Church Leaders Wonder: Will Preaching Survive a Post Modern World?

  • News Photo 2260
    Plenary panel session on ?Preaching: Will It Survive in a Post Modern World?? with Chris Seay, Louie Giglio, Randall Bradley, Julie Pennington-Russell, Hulitt Gloer and Brian McLaren.
    Photo by Chris Hansen/Baylor Photography
  • News Photo 2257
    Louie Giglio, director, Choice Resources, Passion Conferences and sixsteprecords.
    Photo by Chris Hansen/Baylor Photography
Oct. 7, 2004

by Craig A. Bird, Special Contributor

Hearn Symposium sessions are available via streaming video at

"Worship as the Overflow of Lived Community"

"The Source of the Song: Whose Voice Is It?"

"The Bad News About the Good News, and the Good News About the Bad News"

"Preaching: Will It Survive a Postmodern World?"

"It Only Takes a Spark: Why Then/What Now?"

"Worshipping the Trinity in Exile: The Prophetic Church with a Post-Era Mission"

"Emerging Worship: reformation or Reformation?"

Maybe the pulpit is a safe house in the worship wars.

In the past half century the evangelical worship scene has seen a lot of changes. Music styles have changed, orders of service have flip-flopped, chalk talks gave way to PowerPoint presentations and pew Bibles and fill-in-the-blank sermon outline forms have appeared in the pews. In a handful of cases the lectern has disappeared and the speaker has "dressed down."

But overwhelmingly the preacher still delivers a 20-30 minute, uninterrupted soliloquy, most often with three points. It's a lecture format, intended to inform and inspire.

But what the New York Times has called the possible "next big wave of evangelical worship," the post modern-influenced Emergent Church may finally bring some change even in there.

"I don't think we will have master orators much longer," predicted Chris Seay, pastor of Ecclesia in Houston and a frequent commentator on things Post Modern on CNN. "Art, dance and music are new forces that will play increasingly larger roles (if the church is to be relevant to the Millennials)."

The post modern individual "celebrates experiences" and wants to engage all the senses," he explained. "They have shorter attention spans and they process information differently from earlier generations. They learn through narrative--stories--and the visual is very important."

Pastor/author Brian McLaren agreed. "We're facing a transition form the familar/normal to something less formal. Song writers and music publishers play important roles in the theological formation of congregation--even more than the pastor. I'm pretty sure people don't catch themselves humming the sermon during the week."

Two other strong emphases in post modern Christian worship also are apt to influence the preaching, agreed several session leaders at Baylor University's "Music and Worship in an Emerging Culture" symposium Oct. 4-6: the desire for community and the desire for contemplation.

"For a long time church has been a place to go--but you could go and sit in the same seat for years and never know the person who sat in front of you," added Sally Morgenthaler, founder of and a respected author in the field. "But this generation wants to be connected, to each other and to God. The preaching experiences will need to contribute to that by being about worship instead of evangelism. The gathered church worships. The scattered church is involved with its community and showing what it means to be a Christ follower."

Contemplation and meditation may invade the sermon. "I'm convinced that sermons need intentional silences in them," Hulitt Gloer, professor of preaching and Christian scripture at Truett Seminary. "I need to invite people not just to listen to what I say but to what God is saying. It's a radical idea to listen more than we speak so they (the congregation) will know they are to be actively engaged."

There also, if the Emergent Church model is accepted, will be a shift from the linear, teaching style to the story teller--much as Jesus spoke in parables.

"I pretty much preach one-point sermons," said Louie Giglio, director of Choice Resources. "My goal is to give them one image to take away with them that will help them live their life the rest of the week. And it's all about story, inviting them into God's story, telling about others who joined God's story. They aren't hungry for information--they hunger to know that there is a God who loves them."

The perception of pastors will also change as the role shifts from spiritual example to a fellow traveler. "I think of it as all of going into a cave together and sharing what we've discovered with our pickaxes," said Julie Pennington-Russell, pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Waco. "It's not like where you tie a scripture to a chair and beat it with a rubber hose for 20 minutes to see what you can get out of it."

The foundation of community also allow the pastor to speak the uncomfortable prophetic word.

"We have to be double agents, amphibians who are loyal to our community but also willing, when necessary, to turn on our community when it needs to be challenged. Promoting community and harmony can't keep us for saying the hard things that need to be said," McLaren said.

But those hard things will have a fair hearing, "if we've held their hands in the hospital and been with them through hard times as well as good times," Pennington-Russell added.

Absolute honesty also makes people more willing to hear the hard things," Seay argued. "We do a disservice to the Gospel when we make the people in the Bible out to be better than they were and we pretend to be better than we are," he explained. "If we're honest about Abraham pimping his wife--and teaching his son to do the same thing--then the person sitting in the pew can realize, 'Hey, I'm not as bad as Abraham so maybe God really can love me.' If he know his pastor uses non-theological language when he stubs his toe--but still keeps trying to follow God, then he will understand he can too, Even when it's hard."

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