Preaching the Transition

May 2, 2017

Alban Institute offers insight into preaching in times of transition.

On Friday afternoon, Pastor Souris is sitting in her office, working on Sunday’s sermon, when the telephone rings. The caller tells her that the major employer in the community has just announced layoffs. Some of the managers who make the decisions and some of those affected by the layoffs are members of the congregation.

In another community, a telephone call to Pastor Cromwell’s home late Friday evening informs him that the congregation’s church building is on fire, and he rushes to the church. As the evening progresses, it becomes obvious that the fire damage is serious enough that the congregation will not be able to worship in the building on Sunday.

In a third congregation, as Pastor Stuart spends the Saturday morning before confirmation Sunday reviewing his sermon, a police officer arrives at the church to ask some questions. It seems that the confirmation teacher, a beloved board member scheduled to assist in the service, has been charged with child sexual abuse. The accusation comes from a member of the confirmation class.

In yet another congregation, Pastor Perkins opens the mailbox and finds a letter from a lawyer, which states that a deceased member bequeathed the congregation $2 million.

In many congregations, the chair of the pulpit committee telephones the pastor of another congregation to invite him or her to come for an interview or to consider a change in call. In many more congregations, the pastor pauses from preparing the Sunday sermon to look out the window and note for the hundredth time that the people in the neighborhood are very different from the members of the church and that the congregation is not doing much to welcome them.

As these pastors return to preparing their sermons, something is different. Another voice is asking to be heard; another participant is demanding to speak; another reality needs to be addressed. An event that will launch a time of congregational transition–a process of reshaping the congregation’s faith foundation, identity, and ways of being–has found its way into the preaching. As the preacher studies Scripture, the transition and the biblical text seem to interpret each another. The preacher wonders how the transition will affect his or her ability to proclaim and the congregation’s ability to receive the message. As the congregation works its way through the transition, the pastor ponders how preaching and worship, the congregation’s essential activity, can collaborate with other congregational processes involved in the transition. Most important, the preacher weighs the benefits and risks of using preaching to address the transition and ponders how to incorporate the transition into the form, content, and delivery of the sermon so that the gospel rather than an agenda is preached.

Regardless of what the pastor decides, a congregational transition will find its way into preaching. Contemporary homiletic theory understands that preaching cannot be reduced to a sermon text or manuscript but is, in fact, an event involving several active participants. Generally speaking, these participants include the congregation, the preacher, Scripture, God, and the occasion. For example, Fred Craddock, professor emeritus of preaching and New Testament at the Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, asserts that the preacher “works within an unusual network of trust and intimacy that makes the separation of character from performance impossible” and that a sermon “is to be located among a particular group of listeners as much as with a particular speaker.”1 Whether the Bible simply provides historical continuity with the ongoing life of the people of God or determines the sermon’s central message, governing image, and basic vocabulary, Scripture is nonetheless indispensable to preaching. Since Peter’s sermon at Pentecost, the church has affirmed that God the Creator, Christ, or the Holy Spirit is the principal actor in preaching.2 Anyone who has preached at a wedding and a funeral in the same week can attest to the power of the occasion to shape the preaching event. Charles Campbell, associate professor of homiletics at Columbia Theological Seminary, argues convincingly that “the powers and principalities”—the powers of death at work in the world—also participate in and shape our understanding of preaching.3 While the congregation, preacher, Scripture, the occasion, God, and even the powers and principalities all contribute to the preaching event, the role and importance that each participant plays varies in every sermon.

In the life of every congregation and preacher, a congregational transition at times looms so large in a preaching event that it becomes the lens through which Scripture is interpreted, the congregation is addressed, the preacher is heard, and God is experienced. If we understand congregational transitions as kairos moments in the life of the congregation, occasions of grace that mark a definite and perhaps definitive shift in the life trajectory of the community, preaching’s potential as an effective tool and a faithful response becomes obvious.

Yet, as in every preaching event, the faithfulness and effectiveness of preaching in a time of congregational transition is not automatic. During a congregational transition, faithful preaching ensures that the gospel—and not a program or agenda—is proclaimed and heard. Effective preaching leads the congregation to experience God’s presence, grace, power, and direction amid the transition. Faithful and effective preaching illuminates the mystery inherent in the transition, rather than seeking to eliminate it, so that God provides orientation and direction as the congregation moves into what is still unknown. Faithful and effective preaching models and declares that God speaks through change. God speaks as the congregation moves toward transition. The change itself may be the way God speaks. Click here to see this article in the original publication from Alban at Duke Divinity School.
1. Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 23, 3.

2. See, for example, Acts 2:4; 4:8.

3. Charles L. Campbell, The Word Before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2002), 68-69.
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