To entertain or to edify?

One of my favorite United Methodist clergy-bloggers, Andrew Thompson, has been blogging again lately, bringing us more of his usual thought-provoking fare.

Most recently he is engaging with a New York Times article on preaching - here is an exerpt:

He's talking about preaching. And what he means is that congregations want to be entertained rather than edified. They want a 'feel good' gospel rather than the gospel of Jesus Christ. He relates an experience from his own ministry, where an oversight committee of laity once instructed him to keep his sermons to 10 minutes, with a heavy dose of funny stories and an eye to sending the congregation home feeling better about themselves at the end.MacDonald says that religion has become a "consumer experience." And that like all choices we make about what to consume, our choices about worship are increasingly aimed at obtaining a product that makes us feel better -- like we got our money's worth, so to speak...

Thompson goes on to offer some thoughts based upon his own experience and to some extent agrees with MacDonald but not entirely.

What do you who listen to or preach sermons think? Is there a pressure on the preacher to entertain even more than edify? If so, from whence comes this pressure? (Neil Postman's exellent book Amusing Ourselves to Death certainly has something to say about this, as he argues that all forms of public discourse - including preaching - have been reduced to "entertainment" in our culture; I recommend every preacher read it).

It seems to me that (among really earnest preachers of Christ) there is a tension between the desire to address people on a level that they can grasp and comprehend on the one hand, and pushing them to rise to "the next level" of understanding on the other. Though perhaps we may sometimes underestimate the understanding of our hearers.

I've noticed that many preachers (often including me) steer away from the theologically dense writings of Paul offered by the Lectionary in favor of the simple narratives of the Gospels in their preaching. Does this stem from a fear that Paul - while offering lots of theological meat - is "too dull" or "too abstract" for most folks in our culture to pay attention to? Is such a fear justified? Or does this fear show a lack of faith in the power of the Holy Spirit to capture hearts and minds through the proclaimed Word of God?
Has the Holy Spirit ever made mighty use of a meager sermon in such a way that gives you hope for the church's future?

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Anonymous Stephen said...

I think it is always a wrestling match, or at least it is with me. I juggle what can I challenge them with what they can grasp. Holbert told us preaching is the art of communicating the gospel to people age 8 to 80.

Like anyone...some weeks I get it about right, some weeks I am too dense, and some weeks I am too light.

Unfortunately we live in America where as everyone knows "You can have it your way!" (Thanks Burger King) So the pastor's job is even more difficult navigating the waters of what is God's authentic word (even in difficult times) and what people will stand to hear. It seems Jesus was able to tell people the truth, but he was crucified. Paul told people the truth but was put in prison and later executed.

Strange people to try to follow...

9:24 AM, August 17, 2010  
Blogger Daniel McLain Hixon said...

And to try to follow while ensuring that we have a solid health-care plan and pensions package ;)

10:20 AM, August 17, 2010  
Blogger Josh said...

It's interesting you bring up the Gospel vs Epistle choices which the Lectionary causes us to make. At my campus ministry, I'll be preaching through the lectionary epistles this fall (with some adjustment to cover some pieces that are neglected by the lectionary this year) in one of my worship services.

I also feel this way about preaching Hebrew Bible/Old Testament passages. Unless we're prepared to do variations on a theme of Marcion, in which WE set the canon of Scripture, then balancing the crucial Gospel narratives with epistolary and other literary components of the canon is part and parcel of the proclamation of the Gospel (not ancillary).

Thanks for raising this, Daniel.

11:37 AM, August 21, 2010  
Blogger spiritstirrer said...

I'll also be preaching through the epistle lessons this fall and looking forward to it. Like Josh I'll make some adjustments where the lectionary seems to be neglectful. Advent is one of my favorite times to preach from the Hebrew Bible/OT lesson.

Great post Daniel!!

12:54 PM, August 21, 2010  

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