What is happening in Mennonite preaching? My descriptive analysis of Mennonite preaching is based on my years at Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary (AMBS) teaching preachers from all over the United States and Canada who come there to study, as well as on a survey that I administered at Pastors' Week in January 1998.
Very different things are happening across the Mennonite landscape. We have in some pulpits quite fertile land, and we have in other pulpits what one might call more desert land. In some places we have grand rocky mountains and in other places we have frozen tundra. The landscape in general is a fruitful one, but for this presentation I have chosen another image or extended metaphor. In the gospel of John, chapter 21, verse 17, Jesus says to Simon Peter, "Feed my sheep." How are we feeding, and what we are feeding, the sheep--the beloved people of God?
My students at AMBS often ask, "Why do we do preaching anyhow? Nobody ever remembers a sermon. I can't remember one sermon that I've ever heard preached." My response goes something like this: "What did you have for dinner last Thursday evening? You can't remember. But that does not mean that the dinner was not nourishing. Just because it wasn't memorable, doesn't mean that it did not feed and sustain you." So it is with much preaching.
Let's begin with snacks. Snacks are wonderful. Let's think about carrots, broccoli, apple slices, raisins, nuts or whatever you like. We're staying away from Cheetos and their cousins. Snacks can be nutritious, but short on quantity. They often don't last long. It's just a little nibble of something and then you get on with the important work.
In the Pastors' Week survey, a number of ministers described their preaching with the word, "homily." They said they preached from five to seven minutes on any given Sunday, not really long enough to develop depth in a sermon. In the comments section of the survey they wrote how "the sermon is a part of a number of things that go on and the service can only last one hour or the people get antsy. We always have sharing time and sometimes that just goes on forever. And then we have a children's time and depending on how many children come forward and how talkative they are, there's just hardly any time left for the sermon." In some of our churches we have come to value the horizontal relationships more than the vertical relationship and so our preaching has been reduced to snacking.
Our congregations have a diminished ability to concentrate. I sometimes think of some congregations as having attention deficit disorder--ADD. I mean no insult or offense to people who have ADD, but that a congregation with an ADD mentality cannot concentrate for very long. So a five to seven minute "homily" is about all they can handle. If you have an ADD congregation, then you will need lots and varied snacks to get the needed nutrition.
A second kind of meal is a junk food meal. I have a friend who is an unusual cook. We go to their house for dinner and we are served pizza, potato chips, pickles and ice cream. We have great fellowship, a lot of fun, and we're full. We get lots of calories, and very little nutrition. There are preachers and pulpits that I would define, by reading what they write, as junk food pulpits. In these pulpits the sermon is full of psychology or current events or sporting events or maybe something a little better, but still not on target. They might be full of Anabaptist teaching, or they might be full of theology teaching, rather than the scripture as interpreted by the Anabaptists or the scripture and the theology that is reflected in that scripture. I'm not against the Anabaptists or against theology. But it is not Anabaptism that we preach and it is not theology that we preach. It is Jesus that we preach. And sometimes it feels like the good news of the gospel has disappeared from some of these pulpits. The psychologizing that has taken over may be fun. The current events may be interesting. But it is not the transforming knowledge of Jesus Christ.
Third, there is old-fashioned home cooking of the best sort. I think of pork chops, scalloped corn, a green salad and peach shortcake. Mmmm. Farm fresh food, homemade, piping hot, all the food groups represented, family recipes, changes with the seasons. Sometimes you have to take your plate to the stove or sometimes it's served in the saucepan or the skillet, but it's the best of food, even if the presentation isn't always the most imaginative.
Preaching for these preachers is firmly based in scripture. The message is rooted in, and shaped by, scripture. There is imagination, care and love. The preparation involves careful thought for those who will eat it. I can go around my family's table and each of those dishes is a favorite of somebody. The text menu that this preacher offers the congregation covers the full spectrum of the scriptures. Frequently it's a very simple presentation, very simple presentation. It may lack imagination and sometimes the listeners have to make their own application. In a sense they have to take their plate to the stove in order to get it, but the food is there and it is good. And there is always something worthwhile that moves us in a Godward direction.
