All last week I was in Holland, MI attending another one of our in-person sessions for my seminary program. It was another week with amazing people, at an amazing place, learning and discussing amazing things.
One of that classes I had was my preaching class. Over the course of five days, every one of us in the class got up and preached a 15-20 minute sermon. Every person–again, every. single. person.–did amazingly well. There were many surprises. People delivered messages that we could not have anticipated, in both skill and content.
Imagine listening to 14 full-on sermons in the course of a few days. It’s emotionally draining; it’s intense; it’s life-giving. It’s trying to drink from a fire hose of God’s Word and Spirit.
One benefit of this is that I got to get a glimpse into the future of the Church’s preaching ministry, and I am happy to say that I am really encouraged.
We live in tough times to be the Church. An increasingly disenchanted secular world offers challenges that religious faith has never experienced. Humans have never known a time where a critical mass of people walk outside and don’t think it is a self-evident truth that there is a God. People dwell deeply in beauty, love one another well, long for justice, and make moral declarations all without needing to draw from the emotional, philosophical, and spiritual resources that religious faith offers, and they do all of this without the slightest intuition that they are moving against the grain of any cosmic design or rhythm.
We live in an age where people are so disillusioned and so “over” everything by which they used to describe themselves. They are post-Christian, race, gender, sexuality, Enlightenment, modernity, nationality, politics, narrative, authority, privilege, etc., etc., etc.
As I was growing up, preachers could appeal to any of these identity markers as a way to call someone into the community of faith or keep them there. They could use these things as the vocabulary with which to understand reality and God.
That simply doesn’t work now.
As I’ve grown older, the sermons that used to feel so “applicable”, “practical”, and resonant now seem to have less and less resemblance to reality or the world around me. They seem to be words offered to imaginary, disembodied people I’ve never met; people that can simply receive the proclamations of God from his ordained authorities and then live lives of passionate obedience and response–those who can simply “hear the Gospel”, “preach it to themselves”, and be changed.
That’s a fantasy world. It is not reality.
Perhaps there was a time when humanity was so attuned with the spiritual that a simple, disembodied authoritative word from on high could re-orient everything. That simply doesn’t work now.
I don’t know if it’s the seminary itself or the type of people distance learning theological education attracts, but my fellow seminarians here are amazing. And to watch them preach showed me the future of our church and how preaching will evolve for our good and God’s glory.
In a world where every former-foundation has been shattered, and we are post-everything, what is left when all other points of contact are whittled away?
Human existence itself.
It seemed as if every one of these seminarians preachers had tapped into the common denominators of humanity–that which was common to us all–and exposed how much of American Evangelicalism plays with the “numerators” of our fractioned lives (take a moment now to remember your fractions).
To a person, every sermon came from–and spoke to–a place of human depth and brokenness. There was an abiding angst for God’s word to hit real people in real life. No easy answers. No naive optimism. Just earthy, gritty real life in all its doubt, pain, isolation, marginalization, questions, and injustice.
Most other sermons in America today spend their time articulating what God finds wrong (either behaviorally or doctrinally), what he finds right (again, behaviorally and/or theologically) and then weighs you down with exhortations and imperatives to “repent” of those “wrong” behaviors and/or doctrines and come in line with the right ones.
And they think this is enough. Get your theology or your actions “right”, and your doubts will quiet, injustice won’t seem so despairing, the stranglehold of your addictions and sins will lessen, and your experience of God will have more substance and continuity.
In my seminary program, however, every single preacher got up there behind that pulpit and declared the truth that everything feels “wrong”, nothing feels “right”, and yet God (just like the sermons themselves) comes all the way down and gives us himself. Not a new law. Not a new book of Systematic Theology. But Himself and His People.
If seminaries are to truly equip men and women for ministry, they must equip them to be humans first; teach them to know the substance of humanity and reality; and cast a vision for the depths of human brokenness, sorrow, and existential crisis.
As the world becomes more “post-Christian”, those different parts of our religious family tree need to stick together in the midst of their differences, not fragment along ideological lines. In a world that is fundamentally Christian, there might be a place for seminaries to primarily be places where students are seen simply as repositories for that school’s flavor of “the truth handed down”.
But times have changed. Seminaries ought to still convey their particularities, but they should not see this as their primary purpose in the faith. Rather, it is to form humans who are deeply in touch with the crisis and reality of being human, and how God meets us in those depths.
This is not how most seminaries structure their programs.
But be encouraged. If listening to these sermons this past week was any indication, there are indeed seminaries that both attract and form pastors who feel and know these realities deeply and, like Jacob, wrestle with God until he blesses them–and leaves them limping.