Today’s question comes from Stevie. She writes: “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” That sentence stands for something very big and very important. I love that. Given that, as a pastor promising this, how do you find common ground for all in your sermons every week? And do people ever complain?”
That’s a great question. Let me see if I can break that big question up into a few digestible parts.
Like you, I love the United Church of Christ’s motto – “No matter who you are, or where you are on life’s journey, you are welcome here.” I am especially blessed to serve in a non-creedal tradition that makes it much easier to live that out.
How does a non-creedal tradition make it easier to live that statement out?
Well, in creedal traditions there is usually pressure to ascribe to a particular theology. Much of the preaching that occurs in creedal churches is designed to encourage individuals to adopt a particular way of thinking/believing. Those who adopt the party line, are generally seen as insiders – and are welcome; those who don’t, don’t usually feel as welcomed. This pressure to adopt the party line is not unique to churches with a particular theological orientation. I have seen many evangelical AND progressive churches pressure their participants to adopt a particular theology.
In my experience of serving in a non-creedal community, the emphasis is much different. Instead of emphasizing right belief ABOUT God, non-creedal churches tend to emphasize right relationship WITH God. This difference in emphasis makes it much, much easier to be genuinely welcoming to all folks – regardless of where they are coming.
There is a tremendous challenge to preaching in a non-creedal church, however.
Not everyone is comfortable with preaching/teaching that is broader. Some folks grew up in creedal communities and only consider preaching “good” if it emphasizes right belief. I’ve found that folks from such backgrounds often don’t respond as well to my preaching. I know, however, that no preacher can be all things to all people. I am secure in my call to serve in a non-creedal environment, and enjoy the attendant challenges that brings.
So how do I speak to folks on such a wide theological spectrum.
There are a lot of things I could say here. For the sake of time, I’ll focus on just three.
The first thing I’ve learned is the importance of using words that “breathe” – or leave room for interpretation. When I talk about the resurrection, for instance, I know that some individuals in the congregation understand resurrection in very literal terms (i.e. bodily resurrection) while others understand the term in metaphorical ways. With this in mind, when I talk about the resurrection I usually use the phrase “new life” instead of “eternal life”. The phrase “new life” gives both groups room relate to the concept of resurrection in ways that have integrity for them.
The second thing I would say is that when I preach, I always try to lock onto a concept that I believe is relevant for our lives today – regardless of our social location. When I preach on a parable like the Good Samaritan – for example – I love the fact that the parable challenges us to see the good in those whom we would otherwise dismiss/despise. That principle was true for the original audience that heard it (i.e. the Jews in Israel who grew up with an animosity toward Samaritans); that principle is true today when it calls us to see the good in those whom we would still make “the other (i.e. people who belong to a specific political party, people in a particular faith tradition, etc.)
Finally, I work very hard to make sure that I stop short of where my own mind and agenda would take me. I do this so I leave room for the Holy Spirit to engage and challenge the listener to come to his or her own conclusions. Talk to any effective preacher, and she/he would tell you it’s amazing to hear what people get out of your sermon. The divergence of conclusions is stunning – and one more reminder of what the Holy Spirit can accomplish if only you leave room for it.
Do people every complain?
Folks in my community are very generous in their response to my preaching. They don’t complain so much as they occasionally challenge my perception, or share where their emphasis might have lie compared to mine. Every week after our Sunday service, we have something called a Talk Back that gives people the opportunity to process what they experienced.
I hope that answers some of your question.
What about the rest of you? What does Stevie’s questions raise for you?