William Willimon, Dean of the Chapel at Duke University, is one of the most prolific authors in American Christianity, and his books consistently offer insights worth hearing. He is also a gifted and challenging preacher who is widely-sought for conferences and programs throughout the United States. One of the original Contributing Editors of Preaching, he was recently interviewed by editor Michael Duduit.
Preaching: In your book, Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized, you talk about the distinctiveness of the preaching task within the Christian community. Describe what you mean by “preaching to the baptized” and what it is that makes this a unique form of discourse.
Willimon: The book sort of begins after a throw-away remark by Walter Brueggeman that a lot of preaching he heard was not addressed to anybody specifically — least of all to the baptized — and that hit a chord with me. I’m afraid that a lot of preaching that I was trained to preach had as a kind of underlying assumption that good communication is addressed to nine out of ten average Americans — that the best ideas are those that have the most universally general applicability. This is the sermon that starts out, “Have you ever been depressed? Have you ever felt down?” The response is, everybody’s felt like that. “OK, great. Then surprise — the Bible has something about that and now I’m going to apply that to the general human situation.”
Well, there are some assumptions behind that. One is that there is something called a general human situation. That is really being challenged now by feminists and others who’ve answered, when somebody says “this is human nature” or “this is the human condition,” that you’re hearing a testimony of a people who just happen to be on top and in charge and think that everybody else has got to think like they do because they’re on top.
Also, it is not fair to what I call the rather arrogant, imperalistic claims of the Bible. I don’t know what the human condition is until the Bible tells me. I mean, why would depression be an interesting thing to worry about? The fact that nine out of ten Americans feel depressed may or may not be interesting but where did we even get the word depression? Who told us it was bad to be depressed?
The book is called Peculiar Speech and I’m interested in how the Bible engenders a kind of peculiar way of talking about the world. More than that, the book is addressed to people who’ve been baptized. That is, people who have signed on board to live their lives on the basis of these stories — on the basis of this weird account of the way the world is put together. That makes a difference.
Preaching: One of the things preachers increasingly are told is to speak language that people can understand — don’t use the in-house lingo or the terminology that only a small elite will understand. You seem to be speaking counter to that — saying that there are some things that you have to be a part of the group to understand, and it’s appropriate to use such language.
Willimon: I’m not defending non-biblical ways of talking; most people don’t know what words like redemption, atonement, and sanctification mean. But, of course, Jesus never used any of those words, either. So He is a model, but I think we contemporary Christian communicators have not given the Gospel credit for how odd it is and how little everyday words that everybody thinks they already understand — words like the poor, child, Caesar, the world — we don’t really know what these words are until the Gospel tells us, because the Gospel has some very peculiar things to say about these words.
In the Gospel, for instance, there is this constant struggle going on to reinterpret words. When they say, “Hey, you’re the Messiah,” Jesus said, “Yeah, and I’m getting ready to go suffer and die.” And they say, “Wait, if the first point is true, that you’re the Messiah, what the heck are you doing suffering and dying?” Well, Jesus is already assaulting their notions of Messiahship and this happens all the time.
Or when Jesus says, “Hey, blessed are the poor.” Well, if we don’t do a double-take on that one we’ve just become incredibly dull. I think it’s meant to say some weird things about being poor. I think it’s meant to say some weird things about the kingdom. I guess I wanted to say there are real limits to talking so you can be understood and I’m really bothered — we preachers should be bothered — if people come out every Sunday, everybody comes out and says, “Oh, thank you for making it so understandable.”
It’s like a student once said to me, “The trouble with you preachers is you’re always making things seem complicated.” And I said, “Really?” He said, “Yeah, we ask you a simple question and get back this long-tortured answer. “I said, “Well, if that’s true, I’m probably being more of a professor than a preacher.” And I added, “The nice thing is the Gospel is very, very simple.” He said, “Like what?” I said, “Like, go sell everything you’ve got, give it to the poor — then you’ll have it. What could be more simple?” That’s just the simplest thing in the world to understand. Which reminds me that the Gospel is not an intellectual dilemma as much as it is a discipleship dilemma.
Maybe that gets us to the heart of the difficulty of the Gospel. It’s not that we’re twentieth-century people but that we’re idolaters. Of course when I say that, you say, “Well, yeah, so were they.” Well, we are and I think there’s almost an arrogant modernism which says, “Oh gosh, we’ve got this big, big problem with the Gospel because we’re so modern and sophisticated and they weren’t.” Well, a text like the one about the rich young ruler reminds me: we’re caught in the same durn bind they were in and the preacher should help me to see that.
Preaching: Leslie Newbigin says that Western society increasingly is a foreign mission field. I think you can certainly make the case that many of our congregations are missions fields. Is there a danger in preaching to the baptized without some awareness that, at the same time we are preaching to the baptized, we may also be preaching to the unconverted?
