Why these as essential reading?

I am currently preparing the material for the course I will be delivering next semester: Crafting worship for our local neighbourhood … Or ‘What on earth do we think we’re doing?’

In the course descriptor I have included these two as ‘essential’ reading:


Why these as essential?

Well one deals with more practical (a handbook) and one with more theoretical (cultural liturgies) issues and both practice and theology and more importantly the theology of practice are important.

Both contain stimulating if not provocative ideas which may enrich thinking and practice.

Both are contemporary books with Smith’s books in particular considered somewhat ‘leading’ in the field and as such cannot be ignored in any serious conversation which claims a ‘thoughtful’ (scholarly/academic) engagement as well as practical concern.

BUT I have not chosen these books as essential because I necessarily agree with them in all of their details or indeed in substantive parts of their arguments.

I find one for all of its strengths inherently and perhaps necessarily locked into an ecclesiology with attendant practices not necessarily my own.

I find the other likewise but also lacking substantive empirical evidence for its claimed thesis. This does not mean it is wrong – simply that I am not fully convinced.

I find both lacking the ‘earthiness’ which is in my question of ‘what on earth do we think we’re doing?’

I have chosen these books, therefore, not because they can tell us what contextual worship might look like in our neighbourhood but rather because they deserve to be engaged with in terms of the theory, theology, and practices they discuss.

This is a compliment to their quality. They are ‘thinking’ books – books in which the authors are thinking about practice and its meaning. In turn, to be sure, others may be more convinced of their perspectives than me.

But for me, the significance of these books is that they will invite US to THINK HARD (faithfully) about why WE DO WHAT WE DO IN OUR CONTEXTS – critically engaging with the wider conversation.


Welcome to our ‘house’

Most families or groups of people sharing a place together develop their own rituals and ways of doing things. Sometimes this is implicit, folks just learn and develop ways of doing things that work for them in terms of place, personality, time etc. That is okay – that is home.

Yet, hopefully when guests come someone takes the time to say, you can hang your coat here, the washroom (see my cultural sensitivity) is through there, no you do not need to take your shoes off (great relief if you remember you have holes in your socks!), can I get you anything, food will be through here, just eat, don’t wait, please go back for more.

In such a context welcome as hospitality is expressed through invitation and information maybe even gentle ‘instruction’ based upon the idea that one is a host, that a guest may not know and we do, and that a word here or there can make a person feel at ease and not awkward.


A handshake between business people

I think that the same should be true with respect to churches. As a consequence I would make it one of my basic ‘rules’ for worship leaders, that they should offer hospitality and welcome to visitors through invitation and information about when in this ‘house’ we stand, sit, sing, pray, eat the bread, drink the cup and so on.

Why not I say, why not…

Those who do not regularly attend churches will not have a clue as to what to do anymore than any of us in an unfamiliar place – they are not stupid – just unfamiliar. Those who do attend churches will often have very different practices in their ‘houses’ and can also be marginalized and excluded as they stand or sit at the wrong time or spend energy trying to work out the in-house rules. Indeed, anxiety about what to do can result in ‘I’m not going back there in a hurry’. Feeling awkward should not be a necessary condition of participating in an unfamiliar Church service.

Here I am not arguing for ‘if you are a visitor’ type of speech which can unfortunately come across as patronizing – highlighting the visitor as ‘stranger’.

I am also not asking for a lengthy explanation of why a congregation does what it does although I certainly think that this needs to be re-vistied time and again in teaching and conversation to help give meaning to meaningful practices or expose the fact that they have no meaning other than local habit and preference.

(If a practice only has local habit and preference in its favour this of course does not mean that it has to be to be stopped, it just means that we do not need to get too uptight about it not least in a cultural context where faith needs to deal with major issues).

No I am not talking here about this sort of necessary teaching and conversation about why we do what we do.

Rather I am referring to the at worst polite, and at best caring and hospitable ‘ we will stand to sing’, ‘we will eat the bread together’ sort of words that inform and invites participation from everyone including the guests (without singling them out) who we say are welcome. To those who hear them every week such words will become as unconscious as familiar road signs present, necessary, but not obtrusive, but to others they can be a very welcome guide to finding the way and joining in. If we want people to participate – stretch out a hand and welcome them in.


