Marsha G. Witten, All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993), cloth, 179 pp., $19.95.
Anyone interested in tracking the shifting trends in the content of Protestant sermons in America should read All Is Forgiven. But don’t expect to be pleased with what you learn.
Witten, now an assistant professor of sociology at Franklin & Marshall College, conducted a 1988 survey in which she wrote 150 Presbyterian pastors and 150 Southern Baptist pastors, asking each for a copy of sermons they had preached based on Luke 15:11-32 (the Prodigal Son). All the pastors served larger churches (Presbyterian churches had 800 or more members; Southern Baptist churches had congregations with 1,000 members or more).
A total of 71 sermons were submitted by 27 Presbyterian and 31 Southern Baptist pastors. Of these sermons, 47 were usable (others were sketchy outlines, on the wrong text, etc.), from 21 Southern Baptist and 26 Presbyterian pastors. While the sample is unfortunately limited, the results are nonetheless meaningful in understanding emerging trends in American preaching, both among mainline and evangelical Protestants.
All Is Forgiven offers sample excerpts of these sermons by pastors of larger churches, along with Witten’s analysis. What that analysis demonstrates is that much contemporary preaching represents a growing accommodation with secular culture.
One of Witten’s most intriguing chapters is entitled “God as Daddy, Sufferer, Lover, and Judge.” Those four terms represent general categories or approaches to describing God within the sermons studied. What becomes readily apparent is that most of the preachers have abandoned terminology related to God’s transcendence and have substituted a therapeutic view of God, whose primary concern is the psychological well-being of the individual. Divine wrath seems to be a thing of the past, and divine and human emotions are placed on equal footing.
As Witten observes, “The transcendent, majestic, awesome God of Luther and Calvin — whose image informed Protestant visions of the relationship between human beings and the divine — has undergone a softening of demeanor throughout the American experience of Protestantism, with only minor exceptions. The speech of the sermons examined in this book give concrete evidence of the ways in which God’s qualities have been mellowed in the contemporary context.”
Another chapter, “Christian Faith and the World,” evaluates the way in which these sermons relate the Christian life to contemporary culture. Paralleling much of the emphasis in contemporary Christian publishing and approach — with its emphasis on “marketing” the church — many of the sermons studied seem to “accept the positioning of religion as a matter of consumer choice.”
Particularly in the Presbyterian sermons (83 percent), the language suggests “no particular tension between Christian faith and worldly culture or social arrangements.” There is no sense of renunciation or sacrifice on the part of the believer in order to “conform his secular behavior to the norms of Christian life.” Just a trim here or there, it seems, is all that’s required. In fact, Witten points out many of the sermons emphasize that the purpose of Christian faith is to increase one’s enjoyment of the world, not to contradict the world and its values. Southern Baptist sermons tended to take a more varied approach, with a small number representing an accommodationist view similar to that described above; most took a more critical view of culture.
The notion of sin has been redefined by many preachers into a form of “misguided behavior.” The very topic appears in only half of the Presbyterian sermons on the Prodigal Son; it appears in all the Southern Baptist sermons. An interesting difference, Witten notes, is that Southern Baptist preachers tended to pose the younger brother as the symbol of evil in the story, while most of the Presbyterian preachers placed the older brother in that role.
Witten indicates that in a number of Presbyterian sermons which do not refer to sin,
“the predominant tendency in these portraits of the two brothers is toward expression of an evenhanded attitude toward their behavior. This stance attempts both to account for the brothers’ conduct in terms that are relatively value-free, and to understand and empathize with, the hurts the brothers are said to cause themselves through their misguided actions. In so doing, the sermons position the listeners (who are invited to identify with the brothers’ actions, especially with those of the older brother) as vicarious clients in a mass session of Rogerian therapy, as the talk displays a style of therapeutic warmth, acceptance, and tolerance” (p. 98).
Discussions of conversion were found primarily in the Southern Baptist sermons (85 percent), with only a few of the Presbyterian sermons (12 percent) touching on the subject. Both groups, however, reflect the influence of secular psychology in their approach to the topic, which “is frequently reconstituted as the realization of personal fulfillment.” Witten comments that “Conversion is portrayed far less as the need to grapple with sin-nature than as a reorientation of one’s psychology toward the creation of a close interpersonal relationship with God.”
All Is Forgiven is filled with excellent insights about the direction and approach of contemporary Protestant preaching — all the more interesting since the author is herself a Jewish scholar of American Christianity. Though she stands outside the church, her observations are worthy of serious study and consideration by everyone who is called to stand in the pulpit and proclaim God’s truth.
Book Notes
Lyle E. Schaller, 21 Bridges to the 21st Century: The Future of Pastoral Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), paper, 160 pp.
There is no more able observer of the American church scene than Lyle Schaller, whose prolific pen continues to provide worthwhile insights for church leaders. In this latest book, Schaller discusses the challenges that are facing local churches and denominations as we prepare to enter a new century. As always, his insights are true-to-life and his recommendations are practical, if sometimes difficult to realize.
Of particular interest to me were Schaller’s thoughts on the changing nature of worship, from a more passive style (still preferred by those born before 1935) to a more active, participatory style. He offers a delightful illustration of the changing preferences of sports for children — whereas past generations enjoyed baseball, which involved extended waiting and inactivity, today’s kids prefer soccer, a “fast-paced and participatory game in which most of the players, both male and female, frequently touch the ball. Soccer resembles the corporate worship in many of today’s churches that have designed and implemented a participatory approach to worship.”
Schaller deserves a place in the reading list of every pastor.
Walter Brueggemann, Charles B. Cousar, Beverly R. Gaventa, and James D. Newsome, Texts for Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV — Year B (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), cloth, 704 pp., $32.
Marion Soards, Thomas Dozeman, and Kendall McCabe, Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary: After Pentecost 2 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1993), paper, 188 pp.
Walter Wink, Proclamation 5: Holy Week. (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1993), paper, 64 pp.
Those preachers who use the Revised Common Lectionary to guide their pulpit ministries have a wealth of resources available, and more seem to be available every year. The three sources identified here — each from a different major religious publisher — represent different approaches to the task, but all include quality content and presentation. Each is written by mainline Protestant scholars (all seminary faculty) for a primarily mainline audience.
The volume by Brueggemann et al is a hefty volume which provides a section discussing each Sunday of the year, including exegetical comments and some homiletical suggestions. All the authors are from Columbia Theological Seminary except Gaventa, who is at Princeton.
Rather than combine the entire year into a single volume, Abingdon and Fortress take a different approach, releasing multiple smaller volumes for different sections of the church year. The Abingdon title covers the Sundays from September through November. Each treatment of the text (Old Testament, Epistle, Gospel) includes a title that suggests a homiletical approach. The writing is lively; many of the insights are helpful. Dozeman and McCabe teach at United Seminary in Dayton, Soards at Louisville Presbyterian.
Fortress has recruited an excellent cast of authors (including William Willimon, a Contributing Editor of this publication) to write for its Proclamation series, subtitled “Interpreting the Lessons of the Church Year.” Wink, a widely-known author who teaches at New York’s Auburn Theological Seminary, offers interesting insights for the texts used during Holy Week. I particularly appreciated the occasional illustrations that found their way into this thin volume — a welcome addition for preachers who will, after all, be preaching from these texts.

Share This On:

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.

Related Posts