Doug Pagitt is pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, and one of the key influencers of the Emerging Church movement. His most recent book is Preaching Re-Imagined (Zondervan). He recently visited with Preaching editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: What is it about postmoderns that makes preaching to them such a particular challenge?
Pagitt: I think it’s that postmodern-minded people, at least with postmodern sensibilities, are looking for a different outcome in their Christianity than what most preaching seeks to provide, or what most preaching could provide. So it’s almost as if what preaching can do for a person is not the most highly valued outcome that people of postmodern sensibilities are looking for.
Preaching: Why is that?
Pagitt: I think what they’re looking for is an entire life that is well integrated. In some ways the sermon does just the opposite of that; it sort of highlights one component which puts an extreme amount of emphasis on the point that the pastor’s trying to make — which is what you do when you are making a presentation, one component. For postmodern people, they’re looking for integration in their lives. So you get a whole room full of people together you know, dozens or hundreds or thousands, who are looking for their own life to be fully integrated with their faith, so as not to be a level of distinction there, and the pastor can only speak so specifically.
Preaching is just a very difficult task because postmodern people tend to begin with their own experience and their own life and their own way of thinking as being quite important in the equation of who they are and who they’re becoming. So the role that a preacher has to play is to somehow bridge or to find commonality among those people. And the seeking of that commonality is something that can feel very generic to people with postmodern sensibilities. It feels and sounds like you’re making assumptions and generalizations and broad sweeping understandings and statements, rather than having it be a handcrafted “now this really affects my life” spirituality. So, it’s a difficult task.
And boy, what’s even more difficult, I think, is for people with postmodern sensibilities, for postmodern people, to be the preacher, especially week in and week out. Preaching isn’t such a problem every once in a while. People can hear a good sermon. They can find ways to have it make sense in their life and so on. It’s the regular rhythm of the preaching act that is really difficult for postmodern people to find of value.
Preaching: You talk about the hunger postmoderns have for integrating things into their lives — into their own sense of identity. To what extent is postmodern preaching rooted in the life of the listener versus rooted in biblical truth communicated to that listener?
Pagitt: I tried to argue in the Preaching Re-Imagined book that preaching is really something more than this speech-making act that we’ve all become accustomed to. Preaching is the delivering of the good news into a certain context where it’s taken and understood and functions as good news. So it’s the proclamation of good news inside of a certain context. And that’s rarely done, rarely accomplished, through a speech-making act where this speech is developed in isolation from the hearers.
If you look at New Testament/Old Testament preaching, it’s very contextual. It’s contextual to the experience, it’s contextual to the hearers, it’s contextual to the happenings, it’s contextual to the Old Testament. Even the prophetic preaching is, “Israel, this is where you are right now, this is who you are, this is what’s happening, this is God’s word unto you in this situation.” So I think this notion that what we do is preach the text is a really faulty notion from my vantage point. What preaching ought to be is preaching the good news, the kingdom of God, the kingdom of God alive in the world, the activity of God in people’s lives.
What we ought to be doing is preaching to people in situations, sort of like that little adage that teachers will say when someone asks the teacher, “What do you teach?” And they say, “Oh, I teach students.” You know, the answer isn’t, “I teach math.” And that shows a difference in our focus. Are you more worried about the subject matter or are you worried about teaching people? Good teachers always remember, “I teach people,” not “I teach a subject.”
It’s that same attitude around preaching. And I know that there are forms of preaching and a whole theology to preaching and traditions of preaching which come from a framework of the text enlivened through the preaching act becomes the word of God so on. But that’s not the avenue I come from and I think it’s a much more difficult thing, especially for postmodern people. I think we’ve seen this reality over the last hundred years — the lack of confidence and rising suspicion in the modern worldview. So it’s my perspective that what we are to do is preach so that the good news becomes enlivened in the lives of people. And I know that for those who say, “No, preaching is really a telling of the text,” that’s something different.
I’ve found myself in this way differing from a lot of my colleagues and friends in the same (Emergent) movement I’m a part of. They advocate pushing toward a narrative preaching approach and story and so on because that still sort of begins with the text or begins with a story and then just says, “I’m going to figure out a good way to tell this story and whoever happens to show up and hear it, it’s still the same truth proclaimed.” Well, preaching is more than just saying true things; it is saying true things to people. Very few of us would consider preaching to be something you could do in an empty hall or in a field by yourself. It’s just declaring things in the inter-relationality and the give and take of people with people.
Preaching: In Preaching Re-Imagined, you talk a lot about developing community. Do you see a difference between preaching to the lives of those individuals versus preaching to the community?
