This post of Barry’s, in response to a meme that’s going around, got me thinking. Church-bashing is a popular thing, and with a fair bit of reason; even the best of churches are human institutions that screw things up and hurt people sometimes, and there are a lot of churches out there which are far from the best. I know there are a lot of folks out there who have been badly burned by churches; I was part of a congregation for several years that had been planted to minister to people who’d been hurt by the church and never wanted to go back. Even for me, remaining in the church is an act of faith; though most laypeople don’t seem to realize it, any pastor will tell you that churches can abuse their pastors just as easily as they can abuse their members (or perhaps even more easily), and I’ve already been burned pretty good once. There were times I thought about leaving the ministry, and times I thought about leaving the church altogether; it was only the grace and the goodness of God that kept me from giving up on everything, so I have an idea where folks are coming from.
I don’t stay in the church because I have found it to be a wonderful place and a wonderful experience; taken all in all, I’ve found it quite uneven. Rather, I stay in the church as an act of faith that God meant what he said when he called us his people, his family, his body, and promised that not even the gates of Hell would prevail against us—and I say that as one who knows full well that those gates threaten us from within as well as from without. However ambivalent I may sometimes be, it remains true through all that Jesus loves the church, and died for her, and that we are called to follow his lead.
All of which is to say, as much as I understand the stones people throw at the church (having fired off a few myself at times), I do believe the church needs to be defended; and I say that not because I’m in the business, of the guild, as it were, but rather despite that fact. However badly we screw it up, as we often do, this is still something God has ordained, and it’s still important that we gather together in worship and fellowship and ministry. Yes, that means friction, which is unpleasant; but that friction is one of the things God uses to sand away our rough edges and polish our strengths. True community—where, as Kurt Vonnegut beautifully said, “the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured”—is not an easy thing, which is why far too many churches don’t try all that hard to create it; but for all that, it’s important for our well-being, and if we will commit to it, it’s a beautiful gift of God.
Unfortunately, we resist it—and this isn’t just a fault of “the institutional church,” it’s also a fault of many of those who leave it—because it challenges us. I do not say this is the reason everyone leaves—not by a long shot—and I’m certainly not presuming to attribute motives to Barry or Erin or indeed any other specific person; but I do say that it’s something I’ve seen (in past churches of which I’ve been a part, among others). Living in community challenges our selfishness, our certainty of our own ideas, and our particular ways of doing things, and a lot of people don’t like that. We tend to want to hang around people who reinforce all those things (which is why the church-growth types advocate building churches out of people who’re as much alike as possible); part of the job of the church is precisely that we challenge each other on such matters, but that’s not something we find comfortable, and so we tend to shy away from it.
Which is where, oddly enough, I come from in defending preaching. I certainly agree with Barry’s point on the value of discussion and conversation, and I believe that needs to be a major part of the teaching ministry of any church—including something many ministers do (and more have tried to do), discussion and conversation about the sermon. And yet, I do believe that the sermon also has an important place in that ministry. I will grant without argument that “sermons can be dangerous things”—but I will also say that it’s neither my practice nor my experience that “you are only exposed to one point of view, and it is usually presented as the only valid one.” Of course there are preachers who operate that way; I’ve sat under such preaching just like everyone else has. There are more preachers, though, who are so afraid of conflict that they go to the opposite extreme, leaving no punch unpulled and no thought unqualified. And there are a lot of us in the middle, too, who are careful in our preaching to lay out various points of view, to argue respectfully for our own, and to make the limits of our own understanding clear.
That said, as much as I agree there is no place for the dictatorship of the pulpit, there is a need for people who preach with real authority—authority which comes not from them, but from their total submission to the will of God. If we look at Jesus, we see that he consistently challenged people to see what they didn’t want to see and understand what they didn’t want to understand; and the great problem with a teaching ministry that relies solely on discussion and conversation is that it makes it too easy for us to avoid hearing what we don’t want to hear. One of the roles of preaching—probably the most difficult—is to bring people face to face, lovingly and graciously, with where Jesus is challenging them. This isn’t (and can’t be) something we do by our own strength, it’s something the Holy Spirit does through us, and it begins with letting him challenge us as we read the Scriptures; to try to manufacture that in our own strength is spiritual malpractice, pulpit abuse; it’s simply our responsibility as preachers to open ourselves up for God to grab hold of us and challenge us, and then share that as faithfully as we can with the body of Christ, and let God use that as he will. For that kind of preaching, there is no true substitute. For any other kind of preaching, any substitute will do, but for that kind of preaching, there truly is no true substitute.