The next kind of meal is leftovers. Now this meal is very much like home cooking, very much like home cooking. I want to make this clear. I believe in eating leftovers. There are a few things that get better after they've been around for awhile. But you just can't add cheese to everything and call it something new. Cheese does not transform everything. I have another friend who cooks every Saturday in huge quantities and then they eat it all week, the same thing.
Now what about preaching in this leftover mode? What happens when preaching returns to the same text, the same themes, the same messages week after week, month after month, and year after year? The food gets stale. One cannot just add a little cheese to last week's sermon and have a new sermon. For some Mennonite preachers, the text changes but the sermon is always about peace and reconciliation. For others the text changes but it's always about stewardship. The text changes but it's always about whatever is the preacher's favorite topic or issue. The text in that case becomes the cheese.
Some sermons are worth preaching twice. We love to sing the old, familiar hymns. We love to hear common scripture passages read, ones we know. I think there are a lot of congregations who don't get it the first time and need to have that sermon preached again and again until they get it. I'm not promoting leftovers but I think there is a positive possibility for leftovers. My concern, however, is that we watch out for what reflects laziness or lack of time on the part of the preacher. It is one thing to choose to preach again what needs to be heard again. It is a very different thing to get caught with, "Oops, it's Saturday night already and I don't have anything ready for tomorrow."
The fifth meal situation is carry-out food. Carry-out food is a time saver and an energy saver and frankly, some of us aren't very good cooks. Those of you who have eaten at my house know that this is where I plug in. You're lucky if you have carry-out when you come to my house. Hedwig, from Germany, was once my guest for two weeks. She wanted to eat "American" food. For two weeks I worked hard, preparing breakfast, lunch and dinner. I tried to think what American food was, and in this case I decided American was Italian, Chinese, and Korean. So I cooked everything. The night before Hedwig was ready to go home she said, "June, I'd like to have some recipes." I was so proud. I said, "Of course, you can have recipes. What would you like?" "Well, I'd like your carrot stick recipe." I made a five-step program out of carrot sticks for her. Some of us aren't very good cooks and we need help from any place we can get it. Carry-out food often is nutritious. You can carry out everything from squid to meatloaf. There's a wide variety and it's so easy to just take it home and set the table and serve it.
Now what is the preaching component to carry-out? Many Mennonite pastors are using the lectionary because there are so many helps available. The helps stimulate thought, understanding and imagination. But one Pastors' Week survey respondent said he uses Thursday to look for a sermon. This was not to write a sermon or to look for ideas that he might incorporate into his own work. He uses Thursday to look for a sermon. That is carry-out carried to its ultimate conclusion. I think it is important to remember that effective preaching includes the eyes and heart of the preacher and it includes the eyes and heart of the listeners. So the preacher and the congregation go in to the sermon and carry out just is inadequate when it is the whole thing.
To use the many helps that are out there for lectionary preaching is quite appropriate. Those helps can stimulate your own thinking and give you ideas that you can develop. But to simply carry the whole sermon and put it in your pulpit is a tragedy. Preachers should not preach someone else's sermon.
A sixth eating situation that I would like to highlight just briefly is the buffet or potluck. The table has lots of food and often people end up overeating. There's just too much of all kinds. You've got sweet and sour next to spaghetti next to pot pie next to sauerkraut or whatever pleases your palette. I think that some sermons are like that. Some people who have been in the pulpit for a number of years come back to the seminary and do not understand the concept of having a sermon purpose or a focus. They don't have a single purpose of what they want to do with a sermon. It's just out there, and the people are supposed to help themselves. If you see anything you like or if you see anything you could use, why just have some. In a sense all of our preaching is like that. All of our preaching should be dominated by the spirit of God. We offer our sermons and the Holy Spirit uses those sermons to speak to the specific needs of people in the congregation. Nonetheless I think if we are going to preach in a mode that really moves people in a Godward direction and transforms our congregations, then we must have in mind some thing that will be accomplished by this sermon. So the buffet, though it offers many good things, maybe errs in offering too many good things.
The seventh meal type is company dinner or the feast. The meal looks like this: the best ingredients, superb ingredients, gathered from store to store. You don't just get a frozen turkey at the supermarket, but you go to the turkey farm and pick one walking around and he becomes Tom for your dinner. The food is carefully prepared; the time is programmed; the presentation is exquisite. I think of my company dinners for family feasting time at the holidays. I always have to think through Aunt JoAnn's allergies and Grandma Mae's teeth problems and the fact that Teresa is sort of leaning toward vegetarian and Jon is carnivorous if anyone ever was. My job is to see that everyone around the table is well fed. And of course the table linens are the best and the centerpiece and the sterling and the stemware are in place. It all comes to make the meal a feast.
