The Interactive Sermon I: Preaching Upstream
By David Lose
Excerpted and adapted from Preaching at the Crossroads copyright (c) 2013 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission of Augsburg Fortress.
Here's what you know: Mainline traditions have been in decline for the better part of the last half-century and have accordingly lost significant influence in North American culture. During this same period, conservative and evangelical Protestant traditions have grown.
Here's what you may not know: Recent research suggests these two trends are not causally linked. It is not, in other words, that when mainline Protestants leave their congregations, they go to join conservative ones. Rather, when most mainline Protestants leave their congregations, they simply stop going to church altogether.
But why do they stop going to church in the first place? Increasingly, researchers suggest that in a world saturated by meaning-making stories, the mainline church has failed to offer a compelling and central narrative identity that not only informs but also guides the lives of their congregants by providing a resilient religious identity. Thus, in a culture that values the individual's right to pursue religious fulfillment alongside life, liberty, and happiness, increasing numbers of mainline members discover numerous sources for their spiritual sustenance outside the walls of their congregations. Family, civic institutions, voluntary associations, and the embedded values and patterns of meaning inherent in them now exist side by side with local congregations as potential sources for spiritual identity.
This proliferation of valid spiritual resources represents a tremendous shift in the religious landscape. For the better part of the last three centuries, legitimate sources of religious identity have been few, with the local congregation preeminent among them. For this reason, and as we touched on in the preceding chapter, one's religious identity was far more a matter of passive reception than active construction. In the wake of the proliferation of spiritual options, that is no longer the case. And as we also discussed, the overabundance of options in our postmodern, 24/7 digital world-in terms of news, political ideas, and religious perspectives-compels persons, first, to recognize that there are multiple versions of reality coexisting and, second, to choose from among them. For this reason, as one scholar writes, "individuals must play a larger part in constructing their personal belief system" than ever before.
Conservative churches have flourished amid this same proliferation of sources for religious identity by creating and maintaining a distinct "Christian worldview" that functions both as an internal norm for personal and corporate behavior as well as an external filter by which to assess competing religious claims. In the face of religious pluralism, conservative congregations have adopted a "traditionalist" stance that promotes a single, stable, and preferably unitary narrative identity that shields adherents from the tumult of competing truth claims. Mainline congregations, in contrast, have consistently adopted a more "cosmopolitan" stance that values greater interpretive freedom and thereby leads to more variation-and consequently less cohesion-in narrative identity. Lacking the "strict code" of beliefs and behaviors prescribed by their more conservative counterparts, mainline congregations have had to compete in the marketplace of spiritual meaning and have often come up wanting.
Interestingly, however-and perhaps contrary to popular belief, given numerous mainline arguments over social policies-the biblical and theological narrative mainline churches proffer has neither changed dramatically during these decades nor caused significant numbers of members to leave church. Rather, mainline congregants simply no longer know that narrative well nor hold it as primary. Bereft of this primary narrative to supply a religious identity (or, rather, finding sources for a compelling identity from numerous narratives outside their congregations), many mainline members have lost any incentive to continue attending a church that doesn't meaningfully contribute to their understanding of, and life in, the world.
In this setting, one more easily appreciates the ambivalence of the preacher. Increasingly, if often unconsciously, we find ourselves offering interpretations of a narrative that few in the congregation know well enough to be able even to appreciate our interpretations, let alone to apply them to life outside the congregation's walls. Such an effort can feel like swimming upstream: it is cold and exhausting, and it yields little progress.
. . .
Concurrent with the cultural decline of the Christian narrative, numerous other valid interpretive schemas have presented themselves. Many of them connect more directly to the lived experience of our congregants simply because they are promoted by the multiple channels our people regularly draw from: pop culture, news, the Internet, and more. Hence, while the mainline Christian story may appear alive and well within the walls of the congregation, outside the church all these other valid sources from which to construct a religious identity are giving traditional Christian faith a run for its money.
As a consequence, many of our people experience an enormous gap between their meaning-making experience on Sunday, when the dominant narrative is the biblical story, and on Monday through Saturday, when in the absence of an unambiguous Christian narrative they navigate through multiple other, and often more familiar, narratives. It is not that the Sunday sermon makes no sense, only that the sermon makes the most sense inside the church's walls, where it can be most easily connected with the larger story to which it refers. The sermon, while meaningful, is greatly constrained in its applicability because the scope of the biblical narrative to which the sermon refers has itself been restricted to our life and identity in, rather than beyond, the church.