The process of fermentation in wine-making is a helpful image in understanding what is happening in church and culture in the United States at the turn of the millennia. Ripe, succulent grapes are picked from the vine. They are crushed. The juice is put into a cask where it ferments. The grape juice changes into wine. Fermentation is a process through which the chemical patterns that constituted grape juice break down, and are transformed into patterns that make wine.
The late twentieth century is a time of ferment for the long established churches, and for the larger culture, in the United States. Many former patterns of value, thought, relationship and feeling are breaking up. New ones are emerging.
In this article, we explore preaching in a culture in ferment. We first identify several of the leading characteristics of the current cultural and ecclesial ferment. The article then probes the purposes of preaching in such a situation. The article concludes by identifying resources in the ferment that can help the congregation be receptive to the gospel.
Characteristics of a Culture in Ferment
In fermentation, some factors are in ascent, others in decline, while still others are in both ascent and decline. In a culture in ferment, many elements are in the process of reexamination and rapid change. Some people view the changes taking place as positive developments; others view the new developments as threats, while still others are confused. Some people cheer. Some people lament. Some people are lost in a forest of question marks. Some people appear to be moving through the ferment without much thought; they are content as long as they have their beer, pretzels, and Monday Night Football. Without trying to catalogue all the trends in the current situation, we now mention some prominent examples that characterize the ferment.
One of the most obvious factors is communication technology. With blinding speed, the United States (along with the developed nations of the world, especially in Europe and the Pacific Rim) are on their way to burying the final remnants of the “Industrial Revolution” in their headlong embrace of the “Information Age.” The speed of advancing technology is suggested in a recent television news story that showed a person making a call on the car phone, and using voice-activated mail to retrieve messages.
Three years ago, the Internet was barely a topic of conversation. Since then, its development has been so swift that some users are now tying their modems into co-axial television cables instead of telephone lines for quicker relay of information. It is said that the power of this technology is such that a typical personal computer contains more capability than the computers that landed the first people on the moon and more than enough capacity to run the governments of many medium size countries.
The information revolution has direct relevance for the church. The advent of the personal computer makes some administrative tasks easier, such as preparing the weekly newsletter or tracking the budget or members’ participation in church programs. Technologically skilled people expect the church to make creative use of the emerging communication media. “Of course, our denomination has a Home Page.”
The information revolution is also fueling a change of consciousness. As younger generations take for granted a kind of technology unheard of among older generations, these young adults are making certain assumptions about the Christian community. They assume that the church ought to be open to rapid change, technological and otherwise. Further, with the world at their fingertips, thanks to remote control for television, Pentium processors, and the World Wide Web, they will demand immediacy and directness in their spirituality. If I can get today’s weather report in Zambia with the click of the mouse, I ought also to be able to get God’s view on urgent issues with speed and clarity. As the high-tech, fast-food mentality spreads across North America, more people expect their spirituality to be quickly accessible and digestible.
The future will place greater emphasis upon the pastor’s ready access to, and grasp of “spiritual information” as a basis for pastoral authority. People who are touched by the information revolution are more concerned with the church’s “software” than its “hardware.” They want to know whether the pastor and the congregation can lead them to know God (the software, the operating program, of Christian life) or whether the pastor and the congregation are more interested in budgets and buildings and other institutional matters (the hardware of the Christian community).
The church’s hardware will be viewed as relevant only as it assists people in coming to a knowledge of God and in forming a significant spiritual interpretation of life. As persons live an increasing portion of their lives on the information highway, it is incumbent that preachers and congregations learn to find the “On-Ramp.”
Sociological and political ferment is seething today. The break-up of the old Soviet Union, along with the disbanding of the Yugoslav Republic and the resulting Balkan War provides an image, and suggests the nature, of this ferment. In the United States, this ferment is experienced in “One-Issue Politics.” James Davison Hunter describes it vividly as “culture wars.”1
The culture wars are being waged in several theaters. Since the 1950s, race has been a source of cultural conflict. In the late 1960s, women’s issues were added to the field. In today’s setting, some of the obvious culture wars are taking place over abortion, homosexuality, political correctness, and the place of religion in public life. More subtle are ongoing skirmishes among the generations. The GIs from World War II, the Boomers, and the Generation X-ers, have different values and lifestyles that sometimes come into conflict. Generational issues will be increasingly important as major changes in funding and spending for Social Security and Medicare become necessary.
