The artist, the educator and the therapist walk different paths in different ways, but those paths meet at an intersection where the street sign says: You must change your life.For we do not go to the artist, the educator or the therapist to remain the same; we go to them to be given the vision and the tools to go on, and to go on is always to change.
~Michael Ventura, "Teacher as Healer"
I think Michael Ventura's words could be applied to preachers as well, but I wonder if preachers sometimes forget. Preachers may worry, that is, not simply about what expectations people bring to their sermons, but in this age of declining church membership and worship attendance, aboutwhether they even have expectations in the first place.
But I think Ventura is right: We don't go to artists, educators, therapists - and here is where I would add "and preachers" - to remain the same. We go to church because we want to change.
Actually, that may not be true in all religious traditions. Perhaps some go to church precisely to remain the same, to have preconceptions and prejudices affirmed, to be told that their black and white judgments line up quite nicely with the Lord's. But for those hailing from more dynamic expressions of Christianity, we know that while life is beautiful, it is also incomplete, and that while we are capable of many things, saving ourselves is not one of them. And here I use "save" in the biblical sense of being healed, made whole, and restored to right relationship with God and each other.
And so while many motivations may lead us through the church doorway and into a pew any given Sunday - a sense of duty, ethnic identity, the desire to please a parent or spouse, even habit - deep down, when the preacher steps into the pulpit, we hope to hear something that will not just inform or even inspire us, but that will change us, giving us, as Ventura says, "the vision and tools to go on."
We confess that it is not simply the preacher who can do this, not her or his brilliance or insight or rhetorical acumen. Change, transformation, is always the work of the Spirit. Nevertheless, I think most of us can tell the difference between a preacher who believes we are coming because we want to be changed - and therefore aims to craft a sermon that aims to aid us in doing just that - and one who did not imagine change was the issue.
This orientation starts even in exegesis - the technical term for biblical study and interpretation that seeks to find and lift meaning out of the passage. Preachers have for nearly three hundred years been very interested in the past of a biblical passage - who wrote it, under what circumstances, how would it have been understood by those who first heard it, and so forth. These are excellent questions and reflect the post-Enlightenment discovery that cultures vary over time and the historical gap between when a passage was written and when we read it is important to consider if we want to understand it well.
But as important as that is, lately I've been more interested in the future of the passage in front of me. That is, I'm not only curious about what a passage meant - past tense - but what it might mean to us today and going forward. Not only what impact it had, but what it might have. What might a lively preaching of this passage do to us, what might it set in motion, what might it accomplish? These are future-tense and change-oriented questions.
Studying the past of a text is important. Imagining its future is vital, for both preachers who seek to offer a lively, active, and compelling word...and for those of us who listen to them hoping that the gospel promises spoken will change us.
Two notes: 1) Thanks to my colleague Sarah Henrich who introduced me to Ventura's poem.
2) For those who want to read more about preaching, another colleague, Karoline Lewis - who has for a number of years my teaching partner and Sermon Brainwave co-host - has started a blog on her website where she writes on preaching from time to time.