Many of us have been in that place, maybe at 2am on a night where we cannot sleep, where we look at the latest doohickey an infomercial is selling and we are torn between our piqued curiosity and our cynicism. If that device actually can do everything the overly telegenic talking heads say it does, then I am so there! But more likely than not, they are selling me a bill of goods.
The modern preacher needs to have a healthy dose of such skepticism. As we preach to an increasingly skeptical world, a sermon that shares Jesus without any thought toward doubt is going to come off as obtuse. The issue is exacerbated by the other sharks swimming around on the cable channels: TV preachers. Health and wealth gospel peddlers share a version of Jesus’ message that sounds great but does not line up with the actual struggles of everyday people, much less Jesus’ own experience of suffering and rejection. To preach a gospel that always works, is always wonderful, and never costs anything is to become an easily dismissed caricature in our times.
As I have preached over the years in our setting at The Feast Church, I have struggled with how to share the hope we have. I am painfully concerned about overselling what life in Jesus is actually like. When I look out at the pews and see families who have suffered unimaginable difficulties, it makes me timid. If I declare too strongly the benefit of following Jesus I imagine someone rising up and saying, “That’s not true! I have been a Christian 30 years and it hasn’t protected me from pain or tragedy!” How does a preacher avoid becoming a Hallmark cliché machine, while also holding out something better than the drudgery of a truly secular experience of our planet?
We are currently working through a series at The Feast Church on “Divine Interruptions.” The general theme is that God comes into our lives and interrupts them. Often the path of Christ is one that doesn’t go like we think it will. To highlight this in practical terms we are spending 10-15 minutes each week interviewing one of our members. We find a particular situation in their life where God interrupted their plans and we discuss it. I then offer a short thought on a biblical text that resonates with their story. It means about half the sermon prep for me, but more importantly we are giving witness to God’s work in our community.
Only three weeks in I am generally amazed. With each person you see a life has been deeply touched by the hand of God. You also quickly discover that every person you know has a mountain of thoughts and experiences that you don’t know anything about unless you ask. What strikes me is how God-formed each story truly is. Circumstance after circumstance where people’s best moments are the fruit of divine interruption. This reality does not change when we talk with someone who dramatically converted late in life or with someone who was raised in a Christian home.
As a preacher, I fear that all I preach is essentially country club membership. Join our church, come to some social events, do a little community service, make friends, etc. Christian faith is an add on to their lives, like getting a sunroof in your new Sonata. As we do these interviews that fear is eased greatly. When people give themselves to the Lord it truly makes a magnificent difference. While I am concerned about unfairly minimizing the beauty in my non-Christian friends’ lives, it is hard not to see that Jesus does make a difference. The quantity and quality of stories I hear from my Christian friends truly disarm my cynicism. When people truly hand their lives over to Jesus of Nazareth what you so often see is an incredible transformation of their entire person.
One of our core values as a church has always been “dialogue.” We think people learn better when they discuss things, not just listen to teaching. Usually, we put that core value within the context of non-Christians in conversation with Christians in an environment that allow struggles and doubts. As this series has continued, I realize more and more that dialogue is important within the family of faith too. At the very least, God does not get nearly the press God deserves! So often we experience providence and merely do not report it out. The result is a kind of spiritual isolation in what should be connected communities. Instead of all being encouraged by declaring the work of the Lord we sit back and kind of wonder if this Jesus stuff is really all it is cracked up to be.
In summary, I would encourage Christians reading this blog to consider where the spaces of testimony are within your church. As traditionally non-charismatic communities, those of us in Churches of Christ really have not created space for this kind of communication. It happens a little in prayer requests, but those often turn into complaint sessions more frequently than praise fests. Many of our churches are far too protective of who gets behind a microphone. If we truly want the blessing of God, and to draw in those who are curious, we need to do more sharing. When we do we honor God’s work and prove that, yes, it really does work!
Caleb Borchers planted The Feast Church in Providence, RI, and continues to minister there. He is a regular contributor to the Kairos blog.