A. Challenge the Assumptions They Live By
All of us live out of our assumptions and presuppositions about life. One way to hook my interest, if not my anger, is to challenge or attack the presuppositions I live by. The same is true for most people I know. Preachers must have some idea of what their hearers assume about life, religion, other people, and so on.
We need not look too far before we discover some of the forces which lay behind many of the beliefs in contemporary America. While I don’t think we can identify “The American mind,” I do think we can give a general sketch of it, a profile if not a portrait.
John Wiley Nelson published a book entitled Your God Is Alive and Well and Appearing in Popular Culture. In it he examines some of the popular forces of the American belief system. Wiley looked at movies, country music, popular magazines, television, and detective fiction, and concluded that all of these items feed the beliefs of many persons in America. O.C. Edwards Jr., adds to Wiley’s findings the factors of advertisements, newspapers and news magazines, all popular music, and contemporary books.
All of these factors, and others such as sports, seem to help shape our national mentality. The contemporary preacher must sometimes challenge the assumptions underlying these ideas and beliefs. I have collected some of these axioms and offer them here for the reader’s perusal.
One of the commissions of the World Council of Churches collected what is called axioms of the modern man. These axioms, many of which are half-truths, include the ‘Axioms from America”:
– Truth is established only by proof, and ultimate proof is unknowable.
– Look out for number one; if you don’t, nobody else will.
– Human nature is fundamentally sound, but needs guidance and correction to achieve its fulfillment. “Sin” is just another name for ignorance and correctible imperfection, or biological lag.
– There is progress in history, but society may yet destroy itself if the discoveries of science are not controlled.
– There always have been wars and there always will be. You can’t change human nature (look closely at number 3 again).
– “God” is only a projection of man’s ideals.
– A man’s religion is his own business and every man has a right to his own belief.
– Other worldliness is dangerous because it detracts attention from the effort to gain freedom, security, and justice in this life; and anyway, we know nothing about what happens after death.
– Jesus was a good man. What we need are more people like Him. Now take Lincoln …
– Do a good turn when you can, but don’t be a sucker.
Even our habits are axioms which need to be challenged. William Barrett points out that habits and routine are like veils over our lives; as long as they are in place, we really do not have to consider what life means.
Once we understand what some of the presuppositions of our hearers are, then what? In his book, Overheard, David H.C. Read shows us how we can deal with some of them. Read has some imaginative sermons with titles such as “I suppose Christianity Is On The Way Out”; “I’ve Got My Own Religion: Who Needs A Church?” and “I live A Pretty Decent life: What More Do I Need?” These are good models for challenging axioms.
We must be careful in dealing with some of these controversial issues, however. Many years ago Ernest Fremont Little offered counsel on how to deal with these issues. He said:
– Always speak from a religious standpoint. Use a text.
– Put yourself in the place of the opposition.
– Praise more often than blame. Be affirmative.
– Speak the truth in love.
– Don’t offer opinions if you don’t have the facts to back them up, or in areas where you have no technical knowledge.
– Give attention to the matter of timing.
– Familiarize yourself with recent church pronouncements on controversial issues.
No one thinks that challenging the ideas people live by is an easy task. But true preaching is no “cream-puff’ job. We are called to proclaim the Gospel, whatever the consequences.
True prophetic preaching is always confrontational preaching. This does not mean that it is necessarily harsh or “harpy” but it does mean that it is courageous and to the point. We challenge people anytime we dearly set forth the Gospel because often the Gospel is actually foreign to the way many people live. This includes the preacher. Yet the preacher must stand in that paradoxical position of preaching to himself or herself while preaching to others. This calls for deep faith, an open mind and heart, and great courage.
Being honest with people is not always easy, but as Paul Tournier put it, “he who does not stand up in time is carried forward into ceaseless compromises right on to final capitulation.”
B. Help people “Overhear” the Gospel
“Overhearing the Gospel” is a phrase by Fred B. Craddock in a book by that title. Craddock points out that many persons in the church are not evil, but merely bored by the repetition of the message of faith. As he says, “Boredom works against the faith by provoking contrary thoughts or lulling to sleep or draping the whole occasion with a pall of indifference and unimportance.”
Because so many of our hearers have already heard, they easily “tune out” the sermon, thus causing what Craddock calls the “illusion of participation.” The listeners are not ignorant about the facts of the Gospel. They are all too familiar with them, so Craddock asks, “How shall we communicate in an atmosphere where it is assumed the Gospel has been heard and now all that remains is supplying more units of information?”
The answer, in part, is by indirect communication, by inductive rather than deductive preaching. Jesus, for example, did not preach three-point sermons. He often told parables and stories, which helped the truth to “dawn” upon the hearer. The listener was always free to reflect upon, accept, resolve, and if he or she chose, to reject it.
Think of how this system has worked in other ways. John Wesley read Luther’s preface in his Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, and felt his heart “strangely warmed.” This was an indirect word to Wesley.
Craddock suggests other ways in which overhearing can happen today. For example, many pastors preach a children’s sermon. These messages are designed specifically for children, but many adults “overhear” something important in them. Another example is the pastoral prayer. While not addressed to the hearers, this prayer nevertheless often “speaks to” them. Think of a funeral. How much is “overheard” in the funeral sermon? Again, a wedding is mainly between the minister and the couple, but the vows, prayers, and ceremony in general communicate a great deal to the participants.
If you decide to present a sermon via this method of overhearing, begin early in the process to envision the style of delivery which will create its own effect, and trust the listener to exercise his or her freedom responsibly. Create the mood of the occasion in yourself and in the place of delivery. Stay with the first and third person, not second person. Further, consider allowing the message to sacrifice itself. Sacrifice has to do with what Craddock calls “the willingness to structure one’s message so that it is consumed in the experience of hearing it.”