The heat of sociological and political ferment is turned up as the various factions draw lines in the sand. Indeed, some of the adversaries draw lines in concrete. The recent series of shutdowns of the federal government and the threat of default on government bonds represents the depth of polarization (including in the religious community) in our culture.
Intolerance is the order of the day in many sectors. Name calling, character assassination, caricature, and ad hominem arguments have made real dialogue on substantial issues very difficult. Rampant individualism combined with narrow, self-interested agendas make it difficult to exert positive, community-wide leadership in this society. The United States of America sometimes seems to be becoming the Divided States of America.
This bubble in the ferment is complicated in the church by biblical and theological illiteracy. Many congregants, some of whom are lifelong worshippers, are so heavily influenced by prevailing cultural trends, and so unreflective about Christian faith, that they cannot discern a relationship between spirituality and cultural issues. For instance, the preacher may bring up the topic of hunger and cast it in terms of Jesus’ comment, “As you did it to the least of these, you did it to me.” But instead of discerning the message as a spiritual imperative, indolent parishioners may decide the preacher is doing nothing more than meddling in politics.
Ferment in the household is also at work today. With increased attention being given to “family values,” the very definition of the family is now in question. This network of issues gained nationwide notoriety with former Vice-President Dan Quayle’s remark against television character Murphy Brown for giving birth out of wedlock.
Changes occurring in the family in the United States are startling. According to the Bureau of the Census, from 1973 to 1990, the number of single parent households increased (in thousands) from 4,994 to 9,093, or 82.1 percent. Over the same period, the number of married couples with children decreased (in thousands) from 25,983 to 25,410, or -2.2 percent. Fifty years ago, the only single-parent households were customarily those in which the father had died suddenly or been killed in World War II or in which the mother had died in childbirth. Today, the single parent household is most often the result of separation or divorce. Some single parent households result from women who choose to give birth but who never marry.
The number of households is dramatically growing that contain only one member, who has made a conscientious decision to remain single. While many “Ozzie and Harriet” households will be part of most congregations for the foreseeable future, they will make up an increasingly smaller portion of the membership pie. On one hand, people experience increasing freedom in their modes of relationships. On the other hand, differing households can contribute to the tensions in a congregation.
Economic ferment is also significant, especially for the middle class who make up the majority of persons in the long established Protestant and Roman Catholic congregations. In his books The Boiling Point2 and Arrogant Capital,3 political commentator Kevin Phillips notes that the United States is well down the track taken by once great, but now fallen, middle class societies: sixteenth century Hapsburg Spain, the seventeenth century Netherlands, and nineteenth century England. Each of these societies was marked by heavy financial speculation in the markets, and by massive reduction of heavy manufacturing.
The latter is also noted by M.I.T. economist Lester Thurow in his criticism of the direction of this country’s economy away from manufacturing and toward service.4 Peter Peterson, former Secretary of Commerce under President Nixon, draws similar conclusions about a diminished economic future for the nation in his work Facing Up.5
The church, too, is in ferment. The long-established churches are declining in institutional strength as measured by traditional statistical indicators. These factors have been so well, and so often, documented elsewhere that we need only call them to mind now.6 Compared to twenty-five years ago, membership is smaller. Our own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has shrunk from a participating membership of 1.1 million to 600,000. Attendance is down. The number of people on staff at the upper and middle judicatory levels is decreasing. The membership is aging, and the influx of young members is small.
Deficit budgets are also becoming common in congregations. Economic ferment is a prime cause. The Boomers and the Gen-Xers, who are being called upon to support the church as the GIs age, do not have the kind of available capital (or the willingness to share it) as their immediate forerunners. Further, financial resources are not keeping apace with inflation.
