I Cor 14:3-4).
Preaching that seeks to shape congregational identity invites the congregation into a world that is being re-described by the Bible. Hearing such preaching is akin to being immersed in a foreign culture. It assumes that the church exists to be a witness to the odd customs and surprising ways of life in the kingdom of God. Its central concern is how scripture intends to shape the people of God. The sermon that results does not ask what a text means to individuals or how it speaks to social issues. It is confident that a congregation that learns to live these texts will faithfully address the needs of individuals and the issues it faces in society.
When Jesus says “You are the salt of the earth” (Matt 5:13) we regularly imagine that he is speaking to individuals. Shaped in a culture of individualism we often fail to notice that biblical texts like this one are addressed to the community: “you folks”. This shift from the singular “you” to the plural “you-all” is key when preaching to build up congregational identity. The focus of this preaching is the church as a collective disciple rather than the church as a gathering of individuals. Sermons in this mode are addressed to the congregation as a disciple of Jesus with a particular personality and a unique calling. A sermon on the story of Bartimaeus may now place the congregation in the role of the blind one who, when given the gift of sight, follows Jesus on the way to the cross (Mk 10:46-52). Over time such sermons help to shape a people that assumes its life together is to be a living interpretation of the gospel for the world to see, hear and enter.
Preaching that intentionally shapes congregational identity places the church between the interpreter and the text. Contemporary culture need not be mined for illustrations so that the Bible can be understood. Instead, the congregation gathered at the font and table is the living illustration of the text. The text addresses the congregation’s struggle to believe, its acts of faithfulness, its aching lamentation and its call to serve. Scripture speaks to the church in the present tense. The preacher does not jump back and forth from the modern world to the ancient world (not “Jesus said to his disciples” but “Jesus says to his disciples”). Now Sarah and Abraham are not ancient ancestors but our contemporaries. Now the Exile is not a history lesson but is our story. Now Paul is not writing to the early church but to this congregation. Now this congregation is not a voluntary organization worried about declining membership and roof repairs but is, instead, “a holy nation, God’s own people” (I Pet 2:9).
This emphasis in preaching teaches the congregation to think of the sermon as a corporate act of hospitality. The text comes as a holy visitor with a surprising word to God’s people (Gen 18:1-15; Heb 13:2). The preacher invites the congregation to give this visitor a hearing by staying close to the scripture, paying attention to its twists and turns, not trying to resolve all the problems it raises. The congregation learns to take the time to notice the allusions to its own struggles and calling that inhabit the text. Preaching like this is less an act of translation and more a practice of catechesis (from the Greek word ‘katecheo meaning “to echo”). It is an invitation to the congregation to collectively echo the sound of its source - the Word of God - in its life in and for the world.
While congregational identity is shaped one text and one experience at a time, these texts and experiences are given their place in the common mind of the congregation through underlying ‘figures’ or ‘types’. Preachers can uncover these figures and types by asking: How does this congregation ‘figure’ things out? What ‘type’ of a congregation is this? In congregations that are in danger of forgetting what it is to be Christ’s cruciform disciple these powerful assumptions about the church often reveal the ways in which witnessing to the kingdom of God has been forgotten or abandoned. Figural (or typological) preaching understands that these deeply imbedded figures and types are in need of transformation by the gospel if the church is to be Jesus’ salty, yeasty people. A figural preacher pays attention to the large narratives within which the texts are located: slavery / exodus / promise; judgement / exile / homecoming; repentance / trust / discipleship and Good Friday / Holy Saturday / Easter Sunday. The figural preacher locates particular texts within the intratextual world of the Bible. In this way the congregation’s story is interwoven with the biblical drama. Now our terrible endings are not the end we imagined because they are our Good Friday entry to the gospel story. Now our long seasons of waiting for God are not outside the faith because they belong on Holy Saturday. Now Easter Sunday is not simply the predictable promise of the cycle of life but is the raw, inexplicable reality of God’s new creation breaking in upon us when we have all but given up hope. By locating texts and our life within these sustaining figural / typological narratives preachers offer their congregations the gift of a deep communal memory of God’s mercy and faithfulness.
Bibliography: Brueggemann, Walter, Texts Under Negotiation: The Bible and Postmodern Imagination, Minneapolis: Fortress, 1993. Campbell, Charles L., Preaching Jesus: New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1997. Gonzales, Justo L. & Catherine G., The Liberating Pulpit, Nashville: Abingdon, 1994.
originally published in “The New Interpreter’s Handbook of Preaching” (Abingdon Press, Nashville) 2008, pp. 418-419.