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Nurturing Diversity in Preaching

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Patrick Johnson

About the time I was first discerning a call to ordained ministry, I had the privilege of spending some time with a nearby pastor whom everyone knew as “Pastor Dave.” The church he had served for decades was not the biggest, not the most innovative, and not the most active by a long shot. But it was widely regarded – especially by other pastors – as one of the healthiest churches around. Amid the continual swirl of tips, tricks, and programs for doing church better, Pastor Dave had patiently cultivated a diverse and strong congregation. I asked Pastor Dave one day, “What’s your secret?” He replied quietly, “There’s one question that often keeps me awake, especially on Saturday night. It’s probably the driving question of my ministry: God, what kind of people am I forming?”

Week in and week out, more than anything else, preaching forms a congregation. In small bites of 15, 20, or 30 minutes, added up over the course of seasons and years, preaching cultivates a church by shaping its questions, fostering its conversations, kindling its faith, weaving its guiding metaphors, naming its values and beliefs, setting its tone, and ultimately nurturing its diversity. How can we nurture diversity and make room for difference from the pulpit?

One place to start is simply to recognize the rich diversity that already exists in our congregations, even in congregations that look the same on the surface. You can sense this standing at the door after worship, hearing fifty or a hundred different versions of the same sermon. It’s not that the sermon was muddled, but that it was speaking into a thick context of engaged and multi-layered meaning-making. Each of us listens with a set of beliefs, values, experiences, questions, challenges, hopes, and fears that is our own personal hermeneutic. Sometimes in a sermon, this hermeneutic reminds me to stop at the grocery store on the way home, but more often it’s where the Holy Spirit does her connect-the-dots work in my soul.

In my experience, finding ways to explore my congregation’s rich diversity has made me much more sensitive to how I nurture diversity and create room for others in preaching. Feed-forward and feedback discussions – discussing the text and sermon before and after preaching – have been invaluable. They have helped me understand how a text and sermon actually intersects with the lived experience of the congregation. I have learned where the affirmations are, and where the pushbacks are, where nuances are needed, and most especially where others’ views and experiences are different from mine.

It’s also been very important to me to find ways to celebrate and affirm diversity actually in the pulpit. As a friend says to her congregation often, “God created a riot of diversity. Get used to it!” Imagine if we intentionally and regularly preached on the diversity of creation and the kingdom of God the same way we intentionally focus on stewardship, or mission, or even Advent and Lent? And surely that would include making room for a diverse group of voices in the pulpit. Any congregation, no matter how small or homogenous, needs to hear a variety of preachers. Different races, genders, life experiences, and diverse ways of speaking the gospel breaks open new meaning and makes space for others.

Of course, even as we cultivate the voices of others in the pulpit, we can’t neglect the really important work of finding and claiming our voice. Preaching that tries to be all things to all people or treats the pulpit as a “neutral space” does not, in the end, create a diverse or strong congregation. Ironically, it creates a fragile congregation, where people are afraid to be different from one another and there is little room for the stranger. On the other hand, preachers who can bear witness to God’s word to them, who can confess their core convictions and name their deep questions, and especially who can be honest about their blind-spots – in the long run, those preachers shape congregations of people who can do likewise. To put it simply, by being ourselves we make room for others. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but well-differentiated people – and preachers — are essential to diverse community.

We’re living in such a sharply polarized time that maybe one of the few things we share in common is a deep concern about our ability to hold together as communities and plural societies. Yeats’ grim diagnosis in “The Second Coming” – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – has become a daily worry for nearly all of us. One of the great promises of the gospel is that in Christ all things do and will hold together – even the most diverse congregations of our wildest imagination! The work of preaching, over seasons and years, is to invite us to live with and into that promise. When we trust that the center will hold, riotous diversity is not a threat – it is the joyful feast of the people of God!


Patrick Johnson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina and an active member of the Academy of Homiletics. He is also the author of The Mission of Preaching: Equipping God’s People for Faithful Witness.

Resources for Postliberal Preaching

These resources were provided by Dan Lewis and Pen Peery at the conclusion of their August 2017 online roundtable: “Toward the Purple Church.”

