I just finished reading the 2008 book “Quitting Church: Why the Faithful are Fleeing and What can be Done about it.” It was writing by Julia Dunn, religion editor for the Washington Times.
It is at the same time both an easy book to ready (I read it in a day) and a difficult book to read (I am a life-long church-goer and spend my energy these days encouraging those who want to lead churches).
However, I confess that much in the book resonated with my own experience as a church leader and church-goer.
Millions of people are quietly, slowly dropping out of church: not the young adults we hear so much about, but their parents, people my age, people with my attachment to the church. Church attendance, Dunn asserts, citing reasonable and apparently reliable data, has decreased by 20% in the last decade.
If she is right then I am wrong when I frequently say that in a given week more people hear a sermon than engage in any other public activity (like movies, or sporting events, or political rallies).
Preaching is still important and still a powerful force in American public life; but if Dunn is correct the place and influence of preaching is bound to change. Fewer people will gather on the first day of the week to hear a person recite a prepared text about God and Jesus and life and death.
Preaching may, in fact, become much more like biblical preaching.
Very few of the sermons recorded in the Bible occurred in the context of what we today call a church, or a congregation. Some were written and distributed (John from Patmos, the entire book of “Hebrews”); many were delivered in public places to public audiences (Jesus on the mount, Peter on Pentecost); a few were preached to very small audiences (a prophet to a king, an inmate to a jailer).
Giving a theological interpretation to life and history is the calling of a preacher:
* what is God saying to us in this episode of life?
* how can we obey God in the midst of these circumstances?
* how can Christ be formed in me given who I am and where I have been?
* where does Christ ask me to follow given the chaos in the world and even in my life?
* when must I abandon self-interest and embrace the welfare of the human race?
These questions will persist even if the fairly modern pattern of Sunday church life dissolves into irrelevance. And these are the questions that good preachers will address even if the platform is shifting under our feet.
Anyone who speaks with clarity, intelligence, and passion addressing the deepest questions of soul and society will always gain an audience. That is the good news for young preachers who are responding to what they think is the direction of almighty God.
Our first experience with a preaching camp (in 2009) brought to our attention the power of peer coaching. We had provided seasoned coaches for all of the young preachers and we also brought to the camp a different speaker each day.
But by far the most powerful element of that camp was the influence and inspiration that each of these young preachers exerted upon the other young preachers at the camp. Long after we old preachers went to bed these young preachers stayed awake advising, coaching, helping, mentoring and inspiring one another as they prepared to preach the next morning. We expect the same sort of dynamic at all three preaching camps this year.
This past week I experienced again the power of peer mentoring. I traveled to Birmingham Alabama to meet with 6 other preachers with whom I have been meeting for almost 20 years. We are all Baptists; we are all preachers; and we are all teachers, some full time and others of us part time. We spend 48 hours together, most talking and eating; but because it is March, we also watched a little basketball (Kentucky and Alabama) and played a little basketball.
But mostly we talked and listened. We shared stories from life, family, church, and school. We talked about the challenges we faced as well as the opportunities. Over 2 decades we have shared the normal spectrum of life experiences: hiring and firing, children and grandchildren, success and failure, faith and doubt, life and death.
One year ago, Philip Wise died. He was in many ways the power and personality of our peer group. He was diagnosed in May of 2008 and died in March of 2009. He was 60 years old. We missed him terribly as we gathered in Birmingham.
But during our gathering we presented to his widow, Cynthia, the first copy of our book of essays, written with Philip and dedicated to his memory. It is called, FOR FAITH AND FRIENDSHIP. Each of us, and a few others who could not make this 2010 gathering, wrote chapters reflecting on our work as ministers and our experience as friends. My chapter is entitled, “On Meeting Again an Old Friend: Reading C. S. Lewis After 30 Years.”
I have a few copies of the book and we are selling them for $12 each. I will be glad to sell you one but I tell this story mostly to raise up the importance of friends: ministerial friends with whom you meet to laugh and play, speak and listen, read and write, pray and hope. These men are my mentors, my coaches, my advocates, my encouragers, my friends. I hope each of you has a group of people like this. It makes life and work–including preaching–more blessed and more successful. Such a group is the grace and mercy of God.