A dumb question I have been meaning to ask

I have had question on my mind for a few weeks that I have only recently decided is worth asking.

Is it important that we speak compellingly about Jesus?

The answer might seem obvious. Of course, as a Christian church, we need to speak compellingly about Jesus.

And yet, I don’t hear that many preachers–even good ones–speaking compellingly about Jesus. I don’t know of many dioceses in which Episcopalians are being taught to speak compellingly about Jesus, and even when people say that we need to preach the Gospel, I experience this as a call to spread certain values, rather than as an invitation to figure out what Jesus was up to.

I am not an evangelical. And I understand the contemporary seekers might not immediately be interested in a set of Christological propositions. I am aware that the Bible has been used as a club against minorities and marginalized people of all kinds. Still, if we aren’t offering people a deep and abiding encounter with Jesus, then I don’t understand what we are up to as a church. To my ears, we don’t sound like a church that takes this encounter as its reason for existing. But perhaps I am wrong about our purpose, or am not listening to the right people.


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  1. Richard E. Helmer


    Thanks for the provocative question! Despite being in one of the most unchurched parts of the country, Jesus has never been one of my problems. That is to say, people find Jesus compelling enough.

    What I find challenging is making discipleship compelling — over the grasping, materialism, and hyper-busyness that blights so many of our lives. How do we follow Jesus into the life of God? How do we inspire one another to do he same? These days, that forms the bulk of my work.

    If that doesn’t connect to our Eucharistic practice, gathering in community, theological conversations, prayer, and preaching, I start to worry I’m wasting my time…and everyone else’s.

  2. Peter Pearson

    Good question. Like Paul, we must struggle with Jesus, the Lord Jesus, Jesus Christ, and Christ Jesus. Not all of these are exactly the same and a closer look will reveal that in each is an implied meaning which is packed quite densely. Unfortunately, because of the failures and foolishness of the church over the years, these words begin to sound to our audience like the teacher in the Charlie Brown cartoons: “Whah, whah, whah.”

    Our challenge is to speak about Jesus Christ in ways that are credible, fascinating, and compelling. This is no small task.

  3. Preaching about Jesus is why we are. What would make preaching about Jesus compelling? I like the point about discipleship made above, as well. What about the message of Jesus resonates with us? What do we mean by salvation? So many American churches that are popular talk about thus in certain terms such as hell and heaven. To me, Jesus saves us every day and calls us to act, and this is a gift.

  4. Once again, I give thanks for my rector. His compelling preaching, about Jesus even in his many guises, is what has led me to explore more deeply my faith, my relationship with God, and how both feed and are fed by my daily life. I’m sorry to read that his example is not the norm.

  5. Sara Miles

    A while back, I was talking with one of our parishioners about how hard she found it to engage with what she calls “Jesus-y” preaching. “Well, I’m pretty Jesus-y myself,” I said. I’d just given a homily about the realness of Jesus, and what it means when he says “my flesh is real food” and invites his followers to chew and swallow him.

    “Yes,” she said, “but I enjoy your sermons. It’s like listening to someone with a rare and extremely interesting mental illness.”

  6. Derek Olsen

    We absolutely must preach about Jesus! Bottom line, it is not sufficient to preach generalities, even generalities like “Love”. Thanks to sin, we have an insufficient understanding of what real love looks like without something solid to demonstrate it: that’s who and what Jesus is. Jesus demonstrates what love teaches, what love does, and what love suffers. A love that doesn’t acknowledge suffering, sacrifice, or saying “no” is not the love that we’re talking about—and we see that when we keep the focus on Jesus.

  7. Although I am usually suspicious of importing business/market analogies to the church, I’ve found this a helpful way to think about things.

    If we think about the world of discourse—what you see on TV, read in the papers, hear in conversations or speeches—as a marketplace of ideas, the church is part of that marketplace. In any marketplace, actors need something that makes them stand out so people pay attention. What makes the church stand out—what is our comparative advantage—is Jesus and the Good News which he embodies. Jesus is what we have as the church and not using that makes no sense to me.

    There are lots of things I support and believe in—and believe the church should too—that can be defended without reference to Jesus: climate change, for instance. But the church should be able to explain its position on these issues with reference to the good news of God in Christ. If not, why does the church need to exist?

