Monday, July 29, 2013

How Preaching Is Different in the United Church Compared to Evangelical Churches

            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.”


  1. John: Although you write clearly and well as always, I find this post to be an occasion for sadness. To preach personal opinion in a setting where no one is under any obligation to embrace it whatsoever seems less preaching and more being a talking head on Fox News. Look up any of the handful of verbs in the New Testament for "to preach" and they mean to herald a definitive message, to proclaim, to "good newsify" people with a solid message based on God's revelation. Sharing a personal opinion doesn't quite fit, especially when the design of the whole message is to unsettle no one else's boat, even if one of "boats" out there are those you describe as "post-theist" or those who come close to labeling a robust prayer life as an instance of nascent schizophrenia. You describe CRC ways of preaching and the role theology plays in it as being a minefield instead of a playground, as using theology ever and only as the clubs of judgment. But I can regard theology as something positive and the pondering of it as a playground experience, but even playgrounds need rules, boundaries, equipment that is safe to play on--without that, I'd never want my kids to be on a playground lest some bully push them off the top of the slides or someone install a swingset with wooden seats that could take out my kid's teeth.
    Point being: preaching needs to have something to say and such preaching is worth listening to because it is the truth of God. In a fractured, confused world that truth will unsettle some people and it should because Grace cannot encounter a world like this one without upsetting some things. Being hospitable to any and every viewpoint seems kind until one realizes that there are any number of viewpoints that can be injurious in the long run. I can't imagine teaching in a university with this mindset. Imagine the history professor who says on day one of the class, "I realize that some of you believe the Holocaust happened and some of you deny it in the belief it's a lie meant to prop up miserable Jews so they could get their own country. And some of you believe the Founders of the USA were evangelical Christians who had a mandate from God to set up a chosen nation in a way that will never be true of Canada, New Zealand, or France. But worry not: in this history course, all views are welcome. None will be challenged. Your own historical opinions are all valid" You'd never teach history that way, nor math nor physics. So why would such an approach work in a place where ostensibly the ultimate matters of life and death, meaning and purpose, are considered?
    Fifty years ago this summer the most famous public sermon of them all was delivered in front of the Lincoln Memorial but on that occasion I am so glad the speaker did not say, "I have a personal preference today . . ." or "I have an opinion today . . ." No, Martin had a dream that was rooted in the reality of God's coming kingdom, and although plenty of people in this society had a very different opinion about all that, it was God's view on it all that led Martin to proclaim the vision he did.
    When I as a pastor stand before an open grave and have to say something, I don't want to say that in my opinion this dead loved one MIGHT still be alive spiritually or COULD one day be raised back to life (but if others of you think he's extinguished for all eternity that's fine by me because we're just swapping opinions here in a friendly way anyway). There's no hope in my opinion or in my ideas. There is hope in God's Word and in God's Promises and that is what I am privileged to point people to in hope, grace, and joy.

  2. Scott. I am sad too. I really miss the feeling I had, early on in my ministry, that the core theological issues facing people were clearly stated and properly decided by my tradition and its uncanny ability to rightly divide the word. Losing that conviction has been a loss. But pretending that I had not lost that conviction and continuing in that tradition would have been worse.

    I also used the wrong word to describe the CRC doctrinal ethos--minefield. You're right. Too pejorative. I like the image of doctrine as a playground, for myself, but theology could be that for people from many traditions and religions. I personally experienced it as a minefield because I found myself more and more at odds with the confessions, and thus more and more constrained in what I felt I could/should say, given that I wasn't hired by my congregation to be a loose canon in the pulpit. But others may definitely not have that feeling or experience.

    In a response to a blog post by Paul VanderKley, I took issue with the notion that preachers speak with some sort of divine authority (a la James Daane) that transcends opinion. There are plenty of preachers out there, even in the CRC, who regularly preach mundane, or wrong-headed, or simplistic, or just plain misinformed sermons. I've heard them, over and over, in the years I sat in the pew. Thus experience teaches me that it is really dangerous to make generalizations about authority and truth and preaching. There are just too many contrary cases.

