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.


Preaching that confronts racism and the (Baptist) preacher King.

In this post I want to continue my reflections on the significance of William Willimon’s book: Who killed Willie Earle? Preaching to confront racism, not least in the light of the recent statement by the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada and the articulated need for more ‘prophetic’ preaching.

Willimon in his theologizing often draws on his own Methodist tradition in order to honestly name racism as sin and engage in acts of ‘detoxification, renovation, and reparation’.

Here, however, I want to focus on the more explicit ‘Baptist’ themes in his book.

To be sure there are many aspects of the evangelical conversionist Methodist strand upon which Willimon draws with which Baptists could resonate.

This said, I confess that as a ’Baptist’ I felt the sharp sting of…yes…shame, as Willimon recounted the following reconstruction based upon dozen of confessions given to FBI agents:

“So I drove myself to American Cab, checked my sheets with Mr. Norris and Mr.O. C. Berry. I went outside and I seen two Yellow Cabs pull up. One driven by Rector, the others by Marvin Fleming. They had gone and got whiskey at Poinsett and were liquored up good. I guessed. They knew I’m a Baptist. I don’t need to get drunk to do right’.

The ‘right’ which he was going to do was to take an untried and convicted ‘negro prisoner’ from prison and kill him.

Through this reconstruction Willimon exposes a view of Christian faith, apparently internally consistent, when and where liquor was bad but to kill a black man was okay. Rightly or wrongly it is here named as a Baptist sort of Christian faith.

Yet there is another Baptist side to Willimon’s story. For several times when and where Willimon looks for an inspirational figure, a model of what it means to be able to preach in a way that confronts racism, he turns albeit not always uncritically to Martin Luther King Jr. (In this respect Willimon is quite dependent on Richard Lischer’s excellent work: The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America, Rev. ed. 1999).

Preacher King

Perhaps one of the most important points which Willimon makes is to emphasise that despite the variety of other interpretations that people put upon him, Martin Luther King Jr. was first and foremost a preacher. Indeed, Willimon suggests that for many who would appropriate King as a political and social reformer that this description is one they most resist. (Next year which will see the 50th Anniversary of his assassination may be an opportunity for Baptist types to highlight precisely this?)

Thus, Willimon notes that following a Church bombing, one of the first things that Martin Luther King Jr. would do was visit the site of the bombing, bible in hand, not to give a press conference, but to preach a sermon.

What Willimon does not develop here is that such preaching by necessity would often be outdoor, public, and on the site of trouble. King’s preaching that confronted racism was deeply embodied and was performed not necessarily in buildings but in locations where the very act of the preaching was an event of witness that such racist acts were not to be the last word.

The above is worth stating because there appears to be a limiting default mind-set which as soon as the word ‘preaching’ is mentioned insists on an image of ‘in-church’ preaching that is preaching from a pulpit among a congregation gathered in liturgical assembly in a building. The history of transformative preaching is, however, much more varied.

Stylistically Willimon refers to King’s ability to simultaneously identify with his listeners, both black, and white, while confronting them with the necessity for transformation. Willimon would support this as a strategy in preaching that confronts racism. It is also an approach, however, which requires great skill. This is particularly the case if a preacher does not wish to ultimately base their arguments upon shared cultural ideas, such as the American Declaration of Independence, but upon theological convictions. The Church at least needs to draw on more than shared cultural values. This is the case because such values as held by a majority or the powerful may precisely be that which undergirds such evils as racism. We can note that while King appeals as it were to the ‘American dream’ (civil religion) in his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech (which contra Willimon I would classify as a sermon) he also declares that this cultural dream had ‘given the Negro people a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”‘. That is, on its own, American cultural idealism had not delivered the theological vision of the bible.

King as a Baptist preacher, at least as presented by Willimon, is one who not only believed in the sustaining and transformative power of preaching but is one through whom that transformative potential can be seen. King’s preaching was not simply ‘talk’ about racism but was an action and an event that confronted racism.

Willimon quotes Richard Lischer as saying that Martin Luther King Jr. ‘believed that the preached Word performs a sustaining function for all who are oppressed, and a corrective function for all who would know the truth but lead disordered lives. He also believed the Word of God possess[es] the power to change hearts of stone’ (p. 92).

This preached Word, however, came from one who knew oppression and was prepared to stand on the side of the so oppressed on the basis of theological convictions about the value of all human life. This gave a particular perspective not simply on life but from which the Scriptural text was read and interpreted. It was also a deeply embodied preaching in terms of content and context.

In Willimon’s account of preaching that confronts racism there is not simply a Methodist story but also a Baptist story of challenge to be sure but also of interest and inspiration.



Who lynched Willie Earle


I got this book to review several months ago. I immediately wrote a short review entitled ‘I guess they knew I’m a Baptist’ which was picked up by the author and re-posted here.

I continued to read this book which is concerned with ‘Preaching to Confront Racism’.

In the past few days I have returned to this book and re-read it ‘slowly’. Two things stimulated this slow and careful reading:

The first was a really issued statement made by the Churches of the Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada at their annual gathering which reads:

“The Canadian Baptists of Atlantic Canada has already made and welcomed resolutions against racism. In full view of the love of God, and in light of such passages as John 13:34-35, Genesis 1:27, and Galatians 3:28, we as a Baptist Family reject all forms of racism and hateful ideologies opposed to the Gospel, including, but not limited to, contemporary expressions of white supremacy.”

The second was a short conversation with a leader of African United Baptist Association of Nova Scotia who spoke of the need for more ‘prophetic’ preaching.

