Preaching to a United Church of Canada congregation, compared to preaching to a Christian Reformed (CRC) or evangelical congregation, is both incredibly similar—and amazingly different. Here I want to focus on a few key differences, and the spiritual impact of these differences not on the congregation, but on me.
The first big difference has to do with the audience. CRC and evangelical congregations have much less diversity of theological opinion than United Church congregations.
So, in evangelical Churches preachers are constrained in what they can say by theological boundaries. The exactly-right theology is a rite of admission to the pulpit. Those boundaries might be confessional or they might be understood even though they’re not written down. In an evangelical church, for example, you wouldn’t preach that scripture is a wise-but-not-infallible book, or take a prochoice position with respect to abortion. The focus is on a discrete number of key doctrines that everyone must accept—and which most members (whether they think about it much or not) also accept. Different denominations are notable, in part, for their slight variations on what is in this critical core.
In the United Church, however, the reality is quite different. Here theology is a playground rather than a minefield. As a big tent church, much less emphasis is placed on trying to define a core of doctrines around which there must be agreement. Instead, pastors need to be sensitive to the diversity of opinion in the pews. In my congregation some parishioners are post-theistic (like Greta Vosper) and others are very traditionally Trinitarian. We have members who think prayer is talking to yourself (which, if allowed, can be a very positive experience!) and others who think of prayer as a personal conversation with God. Parishioners, in turn, expect the pastor to be sensitive when speaking about such matters. Parishioners want the pastor to be inclusive rather than a champion of some view that the parishioner holds. That doesn’t mean the pastor can’t have a clearly stated opinion—but it means that the opinion needs to be part of a friendly conversation, as opposed to a black and white judgment against the opinions of those who disagree.
In my previous evangelical congregation, I always felt constrained by the need to stay with the doctrinal core. Although I found lots of pleasure in studying the text and trying to lay it out in sermons, I also found that when I had done so, I was often bumping up against the confessional or church-culture limits to what could be said from the pulpit. So in my evangelical congregation I didn’t preach about universalism or gay marriage or abortion. My views lay outside the confessions and the cultural norms of my denomination.
In the United Church, however, there is a mirror-image challenge. When nearly all opinions about spiritual matters are supposed to be able to find a home—or at least a respectful conversation—what is there left to preach? Some of my evangelical friends will say, “yup, when everything is relative, you have nothing left to say. Anything goes.” The key difference, though, has to do with the function of theology—in one group of churches the core truths are (supposed to be) the key thing; in the other group it isn’t that you can’t preach about theology, it is just that you can’t clobber people with one view, and one view only.
Of course, I’ve oversimplified here. There is lots of unexplored or undefined theological, moral, and spiritual ground in the CRC and evangelical churches that is fun to explore and preach about. For me that included topics like creation and evolution, inclusive language, and contemporary cultural issues raised by media and mediums. I do wonder, however, how much the trend to health and wealth preaching, and the trend to five-point sermons on pragmatic issues like healthy marriage or raising your kids correctly is an unexpected consequence of both pastoral and congregational widespread boredom with traditional theology in evangelical churches.
There is also a core of consensus in the United Church. Rather than focusing on theological topics laid out in confessions, the United Church core has to do with spiritual habits of the heart. I’ve already mentioned the consequence of one of them—the decided openness to engaging many different perspectives. The habit of heart here is hospitality. In the United Church we are supposed to be hospitable to people who have very different ideas. Another habit of the heart that is quite different has to do with the United Church’s focus on left-leaning social activism. I’m talking about the popular perception that the United Church is the “NDP at prayer.” I actually pastor a church where this isn’t a very strong tendency, but in listening to sermons by my new United Church colleagues, I notice that they hammer away at issues that involve the last, the least, the marginalized, the poor, the refugee, the orphans and so on. I suppose Jesus did too! The problem here is that this sort of preaching can become boring—and very oppressive—pretty fast too. It can become a kind of legalistic, works-righteousness focused drumbeat.
A few caveats. First, in both evangelical and United Church congregations there are plenty of people who can’t tell the three Persons apart from the two natures. Both denominations are full of people who belong to their church for a whole bunch of cultural, family, or social reasons that have nothing to do with theology. And that isn’t all bad. One of the key things that has to happen in churches is creation of a community that mirrors the love God and Jesus have for each other, and the “in-ness” that the father and the son share with each other.
Second, in both denominations, there are prophetic moments when the exact right time has come for the preacher to say a very difficult thing. And one of the gracious things God has always provided the world with is people (more than we realize) who actually do speak out as prophets, regardless of their views on scripture or even their religion. Martin Luther King, Gandhi, the Dalai Lama and David Suzuki all come to mind—but there are many pastors in both the United Church and evangelical congregations who in their own small way have also said those difficult things in a timely way, in spite of their different scriptural bases and theological frameworks.
Personally, I’m glad I made the switch. At times I feel a bit out to sea, like a gold fish dropped out of the bowl into a big lake. Too much freedom and space. Too much to reconsider, relearn, rethink. Everything is up for grabs and nothing feels solid. At the same time, the opportunity to freely rethink my perspective, to change my mind, to try to realign myself with what I think is the best in the Christian tradition, to examine myself—all without fear of retribution or exile or warning, is an exhilarating experience of freedom in Christ.
And as I explore my new space, I’m reminded of what one of the denominational leaders who shepherded me into the United Church said. “We welcome your spirituality and your doubts. We want to be a sanctuary for people like you.”