As someone who has been part of many different denominations over the course of my life, I’ve noticed that each denomination has a particular emphasis or focus. The Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) puts an emphasis on the unity of believers despite great theological diversity, and on the Lord’s Supper. Some more charismatic traditions build worship around gifts of the Spirit, speaking in tongues, and other public displays of spiritual gifts. Some Baptist traditions focus heavily on conversion and baptism by immersion. Still other traditions center on prayer, or on silence and waiting upon God.
The Reformed tradition builds each worship service around Word (Scripture) and Sacrament (baptism and communion). Because not every service contains baptism or communion, many services center on the Word, and maybe an allusion or two to baptism or communion. When I was newly introduced to Reformed theology, I loved the emphasis on the reading of Scripture, even though I dearly missed celebrating around the Lord’s table each week. I am a lifelong learner, and have always enjoyed reading and studying. A theological tradition that values studying God’s Word and engaging faith with intellect is a great fit for someone like me.
And then something happened. God called me to seminary, and then to be a pastor.
As I began interviewing with churches and talking to my friends as they began ministering in their first churches, I noticed that an astounding number of churches seemed only to care about my preaching ability. They didn’t ask many questions about how I would care for families going through times of distress. Almost no one seemed concerned about whether or not my theology was sound. And certainly no one asked me about my beliefs about the Sacraments (baptism or communion), unless they wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to ask them to celebrate communion more than once every three or four months.
Behind it all was the belief that if I was a dynamic preacher, young people would come back to church.
At the time I was in my mid-20s, and the idea that all young people cared about was a dynamic preacher was offensive to me. I wanted more from a church than that. I didn’t want to be part of a church to be entertained, or to be blown away by the newest and most persuasive preacher. I wanted to be immersed in a community of faith that accomplished more than gathering for worship one hour each Sunday morning. I wanted to belong to something that changed the world in some way for the better. And I couldn’t help but believe that a lot of other young people wanted the same things I did.
I took my first call, and am now entering my seventh year of ministry here. And, I’m so thankful and humbled to be serving in a church that cares about more than the charisma of the preacher. Because, while I know preaching is an important part of what a pastor does, I know that preaching is only one of many spiritual gifts, and there are many fantastically gifted and called pastors who do not have preaching as their number one spiritual gift. I have also been thrilled as young families become part of the life of the church where I serve, and I have seen that they all have a desire for something more in their lives and for the church. They want to reach all those kids in our community who have nowhere to go, and who wander the streets after school. They want to do something about poverty and suffering. They want their church to change the community, and even the world.
I do think that many young people want a church that changes the world, that has an impact on the way people live their lives. But, I also think a lot of people – and not just young people – will not attend a church unless the preacher is dynamic and charismatic. Up pop these megachurches with amazingly gifted preachers, and the average preacher in a local congregation simply cannot compete, nor should he or she even try.
I got myself into a conversation on Facebook a few weeks ago about one of those “why millennials are leaving the church” posts that has circulated the interwebs. In the midst of that conversation, someone said, “I wouldn’t keep coming back to church if so-and-so wasn’t preaching there. He feeds me every week.” That stopped me in my tracks. In the Reformed tradition we can get so caught up in the centrality of the Word that we over-focus on the sermon. We elevate it higher than anything, higher than the Word itself. But, while I think sermons are intended to be an opportunity for the pastor to share with a congregation the message he or she believes God has for the church, the sermon is not the Word of God. Sermons are human attempts to convey the divine, and wherever humans are involved, imperfection is assured.
When our focus is on the preacher, we make ourselves intentionally uncommitted to the congregation. The pastor will leave someday. There could very possibly be a lengthy interim between pastors where all kinds of guest preachers will be invited in week after week. Some of those guest preachers may not be all that interesting to listen to. If someone comes to church only to hear a dynamic preacher, when the gifted speaker leaves, so will the person who was only continuing to come for that preacher. The church isn’t the building. It isn’t the liturgical steps we take as we move through the church year. It isn’t the songs, the worship style, the Bible translation we read from, or even the persuasiveness of the preacher.
It is a community of believers who engage the world because they believe in the risen Jesus.
The centrality of Word and Sacrament simply means that this community of believers knows the importance of continually being reminded of God’s amazing plan for the world. It means that the community of believers hungers for the opportunity to taste what God has done, and to welcome with joy new believers into the fold. The centrality of Word and Sacrament means that we don’t want to shut off our brains or our senses when we enter the sanctuary. We know that the Word is inspired by God, and we know that the Holy Spirit uses that Word to challenge and shape us. We know that the bread and the cup we share unites us in some amazing way with worshipers around the world and through the ages, and it enables us to hope with anticipation for the full coming of the Kingdom of God.
We gather around the Word, not the one who reads from it. We gather around the Word to hear about Jesus We gather because we want to be changed. We gather because we are hungry to hear from God.