Clutching at straws and Christian hope

Woman hand hold cocktail straw on black background

In a cultural situation dominated by a malaise created through the live streaming of world pain at speeds beyond which human beings can meaningfully respond to, (Anna Robbins), there is a danger that our ‘good news stories’ sound like nothing more than the wearied morning after spin of the representatives of a political party which has just been humiliated in a general election – a kind of public grasping at straws, straws which everyone knows are not substantial enough to drink a thick milkshake through let alone build a house with.

As a consequence we need something more durable than chipper optimism…but a hope which dances on the quaking earth of resurrection ground (Matthew 28) and rises from such dark events as Matthew 27.

Such hope cares about bodies – the bodies of young people, old people, white people, black people, able people, disabled people, people in penthouses and people who others would confine to poor houses, these bodies all these bodies matter and for all such bodies he died and rose again.

Such hope challenges the violence, economics, and propaganda of religious and secular principalities and powers which will one day be exposed as ‘fake news’.

Such hope is an essential precursor to mission and – and motivates people as it moves out from a preaching angel, to preaching women, to preaching disciples, and a preaching Church with the trust that there is no situation, no community, no individual heart which is so closed like the sealed tomb that it cannot be prized open by the mercy and love of God.

Such hope is not the desperate half time talk designed to inspire us to do better in the second half but is the Christian proclamation of an idea which if it is not true – we are to be most pitied of all people.

Dr Oliver O’Donovan, ethics and the Church meeting…

bookIn this book, published earlier this year, in a chapter entitled:’“Your Will Be Always Done” Congregational Discernment as Contextual Discipleship’, I got the opportunity to expand on a number of ideas concerning the Baptist ‘Church meeting’.

My primary argument is that since this gathering offers an encounter with the living Jesus Christ, the process matters, and we should be dealing with major issues of discipleship rather than the color of the new kitchen.

In the chapter I quoted from Baptist ethicist the late Glen Stassen who near the beginning of his book A Thicker Jesus writes::

‘Some churches seek to avoid offending any members, and so steer clear of controversial issues and confrontations. This is “Enlightenment lite”: it reduces the gospel to private matters or general principles that do not clash with interests and ideologies. These churches fail to confront members in ways that provide the guidance we need in our lives, and they avoid addressing injustices and problems that threaten us. They offer something far removed from the Jesus in the gospels who challenges the religious and social complacency of his generation. Sociological studies show us that church members feel they need more specific instruction, even confrontation that calls us to grow in
discipleship. Lacking this, “Enlightenment lite” the depth of commitment and the vigor they need to avoid the decline and decay that constitute a growing crisis’.

At the recent Hayward Lectures held at Acadia University/Acadia Divinity College, having been let loose with a microphone for the Q&A time, I could not resist the temptation to ask Dr Oliver O’Donovan (leading Christian ethicist) who had been lecturing on the importance of meaningful ethical reflection in religion, to comment on what he thought we should be doing in our Baptist Church meetings (the lectures are ecumenical in nature – but of course we baptists are in the band). Here is his response:Dr Oliver O’Donovan at the Hayward Lectures in 2017 answers a question on the Baptist Congregational Meeting.


What on earth do we think we’re doing?

Crafting Worship 2018

I am currently preparing a new course on worship for Acadia Divinity College to be delivered in the Winter Semester.

This question, ‘What on earth do we think we’re doing’ preludes the planned course title: ‘Crafting worship for our local neighbourhood’.

More on ‘neighbourhood crafting’ in a later post.

The question, however, ‘what on earth do we think we’re doing?’ is one I have found myself recently asking time and again.

It is a question about what is going on in worship services in terms of the ‘ingredients’, acts, practices, that make up the whole.

It is a question:

about why things are included and others are not.

about why things are emphasized and others are not.

about why things are done in the way they are done.

about why things are placed in the order they appear.

At a deeper level it is a question about what ideas, thinking, concerns, pressures (time and space available), theology (or not) is shaping the decisions that lead to the above choices.

To be sure a worship service can be made up of a wide and varied range of ingredients. But this begs the question of whether all final products are equally acceptable, satisfactory, meaningful, ‘formative’ in terms of what they are claiming to be – that is ‘a worship service’.

Is the question necessary? Yes, I think it is because I am not convinced that the producers and participants in worship always explicitly think these things through. To be sure there are implicit processes at play in the planning of a worship service but unless they are made explicit it is difficult for reflection, critique, and enhancement to take place.

Is the question important? Yes, I think that it is in so far as we claim that indeed our worship services ‘matter’ for a whole range of reasons. If they matter, what and how we carry out worship matters.