    So, my observation is that the pulpit is always filled by people with opinions. Some are well-thought out, others are not. Is it so bad to be humble, and to say, "well, I have an opinion on this--a strong one. I think it is well-grounded." In effect, my experience teaches me that whatever lofty theological claims many preachers might make about preaching, I often actually here poorly-formed opinions. For generations, CRC preachers thundered from the pulpit about reprobation, or the place of women in the home, or even birth-control or Sunday observance and said, "thus saith the Lord!" And now when we reread those sermons we either have to say those preachers were dead wrong, or we are. Or, if you're really interested in seeing how dangerous it is to claim to be speaking with some sort of divine authority, read the sermons that were regularly included in The Banner of Truth in the 1880s and 90s. I can't help but believe these sort of exercises can't help but soften our generalizations about how we can speak truth from the pulpit.

    Of course, the word "opinion," can be used, in one of its senses, pejoratively, to suggest that what is being said doesn't count for much (as you suggest in the MLK and open gave examples). In a similar way, a perfectly good word like "Marxist," or "proud," can have different senses, some pejorative, others not. But that is not how I was using the word opinion.

    (end part one, see next post for conclusion)

    1. (conclusion)

      Opinions don't have to be mere opinions, groundless, or thoughtless, or just plain wrong. They can be well-informed. They can be insightful. They can be weighty. They can be life-changing when shared. They can be based on a best (but almost always provisional) reading of a Biblical text and an educated guess as to the author's intent. I've had seminary professors and grad school profs and read books full of opinions that I found to be deeply grounded in wisdom and for that reason (among others) persuasive. It is always the preacher's job to put his or her best foot forward and make his or her perspective sticks. It is an exciting calling. Good opinions are worth sharing. They can be good news. But the responsibility lies with the preacher to make a convincing case, and with the hearer to listen critically. (And I did write about the prophetic moment, too).

      Of course, there is hope in scripture, and beautiful visions, and good news. But as you yourself conclude, my job is to "point" people towards those things, while continuing in conversation with them about whatever their opinions, insights, hopes and dreams might be.

  3. Thanks for the reply, John. In my original reply--before Blogspot told me I was over my character limit--I granted your point about all the bad preaching out there, including evangelical silliness on Five Ways to Raise Successful Children and the like. "Good Advice" has eclipsed "Good News" in many places that consider themselves theologically conservative and traditional. And, of course, you are right that in especially what we could call the "application" of a sermon or of a consideration of a biblical text the preacher should recognize the provisional nature of what she says. Only a truly arrogant preacher would say "Thus saith the Lord" about every sermonic utterance. If John tells me in his epistle that "God is love," then thus saith the Lord and insofar as I repeat that in my sermon, I am speaking the Word of the Lord. If I then go on to suggest that we mirror that love best only when we become Tea Party Republicans, then I am stating an opinion that is fallible and open to conversation (and in this case I hope open to disproof!!).
    However, the thoughtful preacher never stands in the pulpit alone. There is always the wealth of the tradition, the collective wisdom of the community, and above all a belief that there is a Word from God in Scripture that is solid and reliable. That is no guarantee that the preacher will get it right in every instance but if you take away the core, then everything is up for grabs and there is little worth saying and nothing left to proclaim. Then we are all cast back on our own opinions (but I find precious little hope in just someone's opinion on the afterlife or anything else that ultimately matters).
    I only preach because I first of all believe. And so I cannot preach to people who think prayer is silly self-talk and be content to leave them with the feeling that I value that insight and hold out the possibility of its truth. On core convictions like "God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself" it is the revelatory conviction of the Holy Spirit and the Spirit's inner testimony (pace Calvin) that tells believers this is not a matter of opinion but of truth. Yes, yes, we see through a glass darkly and all that but there IS something on the other side of the glass to see--something real.
    I am happy to have conversations about people's opinions on the best political avenue to take care of the poor and I can make lots of room for differing viewpoints and agendas. But if it's 50-50 whether or not there is a God or whether Christ was truly human and truly divine, then there's not much left to preach. We could swap out the pulpit for a round conference table and all share ideas with no intention by anyone that there is a truth to be found and to be agreed on. But that's shooting the bull at the barbershop, not preaching. Or so it seems to me . . .