    (A related question here is how much we have to talk about the Bible. I’d say a similar argument as I’ve just made for Jesus applies to the Bible. It’s what we’ve got. It’s our critical tool. People come to us looking for answers about the Bible. We need to talk about it.)

    I’m grateful for the conversation thread but a teeny bit worried about what it says about the church that we have to have this conversation.


  8. Pepper Marts

    A couple of years back *Esquire* magazine carried an article by Shane Claiborne titled “What If Jesus Meant All That Stuff?” The editors provided this lead:

    “This radical Christian’s ministry for the poor, The Simple Way, has gotten him in some trouble with his fellow Evangelicals. We asked him to address those who don’t believe.”

    The article begins:

    ‘To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. Christians who have had so much to say with our mouths and so little to show with our lives. I am sorry that so often we have forgotten the Christ of our Christianity.

    ‘Forgive us. Forgive us for the embarrassing things we have done in the name of God.’

    and ends:

    ‘In fact, the entire story of Jesus is about a God who did not just want to stay “out there” but who moves into the neighborhood, a neighborhood where folks said, “Nothing good could come.” It is this Jesus who was accused of being a glutton and drunkard and rabble-rouser for hanging out with all of society’s rejects, and who died on the imperial cross of Rome reserved for bandits and failed messiahs. This is why the triumph over the cross was a triumph over everything ugly we do to ourselves and to others. It is the final promise that love wins.

    ‘It is this Jesus who was born in a stank manger in the middle of a genocide. That is the God that we are just as likely to find in the streets as in the sanctuary, who can redeem revolutionaries and tax collectors, the oppressed and the oppressors… a God who is saving some of us from the ghettos of poverty, and some of us from the ghettos of wealth.

    ‘In closing, to those who have closed the door on religion — I was recently asked by a non-Christian friend if I thought he was going to hell. I said, “I hope not. It will be hard to enjoy heaven without you.” If those of us who believe in God do not believe God’s grace is big enough to save the whole world… well, we should at least pray that it is.’

    Read it all at http://www.esquire.com/features/best-and-brightest-2009/shane-claiborne-1209#ixzz1tgnLAME1

    “Is it important that we speak compellingly about Jesus?” You bet it is.

  9. John B. Chilton

    “To my ears, we don’t sound like a church that takes this encounter as its reason for existing. But perhaps I am wrong about our purpose, or am not listening to the right people.”

    I’m truly not sure what you’re driving at. When I attend worship Jesus is the message, Jesus is what the readings point to, Jesus is what the sermon points to.

    And isn’t Jesus at the center of our debates over budget and governance, not to mention issues that cause schisms. To some extent all sides use their alternative views of Jesus to shallowly justify themselves, but to a great extent (no?) the differences are deeper and genuine.

  10. Bruce Calvin

    The problem with the language “to speak compellingly about Jesus” is how the name of Jesus has been co-opted by fundamentalists and evangelicals. It implies that an understanding of Jesus as personal Lord and Savior, as defined by a narrow theological point of view. From what I see, that is a common experience in the current culture that has been battered by TV evangelists and the Christian Right.

    The simple adding of one word, “to speak compellingly about Jesus Christ” makes a difference. This breaks it out of the formulaic use of the single name of “Jesus,” which often slides so easily into a hyper-personal, maudlin pronunciation. Or, as Jesse notes, the “good news of God in Christ,” which is also effective.

    The people who come to me for spiritual direction rarely, if ever, focus on their relationship with Jesus. They focus on their sense of connection, or lack of conection, with God. I must note that all are lay people, and maybe there is a difference with clergy?

    That is not to say that Jesus isn’t important, or that his words and actions aren’t taken seriously. However, they are just as likely to talk about one of Paul’s letters, or how a Psalm verse jumped out at them, or how they no longer feel God is present. Jesus is just one of many compelling challenges to their living with faith.

    Bruce Calvin, M.Div.

  11. Karen Johanns

    As a parish priest, I believe that my prime directive is to help people fall in love with Jesus. Discipleship, outreach, mission, and love of neighbor flow outwardly from the Christian’s relationship with the Word Made Flesh. Otherwise, we’re just United Way with an altar.

    So yeah, my preaching is pretty Jesus-y.

  12. Jim Naughton

    Bruce, I am intrigues by your response because I think adding Christ to Jesus introduced academic theology where it is not necessary. So I see it as creating a problem, not resolving one.