Statistical indicators of newer Christian bodies are often better. Their membership roles and financial muscle are often on the increase. However, they typically are not growing as fast as the population at large. Hence, they too, participate in the phenomenon of disestablishment: the churches no longer enjoy favored status in society and they have less influence in public life.
Indeed, a very important factor in the ferment for the church is a general loss of respect for authority in the late twentieth century, and the diminution of the authority of religious communities in particular. Only a generation ago, people spoke casually of the United States as a “Christian nation.” Now the church competes in the marketplace of human loyalty with other religious bodies ranging from the Mosque to New Age groups. Indeed, on surveys of religious affiliation, the fastest growing category is “None.” Since 1960, the persons who claim no religious affiliation has increased by 350 percent.
New forms of worship, mission, education, and group life are emerging in congregations. Lofty cathedral-like worship spaces with stained glass windows and pipe organs are giving way to informal auditoriums, soft rock music, and screens for video presentations. Boomers and Generation X-ers are not very willing to commit to labor-intensive, task-oriented committee structures, but are more eager to be part of groups whose task is relationships.
An increase in various kinds of religious, ethnic, and racial diversity is also a part of the ferment. Only two generations ago, social patterns were sufficiently segregated in the United States that Euro-Americans could imagine that the mainstream of culture in the United States was defined by Euro-American people and practices. But now, people of all communities are increasingly conscious of one another as they move into common neighborhoods and inhabit common work and marketplaces. This phenomenon raises, for all communities, the questions of whether some cultural styles are “better” than others and of whether we can learn to live together. Everyday diversity also means the loss of a singular, univocal set of cultural norms. The ferment is yielding a pluralistic society which is incredibly rich but whose diversity sometimes makes it difficult for people and communities to know how best to relate with one another.
Preaching Makes Sense of the Ferment in the Light of the Gospel
The preacher is called to make sense of the ferment in the light of the gospel. The gospel is the di-polar news of God’s unconditional love for each and every created entity, and God’s call for justice for each and every created entity.7 In the Bible, and in the best of Christian theology, justice is more than a legal notion which refers to people getting what they deserve. Justice is relational. It refers to the human and natural realms living together in the way that God intends, i.e. in relationships of love, mutuality, encouragement, support. The church is to witness to the gospel and its implications for the larger culture. God (and the preacher) hope for the emerging world to be shaped by the gospel.
The present cultural ferment releases bubbles, some of which drift toward the shaped by the gospel.
The present cultural ferment releases bubbles, some of which drift toward the gospel, and others of which drift away from the gospel. In a time of ferment, the preacher is set apart to help the congregation identify the degree to which emerging ideas, relationships, phenomena, and possibilities seem to be consistent with (or not to be consistent with) the gospel. The preacher attempts to discover points at which the fermentation points toward a gospel-shaped world, and points at which the fermentation subverts the emergence of such a world.
The preacher aims to encourage the congregation to recognize, to join (or to initiate) movements that appear to promise a world that is shaped by the gospel. For example, the ferment in the household helps us realize that single people and people who choose not to have children can have fulfilling lives. The preacher might help the congregation realize that its idealization of “Ozzie and Harriet” in the past has caused many single and childless people to feel devalued in the Christian community. The ferment can help the church rectify this pattern.
The preacher aims to discourage the congregation from embracing those orientations that seem to run against the grain of the gospel. For instance, a public discussion that takes the form of name calling and character assassination is unjust. The preacher needs to help the congregation understand the qualities of respect and genuine dialogue that should be manifest in a public discussion. At the same time, the preacher gauges the degree to which the fermentation may suggest that the church needs to reshape some aspects of its understanding of the gospel or its implications for the world.
Few emerging realities are “pure” in their manifestation of the gospel. That is why we say the preacher is called to help the congregation identify the degree to which ideas, phenomena, or possibilities are consistent with (or are not consistent with) the gospel. Even thoughts and events that are generally consistent with the gospel sometimes contain elements that are not. Preachers need to help the congregation sift through notions and developments to name points of friendliness and unfriendliness toward the gospel.
