Ignoring Jesus for 2000 Years: Why Our Preaching Practices Need to Change
David M. Csinos, Assistant Professor of Practical Theology, Atlantic School of Theology
Jesus couldn’t make it any clearer: the church is for everyone! When his disciples tried to prevent children from getting to him, he did a facepalm (at least that’s how I imagine it happening) and told them to let the children come to him—because his message is for them too.
It’s too bad we’ve been ignoring him ever since.
For my entire adult life, I’ve been advocating for young people to be included in the church’s worshipping life. So I’m thrilled to see a growing movement of leaders experimenting with intergenerational worship.
The trouble is that there’s one aspect of worship that continues to be for adults and adults alone. Yes, preaching is the final frontier of intergenerational worship.
If Jesus told us that his message is for people of all ages, then we need to change the church’s preaching practices. Thankfully, innovative leaders all over the globe are guiding us forward. Through research into the preaching practices of pastoral leaders, I found that there are at least three broad ways that preachers are heeding Jesus’ call to welcome people of all ages.
1. Preparing Together
A lot happens behind the scenes of a sermon. Preachers study the scripture passages on which they’ll be speaking. They survey what’s going on in the world near and far. They carefully prepare not only what they’re going to say, but also how they’ll say it.
What if this process of sermon preparation became an intergenerational practice?
Writing sermons intergenerationally can be done by having people of all ages contribute to the ideas that preachers use to craft their sermons. Sometimes pastors visit Sunday school classes or youth groups and lead discussions about the readings for an upcoming service, asking the young people to share their ideas about a particular Bible passage. All-age Bible study groups can provide a similar approach. And some preachers build these kinds of discussions right into the preaching moment itself, asking everyone in worship to break into small groups to chat about what they think God is saying to them in the passage.
Whether crowdsourcing the sermon beforehand or talking it out together during the preaching moment, these are just some ways that preachers can craft sermons communally. This makes the sermon not just for the people, but by the people too!
2. Preaching Together
What happens when intergenerational preaching come out from backstage? It means that the very act of offering a sermon becomes a shared practice, one in which people of different ages preach together.
Some pastoral leaders experiment with sermons in which members of a faith community share their faith stories. They might speak for a few minutes about a key moment on their faith journey. Or maybe they share about how they see God working in their lives.
Other preachers integrate preaching into the entire worship service by moving between preparing, teaching, and responding. A song with a repetitive phrase in sign language (preparing) followed by a short drama presentation (teaching) and a few moments when everyone can draw a picture of something that jumped out at them (responding) is just one of infinite possibilities. Be sure to consider a diversity of learning styles and spiritual expressions when planning this sort of approach.
3. Experiencing Together
Finally, some preachers are transforming the preaching moment into a time when everyone in the service, regardless of age, participates together in a shared experience. While certainly not sermons (at least not in the traditional sense), experiential preaching is preaching nonetheless.
Preachers might forego the traditional “speeching” sermon (see Doug Pagitt’s Preaching in the Inventive Age) to invite members of the community to improvise a dramatical interpretation of a biblical story. Or they could teach simple actions to a key Bible verse from the lectionary texts for the day. Some preachers lead traditional spiritual practices like Ignatius of Loyola’s examen, lectio divina, or ancient approaches to prayer.
Whatever sort of experience preachers invite congregants into, two things need to happen. First, the practice needs to be simple enough that even the youngest members can fully participate, but deep enough that everyone can find meaning within it. Second, it must help people encounter the gospel of Jesus Christ.
A Final Thought
Intergenerational preaching is not for the faint of heart. It requires preachers to give up control over what happens in the preaching moment (or at least give up the illusion that they’re in control of the message). It calls congregants outside their comfort zones. But it offers an opportunity to recognize the power of the Holy Spirit in the proclamation of the gospel. Not only this, it means we’re finally listening to the One who told us that his message is for young and old alike. Better late than never!
