Preaching at the Crossroads (of Postmodernism, Secularism, and Pluralism)
David J. Lose, in his Preaching at the Crossroads (Fortress Press, 2013), helps preachers respond to three significant cultural trends: postmodernism, secularism, and pluralism. Postmodernism, according to Lose, asks an epistemological question: “How do we know for certain whether anything is true?” Competing metanarratives mean that the Christian story has become one among many.
A second related trend, secularism, is “marked first and foremost by a loss of transcendence.” Long says, “[I]f postmodernity challenges us to explore the possibility for claiming the Christian story is true, secularism demands to know how Christianity is relevant.” Faith is still important to people, to be sure, but it “no longer plays as meaningful a role as it did for our parents in helping us navigate our day-to-day lives in a secular world.”
Third, Lose addresses pluralism, noting that we are more than ever “faced with a plethora of religious and spiritual options,” many of which are just a click, tap, or scroll away from us. He notes one estimate that on a daily basis everyone is “subjected to more new information than a person in the Middle Ages was in his or her entire lifetime.” Even so-called digital natives “yearn for the sense of stability that tradition lends.” But when seeking wisdom or making decisions, “even those that are rife with ethical consequences, we are far more likely to consult our iPhone than the teaching of our denomination or even our pastor.”
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Postmodernism, secularism, and pluralism are not problems to be fixed, per se. Or if they are, Lose focuses more on how the preacher can envision them as opportunities to reimagine preaching, rather than as challenges for which preachers need to seek a new panacea. Sure, preachers could reach for better use of multimedia or development of new homiletical techniques. But the cultural shifts in front of us, Lose argues, require more than just tinkering from the pulpit. They call for a paradigm shift:
The choice is before us. We are at a crossroads—one where not only the outcome is unclear, but also the primary challenge and perhaps even the alternatives. We can either continue adapting and refining established techniques or be willing to call into question our fundamental practices by leaning into and listening carefully to the world in front of us.
Lose is as engaging a writer as I imagine he must be a preacher. He sweeps the reader up in a compelling childhood narrative at the book’s beginning. He speaks as one who knows and loves the culture around him, but who is not afraid of it. He writes as one who loves preachers and is faithful to the Gospel, but is not afraid to freshly envision creative contextualizations. I can’t remember the last thing I read that got me this excited about preaching in the 21st century—even while the cultural challenges Lose presents were not lost on me.
Much of Lose’s analysis was sobering to me as a pastor. It’s not that I haven’t observed postmodernism, secularism, and pluralism having an effect on the congregation (myself included). And I knew that the days of pastor-as-assumed-authority were gone. But to read (again) that the pastor is no longer the assumed spiritual authority was an important reminder (even if I find this cultural trend short-sighted). Mileage varies, of course–how congregants view the pastor differs according perhaps to generations and a number of other factors. And we preachers do speak to the authority that is really found in the Word of God (and not in ourselves). But preachers, if Lose is right, will have to be ready to work from the pulpit to gain a hearing with a congregation listening to a million other voices and Tweets in a given week.
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Preaching at the Crossroads is short (124 pages) but inspiring. It has already given me action steps and sermon illustrations that I’ve started in on—and this was true even before I had finished the book! He quotes from a W.H. Auden Christmas poem, which, it turns out, provided the perfect perspective for me to preach about resurrection on the Second Sunday of Easter. He recommends asking congregants this difficult but brilliant question (which I plan to do): “What biblical stories provide you with comfort or courage when you are struggling with a problem at home or work?” And he reminds preachers of our rightful place, and how we can pray: “Our job is to testify; it is up to God to make that testimony potent.”
The whole book is great, but chapter 4 (“Preaching the Grandeur of God in the Everyday”) was a real highlight and gift to me. He calls for preachers to help congregants connect their Sunday church-going worlds to their Monday morning work-going worlds. He wants preachers to go to parishioners’ workplaces and ask them things like “where they see God in this place.” But, he wisely offers, “be prepared to help with an answer, as we have not trained our people to look for God anywhere outside of church.”
Lose is convicting throughout his book, but never without also encouraging the preacher and giving her or him practical ways forward. Especially good is Lose’s focus on how preachers can equip the congregation for the work of ministry, where ministry is much more than just what happens on Sunday morning. He paints an inspiring picture:
Over time… your congregation may grow from being a place where the word is preached more fully into a community of the word where all the members take some responsibility for sharing the news of God’s ongoing work to love, bless, and save the world.
In the end, Lose draws on the Internet’s shift to “Web 2.0” (more interactive, socially networked, and user-focused) as a metaphor to envision the sermon as the locus of not passive but “active identity construction.” His closing suggestion is:
If we can imagine making a leap similar to that made by users and programmers who left the static world of Web 1.0 to inhabit the more dynamic and interactive world of Web 2.0, we might be able to offer the sermon as, indeed, a “transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity [between God’s word and God’s people] happens.”
I don’t read many books twice, but I’ll be back for more of this one.
Thanks to the book’s publicist for a review copy, sent to me so I could review it, but with no expectation as the the review’s content.