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A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery

Hearing the Word
July 18, 2013

According to the Book of Order, “Wherever the Word of God is truly preached and heard,” there exists the true Church of Jesus Christ. (F-1.0303, emphasis added) We do a great deal to assure that the Word is preached rightly – seminary classes, field education, pastoral mentoring, and preparation for ordination all focus on equipping ministers to preach the Word with integrity. And that is good! Sessions are obligated to assure that good preaching is provided for the congregation’s worship services. But according to this formula, what matters is not just what gets said by preachers, but what is heard by their listeners. Communication is not what gets said, but what gets heard.

Preaching students know well that the context in which they preach ought to shape what they say and how they say it. Our ordination exams require presentation of a sermon, and part of the assignment is to identify the context for which the sermon has been prepared. In sermon preparation, good preachers always take into account the profile of those who will be hearing their sermon. That’s one reason I prepare a new sermon for each place I preach.

In his preaching, Paul presented himself to the weak as one who is weak, but among the elite he communicated in highly cultured terms. To the Jews he spoke as a Jew, but among Romans, he played up his Roman citizenship. “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the gospel.” (1 Corinthians 9:22-23) We see these contrasts in his approach quite plainly in the book of Acts. For example, note the great contrast of his tone and content when addressing the philosophers at the Acropolis in Athens, compared to his speech to the Jewish priests and council in the Jerusalem Temple yard. (Acts 17:16-34; Acts 23:1-11)

How does our message get heard by those we are called to reach with the Gospel? A major study of unchurched people a year ago discovered that the number one descriptor of Christian churches by outsiders is “judgmental.” We may well remonstrate that they are dead wrong in holding that caricature. Our message is good news, after all, not bad news! We believe ourselves diligent to preach the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The only problem is, that’s not what is being heard by those beyond our walls whom we’re trying to reach with God’s good news. Instead, they hear judgment, rejection, and shame.

If the world is hearing something different from what the church thinks it is saying, guess who needs to adjust? Adjustment is indeed unavoidable for a church that is “reformed and always being reformed according to the Word.” (Book of Order, F-2.02) We need to be teachable, always ready to adapt ourselves anew – not just as individuals, but as communities. We must be ready to learn ministry continually, and not just from professional ministers and professors of ministry – just as importantly, we need to keep learning how to do ministry from those outside our walls. Let me put it as plainly as possible – the church learns its ministry not only from the church, but also from the world. God is as much at work by the Spirit in both contexts, and those who have ears to hear the Spirit need to put their ears to the ground both within and beyond the holy precincts of the church.

Our “Directory for Worship” teaches that our worship “language proves to be appropriate when a worshiping community can claim it as its own when offering praise and thanksgiving to God.” (Book of Order W-1.2005) That is, worship language should be in the native language of the people who are being called to worship God. When I am addressed in my native language, I am much more likely to hear the message clearly than when the language is more foreign to me.

This is why all worship should seek to be “contemporary.” It should speak to people here and now in language that is fully their own. Of course this means that some worship services will be very different from others – just as some radio stations are very different from others. “My” music is very different from that of my children and grandchildren, yet it is just as “contemporary” for me as my grandchildren’s music is for them. When the church speaks, it ought to do so in words and actions that fully engage its hearers, so there is no doubt about what is being said. Some forms of communication grip certain folks, while others forms connect better to another set – let a thousand flowers bloom! But let us never lose sight of the core principle that if we are to be truly the Church, our praise and proclamation need to be conducted in language that the people God has called us to reach can recognize, welcome, understand, and own. Remember, “Faith comes from what is heard.” (Romans 10:17)

Seeking to be heard,

The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister

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