church or why we believe. It makes no sense to them. Nothing we believe addresses their painful needs.
There are ways that our culture wrestles with morality and spirituality, in movies, in blogs, in books, at school, but it is not by visiting our churches. I fear our sermons are for the diehards, not for anyone out there. The more I open my eyes to the questions the greater community is asking, and the basic beliefs the community is starting from, the more I realize we have been shouting from across the room, instead of doing what the Holy Spirit was designed to do: come alongside.
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