5/21/12

preaching revival

Travelers to Atlanta are inevitably drawn to the World of Coke, home of Coca-Cola. A tour through the story of Coke concludes at a massive indoor fountain with each visitor invited to receive an endless supply of the sacramental beverage. Coming to the font a chant can be heard over the sound system: “Life … life … life”. This is the font of Life? Of course, it is not only the World of Coke that promotes its products as replacements for the gift of the Holy Spirit. Contemporary culture is a crowded marketplace of idols, all vying for our service and praise.

In this environment the church is surrounded by skilled evangelists for the ways of consumption and security. This is a massive challenge to the formation of congregations that foster Christ’s distinctive Way of Life. It calls not simply for transformation or renewal but for revival - revival from despair that dries up the life of the church, leaving only dry bones (Ezekiel 37).

But how do we preach for the revival that Christ intends? What shape of preaching cultivates the salty, yeasty church of the Holy Spirit? Exploring these questions leads us on a bracing and challenging journey, accompanied by ancient texts which trouble us with truth and surprise us with hope.

Preaching for the revival of the church in our time shifts the assumptions that are shared by preacher and congregation as we gather to hear the Word. Once we change our assumptions about the purpose of the sermon, the role of the preacher and the calling of the congregation, everything about the occasion of preaching shifts.

This is why, and how.

Every sermon now assumes that the congregation is immersed in a sea of proselytism in which its children are tempted by (and regularly succumb to) all manner of idolatry – the false gods of consumption, technology, security and more. The once mainline church finds itself in a new, sidelined location. Now each congregation is called not to send missionaries afar but to be a missionary people right here.

In this missional context the question and problem of faith is primary. Can the church place its trust and its future in the God met in Jesus Christ? Or are the other so-called gods more trustworthy? Conversion to the gospel always begins with the church and its preachers. We have been led to believe that “God helps those who help themselves”, forgetting that we learned this faith in Aesop’s Fables. The peculiar people of the Bible trust in the God whose steadfast love helps those who cannot help themselves. Coming to trust that YHWH (“I am what I am up to” – Exodus 3:14) is saving creation, redeeming souls and reconciling the nations is at the heart of this pilgrimage.

Such preaching is refreshingly evangelical since Jesus comes preaching and living the “evangelion” (Greek meaning “the gospel” or “the good news” – Mark 1:15) of God’s amazing doings. It is a gospel that is not restricted to the social realm of politics or to the personal realm of the soul. The realm of God knows no bounds. This is the gospel truth.

In its new location in Canadian culture the church is rediscovering the devalued language of testimony. The pulpit is becoming a witness box, the congregation a jury and the preacher a daring witness (in Greek: “martyr” – risking life; in Latin: “testis” – risking offspring) to the incredible truth that God is engaged in a saving mission of cosmic proportions in Jesus Christ. Now the preacher’s voice communicates the breathless urgency of one giving testimony to the activity of God that otherwise goes unspoken.

This genre of preaching does not deliver generic values that provide meaning for life. Instead it delivers risky offerings of an alternative truth that threatens to turn the life of the church and world upside down. This is troubling preaching because it proposes that what seems to be common sense is anything but wise (I Corinthians 1:18-2:5). The congregation that gathers to host such truth-telling must learn the discipline of providing safe sanctuary – a holy witness protection program – for all who dare to attempt to speak the truth (and whose testimony is inevitably incomplete and flawed).

The hard truth that this preaching voice offers the church is an alternative way of figuring things out in the world. The threefold journey through Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday provides the deep, thick story that is rehearsed in sermon and in sacraments, in liturgy and in all aspects of the congregation’s life together.

This movement into the cruciform gospel – from aching loss and cross-bearing sacrifice (Good Friday) through forsaken absence and determined waiting/hoping for God (Holy Saturday) to unexpected, extraordinary newness that terrifies, astonishes and amazes (Easter Sunday) – stands in stark contrast to the dominant stories of a culture marked by insatiable desire to consume, to control and to succeed.

The preacher is “figural”, that is, like a figure skater; the sermons practice the figure of the long Easter weekend. This is the way that the church “figures out” its life in the world. Such preaching seeks to revive the mind and heart of a congregation so that it will become known in the neighbourhood for being the type of people who are not afraid to incorporate the blues of Good Friday grief and of Holy Saturday longing into its songs of Easter Sunday amazement.

Congregations that tune their ear to this way of preaching notice a change. This new language takes time to understand. Revival preachers move away from the familiar practice of providing illustrations that make sense of the text. Making the text relevant is no longer the purpose of the sermon. Now the sermon is more like a language immersion class in which the church rediscovers its strange language of life with God in Christ. Immersion preachers give priority to the oddness of the biblical narrative because they assume that the church is called to discover the ways in which contemporary ways of life are irrelevant in the light of the ways of God.

Immersion preachers are engaged in the larger communal work of forming a bi-lingual people who are pilgrims in contemporary culture (Hebrews 11:13-16), holding citizenship in the kingdom of God while living in a foreign land as ambassadors of Christ (2 Cor 5:16-21).

Over time we become more practiced as pilgrims. Over time our ears become attuned to the odd “mother tongue” of biblical speech and life. Congregations seeking revival come to expect that sermons rightly surprise and confound, since the texts are so surprising and confounding. Come to think of it, so is Jesus!

Sermons that immerse the church in the logic of the Bible are disciplined attempts to stand under (to under-stand), not over, the scripture that provides its sustaining memory and nourishing hope. Preachers who adopt this stance live as hosts who provide hospitality to the strangeness of biblical texts that trouble the church. Instead of working to resolve these texts neatly, revival sermons intend to give these ancient strangers a living, troubling voice.

This is an arduous struggle (Genesis 32:22-32) in which the community wrestles with God for a blessing (a people therefore named “Israel” – “one who wrestles with God”). Text by text, the church learns its ways of speaking about, and to, the God met in Jesus Christ.

These sermons are primarily addressed to the church, not to individuals. In an individualistic age we regularly forget that the church is inherently a communal disciple. Preaching for the revival of the church is grounded in the assumption that the “you” that sermons address is plural (“y’all”). These sermons are preached to the church as a single body, rather than to individual circumstances. This preaching expects that the gospel for individuals is all about becoming a member of the Body of Christ. As a result, every sermon now seeks to build up the congregation as a disciple of Jesus with its own particular character traits, habits, personality, gifts and calling (1 Cor 12).

These changed assumptions now shape every sermon that I preach. According to the testimony of my congregation, this changed preaching is a significant factor in the revival of our life as a sign of God’s purposes. This marks a surprising revival of the place and importance of preaching in our life together. It turns out that preaching for the revival of the church is itself a revival of preaching in the church!

                                                                                  - Edwin Searcy

originally published in the United Church Observer

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