Paul L. Caron

Sunday, October 10, 2021

The New Yorker: What American Christians Hear At Church

The New Yorker, What American Christians Hear at Church:

"Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons I find I am repeating myself,” a young minister wrote despairingly in his diary in 1915. He was barely out of school and only a few months into his first call, at Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit. “The few ideas that I had worked into sermons at the seminary have all been used, and now what?” It would be fourteen years before anyone else read those words, published under the title “Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic.” It would take even longer for their author, Reinhold Niebuhr, to become one of the best-known theologians in the country, famous for works such as "The Irony of American History" and "The Nature and Destiny of Man."

Niebuhr was twenty-three when he was assigned to Bethel, and so timid that he often walked past the houses of parishioners a few times before he worked up enough courage to knock. “There is something ludicrous about a callow young fool like myself standing up to preach a sermon to these good folks,” he wrote in his diary. “I talk wisely about life and know little about life’s problems. I tell them of the need of sacrifice, although most of them could tell me something about what that really means.” But Niebuhr knew preaching was the core of worship, and that the task fell entirely to the minister, no matter her age or experience: “Without an adequate sermon no clue is given to the moral purpose at the heart of the mystery,” he wrote, “and reverence remains without ethical content.”

A century later, sermons remain the core of worship. They also represent a curious literary genre. Like short stories, sermons have certain formal characteristics; unlike sonnets, they have no set form. They can focus on a single verse or several passages, take on a specific theological concept or doctrine, be timely and topical or conspicuously old-fashioned. Christians continue to preach today because Jesus preached during his ministry; the Gospels document the sermons he gave in the years preceding his crucifixion. Following Christ’s example, the disciples also went out to preach; we know this from accounts preserved in the Book of Acts and in the letters of the apostle Paul. Some of the oldest records of the early church attest to the central role of preaching in Christianity. ... Yet not even the earliest apologists agreed about what preaching should be or how anyone should do it. ...

[T]he Pew Research Center has found a novel way to survey American preaching similar to how it has long surveyed Americans themselves. Taking advantage of the technologies that have allowed churches to stream services and post them online, Pew has studied the length, language, and content of tens of thousands of sermons, by denomination and tradition, most recently for the nine Sundays before and the Sunday after last fall’s Presidential election. Pew’s latest analysis builds on an earlier survey from 2019, in the eight weeks from April through June that included Easter. This time, the center was aided by churches that moved their work online because of the coronavirus pandemic; this provided Pew with a welcome body of materials that researchers could use to analyze how beliefs, religious and otherwise, spread through our country every Sunday. ...

[T]his country is filled with preaching on all sides of every political or social movement, with sermons on any given Sunday praying for the President or calling him illegitimate, arguing for reproductive freedom or against abortion, praising social welfare or condemning it, decrying socialism or explaining how Jesus practiced it. The fissures of our society are evident in our churches, as they have always been, and although the hope is that the divisions of the secular world can be erased there, all too often they are reinforced instead.

Perhaps that is why Pew’s second and third surveys seem so much more fraught than the first. (At present, there are no plans for a fourth, though Pew is exploring ways that other researchers can use its existing data sets for additional studies.) By focussing on some of the most charged political issues of the day, Pew’s abortion analysis and election report evidenced the church’s ongoing engagement with pressing social concerns and also suggested how readily its ministers can slip into the language of secular politics. Such politicking can seem prophetic if the sermon encourages the welcoming of refugees through the sanctuary movement, but less so if the pastor proclaims QAnon conspiracy theories about sex trafficking and election fraud.

But one person’s prophecy is another person’s apostasy, and most of us don’t object to preachers airing political opinions per se, only those which conflict with our own. Such is the ambiguity of these surveys: counting word choices or cataloguing political themes does not itself illuminate the content of sermons, for both a call to apostolic poverty and a zealous argument for the prosperity gospel would be included in the category of sermons about wealth. And even if Pew were able to parse the language of sermons in ways that shed more light on the views of preachers, it would not be able to illuminate the most fundamental question of preaching—when, whether, and why a sermon moves a congregant to new or deeper beliefs. What the young Reinhold Niebuhr experienced as a sense of fraudulence was really more like an appropriate humility: the words of sermons matter, even if neither Pew nor the very people who deliver them can ever know precisely how.

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