Is this just a question for worship leaders, directors, ‘curators’? I think not. Meaningful participation surely benefits from, if not indeed requires, activities to have meaning. I press harder – if worship practices are to be formative (a discussion for another day) then I think there needs to be volitional, thoughtful, engagement in why we are doing what we are doing.

Is this just another question of ‘style’? I think not. Regardless of style the question of why we do what we do in the way that we do remains pertinent.

In approaching this question I am most certainly not suggesting that only one approach will do, again, I am most certainly not suggesting this.

Yet I do not think that every approach is equally satisfactory or reaches the full potential of what what it can be…maybe should be.

The purpose in saying this, and exploring this in a course, is not, however, to be critical, but to be constructive, creating the dialogue and learning of enhancement.


Preaching Style and Baptismal Substance

water-1245779_1920I think for the time being this will be my final blog post conversation with William Willimon’s book Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism in the context of a recent Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada statement against racism and a staff room conversation where a leader from the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia spoke of the need for more ‘prophetic’ preaching.

Of the book and of Willimon’s ideas regarding preaching more could be said. But I want to sit tight with the theme: ‘Preaching that confronts racism’. For  it is with regards to such preaching Willimon makes the interesting suggestion that the ‘style’ of preaching matters:

What is said by the preacher may not be as important as how it is said. Style, the manner of presentation, tone, the demeanour and intentions of the speaker are important affective aspects of a sermon whose speaker desires not only agreement but active engagement and congregational enlistment’ (p. 114).

I guess my background has always suggested that ‘style’ in preaching is a secondary matter. Indeed, at its worst it is a gloss, self promoting sheen, inauthentic, and certainly a poor substitute for content or substance.

At its worst it is indeed all these things and more.  This is the case not least when it is very obvious that the approach taken or imposed on a speaking event is ‘stylized’ – deliberately managed to try and create this or that particular effect regardless of whether it ‘fits’ authentically with the person, content, or context.

Willimon I am sure would not support such ‘style’.

Yet, he talks about the importance of ‘style’ for preaching about racism.

In interpreting this I offer several opinions.

First, we need to acknowledge preaching is an activity that seeks ‘transformation’. It wants to bring about change. It speaks to make a difference of some sort. As such preaching has to try and be persuasive. This is not an abusive thing, a violent thing, an illegitimate thing as long as this is clear and it does not seek to coerce. As such preaching should allow, indeed invite, the critique, conversation, disagreement, discussion, and discernment of the listeners. Most everyday conversations involve ‘difference’ to allow the conversation to proceed. In this sense preaching is part of a congregations ongoing conversation. (This is a topic in itself but no point in pretending that preaching does not seek to bring about some sort of change).

Second, Willimon writes as a white preacher to mainly white preachers. Yet as previously noted his primary, though not only, model of preaching is African American. Such African American preaching is often different in style from much mainline white Protestant and evangelical preaching. This style is authentic in content and context. Different styles, therefore, are quite legitimate. Style is not necessarily an add on but an authentic expression of personality, culture, and context.

Thirdly, Willimon does think that the content: ‘preaching against racism’, precisely because of the embedded nature of racism requires a style that goes beyond addressing ‘ideas’ (a feature of much white preaching). Rather it involves addressing (we might say) the ‘heart’ and the ‘will’ and not simply the ‘mind’.

In relation to the above, Willimon is correct in this emphasis on ‘style’ for preaching that confronts racism . In terms of rhetoric ‘logos’ (content and argument) needs to be accompanied by ‘ethos’ (the suitability of the speaker’s character and authority to deal with a topic) and ‘pathos’ (emotional appeal). King’s ‘I have a Dream’ sermon is a classic in bringing these elements together.

Furthermore, in terms of ‘theology’, preaching that confronts racism does not have the purpose of simply teaching different ideas (though such are important). Rather preaching that confronts racism seeks to change convictions, those ‘thick beliefs’ which makes a person who they are (McClendon) and thus behaviour. In theological terms, preaching that confronts racism aims at ‘conversion’. It seems to be the case that people who have been converted to Jesus Christ still require bit by bit to be converted to ‘His way’ in the world. As stated before, Willimon sees the sort of preaching that confronts racism to be theologically rooted in sin, repentance, conversion, sanctification, and grace.