  13. Jeff Mann

    Should we speak compellingly about Jesus? To what end? If Jesus is compelling us to circle the wagons in preparation for more culture wars, or the like, then I’m not interested.

    As a recovering Southern Baptist, and still-wet-behind-the-ears Episcopalian, I think it is imperative that we speak compellingly about Jesus in such a way that frees him from the narrowness of fundamentalism or any other theology that justifies exclusion based on perceived righteousness or purity. Jesus’ radical inclusion of the marginalized, outcast, et. al. compels me to push back against those who would use religion to be the institution that foster worldviews of separation and alienation. To speak of one who makes room for the poor, the widowed, and the orphaned, as well as those our current society is content to overlook, is to speak good news. To say there is room for all at the table is good news. I find that Jesus much more compelling.

  14. David O'Rourke

    Actually a very good question Jim, and in answer to your question, Yes! But which Jesus.

    I read the article referred to by Pepper, and I cringe at the description of the preacher on a soap box talking about how anyone who does not know Jesus will die and go to hell. Part of the problem is that preachers of that type have stolen the microphone and for many that is what comes to mind when they hear the words “let me tell you about Jesus”.

    I think few in our society have NOT heard something about Jesus. The issue is what they have heard or what they think when they hear the name. What I think we need to do is to better understand what Jesus means to us as Episcopalians and how to communicate that understanding on our own terms and not necessarily as a reaction to the other type of message. Not sure how to do that yet.

    I have been working on developing some new outreach ministries for my parish, and how to make sure that what we add is more than just a United Way with a cross on it, as Karen wrote. One of the key features I am looking at is how to invite parishioners to encounter Christ in the people on the margins around us rather than only asking them to give more items to be given away. Not that the items aren’t necessary, but that cannot be all we do.

  15. Clint Davis

    This talk all seems very shallow to me. It seems self-congratulatory to talk about how inclusive and radically hospitable we all are, because unsaid are the words “unlike those xyz’s down the street,” whether it be other kinds of Christians, other religionists or people who just don’t get it.

    It is hard work to really practice what Jesus did, which is to be the kind of presence in the midst of difference that calms everyone down and allows them, finally, to see one another as in this together rather than at odds. This is what we are really called to do, in the name of our Teacher, to take his yoke upon ourselves and his blessings to all we meet. As it is, we tend to proclaim our doors are open to all and sundry, and then in the rare occasion that all and sundry come, we are frozen and cold and awkward. And it is not our grand buildings, nor our intellectualism, nor our supposedly stuffy style of worship (one person’s stuffy is another person’s warmth) that is problematic, it is that we have not practiced the Presence of Christ, of his Spirit, of being here and now and of being with others in a way that is calming, healing and enlivening. We are not to seek to be “uplifted”, or “spoken to (“that just doesn’t speak to me”, etc), but rather to uplift and speak to others.

    See, the gospels do not tell us that Jesus had banquets for tax collectors and sinners, but rather that he took a few of his friends to exactly where those tax collectors and sinners were eating, and dared to eat with them. He, an establishment, observant Jew with a useful trade, eating with agents of the Roman government or women of dubious repute, or visiting lepers, or what have you, and doing this on THEIR turf, in THEIR house, and THEIR table.

    But we seem to expect it to be the other way around, and feel guilty that this is not so. We seem to expect those who are different than ourselves will for some reason show up at our Establishments and demand to be included, and we can’t wait to say yes and Hallelujah! when really we should be going to worship and then going to THEM. That’s the model we are given. And if THEY want to join us, they can, if not, that’s OK too. It really is OK. It’s not about us.

    But this emulation I speak of is hard hard spiritual work. We can’t help but speak about Jesus when it is he who is our model in all things, our fortress and our rock. Being Him is our mission, being that calm in the midst of the storm is our mission, being that word in the midst of chaos, being that healer in the midst of the sick, being that person who touches and blesses all, that is our mission. And we can do all this through Jesus Christ who strengthens us. I believe that Baptism, the Eucharist and Confirmation bestow the sorts of blessings that are useful for this most holy work.

  16. revsusan

    Our parish website homepage “welcome” is “Whoever you are and wherever you find yourself on your journey of faith you are welcome at All Saints Church — where we are joyfully and energetically committed to living out Jesus’ central messages of love, justice and compassion.