Pagitt: It strikes me a lot. I think part of the problem in preaching to a postmodern people — and maybe preaching over all — is that we have a much more difficult time seeing our churches as communities of people. What we have more is this collective of individuals having a common experience, or something like that. And so if we don’t have a sense of community identity, communal identity, then we are really stuck with sort of saying, “I just have to talk to each individual person’s life.”
I know one of the things we work hard on is a sense of us understanding where we are as a people and what situation and circumstance we find ourselves in and the degree to which postmodern people can find solidarity with others around the same particular issue. That is a place of real connections. This is why someone can go to a U2 concert and feel this connection and feel like we are a part of the same thing and really feel like the call to the One Campaign to stop world wide poverty, is something that rings true to them even though there are hundreds of thousands of people, tens of thousands who are hearing the same message, because they feel like we are a part of this together. So (we seek) the formation of communities that we preach in and preach from, because communities preaching within themselves and preaching to one other is an essential part, I think, of an on-going life that would involve preaching with postmodern people.
Preaching: In your book, you talk about a concept you call “progressional implicatory preaching.” Explain what that is and why it’s important.
Pagitt: What I’m trying to get at with this progressional implicatory dialogue is to say that what preaching ought to be is a dialogical process — not just two people exchanging ideas back and forth, but of the preacher communicating the good news into particular people’s experience. So it has to involve and matter who those people are. Dialogue is something that counts both parties as important. When someone’s having a dialogue by themself, that’s something other than a dialogue; dialogue involves more than one.
What I was getting at was our preaching ought to change depending on who’s there. When this really dawned on me as a recipient was when we were attending a church for a few years; I wasn’t working in church ministry at the time. We went to church and I really adored the pastor; he’s a great guy — a friend of mine still to this day — but on Sundays it would feel as if I was struck by a drive-by sermon. It didn’t matter if I was there or who else was there, this was the sermon — it was delivered at four different services, two different times of the day, morning and evening, and you know it’s the way it is. You showed up, you got what was delivered, and that’s that. It really wasn’t changed or affected by the particular people who were there.
So I try to suggest that on-going preaching, on-going use of proclamation of the good news, really ought to be more out of a dialogical pattern than out of a public speaking and mass communication pattern. And then a progressional dialogue means that the content of what’s being preached is actually formed and shaped in relationship to the people who are there, so that it moves somewhere. So not only is it thoughtful of the people who are there, but the preaching changes in light of the contribution of the people who are a part of it.
You’re trying to find a sustainable, long-term way of doing preaching for people. You know an awful lot of folks are really, highly committed to going to church. But boy, it makes a chore out of it when like a woman said to me the other night, “we’ve been going to this Methodist church for 8 years,” this particular church they go to. And she says, “We hear the same thing for all 8 years.” They are highly committed to being a part of the church and they’ll put up with the fact that nothing much changes and that it doesn’t much matter who’s there; they’re just hearing the same material over and over. So, the idea of it being progressional is that people’s lives change and circumstances change, and when they’ve changed then they actually have something to contribute to the preaching act. Then we’re implicated by the story, rather than asking the questions how does this apply to us.
So I don’t think what we say to people is, “Hey, let me figure out a way to tell you how your having cancer applies to your life.” No, when you’ve found someone who has cancer, they already know that this changes my whole life. Some things change, I am a part of this story. I don’t have to ask: what does it have to do with me? It just fundamentally has to do with you in the very fact it is what it is. And I think that good preaching, and preaching that’s done properly, really does implicate us and say to us, “Well, what do we do now?”
I get a little cynical sometimes, and I think that application-based preaching is just sort of value-added preaching. Like “Well, here’s another good thing to add to your life” and there will be two or three ways this could apply to you, you know, if you’re having issues with this in your life or if this happens to present itself. Rather than saying, “Look we’re these people and this is our story and this is what we’re in the midst of and this is what we’re called to, so what does this mean for us? That’s a different conclusion to draw. It’s a different set of hermeneutical questions to ask as well.
I was trained in asking the hermeneutical questions: what was the original context, who is my audience, and how can I connect my audience to this original context of meaning? It’s something different to suggest that we begin with saying: “If what’s true in this passage, this story, this reality, that we’re preaching, what does that do to us, what’s that mean for us, what are the implications of that?”
Preaching: That kind of preaching almost necessitates a pastor who spends a long time with a congregation as opposed to a short-term kind of a pastoral ministry.
Pagitt: In situations where it’s normative for the person to come in and out and basically function like a stranger in the lives of people — a familiar person, but very deep down not knowing these people who they are, what’s going on, where they’re going, understanding the common issues — I don’t know how someone would do it. And so I wonder if that’s one of the reasons why forms of preaching that allow for appropriate stranger-to-stranger communication is more common in preaching. It’s because most people’s experience is, “I am a stranger to these people, they’re a stranger to me; what am I supposed to do about that?”
