A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Preachers Take Note: The Real World Is Not "Out There"

Many years ago in their book Resident Aliens, Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon contrasted the theological agendas of Paul Tillich and Karl Barth.

Tillich (along with Bultmann) assumed in his work that Christianity in its traditional form was a problem for the modern world. Thus he embarked on a theology of translation in which the ancient metaphors and symbols could be "translated" (Bultmann; demythologize) into language and ideas that could be believed in the twentieth century. Hauerwas and Willimon reject such a project. They write,

We have come to see that this project, though well intentioned, is misguided. The theology of translation assumes that there is some kernel of real Christianity, some abstract essence that can be preserved even while changing some of the old Near Eastern labels. Yet such a view distorts the nature of Christianity (p. 21).

Thus instead of the gospel transforming the world, the gospel becomes transformed by the world; it conforms to our expectation and our sensibilities, rather than the other way around.

Hauerwas and Willimon then contrast Tillich's theological approach with that of Karl Barth, who understood that the task of theological inquiry was not to present the gospel in modern terms that made sense (which makes the Good News quite status quo), but rather to change, to transform lives after the character of Jesus Christ (p. 28). In other words, Tillich thought that the gospel had to be made credible to the modern world; Barth rightly understood that the world needed to be made credible to the gospel (p. 24).

What does this have to do with preaching? Absolutely everything! Any preacher who starts with the premise of making her or his sermon relevant will fail to preach the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ does not need to be made relevant; it is relevant. It is relevant to every age and every place. There is nothing the modern preacher needs to do to bring the gospel into the twenty-first century. It is not the modern world that stands in judgment over the gospel; it is the gospel that stands in judgment over the modern world.

Being a preacher, I have not heard too many sermons over the years, but on the few occasions that I have, I cringe when the preacher standing in the pulpit of the church talks about "the real world out there," as if what happens in the church is not the real world. It is the conviction of the New Testament that the real world is not "out there;" the real world is to be found in the church, the earthly embodiment of God's Kingdom. The world "out there" is not the real world God wanted in the first place. It is a world distorted because of sin. The church is to model for the world "out there" the reality of what God wants it to become.

There is nothing wrong with the church wanting to be "contemporary" (whatever that means) in respect to how the message is communicated through the use of current technology and music (etc.). Indeed, I believe that such considerations in reference to media are absolutely essential. But the substance of the message does not need to be changed to conform to current sensibilities. Those preachers who attempt to do so will be proclaiming something other than the gospel of Jesus Christ, and they will mislead those who hear.

Translation preaching removes the scandal of the gospel offering the Good News as simply one more form of therapy, or as merely one way to God among all the others, thereby stripping the cross of its saving power. Good preachers will not seek to be relevant, but to proclaim the already relevant gospel to their congregations. We must never forget, as Bishop Willimon reminds us elsewhere, that during his ministry Jesus drove away as many people as he attracted. While we want our preaching to attract everyone, we cannot compromise the gospel because it may drive others away. If we do that, we may not have people rejecting what we say, but we will find that people are no longer interested, because we will not be offering to the world anything that they cannot get elsewhere. Preachers must preach in a way that those who hear them will say, "I cannot get this anywhere else." Preaching that intentionally seeks to be relevant will become irrelevant.


PopLid said...

Did you ever watch CSPAN when a congressman is talking to an empty chamber just to get his comments on the record? Neither have I.

Allan R. Bevere said...


I'm not sure of your point.

PopLid said...

Sorry Allan, that was the second of 2. The first (that evidently didn't make it) was:
"It is not the modern world that stands in judgment over the gospel; it is the gospel that stands in judgment over the modern world." From where I sit, it seems that the gospel and those preaching it, are in judgement of the world, but the world is not there to hear it. The world doesn't care; the trial is over, and the courtroom is clearing out.
Do you turn to CSPAN to watch a congressman orating to the empty chamber just to get his opinion on the record? Neither do I.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for re-posting your response.

My post was not meant to be directed at the world, but at the church that seems to think that the way to bring people in is to be more like the world. That's precisely the problem. Once the church is just like the world, one does not need the church. That's why the world is not there to hear it.

The church must be the church.

PamBG said...

I do think the Gospel is relevent, but I can also read the bible on my own. I want to hear the preacher reflect on the content in a way that is relevent to life today, not just repeat the story in a longer form on the grounds that this is "biblical" preaching. (I say this because it seemed to be the favorite way of preaching when I attended churches that were deliberately and self-consciously "biblical".)

A second thought. I've been much appreciative of folk i've met in the last few years who are connecting the sciences of cosmology, evolution and physics with orthodox Christian theology.

As an illustration, I find irrelevent those who try to explain away what manna "really was" (a lot of the post Tillichian generation who are mostly now in retirement) in the same way I find it irrelevent to listen to someone telling me my faith will disintegrate if I don't believe that Pita bread magically appeared.

Allan R. Bevere said...


You and I are in complete agreement. I hope anything I wrote is not construed otherwise.

PamBG said...

I think it's that I don't really understand what people mean when they say we don't need to make the Gospel relevant. And this comment seems to be going around a bit lately.

I think we do need to preach the Gospel in a way that's relevant.

Put it this way. It's self-evident to me that the Gospel is relevant. And I hope and believe that I can answer the question "Why?" when a non-believer asks that question. (I assume you can too.)

But, if it's relevant, then we should be able to actually articulate why. And if we can't articulate why, then do we actually see the relevancy ourselves?

Now, if people mean, "The Gospel is not pop psychology," then I'm in agreement.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Again, I am with you. My issue is that oftentimes when we say the gospel needs to be made relevant it betrays an unspoken assumption that the gospel in and of itself is irrelevant and that we need to do something to make it so. To put it this way... the old, old story is always relevant, we do not need to make it so. However, it needs to be communicated in ways that are contemporary. But the message itself does not need to be made so.

PopLid said...

The definition of irrelevant:

"not pertinent to the subject under consideration: an irrelevant comment; a question extraneous to the discussion; an objection that is immaterial; mentioned several impertinent facts"

It appears that nothing can be relevant in itself. relevant is relational, not absolute. It is an evaluation of a statement or comment to the discussion at hand. The measure of relevancy is the distance between a statement or reference and the discussion at hand, not the truth of either.
Per this definition, the Bible is neither relevant or irrelevant in and of itself....