Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Problem Is in the Pulpit

I’ve been thinking a lot about denominations lately. I’m a switcher, a pastor who has moved from leadership in an Evangelical church to a Mainline church. One of the first things I noticed in making the switch was that while the local theology in the last two congregations I served is very different, the denominational woes are exactly the same. Both denominations are struggling with significant decreases in giving and widespread boredom with and distrust of large institutions. Both denominations are losing members—albeit they are at different points in the process. Both denominations are promising more help for local congregations, but are basically not delivering, as their agencies just can’t get out of the PR and fundraising modes. Both denominations are spending lots of internal time and resources on major institutional restructuring. Both denominations are seeing an exodus of young members.

In the Christian Reformed Church I used to belong to, they are wondering whether or not “denominational culture,” is a key factor behind the malaise. Maybe. In the United Church, the new structural plan, which would save the National Office, but do away with Presbyteries (local groups of churches) and conferences (larger groups of local churches), seems to suggest that the problem is that local members don’t care about neighbouring churches. That might be right, but it is hard to understand, then, why those same members would care about the national church.

In the end, however, I doubt very much that membership malaise and decline have much to do with denominational culture or structure. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to have top-notch culture and structure. The thing is, as helpful as these realities are in a healthy church, they are not the root causes of membership loss and malaise.

What is?

Well, the bottom line, I think, is that the problem is with local churches and leadership. The heart of the worship service (or, at least, one of its key foci), the sermon, is not giving people a reason to stay. And naturally, if that is the case, giving and attendance drops and interest in far away national offices or agencies isn’t going to light any fires either.

I don’t want to be too hard on preachers. But honestly, if there is one complaint I hear over and over again from my friends who are thinking of not going to church, or who have stopped—and I have many of them—it is that they are mad about the preaching. It is too judgmental. It is too pragmatic, as if the sermons were lifted out of the self-help section of the bookstore. It is, especially, boring and irrelevant. It doesn’t get people to strap on their seat belts or put on crash helmets.

Now, we might respond to such a charge defensively. I have responded that way myself, when people have stopped going to my church. Or, we might say that the problem is not with the preacher—but with the gospel. People just don’t buy it anymore, and the siren songs of the weekend away, or the materialistic lifestyle, or Twitter and Facebook are just too compelling to invest in sermons anymore. We can come up with a hundred and one reasons to deflect the blame away from preachers. And the hard truth here is that the problem is complex, and there are some very good preachers who still struggle with the malaise out there, and we can all think of people who left church for different reasons—lack of community, perhaps; or the widespread perception that churches are anti-gay, or anti-women, or anti-science. And many are.

However, I believe that our preaching is a big part of the problem. As pastors, we don’t work at it hard enough. We don’t pay enough attention to how we speak, to the rhetoric of persuasion, or the poetry of words. We don’t pay enough attention to what our parishioners are really wondering about in the dark of the night or when the bills come due. We are too comfortable with the status quo. We offer one meal after another of beans and rice and no one can remember what we said two weeks on. We preach out of dry barrels of sixteenth century doctrinal concerns like infant baptism or how the atonement works rather than to the crises of our era. I do it too. And this is what I lie awake thinking about at night. This is what forces me to spend more and more time preparing messages rather than less and less.

It may be that we are entering into an era where things are so good, for so many, that the gospel seems quaint and old fashioned. We may well enter an era where one of the crises of our day—global warming, poverty, religious fanaticism, racism, terrorism—so overwhelms us that people come back to church in droves, looking for the faith, hope and love to get them through. But for now, people are hanging up their church hats and leaving in droves. And not missing church at all. Especially not the sermons. And if nothing else, that should suggest that our preaching the same old stuff isn’t doing the trick.

We need to talk about this. What’s the problem? Denial? Are our preacher egos too sensitive to get honest about how we’re doing? Does the preaching ministry fail to attract the brightest and the best, like it did 100 years ago? Too much Greek (or too little?) Too much seminary (or too little?) Too much distraction from social media and the internet to concentrate on real writing?

Maybe all the above. But until our local churches are firing on all cylinders, especially from the pulpit, the whole debate about what to do with denominational structures is very much beside the point.


