A Letter from the General Minister to Pittsburgh Presbytery
A Word that is Heard
February 23, 2017
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) Assuring that our proclamation is genuinely transformative is the special work of the Holy Spirit, yet it is incumbent on us to do all we can to cooperate with making our message intelligible and credible to our hearers. It is, in fact, foundational to the church’s very life.
We do a great deal to assure that the Word is preached rightly by our pastors – seminary classes, field education, pastoral mentoring, and preparation for ordination all focus on equipping ministers to preach the Word with integrity. That is all good and necessary. Yet what matters more than what preachers say is what their listeners hear. Communication is not what gets said, but what gets heard.
In both his preaching and manner, Paul tuned his ministry to his context. To the Jews he spoke as a fellow-Jew, while among Romans he conducted himself as the Roman citizen he was also. “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) Thus Paul’s tone and content, when addressing Greek philosophers at the Aeropagus in Athens, is very different from his speech to the Jewish leaders in the Jerusalem Temple yard. (Acts 17:16-34; Acts 23:1-11)
How does our message get heard by those we seek to reach with the Gospel? Several studies have revealed that a major descriptor of Christian churches by outsiders is “judgmental.” We may well protest that they are dead wrong in holding that caricature, that we seek diligently to proclaim the unconditional grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ. The only problem is, what is being heard by many beyond our walls whom we’re trying to reach with God’s good news is judgment, rejection, and shame.
We all know well the adage, “Your actions speak louder than your words.” For the church, this means that how we live together inevitably determines how we are heard by the world. Do we genuinely love one another, believing the best and seeking to build up each other? Do we speak truthfully to one another, holding each other accountable to our profession of faith in Jesus? The world is quick to recognize when our proclamation of God’s reconciling and transforming love in Jesus is not demonstrated in our professed commitment to the peace, unity, and purity of the church. (Book of Order W-4.4003g) One or two out of three won’t cut it. We cannot break the church’s unity in order to achieve its purity. There is no true peace when we fail to speak the truth in love to each other. When our leaders betray their explicit promises to further all three, difficult as that may be, the church’s credibility crumbles.
If the world is hearing something different from what the church thinks it is saying, who needs to adjust? We must be ready to learn and re-learn effective ministry continually. The church learns its ministry not only from its own storehouse of wisdom and canons, but also from the world. Those who have ears to hear the Spirit 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 should speak in the native language of the people whom it is calling to worship God. When I am addressed in my mother tongue, I am much more likely to hear the message clearly than when the language is unfamiliar to me.
Thus, all worship should seek diligently to be “contemporary,” speaking to people here and now in language that is fully their own. Our words and actions must genuinely engage our hearers, so there is no confusion about our message. Every Lord’s Day we ought to seek as diligently to communicate the Gospel with clarity and power as we do at Christmas and Easter. If the church is truly to be “Christ’s faithful evangelist” (Book of Order F-1.0302d), our proclamation needs to be conducted in both speech and body 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 listen and to be heard,
The Rev. Dr. Sheldon W. Sorge, General Minister
Click here for the directory of archived letters and sermons.