The ideas offered here are based on qualitative research among practitioners of intergenerational preaching. They especially rely on the practices of Amy Casteel, Karen DeBoer, Jim Keat, Tammy Tolman, Murray Wilkinson, and Talashia Keim Yoder.
What We're Reading
The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life
Our daughter-in-law lives with our son in London (UK). Last Spring they were invited to attend a talk by the Canadian-born American David Brooks. Brooks is well-known as a social-cultural commentator (New York Times) and author of The Social Animal (2011) and The Road to Character (2015). He is a person who has been on a significant personal (but public) wondering journey of self-admitted failure and injury (a non allegorical Pilgrim’s Progress of sorts). The talk he was giving was related to his latest book The Second Mountain: The Quest for a Moral Life (2019) and this is the book I’d like to focus on here.
My son, a two-piece suited high school teacher, had arranged to meet his wife, a social worker, at the venue in West London after their regular work days. The husband had failed to mention that the venue was an upscale place and that the event was more than “a university crowd occasion,” but rather one attended by conservative, well-off elite and those “dressed to the hilt” types. So when Martha arrived in her professional, but not her best of, attire, she felt completely out of place and was conspicuously uncomfortable. Most of us can relate to the angst of discovering that we are either over-dressed or under-dressed while in the company of people we don’t know and who are probably judging us, we think. Ironically, this experience was a metaphor-in-life akin to the message of Brooks new book. The first mountain is the performativity mountain that we have been hardwired-by-six and socialized into: we work to secure our egos and reputations (as if this were possible), try to impress (feeling terrible when we don’t), and rely on external identity confirmations to mold and form us. According to Brooks, the second mountain is shifting past all that “stuff” to self-sacrifice and less ego-centricity, such that we find the sweet spot of serving others. He puts it succinctly as:
If the first mountain is about building up the ego and defining the self, the second is about shedding the ego and losing the self. If the first is about acquisition, the second mountain is about contribution. If the first mountain is elitist – moving up – the second mountain is egalitarian – planting yourself amid those who need, and walking arm in arm with them. (p. xvi)
David’s examples, from many fascinating sources, and the weaved narrative of his own journey of failure focused on the first mountain, together with his realization that the first mountain wasn’t the one best suited to his strivings ends up being rather profound. The book is highly practical (so many touchstones to those of us who live quite ordinary lives) and so suited for those asking transcendence, significance and community questions as these relate to our own forging of meaningful lives.
There is an old leadership versus management analogy that roughly says: “good management is doing a great and efficient job climbing the ladder that is leaning against the wall; but good leadership is about placing the ladder up against the right wall;” this right wall, according to Brooks, is the second mountain. This second mountain will express itself in particular commitments to vocation, spouse/ family, philosophy/faith and community in ways that don’t require pay-back (help in ascent up first mountain). Its true that it is just as normal to forget as it is to remember. Brooks takes us on a journey to remember and reinforce what we probably know but have forgotten. He speaks of intimacy, relationships, building ramps or walls, commitments (as above), the role of mentors and unexpected events, and of our transformational choices.
As I read through the book – I told myself “I know that” but then why do I seem to so commonly find myself making choices that suck me (and sometimes others) into the vortex of vicious and non-purposeful cycles rather than the commended virtuous cycles (i.e., Romans 7 and 8). This is an excellent book for the reflective leader and a platform for spouse, colleague, and community conversation about our God-given moral purposes and walking in a manner worthy of our callings. A book for recalibrating our “on purpose lives.”
Our daughter-in-law, Martha has since recovered from her conspicuous angst over the external pressures and her natural but unnecessary embarrassment; when getting her permission to include her story in this review, she had instant appreciation for the juxtaposition of her experience with the message of David Brooks’ commendable book. The extent of forgiveness afforded to my son for his omission was not discussed.
Dr. Keith Walker is Professor of Educational Administration and Leadership at the University of Saskatchewan where, with colleagues, he is launching a new professional doctoral in educational leadership: https://grad.usask.ca/programs/educational-leadership.php
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