  1. I think you're right on, John. Couple of Sundays ago the minister preached a sermon on conflicts between people - how to handle them, etc. I looked forward to that; thought that would be helpful and a good topic. Unfortunately, this relatively new minister to our church, in my opinion, struggled mightily to make his many points. It reminded me of Calvin College lecture; on and on and requiring a great deal of concentration to try to follow the logic. I consider myself quite capable of following a sermon that's more than "basic", but I eventually just lost where this guy was going. And that's been typical of his sermons; just strikes me as a guy who thinks he knows what he wants to say but just can't organize it in a way that can be followed. Our other minister (who is 18 years older), on the other hand, delivers a great sermon; basic, understandable, challenging (you can hear a pin drop when he challenges!), creative, interesting. This church has grown a lot since this older person became the minister many years ago; I'm going to find it interesting to see what happens to membership as the reins are passed to the "new guy"; my guess is that membership will decline if we continue to hear sermons that simply can't be followed due to their complexity.

    1. I hear you. One issue that I think we're totally missing the boat on, that may explain your young pastor's issues, is social/new media. In this "The Shallows," Nicholas Carr makes the point that consumption of all that media, and the multi-tasking that people think it allows them, badly fractures the ability of people to communicate a compelling narrative. We tend, now, to think in Twitter-length bursts. Creativity, deep reading (and writing) are suffering badly, everywhere. Not sure what the solution is (I have ideas), but both preachers and their audiences have yet figured out how to adjust to this new reality in a compelling way. And saying so doesn't even get at whether or not we're preaching the right stuff to begin with.

    2. Here's another thought: the fear factor, or rather, the lack there of. Once churches give up on hell and preachers no longer preach fear of condemnation, worship becomes optional.

    3. I suppose that people went to church out of fear. So sad to live out of, do anything for, such mythic motivations.

  2. Interesting--and good stuff, John. I think you're right. As someone who's been to dozens of churches from multiple denominations in the last two years, I'm often saddened to see or hear where a preacher goes with a sermon, how far he or she takes us into the world, into the soul, into the Word.

    But then, good Lord, we get what we pay for. It's nice of you not to mention us pew-sitters, but we play a role too in what gets preached.

    "It may be that we are entering into an era where things are so good, for so many, that the gospel seems quaint and old fashioned." You're on the money here too, so to speak.

    Sadly, ye olde truism still holds: tragedy unites; politics divide. As you say yourself in Not Sure, theology is of little consequence these days, south of the border at least.

    What one thinks about politics--that's the big story.

  3. Hmm. About those people in the pews. Easy for me as a preacher to blame, but I guess it was time to hear/write something like, "physician, heal thyself."

    I also didn't say anything about the rest of the worship service: the songs we learn our theology from, the music we worship by, the arts, etc. Upon brief reflection, it also seems to me that the cultural pressure on people to attend church, whatever they may think of it privately, used to be way greater. But the pressure is largely gone now, so people can decide for themselves--sort of like the pressure not to live together before marriage has largely dissolved (at least among my acquaintances). Like I said, the problem is complex. But the solution lies in local churches that are doing things right, and in pulpits where great preaching is at least an occasional event.

  4. Preaching is communicating. That has to be our first concern, but a lot of preachers are not taught how to communicate. They are taught to construct a archeologically sound argument based on a wide variety of forms, but they aren't taught how to bring that sucker to life. It doesn't help that everyone is running around like headless chickens trying to 'save the church' instead taking a deep breath and getting on with what the church is supposed to be about.

    I don't think the problem is just poor preaching. I think the poor preaching is one sign of a much bigger issue.

    We've forgotten the gospel.

    We know the words, but we've lost hold of what they mean. Our churches become more and more focused on success as measured by the consumerist society around us, and in the process we have forgotten the gospel.

    Jesus came preaching the Dominion of God. It is here. It is now. It is radically different than the dominion of the world. The Dominion is like a feast, a garden, a day spent fishing. It is shown in the way that the people care for each other. When was the last time people pointed at Christians (in a positive way) to comment on the way they lived. Right now, right here. The church makes no difference. Rates of addiction, divorce and violence are unchanged whether you go to church or not. Why put the energy into what doesn't matter?

    We need to get back to the radical nature of that Dominion. There needs to be something different that is worth leaving the world for.


What do you think?