Books

Campbell, Charles L. Preaching Jesus: The New Directions for Homiletics in Hans Frei’s Postliberal Theology

Pape, Lance B. The Scandal of Having Something to Say: Ricoeur and the Possibility of Postliberal Preaching

Eslinger, Richard L. Narrative and Imagination: Preaching the Worlds that Shape Us

 

Quick Thought Pieces

I’m a White Man. Hear Me Out.” – Frank Bruni in The New York Times (8/12/17)

The End of Identity Liberalism” – Mark Lilla in The New York Times (11/18/16)

The Tribal Truths that Set the Stage for Trump’s Lies” – Michael Gerson in the Washington Post (3/23/17)

Who Are We?” – Ross Douthat in The New York Times (2/4/17)

What ‘Hamilton’ forgets about Hamilton” – Jason Frank and Isaac Kramnick in The New York Times (6/10/16)

Save the Mainline” – Ross Douthat in The New York Times (4/15/17)

A Place of Response and Action

This month, strategy team member MaryAnn McKibben Dana is curating a series of posts on our most recent National Gathering. Now that we’ve been back in the trenches of ministry for a while, what ideas have really “stuck”? What keeps nagging at us, whether in a positive or challenging way? How has our view of or approach to ministry been impacted by what we experienced? What continues to be a struggle? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Frances Rosenau

“Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.”

Paulo Freire

The NEXT Church National Gathering really stuck with me this year. I’ve been to a previous National Gathering and came home inspired and renewed. The same thing happened in 2017 as well.

What was different this year was the sense of urgency and action. Gone is the “woe is me” trope that the denomination of our past is shrinking. Instead of reacting to the situation in the church at large, the National Gathering is now a grassroots gathering for something: for including all voices at the table, for amplifying the contributions of young leaders, and for standing up against injustice.

The Sarasota Statement has had a lot of buzz since it debuted at the National Gathering. I particularly appreciate how the statement directly addresses groups of people and actions that will be taken to bring reconciliation. Not simply a statement of faith, this statement addresses its intended audience and brings the conversation to a place of response and action.

Through the month of May, the congregation I pastor, Culver City Presbyterian Church, is taking four Sundays to walk through the Sarasota Statement in worship. Below are the sermon titles, scripture passages, and themes of each service, each of which corresponds with one part of the Sarasota Statement.

Preamble 

“Kingdom Come” Matthew 6:7-15

The Preamble of the Sarasota Statement is rich with theology and imagery, the most grounding image being that of the coming kingdom. Jesus is Lord over a kingdom that exists already, as the statement reads. In the Lord’s Prayer, Jesus prays for the kingdom to be present on Earth as it already exists in heaven. That means God’s kingdom is possible; a reign free of violence, starvation, and injustice can be achieved on this earth, not just in heaven. Jesus prayed for it and Jesus calls us to join in that kingdom work here and now.

Part 1 – To the people we ignore, reject, or demonize for living outside the tribes we claim

“Peace in All Its Forms” Luke 8:1-3

We claim so many tribes. Like the star-bellied sneetches in the Dr. Seuss story, we create differences between people even if they don’t already exist. And when they do exist, we oftentimes become so entrenched in our own tribes that we “ignore, reject or demonize” others.

First, we recognize what tribes we claim, whether we have done it intentionally or not. Then we work to build a community across those tribes just as Jesus calls us to. Jesus called women to leadership, even though they were outside of the “tribe” of maleness he was a part of. Systems of power and privilege keep divisions in place, and we commit to intentionally work against them.

Part 2 – To the people we dehumanize and dismiss on the basis of political and ideological differences, and those who suffer at the hands of our idolatry

“Watered Down Idolatry” Jeremiah 29:4-7

The people in exile had lived through so much suffering, they held the Babylonians in contempt. They had been wronged and abused and could not see the humanity in the people keeping them there. And yet God through Jeremiah calls them to build houses and marry into Babylonian families. The people hearing these words likely did not welcome the call. They wanted to protect their identity and not open themselves up to the Babylonians.

Our context is quite different, and yet we often “conflate Jesus’ message with political platforms and look to partisan ideologies to affirm [our] ethics and action.” We commit to prayer for our political system and our leaders as well as speaking on behalf of those silenced or who may differ from us.

