ReCasting the Sermon:
What we learned at Kanuga
“What language shall we borrow?” was the subtitle of the third National Episcopal Preaching Conference, once again held at the Kanuga Conference Center, this year from April 23-26. After two years of gathering with familiar names and faces from the world of homiletics, this year we invited preachers and teachers not as well known to Episcopalians, spiced it with some incredible jazz, and invited among to keep us focused in prayer. I suspect that to an outsider the lineup seemed the work of a madman. Guilty. But there was method in my madness, born of equal parts frustration and hope – frustration that my best efforts were not making much of a dent in the quality of preaching in the Episcopal Church, hope that, well, I have only been at it for six years, and only one as Executive Director of the Episcopal Preaching Foundation. So now is not the time to throw in the towel, abandon ship, or otherwise surrender.
On the way to the conference from Sewanee my driving companion, the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner from Duke Divinity School, asked a typically trenchant question – When did Episcopalians accept the reputation for being lousy preachers? She said “get the reputation” but I now think the more interesting question is when we started to accept it as true. It was not always so; in fact it was in times past exactly the opposite. But Philips Brooks has been dead a while and we cannot rest on those laurels anymore. Lauren’s the historian so I am waiting for her to come up with the answer. In the meantime I will hazard to guess that it was at about the same time we starting laughing self-consciously about how poor our collective and individual knowledge of Holy Scripture was, the Bible just being the Prayer Book taken out of context, hah, hah, hah.
I invited Tony Jones, co-founder of Solomon’s Porch in St. Paul, MN, and Shane Hipps, now lead pastor at Mars Hills Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI after Rob Bell’s departure, to help us see more clearly what the problem might be. The truth is that self-diagnosis is rarely accurate, so I thought it might be a good idea to hear from non-Episcopalians, and in particular to hear from preachers who have demonstrated the capacity to “reach” the next generations of church-goers and church-avoiders. They did not disappoint. They may have even over-delivered, providing a challenge to Episcopal preachers we have difficulty hearing. Because we are probably going to have to change. A lot, if one believes the smack-down we got from Tony and Shane, as well as some of the implications of what Lauren had to say.
Bottom-line, cut-to-the-chase? Our very model and aspirations as preachers are misguided, out-dated, and unsalvageable. The preacher many of us always thought we wanted to be, bits of John Donne, Barbara Brown Taylor, and John Claypool, with a little Frederick Buechner and a dash of Michael Curry? Dead, gone, and not coming back, except maybe for the Michael Curry part. We are striving to be Ward and June Cleaver’s preacher and rector, while trying to figure out how at the same time to connect with their great-grandchildren. Not happening. We have to choose, and it won’t be easy; and everything is up for grabs. Who is our target audience, and how are we going to reach them?
Tony Jones told us that we are clueless, and Shane Hipps tried to give us a clue or two. You can watch their presentations on our web site. But I think, and shared in a presentation also on the site, that no less an eminence than Harry Emerson Fosdick was trying to show us the errors of our ways years before most of us were born, 1928 to be exact. In a famous article in Harper’s Magazine titled, “What’s the matter with preaching?” Fosdick critiqued his colleagues for the dual fatal sins of being irrelevant and boring. Nobody cares what we are talking about, and if they did try to listen, they would be rendered somnolent by our rhetoric – or lack thereof. We have to learn how to talk about things our listeners care about, in ways with which they can connect. It has ever been so. But today there are a million alternatives to listening to our sermons. The only competition John Donne had at St. Paul’s Cross was, well, nothing. Big difference.
Shane challenged us to be less literary, and more oral, in our rhetoric, although that is my formulation, not his. We both agree, however, that we live in a post-literate culture. It is not that people don’t read anymore, but they do not just read, and they do not read as much or in the same way they once did (Kindle anyone, or IPad?). Nor is it just the absence of a literary canon, there is no canon, no shared set of experiences on which the preacher can relay. This dis-integration of our audience is filled with implications I will try to pursue in this spot in the coming weeks. For now, think seriously about changing your homiletical heroes, role-models, and “I wish I could be likes.” The language we need to borrow is a language most of us do not know. Gulp.