Embodying the Word

Thursday, Mar 1st, 2012

                I had the opportunity to lecture on preaching at Belmont University this week, a bit of a stretch for a theologian.  While I preach regularly, rarely am I asked to reflect on the efficacy of preaching, so it was a good discipline to do so.  Attending the convocation were gifted preachers, gathered to celebrate the installation of Darrell Gwaltney in the H. Franklin Paschall Chair of Biblical Studies and Preaching, as well as students required to attend a certain number of such academic events in order to graduate.  It was this latter group that I wanted to connect with, so I spoke about the contested role of preaching in our day. 

                Jesus preaching to the masses Preaching, as well as the larger role of ministry, has fallen on hard times among young adults.  According to the recent work American Religion by Mark Chaves, about  1 percent of college freshmen expected to become clergy in the 1960’s; from the 1980’s until the present it hovers around .3 percent (3 in 1000).  That means that the level of interest in a religious career among today’s college students is less than half what it was in 1970.  When serving as Dean of the Chapel at Georgetown College, Dwight Moody (my classmate at Southern) realized that few ministerial students wanted to preach, and he “sensed that they had lost the conviction that preaching is a socially significant vocation, that it is not fulcrum with which to move the world (or the city, or the congregation).”   The result of his concern is the construction of the highly effective Academy of Young Preachers, funded by the Lilly Endowment.

                Now I will readily admit that many of us carry images of preachers that are about as appealing as a root canal.  We read of those Puritan preachers who crafted sermons of 75 points that took 2 hours to deliver.  After hearing “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” the people would repent either out of conviction—or to get the preacher to stop!  Yet, creative and culturally relevant sermons connect Sunday with Monday—and Saturday—and speak to the deep longings for God often nearly suffocated by the categorical imperative of our day: “CONSUME!”  Persons both resist and desire external guidance, and thoughtful preachers embody the word that comes from beyond themselves.

                After his baptism, Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God (Mark 1:14).  When he preached that the reign of God has come near, he embodied that reality in his very life.  He preached from keen observation of nature and human character.  His deeply grounded understanding of the Torah, Prophets, and Writings gave him an interpretive framework for enlivening sermons—pithy, humorous, and challenging.  “He preaches as one with authority,” his hearers marveled.  And hearers today long for their preachers to display such congruence between character and message.

                The main point of my lecture was that good preaching arises from paying attention to Jesus, whose subversive stories kindled transformation for those with ears to hear.  God continues to call preachers to embody the Word, and I am grateful for those responding, especially those we are forming at Central.

Molly T. Marshall

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