The American pulpit in most main-line denominations has thus become a platform in large part for personal insight, social criticism or therapeutic technique. The Bible is often referred to, but I know few preachers who would focus on this same text in any rigorous fashion for 10 consecutive minutes. A movie review, that morning’s headline, the winsome personal anecdote ”” these have become the primary homiletics teasers by which preachers seek entrÃ©e into the hearts of their flock.
The results of this development? Consider those denominations (especially those rooted in the New England Puritan tradition) for which the sermon has been Sunday’s center of gravity. They have bidden farewell to the world of the Bible, so they cannot but demand of their preachers a weekly genius nigh unto divine.
Likewise, lacking any authoritative “narrative world,” these denominations’ preachers find themselves thrown back on their own creativity (or genius) Sunday after Sunday ”” there being no message to which he or she has to be accountable. To climb up into a pulpit week after week has become much like the tight-rope artist who must amaze a demanding audience with ever more daring routines.
I understand why preachers are increasingly tempted to use another’s words ”” especially given the Internet. Yes, they should tell us when their words are not their own, and, yes, it’s disappointing when they don’t. But their dilemma is as understandable as it is onerous. They must comfort the sick and dying, chair countless committees, raise money without talking about money, affirm the middle-class while trying to be prophets ”” and then stand up every Sunday and try to be creative and inspiring. If we’re going to ask all this of our preachers and be outraged when they “fail” us, let’s at least give them a safety net of compassion.
I would caution those congregations that go seeking a new pastor to grace their pulpits with weekly rhetorical acts of daring-do: Genius has always been rare at the best of times, and perhaps more so nowadays when our words are “processed” and ideas go naked, bereft of a story.