One of Willimon’s key theological arguments against racism is that the Church practices ‘baptism’ into a new humanity (64-65).  Baptism is a central Christian practice. It is also one which as to its identity politics rejects race as a valid category of distinction and discrimination. Willimon highlights that in some historic baptismal ‘liturgies’ participants are asked if they ‘renounce the devil and all his works’ or to paraphrase, ‘renounce evil’. Given the identity politics of baptism one such evil work to be renounced is clearly racism. So understood it is inherently contrary to what baptism signifies.

Whether this ethical dimension of baptism into the new humanity called the Church takes on a greater significance in a tradition such as ‘Baptist’ that emphasizes believer’s baptism may be to miss the point. Be this as it may, the ethical dimension of baptism as related to the meaning of baptism is surely something to which Baptists with their emphasis on believer’s baptism will wish to give attention. To put this more simply, opposition to racism is a matter of ‘discipleship’. Preaching on baptism, about baptism, or at baptismal services may thus be one of the ‘natural’ places to confront racism.

Fourthly, Willimon is of the opinion that if white preachers want to confront racism in primarily white congregations they need to adopt a style that does not set themselves above white complicity but places themselves in that story while bearing witness to alternative possibilities. The specific style of preaching he advocates to do this can be classed generally as ‘narrative’ preaching and specifically in places as ‘testimony’ preaching. Such preaching is more than personal story-telling, it aims at speaking a word beyond ourselves to ‘exorcise’ the demons of racism. What does such preaching look like? Well he gives examples. The primary example, however, is the book itself. This is Willimon’s testimony of implicit complicity, conversion, and ongoing sanctification with respect to racism. He writes ‘Hello, I am Will, I’m a (recovering) racist’ (78).

Style over substance in preaching is not good. The above, however, indicates the ways in which in preaching that confronts racism, style is for the sake of substance.






Pastors preach to confront racism!

This series of blog posts were initiated through my reading and reviewing of Will Willimon’s book: Who Lynched Willie Earle? Preaching to Confront Racism in the context of a recent Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada statement against racism and a staff room conversation where a leader from the African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia spoke of the need for more ‘prophetic’ preaching.

To preach against racism is ‘prophetic’. It is prophetic in ‘seeing’ the presence of such racism which may not be apparent to those of us who live in and benefit from white privilege. It is prophetic in ‘naming’ the issue and naming it as sin. It is prophetic in ‘talking’ publicly about the matter. It is prophetic in ‘disturbing’ the status quo. It is prophetic in ‘offering an alternative biblical theological vision’ of the way things can be. It is prophetic in offering the gospel resources of ‘repentance and grace’ as transformative of individuals and structures.

All of the above I think is in accord with what Willimon presents.

Yet, interestingly, Willimon uses the language of ‘prophetic preaching’ little.

There are two reasons for this:

The first is that he thinks that such preaching should be done by pastors rather than wandering prophetic preachers. For it is pastors, he argues, who have the context to build the sort of ‘ecclesial relationships’ that allows such preaching as part of the life of a congregation to become transformative. ‘Racism is best overcome in a community that is supportive of and dedicated to truthful preaching that encourages honest relationships and offers interpersonal help’ (124).

Drawing on the example of African American preaching (not least King, see earlier post) Willimon is concerned that white pastors in white congregations will preach against racism in the honesty of their own complicity while learning from their African American colleagues.

Following on from the above, for Willimon the second reason he stresses that pastors should preach against racism is because this is an issue that requires to be dealt with, not only at the national level through resolutions, but at tthe local and congregational level in word and action. The failure to deal with the issue at a local level while making resolutions at the national level is a charge he appears to lay against his own tradition.

To be sure, Willimon is clear that such preaching by pastors will require courage for ‘prophetic’ preaching can be disruptive. Building a multi-cultural congregation can be challenging. It can cut against a pastoral desire to simply maintain peace at all costs. It requires the development of a congregational context where preaching and talk about current issues is framed within the theological and discernment business of local churches.

Willimon writes: ‘Lesslie Newbigin taught us that the congregation is the hermeneutic of the gospel. The preached word is validated in its embodiment. There is no substitute for the church – the living, breathing, taking-up-room bodies brought together by Christ, an in-your-face witness, a showcase for what God can do’ (p. 120)

Willimon’s ecclesiological concern as well as his specific concern to confront racism should resonate with aspects of Baptist ecclesiology and biblical aspirations to model in the ‘now’ that which we read of in Scripture and anticipate in the Kingdom come.