  4. John, I think you are correct that theology is a minefield in most churches, CRC, evangelical, etc. Any false step, and "boom!", your dead or at least maimed. Christians have never been able to actually settle on what is "right" theology with any kind of unanimity, uniformity, or even much consensus. That is because there is no way to do so with any certainty, or in any fool-proof, absolute way. So each claim by this or that theological strain is "THE" right one leads to a minefield for anyone who is willing to actually THINK, as opposed to simply swallowing the party line and shutting up. I guess that's where I am right now. In minefield, but not yet willing to take the next step.

  5. Of course, the thing about minefields is that you don't take that next step! It's a conundrum, for sure. But something to keep in mind is that churches are voluntary communities. No one has to belong. Churches are free to set their own membership standards. If they are not your standards, it is the inner battle between practicality/pension/family expectations/integrity/determining how far out/in you are, etc. that matters most. Figuring all that out is a minefield too. I stand by my thought that I was perhaps a bit over the top calling theology in a confessional church a minefield. But once you start figuring out the consequences of changing your mind, it is, at the very least, very tough to work through everything in as peaceable, honest, and nonjudgemental way as possible.

  6. I grew up in the CRC and at age 25 moved to the United Church. I am now 50. It was not until I moved denominations that I started to grow in my faith. I have since, at times, gone to my home CRC to attend with my parents. My experience with the CRC and other evangelical churches is that we as parishioners are told what to believe and we are not "allowed" to develop our own path through our faith. My experience has also been that in the CRC and evangelical churches the Bible is the only Truth and must be followed at all costs. But these churches have also developed a lot of mixed messages because of taking the Bible literally. An example is as follows: Love and accept all people, oh wait, except if they are gay or lesbian or don't lead the "acceptable" lifestyle. I have seen a lot of damage to people and families because of this type of doctrine.

    Once I joined the UC of Canada I learned to think for myself in regards to my spirituality. The UC has opened the doors wide for me. It was a difficult journey because I had all my CRC background behind me and the guilt that came with finding my own path and wings to fly. My faith was challenged when I became a member of the UC of Canada but because of that I have been able to open myself to the beauty of God and all God has to offer. It has also allowed me to critically think through the Bible and realize that it is not infallible and if we are to be an accepting and peaceful society we must look at the Old Testament as a history lesson and Jesus's teachings as a way to live out our faith. If I had stayed with the CRC my faith would have died. Now I truly live out a beautiful faith and life as I have learned to be open, accepting and walk with those who are not the same as myself. My life is so rich because of my United Church thinking.

    I am saddened by the amount of people raised in the CRC and other like churches that turn away from faith because of the doctrines of these churches. If they knew that there is a church out there that allows them to explore their faith and through that exploration they will be loved and supported they may start attending church again. All churches should embrace full exploration of one's faith and support their parishioners in finding their own Truth. If they don't, faith will die. As well, churches must constantly move forward in their understanding of the Bible and the context of it. We all know that attendance in churches in developed countries is quickly declining and every church must ask themselves "why?". If theology and doctrines do not change rapidly the church as we know it will die.

    Of course, all of this is just my opinion but it is my Truth and my faith is stronger than ever before

  7. Thanks Beverly. Well said. I do have sympathy for churches on this. If faith is to be personal and owned, it must be one's own, which means there has to be a lot of room for people to change their minds. At the same time, churches want/need an identity at least partially rooted in doctrinal commitments. It is hard to balance these two realities. On the UCC, though, I'm amazed by how permission to rethink has led to a renewal of my own faith life. I guess this is the freedom in Christ I've been looking for.

  8. I think the UC has done it well with developing their identity that is rooted in doctrine. My understanding is that we follow Christ's basic teachings which are inclusive and loving. I like the UC because it advocates that it doesn't matter if you believe the Bible is fact, metaphor or fiction but it is the lessons we learn from it and how we take those into our everyday lives. I do believe strongly that if all people only looked at what Christ taught us, worked daily at living out that type of faith, we would have an amazing and incredible world.


What do you think?