Furthermore, preachers (and congregations) sometimes need to acknowledge elements of tentativeness or relativity in our judgments. We are finite. Our perceptions are limited. Indeed, recent philosophy emphasizes that each moment of perception is inherently an act of interpretation. Members of the Christian community sometimes disagree on Christian interpretation of an aspect of the ferment. For example, dynamic changes occurring today in biogenetic engineering are hailed by some in the medical and agribusiness communities as a godsend. But others view this development as drawing the world closer to Huxley’s frightening vision of a Brave New World.8
In a time of ferment, when so many things are changing, the data of change can be interpreted in different ways. Preachers need to help the congregation identify various interpretive options and assess the various strengths and weaknesses of each. Along the way, our awarenesses can change in the light of fresh insight. A person may believe something has a gospel character only to discover that it doesn’t. A person may dismiss the possibility that something moves in the groove of the gospel when in actuality it does.
Looking at bottles on a shelf, it is sometimes difficult to tell which is grape juice, which is wine, which is vinegar. Preachers need to lead the congregation in a process of spiritual discernment in which the community identifies the different interpretive options and assesses the various strengths and weaknesses of each. To change the metaphor, preachers hope that the congregation will ride lightly in the theological saddle, affirming clear commitments even while being self-critical and open to new perspectives and insights. Hence, preachers and congregations ought to approach the interpretive task with a generous dollop of humility.
Preaching Helps the Congregation Cope, Convert, and Create
In a culture in ferment, preaching is particularly able to fulfill its calling in three ways: helping the congregation cope, convert, and create. First, the preacher needs to help the congregation cope with the anxieties, pressures, and uncertainties within the ferment. People need be able to get along from day to day. In order to make an optimum witness in a world of ferment, the church needs to be able to make its way through the culture without being distracted (or even paralyzed by) confusion, anxiety, fear, powerlessness, or anger, and without selling out to hopes, possibilities, and dreams that are less than God’s highest hopes for the world. As someone says, the good is often the enemy of the best. People, both individually and as a community, need to be able to operate out of a basic sense of confidence in God.
The pastor can begin to help Christians cope with a world in transition by helping them name their feelings, and to gain a critical perspective on their emotions, thoughts, and actions. Responses to ferment may span a spectrum from anticipation, optimism, even giddiness, to nervousness, anxiety, dread, paralysis of thought or action. When the dynamics of the community are named, people can deal with them.
In a time of uncertain ferment, a pastor and congregation may be tempted to engage in name-calling (in distinction from naming). Christians need to resist this temptation. Name-calling creates a situation in which the community oversimplifies, and even caricatures, the other. Preacher and people no longer relate to the other in its complexity. They shut-out the possibilities that conversation with the other might result in life-enhancing opportunities.
The pastor can help the community frame its emotions, ideas, and actions in response to ferment in terms of God’s promise and God’s command. In the mode of coping, we suspect that the preacher will emphasize the unconditional and unremitting nature of God’s love. In the midst of rapid (and sometimes unpredictable) change, people need to have a sense of the trustworthiness of God. The preacher can help the community understand the nature of God’s trustworthiness as well as of God’s relationship to ferment. The service of worship and the sermon can become a sanctuary wherein the congregation gains the important sense that God is with them in the ferment. Consequently, they are not alone. They go forward, from moment to moment, in the companionship of the One who is ultimately faithful.
An emphasis on coping alone can leave the congregation compromised with the culture, and impotent to make a significant contribution to the ferment. Second, the preacher may call the people to conversion with respect to their attitudes or behavior in the ferment. The gospel is more than a mechanism for helping people cope with ferment. The gospel calls for a world that mediates gospel values in all relationships and situations. Conversion is an essential act in that transformation. Conversion begins with repentance: the act of turning away from loyalties and worlds that subvert God’s justice, and turning toward patterns of thinking, acting, and feeling that manifest the gospel to a greater degree. People typically have the strength to make the decision to turn from one pattern of loyalty to another when they feel the presence of the Everlasting Arms.
