Recently, I sat around a table with several couples discussing their church experiences. It is fascinating to hear their stories and sense how those perceptions have been shaped by their life experiences.
I've been listening to the generations as they speak their minds about their encounters and perceptions. Admittedly, sometimes the stories are very personal and in the recounting, one can sense the depth of investment and estimate the return on that investment. These stories are especially interesting when the narrative connects experiences 'before' and 'after.'
For instance, my friend Bill grew up in a mainline church and was quite surprised by the difference between his old congregation and his new Nazarene community of faith. Twenty-five years ago, Bill came aboard with little experience in the Wesleyan-Holiness tradition. The informality of worship and the heart-felt preaching appealed to him. Now, Bill is a faithful member reflecting back over the years thinking about the changes he's beginning to see in his former church.
Joining Bill were Ted, Mel, and others as we fellowshiped together. The conversation took a serious turn. 'What is happening at your church?' 'What do you like?' 'What do you miss?' Everyone agreed that change has to come if the church is to reach a new generation. But there was one commonality that seemed to be the lynchpin of the conversation: Preaching.
Everyone agreed that they liked good preaching. We talked some more about the differences they've noticed in the preaching they hear presently. To a person, they all affirmed the central act of public worship for them was the proclamation of the Word. Preaching, in their opinion, was more important than anything else that happened in the service. Regardless of their worship-style preferences, they strongly affirmed the centrality of preaching as the most important act of public worship.
Consensus was that preaching, in some places and situations, had fallen on hard times. Was it because so much attention had to be paid to keeping up with changes in worship styles and formats? Or perhaps it was because the expectations of the people in the pew had failed to keep up with the preferences of the communications gurus who might be influencing those preachers seeking cultural relevance. In other words, could it be that people in the pews are actually hungry for something that sounds like, 'Thus saith the Lord?'
As the conversations concluded, I wondered to myself: As we experiment with variety, diversity, innovation, and everything else, it might be well for us to remember who we are and what we do best. We have always been a community of the proclaimed Word. When our pulpits are afire with Spirit-anointed preaching, the church will have to respond to the call of God. When our preachers proclaim a message from God, our children, youth, and adults will encounter the divine imperative. A mediocre pulpit will propagate mediocrity.
Isn't it time for us to recover the fervency of preaching and begin shaping our future around the proclamation of God's Word in the power of the Holy Spirit's anointing?
David J. Felter is editor in chief of Holiness Today
Holiness Today, November/December 2011