Birthing the Sermon (and Worship)…When There’s No Birth

By Richard W. Voelz

“Do you have children?” Ah, yes. The second-most important question to ask a young couple when they enter the doors of a mainline congregation, right after “What’s your name?” We knew we were a rare species in that environment: a heterosexual couple (at that time) under age 30. But a couple under 30 without kids…in church? This was truly a phenomenon to behold.

As someone searching for a church home approximately 5 years ago, but also a doctoral student in homiletics and liturgics and one half of a couple trying to have a child, I became attuned to the various ways congregations responded to a young couple who did not have that great object of congregational desire: children. I became especially sensitive to the ways that preaching and worship addressed my situation as someone who was experiencing difficulty having children, then waiting to adopt.

As I transitioned back into full-time congregational ministry, it has become important to me to create congregational spaces in which people like us would not only be welcome, but find some healing. As we wrap up National Adoption Month this November, I’d like to offer some reflections that I think begin to pave the way toward preaching and congregational worship as more welcoming spaces for people who find themselves in similar shoes.

Texts of Terror

I know the dreaded “texts of terror” label might seem a little heavy handed. While not the same as experiencing biblical texts as women, persons of color, the disabled, or LGBT persons, the particularity of my situation shaded the negative ways I was experiencing biblical texts. The stories of Abraham and Sarah, Hannah and Elkanah, Elizabeth and Zechariah, and even Mary and Joseph read aloud and preached were incredibly painful. I heard Abraham and Sarah’s story and it was too much to bear one Ordinary Time cycle (Year A). I had prayed like Hannah prayed to no avail. Advent was especially difficult because I had to wait for something that did not seem to be coming for me. I often left worship angry because even though I knew that my faith was not the issue, I was wounded by biblical texts with miracle births, and yes, even of the birth of Jesus.

Can you imagine how the word “barren,” read right out of the biblical text, sounds to people having difficulty conceiving or for those who have experienced miscarriage? Nowhere did I hear an answer to “What happens when the miracle pregnancy and birth the biblical narrative seems to be full of for others doesn’t come for us?” As a result, I encourage preachers to think deeply about how we might preach these texts to those who struggle to make sense of reproductive difficulties/loss. How can preaching and worship approach these texts in ways that are healing for congregants who are experiencing different kinds of reproductive loss?[1]

Ethics of Reproductive Medicine

One of the questions I wrestled with during this period of life was discerning my ethical responsibilities as a person of faith. In particular, what were the limits of what I was comfortable with in terms of medical intervention? How should we negotiate all the options in front of us? What wisdom could the Christian community offer to me? Sadly, I heard more about these issues from right-wing political pundits and sign-waving fundamentalists than I did from thoughtful, caring mainline/progressive theologians[2] and local pastors. I never heard a word in public worship.

I wanted to hear people I respected tackle tough issues. We know that many people want to hear their ministers preach sermons that help them make sense of difficult subjects, not avoid them.[3] Instead of your next sermon on stewardship or how to fight fear that you’re so sure someone desperately needs to hear, why not risk a sermon that in some way might help congregants process the decisions involved with choosing to pursue IVF (or other procedures designed to help conception), or with the decision of embryo preservation, or that considers the economics of reproductive medicine? In doing so, you might begin to form a community of care that makes people feel truly welcome: a place that is safe to raise questions that usually remain behind closed doors, a place where no topic is off limits for faithful exploration, a place where the entire realm of human experience meets the pathos of God.[4]

Preaching/Worship and Adoption

Eventually my wife and I chose to move from the process of trying to have biological children to the process of trying to become adoptive parents (a process where we did have success!). But again I found the church to be largely silent, even though adoptive children and parents abounded. As I began thinking about adoption theologically, I realized that I had never heard about adoption within the confines of Christian worship, even though I knew adoptive parents and adoptive children populated the churches where I was going.

When was the last time you preached or even heard of the image of God as an adoptive parent? When was the last time you preached or heard (or celebrated!) adoption as a metaphor for salvation? For all the negative shrift given to Paul for the real difficulties he presents, Paul actually describes God as an adoptive parent. I suggest that these passages of Paul (which do occur in the RCL) be preached with appreciation and preached with an eye toward claiming this as a central image for adopted children and adoptive parents.

What rituals for worship do you have to celebrate when adoptions are finalized? I suggest outlining a service to have ready when the occasion presents itself. Many denominational books of worship have appropriate services. Or you can find some resources here.

As I started to be open as a pastor about adoption through the biblical text and through liturgy, people started to come out of the woodwork and open up to me – adopted children and adoptive parents. They shared their stories with me in large part, I think, because I had made it safe for them to do so in preaching and worship. Their experiences were now a part of the realm of possibilities for sermon and liturgy.

Adoption-friendly Language

Finally, I want to raise the issue of adoption-friendly language. Please, before you utter a word in public worship about adoption (a pastoral prayer in the month of November devoted to the different parties involved in adoption is a nice start) or utter some sermon story full of stereotypes, take some time to familiarize yourself with adoption friendly language. Here’s a helpful list. Or if you prefer, here’s the ubiquitous YouTube meme on what drives adoptive parents crazy.

A Healing Presence when Hope is Deferred

As we come into the season of Advent, keep in mind that many people in the pews are desperately waiting for the good news of a pregnancy and ensuing birth, and not necessarily about Jesus. It may be hard to hear about miracle pregnancies, bewildered betrothed, and angelic obstetricians. But Christian worship can be a place of healing and care if those of us who are responsible for public worship take a risk. What I offer here is just the tip of the iceberg. Do not underestimate the healing power of a word spoken aloud that takes seriously the pain that many people experience as they negotiate trying to have children while being a person of faith.

Rich is the Senior Minister at Johns Creek Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Johns Creek, GA. He holds the PhD in Homiletics and Liturgics from Vanderbilt University. His dissertation, A Youthful Homiletic, explores the relationship of preaching and adolescents, and he is currently working on a book entitled Tending the Tree of Life: Preaching and Worship through Reproductive Loss and Adoption, under contract with Shook Foil Books.

  1. For a helpful differentiation between “healing” and “cure,” see Kathy Black, A healing homiletic : preaching and disability (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1996).  ↩
  2. A notable exception is Serene Jones, Trauma and grace : theology in a ruptured world (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009).  ↩
  3. The idea that people want to hear about a wide range of tough topics in preaching is abundantly clear as demonstrated in the Listening to Listeners studies published by Chalice Press.  ↩
  4. This last description is derived from Don Saliers’ definition of worship in Don E. Saliers, Worship as Theology : Foretaste of Glory Divine (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994).  ↩