Monday, August 30, 2010

Monday morning preacher: Let me entertain you

At the risk of obsessing over something that no one even remembers any more, let’s revisit that NY Times editorial that blames clergy burnout on those lousy, lazy congregations we’ve got these days (never mind that at no point since Constantine has there been less reason for Americans to bestir themselves to get to church—but I digress in a convolutedly doubly-negative manner).

In the editorial, G. Jeffrey MacDonald writes:

The pastoral vocation is to help people grow spiritually, resist their lowest impulses and adopt higher, more compassionate ways. But churchgoers increasingly want pastors to soothe and entertain them....

I have faced similar pressures myself. In the early 2000s, the advisory committee of my small congregation in Massachusetts told me to keep my sermons to 10 minutes, tell funny stories and leave people feeling great about themselves. The unspoken message in such instructions is clear: give us the comforting, amusing fare we want or we’ll get our spiritual leadership from someone else.

Congregations that make such demands seem not to realize that most clergy don’t sign up to be soothsayers or entertainers.

Ah, yes. Entertainment. That vile seducer. What truly faithful Christian would settle for the milk and pablum of entertainment when the true and virtuous meat of doctrine is so much more nourishing? Take it away, Augustine:

But yes, there is a certain similarity between feeding and learning; so because so many people are fussy and fastidious, even those foodstuffs without which life cannot be supported need their pickles and spices.

One thing MacDonald seems to miss is that sound teaching and entertainment are not mutually exclusive. Yes, there are sermons that are fluff and no substance. But there are also sermons that are substantial and unpalatable, sermons that you sit through thinking, “I'm sure this is good for me” while praying for it to end.

courtesy of The Ongoing Adventures of ASBO Jesus
I would feel more sympathy with MacDonald if I got the sense that he had been pressured into not preaching the gospel. I do not know about the circumstances or pressures he faced, but the reason I react so strongly is because I sense that he was asked only to preach sermons that people wanted to listen to--not because their itching ears wanted a new doctrine, but because they would have liked some pickles and spices to liven up their weekly fare.

There is nothing in itself morally virtuous about an un-entertaining sermon. And there is nothing in itself morally wrong with a sermon that entertains. Jesus certainly knew that. So did theological superstar Augustine. Entertainment in preaching is hardly new. And when you want to get your point across, it can sure be helpful.


Anonymous said...

Interestingly enough, two different people posted about this original column on my Facebook page a few months ago. The people who responded to your post were all as exasperated as you were - the people who responded to the other post, on the other hand, were unanimously enthusiastic about it. Some parents expressed concern that their children were choosing churches and synagogues for the wrong reasons. A teacher talked about remembering a time when his/her students had longer attention spans. If I am remembering right, someone blamed the change on Saturday morning cartoons.

I don't know what to make of this - my friends and their friends don't typically disagree so strikingly! - but I found it fascinating and thought you might find it interesting as well.

Anonymous said...

ps - Anonymous Historian must sheepishly admit that it's only been a few weeks, not a few months, since that column actually came out and showed up. Funny how it still feels like months.

Elisabeth said...

MacDonald has a valid point: religion does seem more like a "packaged" commodity, these days. Spiritual materialism isn't a terribly new situation, however.

If the minister of a house of worship is not challenging the congregants s/he serves, then woe to all of them! I personally know people who won't pledge, or even make a measly contribution to the plate, unless they "enjoy" the preaching. Foolish, isn't it? The jaw drops at such audacity and entitlement.

One wonders what it would have been like to see the Jesus show, live. You can just feel, from the stories of his ministry, the tiring journey on foot, the dust, the hecklers, the small, mixed crowds of onlookers, children running up (and possibly being snatched away by over-protective, glaring mothers). Was this public ministry truly a side-show? I have no doubt that it was, indeed, just that, for a great many people, from all classes. Clearly, that is not how Jesus saw his work, however we cannot but imagine this was how it was seen by many from the outside.

Despite this, many people who experienced Jesus' "Soul Train" came away with a new perspective on life and living. And those people thought enough of it to decide to make that perspective and the person who brought it forth, part of their lives and tradition, and to pass it on, even to the point of facing challenges, humiliation, persecution and death.

So, what is my point.... Do the entertained learn? Perhaps, but there is no guarantee. Should we only offer people entertainment? No. Entertainment can be an invitation to join the work, or it can promote passivity from which no practice or passing thought arises. In our technological culture, I see the latter far more than the former.

In the end, we have this: "you get what you pay for..." But, how you pay, and why, makes all the difference in the world, as well as what you expect to receive in return.

Elisabeth said...

And here is a link to some entertainment, courtesy of Stephen Colbert!

Anonymous said...

Love, love, love that Stephen Colbert! Thank you!!

LKT said...

Stephen! I'm so impressed! Wow!