The current state of United Methodist preaching

July 25, 2016

I’m back from vacation. While I was gone, I had the opportunity to worship at a large, well-attended United Methodist “First” church. The service was what I call “Methodist traditional,” much like my own church’s 11:00 service but on a larger scale. I didn’t know the pastor or anything about the church.

I like going to church on vacation. Every once in a while, it’s nice to worship in a place where I know no one, I have no responsibilities, and no one knows I’m a pastor. I thought I had given myself away, however, when some elderly women in front of me complimented me for how boisterously I sang the hymns! “Tone it down, Brent,” I told myself.

Anyway, the pastor preached the epistle reading from yesterday’s Revised Common Lectionary—Colossians 2. His sermon had one point, repeated frequently throughout: Knowing Jesus is more important than anything else. To his credit, the sermon was very clear in this regard. While he was a generation ahead of me in mainline Protestant seminary, he probably learned, as I did, that a “good” sermon is supposed to have one main point. (I don’t follow this rule.)

Nevertheless, he over-illustrated this point with three relatively long, mostly personal anecdotes. While I understand the temptation to tell entertaining stories for their own sake (after all, I frequently worry that I won’t have enough to say about a particular sermon topic and a good story takes time), it wasn’t clear why one illustration wouldn’t have sufficed.

After a brief discussion of the context in which Paul wrote these words, he shared another personal story, something that happened to a former parishioner, or the parishioner of a preacher friend—I can’t remember.

The moral of the story? Faith is more about what we do than what we believe. This made me suspect that he’s progressive on the main issue that’s tearing our denomination apart, but I could be wrong.

But here’s my main concern: I was never clear, from his sermon, on what value “knowing Jesus” has, except that it helps us “do loving things” better. Does knowing Jesus make any kind of difference for eternity? He didn’t say. Does knowing Jesus make any more difference in our lives, for example, than knowing the teachings of MLK or Gandhi or the Dalai Lama? He didn’t say. How does one get to know Jesus in the first place? He didn’t say.

There was no gospel in his message. Just a little bit of Law—actually a couple of dollops of Law: “Love like Jesus, or else be a judgmental hypocrite.” As if “loving like Jesus” were something that any of us could accomplish!

Many years ago, N.T. Wright cautioned against this kind of moralism. If our message is, “Just follow Jesus’ example,” isn’t that like saying, “Just play golf like Tiger Woods”? It’s discouraging.

Actually, if I were preaching this text, I might go for that kind of discouragement, at least at first. I would amplify our utter inability to live up to Jesus’ high standard of love. I’d quote Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount: “Be perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect.” I’d quote Paul from Romans 7: “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” I would let the Law do its main work: to utterly condemn us.

And then… I would pivot to the gospel: “Jesus did for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. Here’s how.” Then I would go to the cross, where (I believe) all good sermons must go.

So I believe this was a missed opportunity: Notice how low the stakes were: Even if everything the pastor said were true, what difference would it make? Why does it matter? How does this message connect with our experience of life in this world? He didn’t say.

Yet I suspect this passes for a fairly typical “good” UMC sermon, preached in churches across the land.

If you’re Methodist, is this true in your experience?

7 Responses to “The current state of United Methodist preaching”

  1. Clay Knick Says:

    God isn’t often the subject of a lot sermons. Preaching is not theological, but about us and what we can do or are supposed to do. If you read Fleming Rutledge’s sermons you’ll see theological preaching at its best.

    • brentwhite Says:

      I need to read Fleming Rutledge’s sermons! Good heavens, I love her latest book—about the crucifixion. We are on the same wavelength. She also appears to run in the same theological circles with my favorite Episcopalian: Paul Zahl.

  2. betsypc Says:

    I heard much the same message yesterday–love like Jesus or be judgmental. Except this pastor used Psalm 1 as an illustration of how not to pray; his comment was it sounds good on first hearing but if you pay attention it is very judgmental and this is not the way to pray and snapped his Bible shut. HIs anecdote for a sermon that was centered on humility and not being judgmental was a very snarky comment about one of the presidential candidates. More often than not, worship is centered squarely on him.

    • brentwhite Says:

      Does the pastor not appreciate that Psalm 1 is sacred scripture, inspired by the Holy Spirit? Ugh. Remind me again what your story is, Betsy. Did you grow up Methodist? You go to a Methodist church now? When did you become interested in theology?

  3. bobbob Says:

    welcome back Brent. I hope you had a refreshing break.

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    As you know, our preacher is convinced that one of his “jobs” on Sunday morning is to be entertaining. He thinks he will loose the “audience” if he is not. There are always a couple of jokes, and usually self deprecating homilies.

    Almost all of the theology is about God’s Grace, God’s Mercy, and God’s love. I don’t mind this. Those are big attributes of God. But I would also like to hear something about God’s Truth, God’s Justice, and even God’s Wrath. Jesus spoke at least as much about those. If you don’t ever talk about the bad, how can anyone appreciate the good?

    I think this is pretty much the “Methodist Formula”, so I make it a point to listen to several “fundamental sermons” on line each week. I love my pastor. He is my friend, and he is a good man. But, there is a sameness to the sermon each week that almost seems to lull the congregation to contentment.


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