By Rich Voelz
Last week, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) passed a historic resolution calling upon the church to embody “grace and welcome to all to all God’s children though differing in sexual orientation or gender identity, affirming that neither are grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church, and calling upon all expressions of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), as a people of grace and welcome, to acknowledge their support for the welcome of and hospitality to all.”
The collective energy in the business meeting was powerful and it seemed that there was, for many, a quiet emotional release that I have trouble describing for a group of this size. A woman I did not know stood silently beside me with tears of joy streaming down her face. In the days since the vote, there has been a flurry of writing that has tried to make sense of the passing of the resolution, about what it does and doesn’t mean, and about how we need to respond to each other, especially where there are areas of disagreement.
My mind immediately went to impending Sunday morning worship services. I thought, “What will we say on these following Sundays? How will so many of these people who gathered to vote, many of them preachers and pastors, go home and preach in the wake created by the passing of GA-1327?” With this question in mind, I want to offer four areas of reflection that I think might be helpful to those faced with the joyous burden of preaching in the days and weeks after this year’s General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Preaching as Contextual, Strategic Communication
GA-1327 will be received differently in each and every congregation of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). And as others have noted, just because GA-1327 passed, that does not mean everything has changed, as if it were a marriage proclamation in a wedding. Some pastors have returned to congregations that have joyfully received this news. Others have returned wondering how they will hold their congregations together and in covenant with wider expressions of the church. Pastors will likely find every place in between these two extremes and the pulpit can be a powerful tool for navigating a congregation through these waters.
I’d like to think this goes without saying, but it is paramount for preachers to be sensitive to the contextual realities of the times and places they will preach in response to GA-1327. David Schnasa Jacobsen calls context, “the enduring social, cultural, and political features that color the ways in which we who live in the North American context hear the gospel.”
As simplistic as this seems to point this out, it is entirely another thing to thoughtfully consider how contextual realities affect the preaching situation particular to each pulpit. Preaching does not occur in a social, cultural, and political vacuum. There are forces shaping us and our people in subtle and not-so-subtle ways. Preachers need to ask themselves what “cultural frames” exist within congregations: race/ethnicity, class, experiences of displacement, and experiences of privilege. Close attention to the ways that congregants are shaped by contextual realities (as well as our own) give us reference for understanding the varying places of contextual sameness and difference that shape our listeners.
Embedded theological worldviews (or operative theologies) that exist within congregations are also worthy of attention in preparing to preach. Theological worldviews do not form in a day, nor will they be transformed in a day. These are complex stories, lived into over time. Operative theologies order a theological world or tell the story of what is really real, theologically speaking, and provide theological stability in uncertain times. So preachers need to ask, “What are the operative theologies in my congregation and the correlating narratives, symbols, and artifacts that empower those theologies? What shifts in those narratives/symbols/artifacts have been forced to the limits, need adjustment, or require celebration in my preaching that responds to GA-1327?”
Related to this, it is important to view preaching as strategic communication. Over time, as pastors do the hard work of preaching, theological worldviews shift and change. We might like to think that there is that one magical sermon that, if we can find some way to preach it, will change everything in our congregations. But it is the continual practice of preaching week-after-week, attending to the contextual realities and theological worldviews in our congregations that really makes a difference. We need not back away from the idea of strategic communication. This is not manipulative or underhanded; rather it is a loving approach to preaching in light of the covenant we make with congregations over time.
GA-1327 presents an opportunity to name some long-term, strategic communicative goals for preaching. What is it you would like to name, shape, shift, or affirm/celebrate in relation to God, Jesus, Spirit, scripture, community, sin/evil, salvation, hospitality, identity, humanity, etc., remembering that these issues as they relate to GA-1327 are of “ultimate concern” for the people in the pews? What relationships will need attention and cultivation through the process of strategic preaching? What assumptions do you have that are similar or different from those in the congregation? Remember that these will be a part of the larger conversations in the congregation. What preaching conventions already exist in the congregation that will help gain a hearing among listeners or introduced that will help/prevent a hearing? Take some time to write these out, write the date on them, and place them in a place you come back to weekly, so that you can reference them over the course of a year (or longer).
Prophet, Priest, and Sage
This might be going back a step, but what are we doing as preachers as it relates to GA-1327? There are a number of well-worn images for thinking of what we do in preaching: witness, herald, storyteller, poet, interpreter, and the list goes on. Each image of the preacher sponsors an implicit theological understanding of what preaching is and does. While many of those just mentioned have merit, Kenyatta R. Gilbert proposes preaching as a confluence of three voices that make for “trivocal” preaching: prophet, priest, and sage. I believe these three voices set the agenda for preaching in relation to GA-1327, even as each function of this “trivocal” understanding of preaching will come to the foreground of our preaching at different times and in response to the contextual and theological realities that exist in each unique congregational situation.
