Saturday, June 30, 2012

For the Love of Storms 1

Amy says I was crazy for standing outside in this storm. But but this time the worst was past.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Midwestern Muslims

I grew up in the cornfields of Northern Illinois.  During my youth ethnic diversity still tended to be defined in terms of different Western European language groups (we had lots of Scandinavians and Germans in our area) and religious diversity was largely limited to varieties of Christianity.  

Lots of folks seem to think that's still the case.  Things are so different here in __________ (fill in with West Coast, East Coast, South, etc.), you Midwesterners wouldn't understand.  

That's why the following from ENI caught my eye. 

Chicago (ENInews)--Mohammed Labadi had a lot at stake when the DeKalb City Council voted 29 May on a request from the Islamic Society of Northern Illinois University to build a two-story mosque. Labadi, a businessman and Islamic Society board member, said a bigger mosque was needed to replace the small house where local Muslims now worship. He also was hoping for affirmation that his neighbors and city officials have no fear of the Muslim community, Religion News Service reports via USA Today. "Don't look at me just as a Muslim, look at me as an American," Labadi said. The City Council unanimously approved the plan. However, in the decade since the 11 September 2001 terrorist attacks, animosity toward Muslims sometimes has taken the form of opposition to construction of mosques and other Islamic facilities. National debate erupted over plans for an Islamic community center that became known as the "Ground Zero mosque" in Lower Manhattan. [766 words, ENI-12-0315]

Searching for the Ultimate Sermon

Good preaching was certainly central to the Reformation and has remained so in Protestantism.  However, one hears increasing complaints about contemporary sermonizing, leading some to claim that there is a crisis in preaching.  Here is a take on that particular issue, from the Wall Street Journal.


The Hunt for the Good Sermon

Are American churches really suffering a crisis of bad preaching?

By John Wilson

Is preaching in America in a particularly bad state?

Several commentators have recently raised the question, yet it has a long history. “It has become an impertinent Vein among People of all Sorts,” wrote Jonathan Swift in the 1720s, “to hunt after what they call a good Sermon, as if it were a Matter of Pastime or Diversion.”

And often those on the hunt declare their disappointment, as when Britain’s Lord Hugh Cecil said in the mid-20th century that “the two dangers which beset the Church of England are good music and bad preaching.”

Today’s complainers include Ross Douthat, whose recently published “Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics” describes churches whose preachers promise prosperity to the faithful or dispense the gospel of narcissism. Others wonder about a pulpit presence so charismatic that it draws more attention to the preacher than to his message.

And yet, on the basis of a lifetime of churchgoing, I have to report that week after week, year after year, I have heard the Word of God faithfully preached. And I am particularly skeptical of sweeping claims, as by the Barna Group’s David Kinnaman, that the upcoming generation of churchgoers has tastes and needs radically different from those of any previous generation in human history.

So what explains the recently announced million-dollar grant from the Lilly Foundation “to cultivate excellence in preaching” at Calvin College’s Institute of Christian Worship? Does this eye-catching grant suggest that worship is on perilous ground?
It doesn’t. Preaching—and worship—is in need of renewal because it is always in need of renewal. No pastor, congregation or denomination will ever get it right once and for all.

At the Lilly-funded program, pastors—men and women from various denominational backgrounds—will study together in “Micah Groups,” named for the biblical passage that has become a touchstone for many Christians of this generation: “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). The goal of the program, says director Mark Labberton, is “the convergence of worship, preaching, and justice.”

“Justice” (a notoriously elusive concept) wouldn’t have defined a comparable program in the 1950s, especially not in evangelical circles, where the accent would have been on saving souls. To put “preaching” and “justice” together doesn’t imply indifference to the eternal fate of our souls, but it does propose a corrective—a stress on realizing the Kingdom of God here and now. The history of the church is made up of moves like this.

Consider the alleged exodus of young people from the church. “We won’t lose students because we didn’t entertain them,” said the dreadlocked Philadelphia activist and preacher Shane Claiborne on Twitter. “We will lose them because we haven’t given the FULL gospel.” Mr. Claiborne’s comment made me think of another gifted preacher, Jesus, who also met with a mixed reception. “From that moment,” we read in the sixth chapter of John’s gospel—after Jesus said that “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you”—”many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.”

Why did some disciples draw back while others continued to follow Jesus? Why does the church surge to life here or there, while at the same moment, across the street or across the ocean, it seems to be increasingly moribund? Can’t we find a method—underwritten by neuroscience and evolutionary psychology—to guarantee successful preaching? To ask the question is to answer it.

In his memoir “The Pastor” (2011), Eugene Peterson identifies one of the most serious threats to biblical preaching—a “pragmatic vocational embrace of American technology and consumerism that promised to rescue congregations from ineffective obscurity” but that “violated everything—scriptural, theological, experiential—that had formed my identity as a follower of Jesus and a pastor.”

The obsession with measurable “results,” the rebranded promise of some technique or strategy: Preachers are bombarded with this stuff every day (four keys to success, six marks of a healthy church, seven principles of growth). Many ignore it and get on with their work in “scripture, sermon, and sacrament.” Praise God for that.

Mr. Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture, a bimonthly review.

A version of this article appeared June 1, 2012, on page A11 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: The Hunt for the Good Sermon.