For example, as we noted above, developments in high speed communications technology have led many people to expect high-speed spirituality. However, our relationships with God and one another involve the deepest movements of the heart. They often call for our most rigorous thinking, and acts of the will that draw upon more courage than we think we have. Such matters cannot be rushed. They often need time to develop. Hence, the preacher might bid people to turn away from a high-tech model of spirituality to one that is more patient.
To take other examples, many people today need to turn away from tribal attachment. They view the church as such a tribal enclave that it is irrelevant to the culture. Some people and communities respond to change without recognizing God’s love for all and God’s call for justice for all. They usurp more than their fair share of the good things that bubble up in the ferment; they foist upon others more than the others’ share of the negative stuff that result from the fermentation. They exploit, oppress, ignore or otherwise abuse others. Sometimes, they do so without being aware that other people are hurt by their attitudes or actions.
Some people make functional idols out of parts of the ferment or its process. They act as if a penultimate aspect of change is ultimate. We know a few people who are so excited about the positive qualities of emerging trends in the ferment that they collapse the church and the culture. For instance, some see only positive values in the new pluralism, and do not confront the difficulties posed by pluralism.
When preaching for conversion, the preacher needs to help the congregation identify, in specific terms, those things of which they need to repent. Toward this end, the congregation may need to understand why repentance is important. The preacher needs to help the congregation envision specific acts of repentance. What do we need to do to repent of this particular sin? The preacher needs to help the congregation become cognizant of God’s presence as a source of strength and direction in the process of repentance.
Third, the preacher will invite people to join God in creating a gospel-shaped future. As we noted at the beginning of this article, the long-established churches are currently in a period of institutional decline: membership is diminishing; human and financial resources are dwindling; the church is no longer recognized in the culture in the way it once was; morale among church leaders is sometimes low. In such a milieu, it is easy for pastors and others to wax nostalgically about the 1950s, or other “golden” eras of ecclesial life. Indeed, some of the rhetoric and remedies to the church’s institutional rejuvenation seem more directed to recover what was lost than to generating a fresh and vital future. Of course, it is fitting to honor a significant past and to lament its loss.
However, it is not appropriate for the church to seek to recreate the past. The Christian faith is ultimately eschatological. Christians look to the future for the consummation of God’s promises. We remember the past and its traditions because they contain clues that disclose God’s character, purposes, and trustworthiness. But the Christian community which longs for the past exchanges its birthright for a pot of lentil stew. Preachers need to help congregations look toward the present and future as realms of God’s enlivening presence.
Furthermore, the 1950s were not a normal period in the institutional health of the church. During that decade, as a part of the general climate that mixed relief that World War II had ended with remarkable technological progress and increase in population, the church enjoyed institutional expansion and prosperity otherwise unmatched in North American history. Without casting aspersion upon the life of the Christian community in the 1950s, the pastor can help the community recognize that God is at work in fresh ways in these times of fermentation.
In addition, the generations have different concerns to which the organization and program of the church can respond without compromise of gospel witness. The GI generation seeks to build and maintain institutions. Many congregations are premised on this model. But the Boomers and the Generation X-ers are much less interested in institutions per se and are much more attracted to communities that emphasize interpersonal relationships and practical opportunities for growth and witness. The writers of this article are Boomers. Our parents were builders. They found meaning in the hardware of Christianity. Boomers and Gen X-ers tend to be less interested in the hardware and more interested in the software, i.e. in questions of meaning and in relationships. For our parents, the buildings and the budgets sometimes functionally seemed to be ends, whereas to the rising generations, buildings and budgets are clearly means to the ends of spiritual and relational growth. Many Builders measured the success of the church in statistical terms. Many Boomers and Generation X-ers think of success in the church in spiritual terms. Preachers can help the older generation learn why it is important to adapt the organization of the congregation, and how to do so.
Toward the end of helping the congregation joining God in creating a new future, the preacher may encourage people to support movements already at work in the culture that portend love and justice among all. For instance, many aspects of “political correctness” are correct, from a Christian point of view, not because they are politically expedient, but because they attempt to actualize universal love and universal justice in personal and social settings. To be sure, not all aspects of “political correctness” are consistent with the gospel. Political correctness can become a parody of itself. Some people who institute practices associated with political correctness are insensitive. The fact is that Christians must strain the juice from the skins in connection with every possibility.