Willimon: Absolutely. I resonate with Leslie Newbigin. I’d put it this way — that the people we talk to are not only the baptized but they are those willing to be baptized who may have already been baptized. Like when Paul says to the Romans, “Hey, what’s this? Shouldn’t we sin all the more so that grace can abound all the more? Don’t you know that you’ve been baptized? You’re dead, you’re dead to your sin, you’re alive to Christ.” Well, Paul wouldn’t have had to write all that stuff to them if it had become clear to them in their baptism. And you love the way he goes back and kind of reminds then, “Hey, wait — you’re talking out of your head; you’re baptized, you can’t talk like that anymore.” Well, that’s preaching to the baptized, too — those who are in the process of being converted.
I really think mainline Protestantism has got to talk a lot more about conversion. Of course, I also think — and maybe this is the Wesleyan coming out in me — American evangelicalism has erred in thinking of conversion as a kind of one-time, momentary jerk of the spirit. I’d like to say, “Hey, I have to get cleaned up all the time. I have to be baptized and washed and dead and raised again and again. I think of it as a kind of lifetime process. I guess by saying “preaching to the baptized,” one thing I’m trying to convey is that I want to give dignity to baptism and maybe for the reasons you mentioned. When people come out and say, “That is the most outrageous, shocking, confusing thing I have ever heard; I just find that shocking,” I want to say to them, “Well gosh, what did you expect? It’s called church, it’s called the Gospel. I didn’t invite you down here. I didn’t call you to follow Jesus — Jesus did. I didn’t want you as a disciple. Did somebody tell you this was going to be easy? Hey, you’re baptized for heaven’s sake! This stuff is big, it’s large, it’s confusing.” In that way, I want to give dignity to their baptism.
I think that one of the greatest things preachers can do is to take their miserable little lives and make them cosmic — make them large and give dignity to what they’re doing. I sometimes say it at my place: “You know, I’m sorry, boys and girls, you couldn’t have heard this anywhere else but here. You had to put on a coat and tie and get all dressed up and come down here on a Sunday morning at an inconvenient hour to hear this. This is stuff they ain’t talking about anywhere else — it’s just for you.” In a way I want to try to say, “Being Christian is not to be boring and bourgeois and middle-class with a station wagon — being Christian is an adventure.”
I remember the great evangelical madman Tony Campolo preached for us one Sunday. He preached forty-five minutes; he screamed, he danced, and then we had the Duke Dance Ensemble come and portray the Psalm with their bodies, and somebody had a tympani drum and started beating on it for the anthem — this weird contemporary anthem. We just kind of walked out reeling and shaking. This kid told me, “I invited a friend of mine who had been to church as a kid but he hadn’t come in a long time. I’d been on him for a long time, ‘Come to church with me,’ and so I brought him to church. I was so proud because as he walked from the church he said, ‘Wow, what was that?’ I lied; I said it was a typical Sunday; that that’s what we do when we get together.” I think what I heard that kid saying was, “I was really proud to be a Christian; it was interesting, it was challenging, it was big.”
One thing that really concerns me about a lot of preaching that I hear called evangelical is they act as if the goal is to make the Gospel as small as possible. We used to tell an old joke about the evangelist saying “Come down to the altar and accept Jesus as your savior.” Nobody comes. He tries again, “If you want to lead a better life, come down to the altar.” Nobody comes. Again he tries, “If you love your mother, come down to the altar.” And it has kind of that quality — you know, get it down to a bumper sticker, or what you can put on a sign in front of the church.
Then I say no, maybe the best evangelism is that which is larger — it’s just big — where people come forward and say, “Gosh, I have my college degree and I’m a very intelligent person, and I’ve never heard anything like this before, and I’m having difficulty with what you just said.” I’d love a race of preachers who take that as a high compliment and say, “Of course, as if you could possibly understand after visiting only one time. How much are you willing to pay for this? Are you interested? We do have a class.”
To me, that would be fairer to the Gospel than bragging “I am proud to say I have never ever confused anybody in a sermon. I have gotten it down now to where they’ll sit there and say, ‘Gosh, that’s what I’ve always thought. Yeah, thank you for helping me name that’.” By the way, that’s liberal Protestantism, which has bled in now to the church growth movement in some of its aspects, and I think it’s ugly. I think that’s cheap because it’s not fair to the Gospel. The Gospel is not what you’ve always thought.

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About The Author

Michael Duduit is the founding publisher and editor of Preaching magazine. He is also the founding Dean of the new College of Christian Studies and Professor of Christian Ministry at Anderson University in Anderson, South Carolina. Michael is author and editor of several books, including the Handbook of Contemporary Preaching (Broadman & Holman Press), Joy in Ministry (Baker Books), Preaching With Power (Baker) and Communicate With Power (Baker). From 1996 until 2000 he served as editor of the Abingdon Preaching Annual series. His email newsletter, PreachingNow, is read each week by more than 40,000 pastors and church leaders in the U.S. and around the world. He is founder and director of the National Conference on Preaching and the International Congress on Preaching, which has been held in 1997 at Westminster Chapel in London, 2002 at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and 2007at Cambridge. He has been a pastor and associate pastor, has served a number of churches as interim pastor, and speaks regularly for churches, colleges and conferences.

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