Finally, preachers should adopt a narrative style. Says Craddock, “Narratives reproduce and recreate events, with characters developing and events unfolding, and the teller re-experiencing is the source of the emotive and imaginative power in the telling.
C. Pastorally Identify with the People
Think for a moment about the pastors in your life to whom you have readily listened. Was it the “pulpit pundit,” the wizard of words, or was (is) it the person who loves you and lets you know it? There is a great difference between a shepherd and a sheepherder — one leads, the other pushes. A pastor leads by caring for his or her people. That caring cannot be done by long distance, but only by an “up-close” association with people.
Another way of approaching the preaching task which might help to penetrate the apathy of some is pastoral preaching. Charles F. Kemp defines pastoral preaching as “an attempt to meet the individual and personal needs of the people by means of a sermon.”
Jesus was a “pastoral” preacher in the sense that He spoke to the needs of His hearers, and shed God’s light upon those needs.
I am convinced that many persons seem apathetic to the church because they feel that they are uncared for. A sensitive pastoral preacher can convey a sense of care, acceptance, and love with sermons. The atmosphere created can say much to persons who might otherwise be repelled from church. They will be attracted by persons who know them and know what’s going on in their lives.
John D. Rockefeller, Jr., once said the greatness of his pastor, Harry Emerson Fosdick, was the fact that each person in the congregation thought he was preaching to him. Rockefeller said, “I never hear him but I say, How does he know my problem?”
The disciples on the road to Emmaus in Luke 24 were spoken to by Jesus. Their response was, “Did not our hearts burn within us while He talked to us on the road? …” Why? Surely it was because the resurrected Christ spoke to the needs of their hearts. We as preachers must stay dose to our people to know what those needs are. We will find the tasks of preaching and pastoring feeding each other in a symbiotic relationship.
Scratch people where they itch. Learn to speak their language and think in their thought forms. Know where they “are” as well as where they should be. Doing so will not cure apathy in the church overnight, but it just might relieve a little of it!
D. Dialogue with People
Dialoguing with people is really a logical extension of the pastoral identification spoken of above. I’m thinking here specifically of a meaningful communication with people dialogically. Preachers are unfortunately often quick to speak, but slow to listen. Reuel Howe speaks of dialogue as an essential approach to communication. Said Howe, “Dialogue is to love, what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body does. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born.” Since this communication is a “two-way” street, it is twice as prone to break down. Therefore both parties must work hard to keep it moving and open. This means that both parties must take risks. If both reserve themselves, real dialogue will not occur.
We all know how easily we can skim along on the surface of reality without touching the deep, underground depths of truth in our communication. This is why we must take risks in dialogue, risks of showing what we are truly like, and what our perceptions of our communications are.
I pointed out above the need for pastoral affirmation of persons. This does not mean that the minister is merely a pawn in their hands, however. Times exist when the pastor, for the sake of integrity, must express honest feelings, beliefs, and ideals, even at the risk of running counter to what many of the parishioners believe. Thus, when the pastor dialogues with people, he or she is opening himself or herself up to what is believed to be reality.
At its heart, dialogue is humble honesty. When I am willing to risk myself in dialogue with someone in my church, that person, even if he disagrees with me, is more willing to hear my pronouncements from the pulpit.
For example, a deacon in the first church of which I was a pastor was cool toward me for some months after my arrival. My wife and I invited his family to dinner one evening. In the midst of conversation I was able to tell him of my hopes and desires for the church and for myself personally. He then told me about himself. That evening was the first time he had ever been able to see me as a person. Our friendship grew from that point and he became a delight to preach to. He always listened intently and questioned me about the sermon later. This is something of what I mean by a dialogical life-style. When I listened to him, he could listen to me. I am beginning to understand what Eric Waterhouse meant when he said, “The great preachers owe their success to what they are rather than to what they say.”
Dialogue is a way of life rather than merely two people talking. Keith Miller contends that when a Christian speaker identifies the problems to which he or she speaks with personal experiences, the listeners can hear and admit that they experience some of the same difficulties. Then confession and healing can occur.
E. Preach for Liberation
A very important recent book is Alvin C. Porteous’ Preaching To Suburban Captives. Porteous examines liberation theology which is usually written in the context of the so-called third world. His purpose is to find help which might speak to the needs of another kind of captive in the American suburb. Porteous lists as bondages sin, death, law, oppressive ideologies and social structures, and religious enslavement. Porteous claims that the sermon is in itself a liberating event. It proclaims gospel (good news). A liberating sermon raises the consciousness of the congregation.
Successful preaching (whatever else it may be) is always a mysterious blend of the personality of the preacher along with his or her gifts, training and cultivation of these gifts, his or her interests and motivation, the personality of the hearer, and the action of God.
Our task is not to write memorable sermons. It is to bathe persons in the good news of Christ. In speaking of God, the prophet Isaiah said, “And so shall my word be that goes forth from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and prosper in the thing for which I sent it” (55:11).
If we preachers could truly believe this, perhaps we would be less in-dined to act like itinerate farm-workers in the Kingdom of God — stalking into town to “harvest a few souls,” and then moving on to greener fields. The one in which we now work is already green.
God grant that we might love our people, for love covers a multitude of sin — and might even melt a little apathy!
– Don M Aycock, Adapted from Apathy in the Pew: Ministering to the Uninvolved (Johnson City, Tenn.; The Institute of Social Sciences and Arts, 1983).

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