First, the prophetic voice. Prophetic preaching is not throwing the justice bomb into an unwitting congregation and walking away self-satisfied that we have told the truth. The prophetic voice of preaching “expresses unrelenting hope about God’s activity to transform the church and society in a present-future sense based on the principle of justice.” Prophetic preaching is the hard work of proclaiming God’s justice in the face of the unknown and the seemingly impossible. Some of us will be called to foreground this voice, preaching hope and transformation for the church in light of GA-1327 with heightened pastoral sensibilities.
Second, the priestly voice. Gilbert says this voice “help[s] congregations negotiate faithful possibilities for creatively synthesizing their historical and ritual identities – while consciously reforming and affirming their charter in modern time.” The preacher preaches the presence of God amid the congregation’s varied experiences of joy, pain, confusion, etc. The preacher explains and affirms the covenant between God and the church, the churches’ covenant with one another (and its history), and of congregant to congregant. We can sense here that there is (gasp!) doctrinal preaching to be done as preachers seek to explain and reform foundational theologies and ecclesiology. This is also an appropriate place to trace relevant features of Disciples’ history and polity for congregants.
Finally, the sagely voice. According to Gilbert, the sagely preaching voice announces the congregation’s and preacher’s wisdom for living together in community. “Daringly,” he says, “[this voice] speaks within the context of radical social and ecclesial change for the purpose of keeping vital the congregation’s vision and mission.”  This is, perhaps, the most important function for many of us after the passing of GA-1327. It has been interesting to see the written responses move from prophetic calls for welcome and priestly explanation of doctrinal reasons for why “all means ALL” to now sagely advice for how we live together as church. This voice cannot be ignored. This is the voice that calls us all to continued conversation and to moving onto one another’s ground to listen before we speak.
Again, any one of these voices might move to the forefront of a preacher’s sermon or moment in a sermon. One might be more necessary than another, depending on where a congregation is relative to their understanding and appreciation of GA-1327.
Embodying Grace and Welcome
The voices described above are not mere metaphor. Whether we have been intentional about it or not before, our tone of voice and use of body communicate the message we seek to underscore each week. Marguerite Shuster calls reflection on voice, body, and performance in preaching attending to a preacher’s “truthful presence.” The preacher ignores the body and issues of performance in preaching as it relates to sermons on GA-1327 at his/her peril. Intentional and reflective thought about our movement, posture, tone of voice, and gesture can be the difference between a sermon perceived to be truth preached in love and humility and a sermon perceived as arrogant and “agenda-driven.” Preaching is, after all, an incarnational act and not simply the non-corporeal transfer of ideas. Consider for a moment the following possibility: A preacher proclaims within the sermon, “God welcomes ALL of us! All means ALL!” Is it better for the preacher to proclaim this with (1) her arms outstretched, palms of the hands open or (2) with her arms held inside the boundaries of the shoulders at 90 degree angles, fists clenched? Intention in gesture, posture, and movement can make all the difference in how this statement is received.
In our post-GA-1327 sermons, let’s all be careful about finger-wagging and pulpit-pounding (as a general rule!) and domineering, authoritarian uses of the voice and body. Ask yourself, “How do I need to use my body to communicate faithful witness to the gospel contained in GA-1327 (while thinking even more broadly about leadership in other parts of the service of worship as well)?”
Preaching the Resolution(s)
There is a kind of preaching that preaches in the wake of the resolution. That is largely what I have suggested to this point. Many of us need to preach in response to GA-1327. But I would like to also suggest that preachers could preach the resolution itself. The text of the resolution is written in such a way that it could be preached through a type of verse-by-verse exposition, following each step of the resolution and what it means for the congregational contexts in which it is preached.
A sermon could also trace the resolution by the following movements: Scripture, Tradition, Experience, Resolution. Footnotes one through five of the resolution contain scriptural basis for the resolution. Plenty of foundational Stone-Campbell Movement history could be told with the resolution’s appeal to tradition. Experiences of what “grace and welcome” means, how it has been denied, and how it has been extended abound and can be told with relative ease. A final movement exploring the resolution’s calls to action could be the piece that brings the preceding three movements into focus, as the natural expressions of Scripture, Tradition, and Experience within the context of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).
