Among its many merits, an article by Adam J. Copeland in the Lent 2012 issue of Journal for Preaching contains this poignant idea of how preachers might expand their thinking in consideration of those calling themselves “spiritual, but not religious” (SBNR).
In The Hospitality of God, [Episcopal bishop] Mary Gray-Reeves and Michael Perham present a study of 14 emerging churches relating to the Anglican tradition. One similarity they note in worship practices—from California to England—is a new notion of authority. Put succinctly, they sum up: “Authority is a conversation.” The congregations about which Gray-Reeves and Perham report employ a range of preaching methods including “sermons preached by laity, sermons responded to in conversation during a feedback time, or individuals creating their own reflections by participating in Open Space.” The authors suggest, and my experience corroborates, that many SBNR folks have no expectation that a church institution—whether it be a denomination, congregation, or representative thereof—expect to wield authority over the beliefs of individuals. This is not to say that for SBNR persons all authority evaporates; rather authority is gained through relationships, conversation, and collaborative discovery.
With this understanding of authority in mind, preachers should approach preaching as a collaborative task. Exegesis might be done with members of the congregation, and at the least with other pastors. Preachers should not shy away from making strong claims (or personal confessions of faith), but they should do so while also acknowledging different viewpoints and welcoming further conversation.
Lucy Rose addresses this new conversational authority in Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church. Rose writes, “A sermon’s content is a proposal offered to the community of faith for their additions, corrections, or counterproposals.” This humble, communal approach to preaching would be welcomed by the SBNR. For Rose, a preacher’s task is to search for meanings. She writes,
This meaning is then submitted to the community of faith through the sermon for their answering meanings. One meaning finds multiple meanings, one experience of grace funds multiple experiences of grace, one proposed articulation of the gospel funds multiple articulations of the gospel, through the Spirit that prods and prompts the hearts and minds of the congregation.
Authority ultimately is communal, conversational, a shared process.