The preacher may also identify points at which the church itself can initiate new ways of thinking or acting. For example, many cities have practically no thoughtful conversation about issues facing the community. Political campaigns are reduced to sound-bites, slogans, spin-doctoring. The church might provide a space and a format for political figures and other thoughtful community leaders to come together for genuine conversation about substantial issues.
Preachers decide whether a single sermon, or a season of homiletical emphasis, should stress coping, converting, or creating (or some combination thereof) in the light of pastoral theological analysis of the local congregation and its needs.
Cultural Ferment as Resource for the Preacher
Cultural ferment can be a resource for the preacher. Cultural change creates a climate in the community that can help the congregation be receptive to the sermon. The ferment can open points of entry for the congregation to give the gospel a hearing.
The uncertainties and fears created by the ferment can awaken a thirst in the community to discover foundations upon which to rely. The ferment raises questions that cry for answers. It offers answers that, themselves, raise questions. People want to know, “What can we count on in the future?” The pastor can correlate the gospel with such primary human longings.
The time of ferment is producing a widespread interest in spiritual matters. People look for transcendent guidance in a variety of forms ranging from traditional Christianity to other world religions to new age movements with their crystals and the Psychic Friends Network. The Christian preacher may be tempted to write off Psychic Friends as utterly bizarre. However, pastors may be well served by recognizing that people turn to such expressions out of authentic religious longing. A creative preacher can build bridges from the longings that are represented by people consulting tarot cards to guide them instead of the gospel.
The congregation’s awareness of change in the culture often helps people develop an attitude of openness to new possibilities for the church and for the larger community. The fact that cultural forms and norms are evolving encourages some in the congregation to imagine fresh possibilities for life and witness. The preacher can often bring the expectation of change into dialogue with the gospel. What are the changes required by the gospel? In this respect, the preacher can evoke a value that is built into the fabric of our culture: since its inception, the United States has been characterized by the quest to improve the quality of life. The fact that this quest has sometimes run amok does not take away from the fact that many people who live in this culture have an intuitive sense that they are supposed to be in favor of change that promises to enhance existence. The preacher needs to articulate a gospel-based vision as a lure into the future.
In a time of ferment, people may be more willing to recognize that past ways of thinking, feeling, and action had problems that we have not fully faced. Indeed, in some cases, the preacher may need to help the congregation admit that old ways have become idols that actually obscure the purposes of God from the present generation. Furthermore, in this period of cultural remodeling, many people may realize that older patterns are not equipped to work in the new setting. The preacher can help the people evaluate why some older patterns are adequate and why some newer patterns offer positive possibilities.
The culture wars and other forms of social and political conflict in our time push people to face fundamental human questions. Who am I? What do I truly believe? What should I do with my life? What can I understand as truth? Such questions point to a gap in self-understanding into which the gospel may enter. The preacher who can approach such matters with insight and patience often finds people who are willing to think afresh about their values and practices. Indeed, they are willing to entertain upgraded notions of what is true.
A word of pastoral orientation: The preacher should not assume that ideologues are beyond the possibility of interacting with the gospel, and being touched by it. In the ferment, fearful folk sometimes blindly commit themselves to extreme positions in order to hide from their fears. They do not make a critical analysis of positions, weighing the strengths and weaknesses of each. To avoid the pain of fear, they adopt the first position that comes to their attention that appears to promise maximum relief.
Deep down, such people are not as committed to their ideology as they say are, and as their actions may communicate. The preacher who attacks these people as enemies only reinforces their fears of the hostile culture and drives them deeper into their bunker. The preacher who is able to speak to their uncertainties with sensitivity and understanding may find that ideology can give way to questioning, change, and growth.
In similar vein, the tensions around controversial issues form an environment within which many congregations are eager to hear a preacher’s word on the subject. While some have thought deeply about such matters, most people are not well informed and have not made a thorough evaluation of the issues and data. They are ready for a thoughtful discussion.
