George Barna, The Second Coming of the Church, Nashville: Word Publishing, Hardcover $18.99, ISBN 0-8499-1490-6.
In George Barna’s latest work, he provides hard medicine for church leaders. Armed with statistical data and his sociologist’s eye for observation, he predicts that the next generation will either experience a massive revival or a marked decline in the churches. While praying fervently for the former, data suggests that the latter may be more likely. In some respects, Barna’s analysis was depressing to read, because it paints such a stark picture of the types of changes which are needed in order for the church to reach the next generation and to remain a vibrant influence on our culture.
Central to Barna’s argument is the observation that culture reinvents itself every 3 to 5 years. With such rapid societal change, the burden on churches to keep pace is greater than ever before. Programs and ministries must constantly be re-evaluated in order to experience maximum effectiveness. Preaching is not exempt from change in Barna’s reinvention of the church.
Barna makes observations which are relevant to the preaching task (Many of these appeared in The Pulpit Meister: Preaching to the New Majority, Preaching, January-February 1997). In preaching to Baby Busters, that generation following immediately after the Baby Boomers, the keys to communication are relevance, genuineness and authenticity — much more so than excellence, professionalism, and polish.
Recognizing shortened attention spans and learning how to think and preach “mosaically” will also be important in reaching the next generation. Barna points out that in an MTV culture, attention spans are very short. The preacher must hold and continually recapture attention. He describes today’s young people as “mosaic” thinkers. Learning how to think and communicate “mosaically” seems to be a wide-open field for further research.
Throughout the book, Barna makes much of the observation that being a gifted preacher/teacher doesn’t necessarily mean that one is a gifted leader. Learning how to live within that tension will be a challenge for preachers in the next generation. Barna defines a Christian leader as:
… someone who is called by God to lead, possess virtuous character, and effectively motivates, mobilizes, resources and directs people toward the fulfillment of a jointly-embraced vision from God.
By definition, those who “have the pulpit” for 20 to 30 minutes (give or take) on Sunday morning are the leaders of the congregation. A preacher who is not naturally gifted in leadership will need to work through a team of individuals, lay or staff, who are recognized as leaders and not feel threatened by their leadership. A pastor who is more gifted in leadership than in preaching and teaching will need to recognize the unique potential of the preaching event to shape a shared congregational vision. While Barna advocates freeing gifted teachers and preachers from leadership “burdens,” as a practical consideration, it is difficult to see how that can be done.
Barna paints many other pictures of the church which is in transition from being a “church home” to a “spiritual pit-stop.” Many people view churches as a smorgasbord, choosing one program from “their” church and something else from other churches. Barna also develops the idea of a “cyber-church” where churches use internet web-sites to provide spiritually uplifting experiences rather than just advertisements for the church. A basic rule of thumb to remember is that churches will have a greater need for niche-marketing rather than just assuming that one size can fit all.
As you read Barna, prepare to be sobered, stretched and challenged. Yet, all who love the church and desire to see it flourish need to wrestle with the issues raised by Barna.
Tisdale, Leonora Tubbs, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997, 175 pp., ISBN 0-8006-2773-3
I am reminded of two bits of “folk wisdom” that have been passed on to me in the course of my preparation for ministry. A wise, retired pastor charged me, at my ordination, “If you keep the hay down where the calves can get it, the older cows won’t have any trouble getting fed either.” Someone else has said, “If you consistently shoot over the head of your target, you do not prove that you have superior ammunition. You only prove that you are a bad shot.” Both bits of wisdom have to do with making sure that our proclamation “connects” with those to whom we preach.
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Assistant Professor of Preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, NJ has provided a significant work which will help preachers better understand the sub-cultural context in which they preach. The author demonstrates what she has learned from the experience of preaching in a yoked parish of 4 different churches and has added to that anecdotal evidence solid scholarship and helpful clues which will be of benefit to other preachers in exegeting their congregation.
Tisdale is addressing a perceived lack in most seminary curricula. Seminaries teach hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) and homiletics (how to craft sermons based on hermeneutics) but also unwittingly educate students into a culture which is foreign to most students’ first churches. Burning issues on the seminary campus are not of great interest in the small, rural parishes to which most graduates receive their first call. Tisdale maintains that understanding a church’s identity – “the persistent set of beliefs, patterns, symbols, stories, and style that make a congregation distinctively itself” — is the key to preaching that is contextually relevant within a church’s culture.
Contextual preaching — which is Tisdale’s goal — requires finding theological images and metaphors which are relevant and meaningful to the congregation to which one is preaching. Although contextual preaching could easily turn provincial or parochial, its goal is to relate the world-wide vision of the church and the universal gospel to a specific congregation, meeting them at their station in life.
The benefits of contextual preaching are manifold, both for preacher and for the congregation. Any offense which comes from the gospel should come from the gospel itself, and not our illegitimate proclamation of it. Further, the ability to view the gospel from an-other culture’s perspective only serves to enrich the preacher’s own understanding of theology. It also takes the hearers seriously and is an attempt to communicate in terms which will be transformative for them.
Tisdale’s next chapter, Exegeting the Congregation, is the strength of her book. It’s fine to speak in lofty terms of the benefits of communicating relevantly, but how does one do that? Where does one begin? Drawing from the field of ethnography, Tisdale gives several helpful questions and guidelines which may be used. They involve “symbolic texts,” those events, stories, and traditions which are particularly meaningful to a given congregation.
Some of this material may be gleaned through interviews with congregational members, searching church archives to understand what significant events and decisions (made or unmade) have shaped the church’s history. Not as obvious, but significant as well, are things like church architecture. What theology is communicated by their architecture and what features of the building does one not dare “mess with”?
One particularly poignant anecdote used by the author illustrates the significance of theological differences from church to church. Tisdale relates that she and her husband were serving as co-pastors of a yoked, four-parish situation when she became pregnant. The baby was due to arrive shortly before Christmas. One church was excited to hear the news because that meant that they would have a real baby for that year’s Christmas pageant. Another church left the manger empty regardless because it was too holy for a “real” baby to inhabit. After all, “Little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes.” Yet another church would put a light in the manger signifying that in Jesus, light has come into the world — a high Christology.
Most preachers know implicitly that what works in one congregation may not work in another for a variety of reasons. Tisdale advances the preacher’s understanding of the importance of meeting a congregation where they are, on their terms, at their level of understanding so that through the pulpit, a preacher may lead them to where God wants them to be. This is both “local theology” which is contextual and “folk art” in that it uses imagery and forms to which the congregation can relate. Tisdale’s work is profitable reading.

Share This On: