PREACHING FOR THE FUTURE:
2nd Annual Preaching Academy with Rev. Dr. Jana L. Childers
By Kerry Greenhill, with photos by Valerie Jackson
(an edited version of this article was posted 10/26/2015 at www.RMCUMC.org)
At the second annual Preaching Academy of the Rocky Mountain Conference, Dr. Jana Childers advised that to reach the Millennial generation, pastors would do well to preach God’s love and tenderness, and to live out their sermons with integrity.
Close to 40 participants gathered to learn and be renewed for the work of preaching at the Academy, held at First UMC in Colorado Springs on Friday, October 23rd. The Rev. Dr. Jana L. Childers is the Dean and Professor of Homiletics at San Francisco Theological Seminary.
Opening worship featured the musical talent of First UMC’s Chancel Choir Ensemble, led by Rev. Steve Harter and accompanied by Joe Galema on organ. Dr. Childers preached a gentle yet powerful message on Luke 13:10-17, focusing on how “Softly and Tenderly…” Jesus ministered to the woman bent double. Through imagination and interpretation of the Greek, Dr. Childers painted an image of a God who gets down on hands and knees in the dirt with us to touch and bless our feet, and the bodies and lives of all who are weighed down and bent over by systemic oppression or others’ expectations.
In Seminar I, “Preaching to Rattle the Tea Cups and Wake the Dead,” Dr. Childers reflected on the role of self in proclaiming God’s Word. She encouraged those present to seek and recapture greater passion and conviction in their proclamation. Drawing on her background in speech and theater, she gave several tips for making effective use of body and voice to harness the power of nonverbal communication, which conveys 93% of what we understand from others, while words make up only 7%.
In Seminar II, “Preaching for the Future,” Dr. Childers quoted prominent Christian blogger (and Millennial) Rachel Held Evans, who discourages ministers from bending ourselves to the tastes and preferences of younger generations to try to make church “cool.” Instead, we might seek to recapture the elements of “Classic Church” (a term that 67% of Millennials prefer to “Modern” or “Traditional Church”) that draw from ancient wisdom and tradition, including chant, labyrinths, candles, the liturgical calendar, and the Sacraments.
Some of the life changes typical of Millennials (those born 1981-1996) as compared to earlier generations include delayed marriage, women working, fewer children, work uncertainty, higher levels of education, sensitivity to global issues, and immersion in social media. One third of all Millennials claim no religious affiliation at all, the so-called “Nones” in many recent articles and conversations. Millennials tend to be open, connected, confident, upbeat, attracted to social justice, searching for spiritual meaning, and have a positive relationship with (older) adults. They have been shaped by protective parents, the age of terrorism, and media culture.
Research from the Barna Group has made clear the common criticism of church and Christians as “hypocritical” and “judgmental.” Dr. Childers suggested a few ways to counteract those experiences in our preaching: first, to aim for tenderness and grace rather than judgment in our message, and to preach against judgmentalism itself, both in content and in form and delivery. Our preaching must be backed up by authentic lives of integrity, and (as came up in the Q&A at the end of the session) can benefit from what Brené Brown calls “appropriate vulnerability” to reveal that we as ministers are not pretending to be perfect while hiding our flaws and struggles, but are humans in the midst of imperfect lives as well.
Dr. Childers quoted Nadia Bolz-Weber to identify two important purposes of preaching in the postmodern world: to shape hearers’ identity as beloved children of God, and to let people know that “God loves you, God loves you, God really really loves you.”
During the day’s final session, Rev. Dr. Youngsook Kang invited three United Methodist elders from the Denver metro area to respond to questions about their own approaches to preaching:
- Stephanie Price shared that she sees the purpose of preaching as “to equip and empower people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the world,” and shared how she has learned to make the most of her gentle voice and small stature to preach prophetically on social issues in a way that is more accessible to many than would be possible for a different person.
- Mike Dent described capturing insights that come to him in the middle of the night by writing them down in a notepad he keeps on the bedside table, and that his annual sermon planning retreat with about a dozen other pastors is essential for putting together a big picture of the topics and texts he’ll take on for the coming church year.
- Lynn Miller Jackson described being open to the Spirit’s leading in her preparation, finding “aha moments” in the midst of dealing with a tension in the congregation, or in a conversation with a child, and using incense and music to stir creativity by awakening her senses.
The day was a welcome opportunity to reflect on the art of preaching, as well as the context in which we are proclaiming God’s Word today. I greatly enjoyed the first session’s focus on practical tips regarding use of the body to enhance communication in preaching. As a member of Generation X, I appreciated the importance of the discussion of preaching to younger generations, while also wishing that younger voices (present in the room) had perhaps been more intentionally included in that conversation. The session was largely addressed to the Baby Boomers attending, who made up about 80% of the participants.
According to Youngsook Kang, the conference plans to extend this annual event to a couple of locations next year, including the Denver Metro area and Utah.