Calm, controversial preaching?
Ryan Summerlin June 3, 2013
Church membership continues to shrink. Consequently, fewer churches need full-time clergy. To protect their jobs, preachers opt for sermons that don’t raise a commotion nor stir controversy among parishioners.
The Apostle Paul urged his protege — young, shy and sickly Timothy — to utter sermons that impinge on life’s thorny problems. The gospel must penetrate politics and press for social justice. “Preach the Word of God,” insisted Paul. “Be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke and exhort” (II Timothy 4:2). Pressing this sermonic strategy too far and fast, however, evicts preachers from pulpits.
Writer Kent Haruf, son of a United Methodist clergy, describes a preacher who stirs up controversy. In his novel “Benediction,” Haruf sets the plot in a fictional farming town called Holt on the Colorado plains. Its rural church calls the Rev. Rob Lyle, a preacher from Denver. Previously, he was forced from a city parish because his preaching on social and political problems proved offensive.
This preacher tackles the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus teaches followers to love enemies, pray for those who harm us, turn the other cheek when someone offends and lend money without expecting a payback.
On a sweltering July Sunday, Lyle drops a torch in the parishioners’ explosive world. He dares apply Jesus’ pacifist ethics. “What if Jesus wasn’t kidding?” he asks restless worshippers. “What if he wasn’t talking about some never-never land? … What if in spite of all that he knew, he still said love your enemies? Turn your cheek. Pray for those who misuse you. What if he meant every word of what he said? What then would the world come to?” (Benediction, p. 141, 2013).
Leaders storm out of church before the preacher completes his sermon. After Pearl Harbor, they had rejected Jesus’ utopian nonsense about loving enemies. It failed in Vietnam, too. This idealistic hokum wasn’t what patriotic Americans wanted to hear after terrorists slaughtered innocent victims. Jesus’ teaching amounted to a silly preacher’s banter.
First in Denver and then on the plains, preacher Lyle figured out that Jesus, if honestly followed, moved church members off dead-center. Worshippers attend church to be satisfied, not stirred; coddled, not rocked by what’s controversial. They worship to have emotions soothed and expect to be tenderly treated, like putty in the hands of a preacher who shapes their contentment.
“People don’t want to be disturbed. They want assurance,” laments preacher Lyle. “They don’t come to church on Sunday morning to think about new ideas or even the old important ones,” he concludes. “They want to hear what they’ve been told before, with only some small variation on what they’ve been hearing all their lives, and then they want to go home and eat pot roast and say it was a good service and feel satisfied” (Benediction, p. 193, 2013).
No stranger to controversy, Reinhold Niebuhr preached at a Detroit church in the 1920s. Already then, this preacher distinguished himself by writing political theology — what the Gospel challenges Christians to do in corridors of political power.
President Warren Harding had urged the nation in the 1920s to settle down, keep a methodical pace and not upset citizens by meddling in international blow-ups. He agreed with advertising pitchman Bruce Barton who wrote, “The great majority of Americans are neither radicals nor reactionaries. They are middle-of-the-road folks who own their own homes and work hard and would like to have the government get back to its old habits of meddling with their lives as little as possible.”
Harding declared, “America’s present need is not heroics, but healing; not nostrums but normalcy; not revolution, but restoration; not agitation, but adjustment; not surgery, but serenity; not dramatics, but the dispassionate; not experiment but equipoise; not submergence in internationality but sustainment in triumphant nationality.” Critics panned Harding’s sickly sweet alliteration. Americans, however, liked what they heard.
During the 1920s, Henry Ford made life comfortable. He priced the Model T so the average American family traveled in ease. He won over most of Detroit’s clergy in 1915 by hiring Ford’s pastor, the dean of the Episcopal cathedral, to head Ford Motor Co.’s welfare bureau. Few clergy protested factory conditions that ruined assembly line workers’ health.
Niebuhr confronted Ford’s industrial empire built on anti-Semitism and unfair, anti-labor practices. This preacher practiced a Christian faith that exposed automobile titans’ greed.
He often felt powerless because few ministerial colleagues preached against horrid factory conditions. They knew Ford buttered their bread.
“Beside the brutal facts of modern industrial life, how futile are all our homiletical sproutings (sermons)!” asked Niebuhr. “The church … isn’t changing the essential facts of modern industrial civilization by a hair’s breath. It isn’t even thinking about them.” Most preachers found it unpopular to challenge Ford’s empire and congregations’ comfortable ways. They indulged them, instead.
Credible preaching comforts the afflicted. It also afflicts the comfortable.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive. Van Ens’ book, “How Jefferson Made the Best of Bad Messes,” is available in local bookstores for $7.95.
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