    And yesterday we took Jesus to the streets — literally — as our L.A. Pride t-shirts this year featured an icon of Our Lord with the words: “The Episcopal Church, and Proud of It: Come As You Are.”


    So the short answer is, where I hang out, we’ve got a lot of Jesus going on.

    Susan Russell

    All Saints, Pasadena

    Diocese of Los Angeles

  17. J Michael Povey

    With the New Testament witness, the Creeds, and the tradition in mind I choose to refer to the “Lord Jesus Christ”. This may make be seem to be very conservative, but in fact I am one who believes that our preaching of not just “Jesus”, nor just “The Lord”, nor simply “Christ”, but “the Lord Jesus Christ” has radical implications in our proclamation of the mercy and grace of God which we experience in the joyful community which we call “the Trinity”. Trinitarian proclamation bears witness to mutuality,

    to interdependence,

    to sacrifice, and to an affirmation that humanity has been assumed into deity even as deity is present in humanity.

  18. tgflux

    “Jesus” vs “Jesus Christ”: color me ambivalent (or better, that I see the paradoxical value of both)

    In 2012, I see the vital importance of *Jesus Christ*. It’s only by clearly stating WHAT we proclaim by stating “Jesus is Lord” (most often via the Nicene Creed), that we can tell the world just WHO they can have a saving relationship with (Hint: not this guy).

    But is there a time&place for (what’s disparagingly called) “My Boyfriend Jesus”? The one who gets all the treacley Evangelical hymns? Yes, absolutely. In extremis, go to the garden alone: He walks w/ me and He talks w/ me.

    Just so we’re clear he comforts us when afflicted, but afflicts us when we’re comfortable!

    JC Fisher

  19. You don’t get to encounter Jesus and then go back to what you were doing before. There is something more here than an excellent role model. As for fundamentalists and so forth as William James said, judge them by their fruits, not their roots.

    Jesus saves, Jesus heals, and Jesus is the Resurrection and the Life. He is the Way. Seeing the church as a voice in the marketplace constitutes a trap. No. “My sheep hear my voice.” “He that believeth in him shall have eternal life.” Bishop William Temple believed Jesus’ Passion and Blessed Death, his Resurrection and Ascension and Glory, actually changed human nature! “Anyone in Christ is a new Creation.” Repent and believe the Gospel. Then preach the Gospel and you will be “speaking compellingly” (what a pale shadow of the Power and the Glory) about Jesus. Jesus Christ, Jesus “The Christ,” Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Son of God, Christ the King, and Jesus our personal Lord and Savior. Grace to you and peace, in Jesus’ name.

  20. Claire Carter

    A great sermon in my church mentioned that people are very comfortable when we talk about God, but so much less so when we talk about Jesus. Because having Jesus as a savior means you have to do something, you have to change. You have to give up your agenda and follow his.

    I thought that was a great observation.

  21. Chris Arnold

    Not only is there a need to speak compellingly about Jesus, but there is a need to make that crucial link between the listener and the saving work of Jesus. I don’t agree with much that our evangelical brothers and sisters profess, but they’ve got that part right: they are comfortable with saying “you, you, and you *need* Jesus.”

  22. Adam Spencer

    How different would our conversations about structure, governance, budget, mission and ministry be if we started with trying to discern “What might Jesus do and have us do?” rather than ending with theological justification of what WE would like to do…A perfect science? Hardly. But I hear very little Jesus in The Episcopal Church’s wrangling over Conventions and budgets…

  23. Bruce Calvin

    Jim and others,

    I was intending to reflect the kinds of language, questions and contexts that I hear people using. So that people who use the singular name of ‘Jesus’ seem to be different than people who use other words or phrases. Does that refect an ‘academic theology?’ I cannot say, since I cannot separate myself from my training.

    I think Susan raises a different point. In the GLBT community, of which I am a member, the act of reclaiming the name of ‘Jesus’ contradicts the voices of fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism. In the context of a Gay Pride festival, anyone wearing a tee shirt with an ‘icon of Our Lord’ is confronting the negative images many GLBT folk have of Christianity. It is a powerful kind of evangelism by saying the negative messages are wrong, and Jesus welcomes all.

    I find I keep turning back to what Verna Dozier said, that it is not about worshipping Jesus but following Jesus. Compelling preaching about Jesus leads me to understand and apply what Jesus said and did in my everyday, ordinary life.

    Bruce Calvin, M.Div

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