As a consequence I think that some of the themes in this book deserve an airing. I will develop some of these in coming days. First, however, the review which will be later published in one of the International Baptist Theological Study Centre of Amsterdam’s Journals.

In this book Willimon is concerned, as the subtitle indicates with what it means to preach in a way that confronts racism.

Willimon begins this book in chapters 1-4 with an account from his hometown of the lynching in February 1947 by a gang of white taxi drivers of a ‘negro prisoner’ Willie Earle. He describes the events, the people who murdered Willie Earle, and their acquittal, despite their confessions. In the middle of all of this he introduces and then analyses a courageous sermon by Hawley Linn the minister of Grace Methodist Church who was prepared to preach on race to a white congregation implicit in the culture that led to if not acquiesced in the lynching. From this starting point Willimon goes on in chapters 5 and 6 to discuss ‘Christian talk about the sin of racism’ and the nature of ‘Preaching that confronts racism’.

Willimon explicitly writes out of and into specifically contemporary American culture. He writes out of it as one who admits his own albeit unintentional complicity in racism by nature of his privilege as a white man. Opening with the home town story of Willie Earle is part of his own testimony of necessary conversion. He writes into it arguing that whites are wrong if they think that racism is something which has been overcome despite the legal progress which has been made. Making this case and seeking to overcome the ‘denial’ of racism in a post-Obama America is an admittedly contentious but critically important feature of this book. In turn, he argues that in the Church at least the response to racism based on white privilege requires to be theological. He names it as sin calling for repentance, conversion, and ongoing sanctification even as he outlines the structural as much as the personal nature of racism. This he argues is not moralism but gospel and grace. Preaching, he maintains, is one place, not the only place, but an important place where such an approach to racism can and should be advanced.

In terms of what it means to preach (as a white person) in a way that confronts racism some of his advice is more theological than directly practical. This said, he emphasizes a pastoral posture, the importance of testimony and identification with the congregation, and makes the fascinating claim that ‘style’ can be as important as content. To be sure, those not in the American context will have to reflect on the nature of racism in their own cultures rather than assuming a shared history with what he recounts. This, however, is a good book, written by one who believes in the importance of preaching as a practice and with many individual insights and claims that are worth reflecting upon in all contexts as to the nature of Church, culture, and preaching.



but what do you mean by ‘following?’

It was an honest and sincere question at the end of a sermon. ‘but what do you mean when you talk about “following Jesus”, I pray, I fast, I spend time with God…do you mean something different?’

On the one hand, the answer was, ‘you are following’, but to be honest I suspected this answer would not satisfy me even if it did her. But if not, what did I mean…?

I thought later, I should have said…’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul and mind and your neighbour as yourself’. In so far as ‘following’ means following ‘commands’ that would have been a good answer – actually the ‘greatest’ there is.

The more I thought, though, the more I realised that when I talk about following Jesus I have a further thought in my mind. This thought is that to follow Jesus means matching our own experience to the experience of Jesus and the disciples as recounted in the gospels. It is to have our story mapped to their story, our narratives shaped by theirs.

This is a gospel story following rather than only command following. It means working out in our context what the equivalent is to what Jesus and the disciples did in their context.

So for me – being a follower means being willing to keep ‘bad’ company (tax collectors and sinners) because that is part of the gospel narrative story of Jesus and the disciples. The story and the events and not just the teaching matter as expressions of what the gospel looks like in concrete form.

In the passages I had been preaching from Jesus has taken his disciples to the land of the Gerasenes to confront a chaotic wild unclean man from the tombs of death. Thus to follow Jesus means more than that he might get you out of chaos (the preceding ‘with Christ in the vessel you can smile at the storm’ events) but rather following Jesus can actually lead you into situations of chaos for the sake of God’s commission, compassion, and call (bit of traditional alliteration there!).

I am thankful for her question. It helped me understand again how I view the gospel narratives and the ‘way of Jesus’ as well as the ‘teaching of Jesus’ as important for showing what i means to follow.

Why bother with Preaching?

Doug GayMy friend Doug Gay has recently written a book on preaching entitled: ‘God Be In My Mouth: 40 ways to grow as a preacher’ (due to be released I believe in January 2018). I am sure that some, including some of his friends have wondered, if not said, ‘why bother?’. It seems to me that for many preaching is an anachronistic event that is tolerated rather than welcomed in many a service.

On the other hand there are those, often preachers, who in various way and for various reasons defend the practice as relevant, important, if not indeed central to Christian worship. Here I confess my complicity even as I prepare to take up a post as an Associate Professor in Preaching and Worship (John Gladstone Chair Acadia Divinity College).

The above may represent two conversations passing one another by. Indeed this morning I read a blog post that was all about what preachers need to do if they wish to communicate with ‘millennials’ (a strange universalizing of a group for a supposedly contemporary approach!). To me the post read as: ‘if you have got to preach can you at least do this to make it bearable and as quickly as possible’.

‘To Preach or Not to Preach’ is not a new question (see Norrington for whom it was an ‘urgent question’ several years ago) yet there is a resilience (or perhaps a resistance to going away) in the practice.

Despite all the critique – in a remarkable range of ecclesiological formats (institutional, emerging, missional) ‘preaching’ takes place Sunday by Sunday. As such it is a practice of the Church that requires to be explored in the conversation between these two positions above, not separately, so that if and as it continues it becomes a meaningful space for encounter between people and people, ideas and convictions, and indeed God and us.

But as I said, even as I write I betray my complicity in thinking that there is something significant in the human frailty of this event (speaker, voice, listeners, shared time and space etc) that enables an encounter with the divine (Word and Spirit).