Preaching can be the same. Menus can be planned to meet what the congregation needs to hear--both individuals within it and the congregation as a whole. Sermon preparation can connect with the biblical tradition but made understandable in the twenty-first century. Sermons can be well prepared and delivered with careful language, sterling images and joyous passion--a feast for the soul.
Drawing upon all these meal types, one can make some generalizations regarding Mennonite preaching. First, Mennonite preaching is based solidly on scripture. I like to tell my students that I teach at the Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary. Our preaching must be rooted in the Bible. Either it begins with scripture and moves to the twenty-first century or it begins with the life problems of the people or a topic that is needing to be dealt with and moves to the scripture and what the scripture has to say. But it is rooted above all in scripture.
Secondly, in terms of content, the Bible needs application. It needs help to get from the land of Zion to the land of Newton. Too often we leave people in the land of Zion. Many respondents to the Pastors' Week survey said that they find it difficult to help people with good applications, to make the bridge to the current life, to help listeners get from the text to meaning and contemporary life.
Thirdly, most of our preachers work at variety in the menu. They see preaching as important theological education for the congregation and they sometimes pause to reflect on how complete it is. For example, what is the full understanding of Jesus that I am preaching? How complete is my christology? Is Jesus always the "good shepherd?" Is Jesus ever casting out the moneychangers? What is the christology that we preach?
Fourthly, sermon content seeks to reflect the real needs of the people. Many respondents to the Pastors' Week survey mentioned how much their preaching was shaped by what was going on in the congregation. There is a deep compassion among our preachers for the issues that the congregation must face, and a deep desire to bring the good news of the gospel to bear on those issues.
The Pastors' Week survey also revealed some areas of concern. First and foremost, lack of time is the most frequently mentioned barrier to sermon preparation. Mennonite preachers like to preach. They enjoy sermon preparation, but they are frustrated because they feel they do not have enough time to prepare. One might say many Mennonite sermons are undercooked. They have a good idea but it is poorly or inadequately developed. Pastors report that there is not enough time for study and that too many other responsibilities press out what time there is. One respondent was brave or brash enough to say he used the Sunday School hour to prepare his sermon. Can you imagine that?
Mennonite congregations vary widely in pastoral expectations. One congregation expected almost nothing from the pastor except a sermon on Sunday morning. That pastor had all week to prepare the sermon. In this case the young man did a fair amount of hiking on the Appalachian Trail where he met God and his sermons came to him. That's one end of the spectrum. At the far end of the spectrum was a congregation who did not expect that the preacher would do sermon preparation on the church's time. That was to be done on the preacher's time. Most congregations lie somewhere in between. There is, however, a growing respect in our congregations for the time it takes to prepare a good sermon.
I'm concerned about the preacher's relationship to God. Most of the respondents to the Pastors' Week survey had very little to offer about their own conversation with God. Some did say they prayed, usually at the beginning of the week and then again on Saturday night. It seems to me that the most important thing for the preacher is to be in relationship with God. If we are involved in prayer life, devotional reading and reflection, listening to God, reading on theological and pastoral care issues, then our preaching will more likely meet the needs of the congregation. Only if we are in relationship with God can our preaching in any way reflect a word from God. I was impressed not only by how pressed our preachers feel, but how little time there seemed to be for the quiet reflection and personal prayer that is so needed.
Lastly, as regards Mennonite preaching, I would like to look at the congregation. Our congregations are hungrier than ever before. They are needier than ever before. Unfortunately, as congregation members, we seldom know our own neediness. We think of the word "needy" as a material word and we are not materially needy. But we are relationally needy. Christian faith is a relational faith. It is a faith about relationship with God, relationship with each other and relationship with myself. And so Christian faith has huge things to say to the neediness of the people. We are called as preachers to preach the grace and good news of Jesus Christ and that is the need of our people.
In general I would characterize Mennonite preaching as undercooked home cooking. It is based in scripture, good food, but often not fully developed and cared for. But without a doubt, I believe firmly that most Mennonite preachers are feeding the sheep.
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