Home > Brian's Blogs, Emerging Church Movement > An Emerging Practical Ecclesiology: Preaching and Teaching

An Emerging Practical Ecclesiology: Preaching and Teaching

This is the second post in a series describing the Emerging Church Movement’s (ECM) practical theology. Today I focus on ECM’s proposal for preaching and teaching in the postmodern era. If you wonder how ECM’s modern/postmodern antithesis manifests itself in the church, this issue is critical!

The communication of the modern church is intimately related to its theological method. Therefore, ECM’s primary complaint against the modern evangelical church’s communication is that it is too individualistic and propositional. This is evident in segmented and age-oriented education programs as well as monologue teaching in the pulpit and the classroom. Spencer Burke uses the metaphor of “teacher” to describe this type of preaching and teaching. He believes that the modern church teacher holds to the following values: “I believe our gatherings are primarily about passing down knowledge… My focus is preaching… believe Bible teaching alone changes lives…(and) I believe I would be failing God and my church if I didn’t faithfully preach a sermon each Sunday.” Basically, ECM believes modern communication involves an “explanation of what truth is” that is “communicated primarily with words.” Burke captures ECM’s belief regarding the modern teaching method well: “‘Look, it isn’t what’s being said in the sermon that’s the problem. The sermon itself is the problem.’ That seems to be a common sentiment in the emerging church. Again, people are beginning to question whether the most effective way to develop disciples is by teaching in a lecture format.” Pagitt suggests that this form of communication “hurts both the pastor and the community.”

A related concern that many ECM practitioners have concerning modern communication is that it does not allow room for questioning and doubt from the congregation. Rather than allowing doubt, ECM believes that modern communication only focuses on providing answers. “So much of our modern preaching jumps straight to the issue of sin and then attempts to solve it by giving people ‘action steps’ to take or ‘four principles’ to follow.” Instead, many ECM churches create environments in which both Christians and non-Christians feel comfortable asking questions and expressing doubt.

In contrast to modern evangelical communication, ECM proposes a different form of communication. Spencer Burke applies the metaphor of “facilitator” to capture this form. This facilitator holds to several values quite antithetical to the values of the modern teacher: “I believe we can learn from each other…My focus is participation… I believe the Lord can and prefers to use a combination of influences to change our hearts and lives…(and) believe preaching is one way of communicating the truths of Scripture.” Basically, ECM believes the church must communicate in a manner that is “short on sermons, long on conversations; short on answers, long on questions; short on abstractions and propositions, long on stories and parables; short on telling you what to think, long on challenging you to think for yourself; short on condemning the irreligious, long on confronting the religious” (see McLaren). This change in communication is essential, McLaren believes, for the postmodern culture to hear and receive the gospel.

Both Dan Kimball and Doug Pagitt have written extensively on the issue of preaching in the postmodern era, but today we will only look at Doug Pagitt’s proposal. Doug Pagitt is critical of the preaching he has observed within modern evangelicalism. He believes the modern sermon does not work because it is driven by power, control, and pastoral authority. Therefore, according to Pagitt, the modern sermon “suffers from a relationship problem” because the authoritative pastor is a stranger to his congregation. Pagitt uses various phrases to describe the result of this relationship problem, including “an act of relational violence,” “hurts community,” “dehumanizes,” and “violation.” In place of the modern sermon, Pagitt practices and promotes a view of preaching he calls “progressional dialogue.” A progressional dialogue is relationship centered. The content of the progressional dialogue is created by relationships, both before and during its actual delivery and becomes “a socializing force and formative practice in a community.” The result of the progressional dialogue, according to Pagitt, is that the community benefits by having access to the truth that all community members provide and that the Bible itself becomes a part of the community, rather than simply an authoritative rulebook.

In addition to redefining preaching, ECM practitioners are constantly seeking effective methods of communication. For many, these methods represent a return to more historic and liturgical forms of communication. For example, Tony Jones practices and promotes a revised form of confirmation and other participatory practices such as Lectio Divina and The Labyryinth. Karen Ward utilizes informal gatherings at pubs to welcome new participants into her community and a catechismal approach for those seeking a closer connection to the church.

So what do I think of ECM’s proposal? Here are a few brief thoughts:

  1. I wholeheartedly agree that too much preaching and teaching focuses upon propositional knowledge. I believe that the Bible contains propositions and I believe that right thinking often (but not always!) leads to right actions (Rom. 12). But I also believe that every propositional thought Paul wrote was geared toward a transformation of the whole person, not just increased knowledge (see Eph. 4-6).  I also agree that teaching takes place an a variety of other contexts, not just from the pulpit.  We need to to a better job of utilizing other forms of teaching.
  2. Along with ECM’s thoughts on leadership, I appreciate the reminder and challenge that preachers and teachers don’t need to appear all-knowing. There is something refreshing to the teacher and the student about acknowledging both our weaknesses and journeying together. This is helpful.
  3. I like the thought of making our teaching more dialogue rather than monologue. It can be a great encouragement to hear testimonies and learn from all of God’s people, not just the pastor. I’m a little concerned that this may often turn into “what do you think the Bible says?” but that shouldn’t prevent us from opening things up a little bit.
  4. I strongly react against Pagitt’s claim that preaching is anti-relational. He is assuming that there is no relationship between the preacher and the congregation, and they only interact through this monologue. Nothing could be further from the truth. I interact with my students daily (via email, lunch, etc). I believe that the relationship I establish Mon-Sat greatly benefits my teaching on Sunday, even when it is a monologue!! So Pagitt has overstated his case because preaching and teaching can be (and should be!) built upon the foundation of a relationship.
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