I was talking with a couple of the folks at our church that are in seminary and we were talking about what pastors spend their time doing. A number of people at different seminaries all said — and I was surprised this was the case actually, in this day in age — they were still encouraged to consider spending half of their work week time, so 20 hours a week, in preparation for their sermon on Sunday. That’s just shocking to me. I mean if part of that preparation was being involved in the lives of these people for whom this message you’re going to deliver is so important, then boy, yeah, that would make all the sense in the world. But if it’s crafting the introduction of the text for the people or refining your understanding of the nuance of it, it just seems like we’re fed an equation that doesn’t make much sense to me.
I think that’s why postmodern people are so confused by churches. You know we end up being as pastors, these people who have this really deep knowledge of frankly pretty obscure things and we are telling this large group of strangers truths about this set of knowledge that we have that we’ve figured out why it’s important. And we do this week in and week out and week in and week out as if the work that we did a year ago, or two years ago, or five years ago, in these people’s lives did not prepare them to now be able to be the people who can figure out what the meaning is and what the implication and application of all this is.
It really struck me how people can go to church for twenty years and they still believe in and of themselves, “I wouldn’t really know how to exegete the passage. You know that’s what the pastor does.” Well, why has the pastor been doing that all of these years if the people haven’t picked up the ability to do it in two decades? It’s just such an odd equation. And I know a lot of this changes, people who’ve read my book and hear me talk like this say, “it’s really a different thing when you’re in small communities where pastors stay a long time and know their people.” But I think when you’re in situations like that where there is a real deep understanding between pastor and congregation that the preaching takes on a different function. It happens in a different way.
It’s a different kind of preaching. I think it’s told out of the common story of these people. It’s one of those things I think African-American churches had for a long time when there was a more common experience in the African-American community in the United States. I think that’s changing a lot now, but when there was a more common experience the pastor could preach into that common experience and proclaim the good news into that shared hope and shared struggle. People not having much of a shared hope or shared struggle now makes preaching a more difficult endeavor.
Preaching: There is a contrast in terms of the kind of church; there are different church models, different approaches. For example, in contrast to what you just said about preparation,. Ed Young Jr. says he spends the vast majority of his week getting ready for what he’s going to say at the weekend services. And this is not a traditional congregation; it’s overwhelmingly young adults, with the majority of those attending being young singles. So that’s a different context and a different approach.
Pagitt: In some ways, what young singles and postmodern types do is they take this church presentation as one of the menu resources in their lives. And “yeah, it’s good, I go to church and I get that contribution and that becomes one of the seven or eight equal contributions in my life that I will sort through as to making decisions in what I do and how I do it.” And you end up with a service provided by the church of a way of viewing the world. You know it would be like: how do we attend to watching a Dr. Phil show or something else. People don’t expect that Dr. Phil knows your issues; you hear him talk to somebody else and you think, “ah, there’s some advice I could get from that.” And that’s a pretty common response for young people.
Just because postmodern people value community doesn’t necessarily mean they are willing to work for it. There’s still a pretty strong sense of individualism and having to put together what’s referred to as a “designer religion” or “designer faith.” There are people who have very high capacities and high skill sets for going through these messages and pulling out ones that they want to give value to in their life. Music, television, movies, ads, friendships, sermons, they’re all part of the whole milieu of possibilities.
So that’s part of the struggle in situations like that when there are a lot of people like that and they’re strangers. When someone is in that kind of situation, their engagement at the church service level on Sunday kind of experience, worship service level, is to connect with these people as much as you could so that you build creditability and trust and that they will become a deeper part of that community. That’s not an uncommon way for people to progress and to preach. It’s a different style, the sermon plays a different role in situations like that than they do inside of a community of people who are committed to living life in a certain way.
Preaching: If someone was to attend your weekly gathering (at 5:00 pm Sunday) and worship with you at Solomon’s Porch, what would that be like? What would they experience?
Pagitt: There’s a few hundred of us, 200-300 people or so. That kind of scale. A lot of young people but not exclusively. We’re in the city of Minneapolis. We just recently moved into a vacant church building, so we remodeled the church building. We meet in the round and the format and design and the feel of the meeting space is like that of a home. The furniture is normal household furniture and it feels like a big great room or living room or something. And that is all really important because our Sunday experience is one of the ways that our community meets together.
There’s no place, no thing in our community that functions as the central or primary thing; our entire communal life is what matters to us and there are different ways that we meet or serve a different role in our formation. So, Sundays are a particular way of meeting and there are certain practices that we perform on Sundays.
