Preaching in a changing culture

Preacher StatueBy Mark Wenger,
Director of Pastoral Studies and The Preaching Institute for Eastern Mennonite Seminary,Lancaster campus

Union Theological Seminary in Richmond, Virginia has an ornate old chapel building used for chapel services and other events. I distinctly remember when I and my fellow students assembled to hear a distinguished speaker in 1993. I was startled by the presence of a large television set placed just to the side of the ornate, old wooden pulpit. I do not remember the video segment, but I do remember the buzz it created and how out of place it seemed in a chapel built in a different time and for a different generation.

I see at least two large shifts in our culture that affect our preaching. Like a slow-motion earthquake, these changes shake apart old patterns and provide new opportunities and tough challenges. I suppose you can say that these tectonic shifts reverberate from the impact that television and electronic technologies are having on how we communicate with each other.

First, as Neil Postman pointed out back in 1985, our culture has made a major shift away from being word-based in its communications to being more image-based. Of course we still use words, but our words are increasingly surrounded by and often trumped by visual images. The average person today, especially the average young person, is far more likely to watch a movie than to read a book. We now often expect meaningful communication for groups of people to include visual imagery, video footage, and pre-recorded or amplified sound. Group communication that lacks these things can seem old fashioned.

This represents a huge change for Jews and for Christians, especially Protestants and Anabaptists, who have been “people of the Book.” “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” (John 1:1). The scriptures do include a lot of imagery, but it is all expressed in words. As our culture shifts its emphasis to visual communication media, more and more of us have come to accept PowerPoint displays, movie clips, video clips of interviews, and clips from TV broadcasts as part of our worship services and our preaching.

A second change in our culture is the rhetorical movement from argument and proof for persuasion to greater use of experience and testimony. This is clearly visible in the way commercials have changed. They once tended to focus on the benefits and advantages of the products in the belief that people would choose those that perform the best. Today’s commercials tell stories or attempt to create moods and feelings that we will associate with their products in the belief that people will choose the most appealing products.

This change is also evident in the increased emphasis on narrative, metaphor, and imagination in preaching. We used to think of stories as illustrations of the points we were making, but storytellers like Garrison Keillor attract a following without pulling the meaning out of their stories. The story and its imagery are themselves the meaning and point. Some people once frowned on reading novels because they were not telling a true story, but many of us now read them as helpful reflections of common experience.

Many preachers have come to realize that the majority of the Bible is narrative and that it is full of metaphors and verbal images. Jesus told a lot of fictional stories that we call parables. Some of the Bible’s truth is expressed as propositional statements, but a great deal of its truth is discerned from its stories, from the interactions in the dramas, and from the actions of its key figures. Even God’s character is explained many times in terms of the things he has done.

Thomas Troeger has written a very helpful book on this subject called Ten Strategies for Preaching in a Multimedia Culture. He provides a series of suggestions for how to translate the images and content of the scriptures for a culture that expects to receive its communications through visual images, drama, parables, stories, and questions. For example Troeger invites the preacher to “assume there is more to the biblical story.” The preacher can fill out the village scene of the wedding feast at Cana with details and conversations not recorded in Scripture, but quite plausible and congruent with the biblical record. That takes imagination. Another strategy Troeger encourages is for preachers to “create a parable” in the manner that Jesus did, or to develop the sermon as a movie script.

In the end, I believe that preaching that matters must be done with integrity. The sermon needs to come from the preacher’s heart and experience to be authentic, and it needs to be faithful to the scriptures to be God’s word to the people. Changes that serve these ends should be embraced, but we may need to experiment with them before we can discern which ones help us communicate God’s truth more effectively and which ones merely entertain or distract the audience.

Mark Wenger is Director of Pastoral Studies and the Preaching Institute for Eastern Mennonite Seminary at Lancaster, PA. Mark has a Ph.D in practical theology from Union Seminary. He and his wife Kathy were
formerly co-pastors at Springdale Mennonite Church in Waynesboro, VA.