The preacher who is able to enter into such a conversation in a fair and balanced way will frequently be able to take advantage of the interest created by the subject matter as a way to help the community encounter the gospel. On the other hand, the preacher who avoids facing fully these issues can leave the impression that the best Christian reflection is the same as what the congregation hears at the barber shop, the beauty salon, and on the editorial page of the local newspaper.
The high-speed information technology can help the pastor. Preachers can take advantage of remarkable helps for interpreting the Bible and preparing the sermon that can be loaded onto the office computer. Internet-based interpretive aids are nascent, but are expanding so that a modem will soon put the preacher in touch, almost instantaneously, with access to the best in Biblical, theological, and homiletical reflection. Video resources now make it possible for the preacher in the most isolated county in western Wyoming to have a visit in the study from a leading authority on preaching by means of a VCR. Sunday’s service and sermon can be video-taped and carried to the sick and shut-in. The sermon can be distributed to members who are not able to be in worship on Sunday by means of the Internet.
The decline in the church may help the church recover a more fundamental sense of Christian identity. For most of this century, the Euro-American church has been in a cozy alliance with the dominant culture. While this has often been institutionally comfortable and has given the church inroads into several leading power centers of our culture, the church has compromised itself and become institutionally pre-occupied. Indeed, some in the church have functionally worshipped cultural idols such as statistical success, or attracting socially prominent members into the congregation. The ferment in the church may prompt Christians to reconsider the nature and purpose of the church, especially the relationship of the church to the larger society. Indeed, this reflection may lead the church to repent of its cultural idolatries, and to sharpen its sense of identity, mission, and vitality. A regenerated Christian community could result.
Earlier, we lamented the growing biblical and theological illiteracy of the church. However, this void is itself an opportunity. The preacher can help many in the congregation learn the fundamental stories and notions of the Bible, and Christian theology and tradition. The pastor who preaches with imagination, clarity, and passion will find that many listeners (especially in the younger generations) are eager to explore the Christian house. For them, every Sunday and every sermon is a time for discovering and exploring a new room in the house. Such exploration will help them discover that the church is not a haunted house but a holy house.
Ministers who understand the general ferment as a resource for (and not just as an obstacle to) preaching may find a higher degree of “job satisfaction” than some recent generations of clergy, who have a high incidence of burnout and job frustration. As we noted above, the rising generations in the culture are more interested in the “software of the church” (the gospel message and its significance for life) than with the “hardware of the church” (traditional institutional concerns).
Most of the pastors whom we have known over the past 25 years have weeped, and wailed, and gnashed their teeth because they have felt compelled to give a disproportionately large amount of time to administrative tasks and a relatively small amount of time to actual preaching, teaching, and spiritual guidance. Ironically, they went into the ministry to help people with spiritual discernment and ended up managing budgets and recruiting youth group sponsors. The ferment is helping bring about a body of people who are more interested in matters of meaning and faith, and are less invested in traditional institutional preoccupation.
At the same time, the discoveries, the positive new developments, and the exhilarations of the ferment prompt such a sense of wonder and awe within some people that they want to have those feelings explained within a framework of meaning that is larger than human ingenuity. They are open to the preacher’s suggestion of the presence in the universe of a power and benevolence greater than themselves. Along this line, Fred Craddock tells the story of a mother holding her newborn for the first time. The child has all its fingers and toes. It is in the pink of health. As it lies warmly in her arms, her eyes well with tears and she says, “You’ve got to have somebody to thank.”
One of the results of the current ferment is to bring different kinds of people into everyday encounters with one another both in the flesh and through communications technology: different races, the different ethnicities, different religions (including some religions that seem very strange to traditional Euro-American folk), different value systems, different lifestyles. This heightened frequency of contact leads to the awareness that all human beings are connected to one another.