One of those, when it comes to preaching, is that we try to engage in a collective conversation about who we are, where we are in the world and what God would have for us. The sermon is a part of that process. It’s a part of that conversation. Its role is the verbal articulation of our saying, “Who are we, where are we, and how do we interact with the larger story of our Christian life and our Christian faith?” So we almost always use the Bible as the primary, as one of our primary dialogue partners in this. And the way we look at it — that it’s not just dialogical between me, if I’m doing the sermon, as presenter and the congregation — but rather we as a community are in dialogue with the scriptures. We want the Bible to talk, and we want to talk. And we want to say: what does the reality of what we know to be God’s way of being in the scriptures, what does that mean for us in the way that we are to be, in the way that God is with us today.
We look and feel very normal, very warm, very family like, almost hospitable and intimate to an intimidating sense. Something we hear a lot from people is: “Man, it doesn’t seem Solomon’s Porch is a place you can just come for a while. It seems like to really get what you’re doing, you have to really get in and be part of it.” We know in some ways it’s a weakness for us, we hope it doesn’t make us exclusive, or exclusionary, to people. It’s what we’re doing. It’s what we have to do.
Preaching: You are part of the whole Emerging Church conversation going on. Obviously, that’s a long conversation on it’s own. But as you look at yourself and others that are shaping that conversation, how do you see the role of preaching as understood by those involved in the Emerging Church?
Pagitt: I think it depends on which tradition from the Emerging Church someone is coming from. Depending on their tradition, preaching and the sermon already play a certain role as a particular function. Some friends of mine that are from Anglican traditions, they already have a certain function and a certain role of a sermon. Friends from non-denominational or Baptist churches think differently. So they’re all changing it or playing with it in some way, wanting it to make sense for them in their context. And so it really depends on who they are and what the role of preaching has meant to them before.
Sometimes people come from a context where preaching was not a very big part — it was a seven minute homily following the church calendar — are using much more active conversation, teaching, Bible study and engagement in their communities and preaching in that way. Some who are used to a 30 minute presentation as the sermon are moving in ways closer to a 7 minute homily. People experiment with the other components of the church tradition that allow them to grow in their own preaching experience.
Preaching: So the tendency is to move toward whatever they weren’t doing before.
Pagitt: Yeah, well, the nice thing about Christianity is that it has such a broad and deep history with so many ways of practice that none of us have them all in our repertoire anyway. I don’t think it’s just, “hey, what did I do before, let me do something different.” I don’t think it’s just the counter balance to the balance. I think it is people saying, “There’s a depth to our tradition that my own personal history has only allowed me to pursue this part of it. I want to have a deeper sense of what tradition has to offer.”
Preaching: Tell me about your background. What tradition did you come out of?
Pagitt: I didn’t grow up going to church at all — church was not a part of our family at all — so my personal family history of church wasn’t anything. But when I got into Christianity I was discipled by evangelical parachurch groups, so they loved me and cared for me early on. I went to Bethel College in St. Paul and Bethel Seminary, so I did my training there. And I was a part of a megachurch in the southwest suburbs of Minneapolis for 10 years before working for Leadership Network and then starting Solomon’s Porch.
Preaching: As you look out 10 or 20 years from now, how do you see preaching changing?
Pagitt: I think churches are going to change. Churches are going to move in two directions — I think they will become increasingly large in general and I think they will become increasingly particular on the other hand. So I think that preaching will change and develop to fit those two modes of the church.
I think the thing that will be gone — and I don’t know if it’s twenty years or 100 — is the sense that there is a denominational value to a church, necessarily. I think that’s the part that’s going to change. Like, “Well, that’s just how Methodists do it or this is how Presbyterians do what we do.” I think that’s going to increasingly not have as much sway. I think that as churches become larger or more general they will have a certain kind of preaching and it will have to be refined and developed to fit that setting. And then churches have to become particular and contextual. And it doesn’t necessarily mean real small, but it probably means less than gigantic. The way the preaching happens there will also develop. I have a sense that in the context of the more particulars, it will become more dialogical, more interactive. Not just people sharing sort of half-thought-through ideas with each other, but truly informing one another on areas we have to be informed on.
Preaching: One thing I sense in the Emerging Church conversation is a great deal of interest in spirituality and spiritual formation. Does preaching play a role in that for you?
Pagitt: I do think we need to consider the role of preaching in comparison to the other approaches to spiritual formation. I think preaching is one of the really good forms of spiritual formation, but it is not the primary one and it’s not necessarily the most comprehensive. It’s just a particular kind of one of the particular practices we use to spiritually form us, but it’s not the exclusive one or the primary one. I think hospitality and service, that kind of thing, are all a part of it.