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Sermon as proposal: preaching and the self-identified ‘spiritual, but not religious’

Sermon as proposal: preaching and the self-identified ‘spiritual, but not religious’

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.

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barbara snyder

(In any case: I do believe that Christianity offers answers to questions.

I believe its best feature, in fact, is that it totally confounds any ideas I might come up with myself! Whenever I think I have "the answer" - I realize that I'm not even close.

Christ really does make kings (and the rest of us) "shut their mouths" and be stunned. The faith is much, much deeper than anything I've come across before - much more shocking, too. When you try to grasp ahold of it, you find you just can't. And that's a terrific answer in itself.

As far as I can see, the faith confounds everybody's personal agenda or ideas; it's just way bigger than we are. And the more I read and think about it, the more clear this seems to me.

So that's why I'm here. Even if I leave the church itself, I'll still hold to the faith; I guess you could call me RBNS at this point!)

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barbara snyder

The thing is: if all we offer is values-free worship, then we'll never get anybody in the doors who isn't already interested in worship for its own sake.

And, in fact: we'll never be able to attract the SBNR, since they are, by definition, "not religious." They won't be there for worship - because why should they be? What could worship mean to them? It meant nothing to me when I was SBNR myself - so why would I spend my Sunday mornings in a church? There's no reason to be there, which is exactly why I spent 35+ years away from the church.

A "seeker's service" - if we go that route - will have to appeal to something besides worship by itself.

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Keromaru5

I definitely see where barbara and Derek are coming from. One of the barriers of fundamentalism can be having too many answers--and if you don't like any one of them, you're damned. We in TEC, on the other hand, can suffer from offering too few.

-Alex Scott

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barbara snyder

(Even the rubrics in the Prayer Book teach something - and the book is right out there in Public Domain, for anybody to read and investigate.

One of the benefits of having things written down - as Derek said above - is that if we are not living up to our own professed beliefs, then we can correct ourselves - or, if it comes to that, we can leave the church if we no longer agree at all with what it teaches. We can act on our own consciences.

Same goes for the church itself: if it's not living up to its beliefs, it will - rightly - get slammed. And then it will have to correct and/or reform itself.)

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barbara snyder

Worship is the primary thing we have to offer - not answers.

Well, but the way we worship comes out of the answers the church has worked out over the course of 2,000 years.

We sing hymns with lyrics - - and not just any lyrics; the words have to convey the theology we hold to, or else the hymn won't appear in the hymnal. Likewise for the worship service as a whole; we don't just throw any old thin in there. The Prayer Book is 500 years old now, and every time it's been revamped a group of people have carefully worked through what it should be and what it should say.

We listen to 3 readings from Scripture, plus a Psalm each Sunday, in our native language; that implies that we believe that Scripture is rather important - important enough that it should be read so that listeners understand it.

We say one of the Creeds at just about every service.

We pray for ourselves, our friends, and the world; that's by way of a decision that it's important to do this. We listen to the Eucharistic Prayer every Sunday, and to what it teaches. We have Communion at almost every service now. (Morning and Evening Prayer, though, offer their own systems of worship, based on what we thought was important in our faith.)

So the worship itself contains answers: it's based on the historic faith of the church, and not just on a "spiritual but not religious" idea of God. It points, specifically, to certain ideas and not to other ones.

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