Or consider a sermon that, rather than using GA-1327 as a kind of “ought-to” statement or doctrinal reinforcement, instead uses the idea of grace and welcome of ALL and language from GA-1327 as the “joyful and ecstatic reinforcement of the truth already taught and delivered in the main body of the sermon.” I know what you’re thinking: “Joyful and ecstatic are not the two qualities I’d normally assign to Disciples preaching.” But if there is any room for celebration in your preaching and any inclination for celebration in your congregation, it is certainly in response to God’s gracious welcome of all humanity for fellowship and service in the church and that God has created us to be “part of God’s good creation.” A solid sermon design can lead you and your people into this kind of celebration.
Furthermore, and more creatively, a preacher could create a preaching mini-series out of several of the General Assembly resolutions. As much energy as many of us invested into the vote on GA-1327, there are several resolutions of significance. At several points, I was personally moved by how meaningful the resolutions were to those who were the first presenters during discussion. How helpful would it be for our churches to hear sermons on many of these? For instance:
- GA-1325 and GA-1330. A sermon on the changing nature of church in our culture, visible/invisible unity, and how congregations have responded through discernment, changing the physical boundaries of their regions to work smarter and with the reality of fewer resources.
- GA-1331. A sermon on the resolution of responding to drone warfare. I had a wonderful conversation with a person who labeled himself “moderate” and who had difficulty voting on this resolution as a resolution. Sermons that acknowledge the difficulties many face when trying to make ethical decisions go a long way toward gaining a hearing on other important issues.
- GA-1337 and GA-1338. A sermon on the emergency resolutions regarding Trayvon Martin/George Zimmerman and the Voting Rights Act decision. In the discussion on 1338, someone raised a question regarding the church’s public witness and our response as church to contextual crises through resolutions. The preacher might preach these resolutions as a way to examine how we as church engage in public witness in difficult situations.
- GA1332. A sermon on the resolution encouraging a fuller experience in Israel/Palestine. We often think of ourselves as hosts (particularly those of us with privilege and means), but how do we respond to invitations offering hospitality, particularly from people who are engaged in a real struggle for “home”?
This is a generative, rather than exhaustive list of the types of sermons that could be preached from the resolutions of this year’s General Assembly. Each of these might be paired with appropriate guiding scripture(s), creating meaningful juxtapositions between sacred text and resolution.
As preachers, and to borrow the ancient image of the church as ship, we are all now riding on the ripples of GA-1327. Our preaching responses are vital to charting the course of a church charged with providing grace and welcome to ALL. I have tried to provide some options for how preachers can do the homiletic work of GA-1327. Please feel free to use the comments section to brainstorm, interact on what you see here, and share what you are doing.
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. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @RevDrVoelz.
2 David Schnasa Jacobsen and Robert Allen Kelly, Kairos Preaching : Speaking Gospel to the Situation (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2009). 9.
3 I take these categories from James R. Nieman and Thomas G. Rogers, Preaching to Every Pew : Cross-Cultural Strategies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001). See also James R. Nieman, Knowing the Context : Frames, Tools, and Signs for Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2008).
4 For more depth, I encourage preachers to explore the following: John S. McClure, The Four Codes of Preaching : Rhetorical Strategies (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2003); Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, Fortress Resources for Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997); James F. Hopewell, Congregation : Stories and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987); Robert J. Schreiter, Constructing Local Theologies (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1985).
5 The preceding items are paraphrased from "Strategic Preaching" in John S. McClure, Preaching Words : 144 Key Terms in Homiletics, 1st ed. (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007). 126-28.
6 Kenyatta R. Gilbert, The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011).
7 Ibid., 81.
8 Ibid., 61.
9 Ibid., 81.
10 Marguerite Shuster, "The Truth and Truthfulness in Preaching: Theological Reflections on Preaching and Performance" in Jana Childers and Clayton J. Schmit, Performance in Preaching : Bringing the Sermon to Life (Grand Rapids, Mich. : Baker Academic, 2008). 28. I recommend the essays in this volume to anyone thinking about their own use of voice and body in preaching.
11 Frank A. Thomas, They Like to Never Quit Praisin' God : The Role of Celebration in Preaching (Cleveland, Ohio: United Church Press, 1997). 85.
12 Note, this is celebration of what God has done and is doing (God’s presence and action), not what we have done and are doing.
13 For advice on this, see the section on “celebrative design” in Thomas, They Like to Never Quit Praisin' God : The Role of Celebration in Preaching.