‘It’s a kind of spiritual ferment that’s afoot’

The Rev. Dr. Jana Childers delivers the final lecture at the Festival of Homiletics

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

the Rev. Dr. Jana Childers

LOUISVILLE — During a Festival of Homiletics lecture delivered last week, the Rev. Dr. Jana Childers said there’s “no dearth of issues on how the future of preaching will be shaped.” Subjects will include racial strife, gun violence, climate change, access to health care, the crisis at the Southern border, hunger and food insecurity, mental health trends, questions about the existence of God, suffering — and, of course, right and wrong.

“Your preaching calendar will be overwhelmed before you know it,” the Dean and Professor of Homiletics and Speech Communication in the Graduate School of Theology at San Francisco Theological Seminary said. “The need for preaching will lead the way to transcending our differences. All of that is squarely in the province of the Holy Spirit.”

As the nation emerges from the pandemic, “all kinds of people are spiritually restive — and not just here on the Left Coast,” Childers said. “It’s a kind of spiritual ferment that’s afoot. Even worship is being remade virtually everywhere you look,” a sentence Childers acknowledged has two meanings depending on how the hearer interprets the word “virtually.”

“Something we used to call ‘emergent worship’ is fading now. Hybrid worship forms are coming,” Childers noted. “We are making our peace with two-dimensional screens and three-dimensional pews.”

“All of this change,” Childers said, “is being pushed not by cultural trends or some crown-shaped virus. These dramatic, surprising changes may be pointing to some of the Holy Spirit’s stirring.”

Childers explored three “representative views I think are helpful to preachers,” assuring viewers, “the Holy Spirit is intensely interested in us and in the future.”

The first is a model of a brooding Spirit which helps preachers develop an awareness of others. “The Holy Spirit draws us into higher lenses of sensitivity. Our lenses are opened and our hearts are tenderized,” Childers said. “What we thought is our effort to pray is in fact the Spirit praying through us.”

The second model is the Holy Spirit as enunciator, which for Protestant mainliners “is one of the most popular,” Childers said. While the Spirit has many characteristics, in this model the central one is the Spirit’s ability “to bring people and hold things together.”

In a third model, the Holy Spirit works in the believer against self-interest, “something that the Holy Spirit can do that the human being cannot do, or rarely can do on their own,” Childers said. “It implies the need for attention to skills that have to do with the preacher’s ego. It is the spirit of sacrifice.”

“Ego is the barrier between self and others,” Childers said. “The preacher who is preoccupied is hampered … In this model we understand the ego as a wall that limits seeing others and moving to them.”

After 36 years of studying and teaching homiletics, the study of the preacher’s ego remains “unplowed acreage,” Childers said. In the thousands of books and articles Childers has read, only two dealt with the topic.

Childers has a theater background, where “ego issues were an open secret.” That secret, Childers said, is to “love the art in yourself, not yourself in the art.”

Preachers do well to ask themselves these questions, Childers said, and to answer them honestly:

  • How often do you start a sermon with “I?”
  • How reliable is your internal clock?
  • How often are your stories drawn from your own life or from the lives of your adorable children?
  • Do your stories paint you in a favorable light?
  • How often does your humor call attention to your authority?
  • Are there times you can admit weakness?
  • How do you make space for others’ voices?
  • How often are you reading the listeners’ non-verbal cues?
  • Can you hear yourself?
  • Do you ever have “Jack Horner moments,” when you stick in a thumb, pull out a plum and say, “What a good boy am I!”

“We all need help, someone to be our mirror, as a way to deepen empathy and spiritual practices that will open in us a capacity for surrender and sacrifice,” Childers said. “Preaching in the Age of the Spirit requires many things,” Childers concluded, “none more important than knowing when to stop,” which Childers promptly did, about 45 minutes after opening the lecture.

The 2022 Festival of Homiletics is being planned as an in-person experience May 16-20 in Denver, Colorado. Registration will open Nov. 1. Learn more about the Festival of Homiletics here.

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