Clarification on My Comments About Preaching and Change

I committed the sin of bloggers–making a point without sufficient nuance. And a reader was right to call me on it. I made the overheated suggestion that if you are seeking change within your congregation, you shouldn’t preach a sermon series about it. One reason I offered for this is that significant change doesn’t occur because people get new information. So, why preach? Or blog? Fair question.

I stand by my overall point and for all the reasons suggested in the post, but let me clarify.

Changing a congregational practice is what I have in mind. Clearly preaching can change things. It can change minds. It can change hearts, and both of these are elements for congregational changes in practices. But both often fall short of affecting the changes the preacher is hoping for, and the reason for this is that this strategy–preach us into new practices–is naive.

Most of us have been conditioned educationally to think in terms of information to application, or to move from theory to practice. We live in what James Smith calls a Cartesian anthropology–that we understand what it means to be human primarily in relation to reason. We are reasoning creatures, so what changes things is the information we receive. We’ve been socialized in that anthropology, according to Smith, through the shape of our educational experience.

But change, particularly change in shared practices, involves more than changing our minds about things. This requires deeper, cultural change. 

I’ve experienced in my own preaching the wall that people who write about sense making or diffusion of innovations identify. I remember once deciding that our practice of the Lord’s Supper was fundamentally flawed given the nature of what a table accomplishes. Easy enough. I’ll just preach a brilliant sermon series on it, have a discussion about it, and we’ll make the requisite changes. I had been at the congregation a long time and knew that the congregational trust level was high. This would be a snap.

And the sermon series was brilliant. People agreed in theory with the thrust of the sermons. But when we talked about actually making changes in our practice we hit a brick wall. No, we hit a roadside bomb. What happened?

Well, first of all, what people valued about their practice went beyond a reasoned explanation of that practice. They did things during the Lord’s Supper that their grandmother had taught them, or that they considered godly, reverent, and above all inward. They associated inwardness with spiritual, an effect of a Cartesian anthropology. And most of this was assumed or tacit, not subject to reason. What about my brilliant sermons with which they seemed to agree? They were simply able to fit the information in their sermons into their already constructed frame of reference. To change would require that their frame changed.

How does that happen? Well, there are things that cause people to have to make new sense of the details of their lives. But according to people who understand these things, ideas are rarely strong enough to overcome the frame. But surprises or significant anomalies are.

Most anomalies, things that lie outside of our frame of reference, we ignore. We can function without having to make sense of them. But a few cause us to reconsider the whole deal. People might have strong views of marriage and divorce that are not subject to critique, until their daughter divorces the guy who beat her. People can have strident views on homosexuality until their child tells them that they are gay. You get the idea. These experiences that surprise us or shock us throw us into new sensemaking loops.

So, deep, cultural change tends to happen around a rhythm of action, reflection, and articulation, as opposed to a rhythm of information to application. Something happens outside of our frame, we reflect on its meaning, and we eventually venture to say what this might mean. Preaching has a different role in that kind of economy. It is not principally about communicating information, though that may occur or even be the focus of some sermons. Instead, preaching seeks to rename our experiences in light of the strange and surprising world imagined by the text. Oftentimes, the sermon is not the first word to us, but it can be a clarifying word that gives us a vivid sense that God is at work among us.

So, I should clarify my claim about preaching and change. Preaching that brings the surprising work of the Holy Spirit in our present experience into view, that helps us reflect on that experience, and name it in light of the strange world of Scripture can be a significant catalyst for change. As perhaps a blog can be.

About Mark Love

I am the Dean for the School of Theology and Ministry and Director of the Resource Center for Missional Leadership at Rochester College. Part of my job includes directing a master's degree in missional leadership, a situated learning degree. I am married to Donna and have a son, Josh Love, who is a practicing new monastic in Abilene, TX. With Donna, I have also inherited three great daughters and two amazing granddaughters.
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6 Responses to Clarification on My Comments About Preaching and Change

  1. Chelan Metcalf says:

    I benefitted from yesterday’s blog (and enjoy the Oh Brother Where Art Thou-esque vernacular). But today’s clarification is even better. I’m glad someone asked for an explanation. Good stuff.

  2. Sandy Olaguibel says:

    The clarification was needed. Thanks!

    Sent from my iPhone

  3. Gary Tandy says:

    Great insights, Mark. I used a literary example to discuss something similar here.

  4. Pingback: links: this went thru my mind | preachersmith

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