To be sure, the ferment is marked by culture wars, tribalism, and other forms of separation. But the fact is that we are increasingly aware of our proximity to one another. And the divisions in the human family cast another specter into sharp relief: we must learn how to live with one another if we are to survive as a church, a nation, a world. The human community is divided as to the best strategy for doing so. Some want a homogeneous world in which all people are pretty much the same. Others want a world that allows for different communities to be respected in their distinctiveness. Regardless of strategy, however, many people today have a common desire to find a sustainable future. The preacher can associate this desire with the Bible and Christian vision.
The ferment involves heightening our awareness of the environment and ecology. The industrial revolution brought unreflective exploitation of the earth and its resources. Many people long for a perspective on the earth that integrates the intrinsic beauties of the earth with the need for the human community to be supported by the earth. In fact, a growing number of people sense a spiritual dimension in the natural world itself. The preacher can help such people understand nature as a medium through whom the divine is known. The preacher can also call attention to the Christian conviction, with its deep biblical and theological roots, that the human and natural worlds optimally live in mutual support.
Ironically, the ferment can increase people’s interest in history and tradition. Through much of its history, the United States has emphasized the new and innovative to the relative neglect of the past and tradition. However, a lot of people today are discovering and rediscovering the value of tradition. How dition that has a demonstrated power through time and space to help communities make their way through times of profound change and anxiety. The culture’s interest in rediscovering tradition and the Bible and church’s history provide the preacher with natural points of connection between the congregation and the gospel.
The reflective preacher will undoubtedly find that each congregation contains a plurality of viewpoints on the major issues that are raised by the ferment. In order to receive a judicious hearing from persons on different sides of an issue, the preacher needs to represent each viewpoint in a careful, accurate way. The preacher also needs to remember that few viewpoints or practices are beyond challenge; the congregation will often correlate the believability of the preacher’s testimony with the degree to which the preacher recognizes the complexity of issues. Preachers who are themselves ideologues or who romanticize or otherwise caricature the ferment can expect significant numbers of people to hesitate to affirm their sermons. Insofar as possible, the preacher is an ambassador of reconciliation.
The diversity within the congregation offers yet another good fortune to the preacher. The richness of variety in community invites preachers to draw from their deepest and most imaginative wells of creativity in order to prepare sermons that can be received in an optimum way by persons of different orientations in the congregation.9 Preaching in the ferment ought never be dull. Indeed, the preaching of the gospel can help turn water into wine.
Aspects of the ferment in the culture and church in the United States are tremendously unsettling, even fearful. But the ferment creates remarkable opportunities for the gospel to receive a fresh hearing. Indeed, church historians note that the faith of the Christian community is often strongest and most vital in times of difficulty. Preachers today are called to make use of the ferment as a time to witness to the gospel of the living God. By so doing, pastors help their congregations make their way through change, and encourage the ferment itself to bubble in the direction of the gospel.
1. James Davison Hunter, Culture-Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law and Politics in America (New York: Basic Books, 1992).
2Kevin Phillips, The Boiling Point: Republicans, Democrats and the Decline of Middle Class Prosperity (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1994).
3Kevin Phillips, Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street and the Frustrations of America (New York: Little, Brown and Co., 1994).
4Lester Thurow, Head to Head: The Coming Economic Battle Among Japan, Europe, and America (New York: Warner Books, 1993).
5Peter Peterson, Facing Up (New York: Touchstone Books, 1994).
6For example, see Wade Clark Roof and William McKinney, American Mainline Religion (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1987); Robert Wuthnow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988). For an examination of ferment in a particular denomination, see A Case Study of Mainstream Protestantism, edited by D. Newell Williams (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., and St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1991).
7On this notion of the gospel see Clark M. Williamson and Ronald J. Allen, A Credible and Timely Word (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 1991), pp. 71-90, idem., The Teaching Minister (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1991), pp. 65-84.
8Aldous Huxley, Brave New World (San Francisco: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989).
9For practical strategies for doing so, see Ronald J. Allen, The Teaching Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), pp. 39-85; idem., Preaching the Topical Sermon (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992), pp. 95-113; Ronald J. Allen and William E. Dorman, “Preaching on Emotionally Charged Issues,” Ministry, vol. 1, no. 1 (1992), pp. 41-56.

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