Part 3 – To the people for whom we have failed to seek justice, offer hospitality, or fully embrace as part of God’s beloved family

“On the Other Foot”  Leviticus 19:33-34

Whenever I travel in other countries and am confused or lost, I have overwhelming gratitude for locals who come to my aid. As a teenager, the light bulb went off – Oh, this is how all the foreign exchange students in my school must have felt. 

“For you were aliens in the land of Egypt…” is God’s not-so-subtle reminder of when the shoe was on the other foot. Welcoming and protecting immigrants and refugees is as ancient a practice as our faith. God’s people are on the move throughout scripture, often moving either toward conquest or fleeing from it. This is still our story. As people whose story transcends the narrative of any one ethnic group or lineage, we are called to listen to the stories of those who are moving now and stand with them.

The Church is called to live differently than the powers and principalities of this world. We are called to stem the cultural tide of racism and inequality in the way we do church, to intentionally work against our biases and form a community of equality. Since we swim in the waters of injustice from Monday to Saturday, we have to work very hard at doing things differently in the Church.

The NEXT Church National Gathering this year and the Sarasota Statement in particular has given me sustaining water for the long journey, overflowing to my congregation and beyond.


Frances Wattman Rosenau is the Pastor of Culver City Presbyterian Church in the Los Angeles area. Her DMin studies focused on multicultural and multiethnic worship. She has a passion for the global church and has lived in India, Scotland, Arizona, Upstate New York, Paris, Chicago, and Tulsa. When Frances is not at church you will find her training for a race, reading about bulldozers with her boys, or searching for her husband in a used bookstore.

2017 National Gathering Sermon: Paul Roberts

Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, gives the final sermon of the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering during closing worship.

Scripture: John 4:19-26

The liturgy from this service is also available:


Paul Roberts is is president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, GA, a position he has held since the spring of 2010. He is a native of Stamford, CT; however, he grew up in Bradenton, FL, which he considers his home. Paul graduated from Princeton University in 1985 with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Architecture and African American Studies. Prior to his career in ministry, Paul worked in advertising in New York City. He later received the Master of Divinity degree with a concentration in New Testament Studies from Johnson C. Smith Seminary. He also is an Academic Fellow of the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey in Celigny, Switzerland. From 1997 through 2010, Paul was the pastor of Church of the Master (PCUSA), a church founded in 1965 in Atlanta, GA, as an intentionally interracial congregation. He serves on the boards of the Presbyterian Foundation (PCUSA) and the Macedonian Ministry Inc. of Atlanta. He is the recipient of the 2016 Devoted Service Award from Louisville Theological Seminary. Recreationally, Paul enjoys tennis and yard work. Paul and his wife, Nina, have three beautiful children—one adult daughter and two teenage sons.

2017 National Gathering Opening Worship

Alonzo Johnson preaches the opening worship service of the 2017 National Gathering.

Scripture: John 4:1-42

Alonzo Johnson is coordinator for the Self-Development of People Program (SDOP). SDOP is a branch of the PCUSA’s Compassion, Peace and Justice Ministry. He is also the convener of the Educate A Child, Transform the World initiative. Alonzo has 25 years of experience specializing in urban, youth, education, creative arts and social justice ministries. He served an urban congregation in Philadelphia, PA, and worked as a volunteer chaplain for 9 years at Luther Luckett Correctional Facility in LaGrange, KY. He has an MDiv from Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and is currently a DMin student at the same institution.

 

Meet Our 2017 National Gathering Speakers

Today we’re excited to announce our preachers and testimony speakers for the 2017 National Gathering!

Preachers

Alonzo Johnson, coordinator for the Presbyterian Committee on the Self-Development of People
Marci Auld Glass, pastor of Southminster Presbyterian Church
Paul Roberts, president of Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary

Testimony Speakers

Tom Cramer, Presbytery Leader for Vision and Mission for the Presbytery of Los Ranchos
Tamara John, pastor of Hope for Life Chapel RV Ministry
Charlie Scoma, chaplain with the Seattle Police Department
Glenn McCray, director of church-based community development with Urban Impact
Tom Charles, member of Nassau Presbyterian Church

Want to learn more? See photos and bios here!