I came across an interview with Peter Gomes, while I was catching up on my periodical reading on a plane this week. It’s from the Winter 2009 Harvard Divinity Bulletin. Gomes is a professor at Harvard and minister of Harvard Memorial Church. He makes some fascinating comments about preaching. He suggests that preachers too often back off: “There’s a culture of caution that the church is built on that most preachers are unwilling to challenge…once the preachers discover what the task is, they back off….You don’t want to bite the hand that feeds you. So the result is, you don’t feed them very much. It’s almost a deal — ‘If you don’t disturb us, we won’t disturb you.’ But preaching is essentially a disturbing act. It offers something that is not there. It criticizes something that is there. And it is based on something that is yet to come. Preachers are basically unwilling to make that kind of statement to people whom they either love or fear, and in some cases both.”
Gomes offers a different perspective from Meg Hess’ comments (see my post of April 24) on dealing with difficult issues in preaching. I think the problem with preaching that aims to disturb is that the preacher often delivers the message anxiously and willfully, which makes it much harder for people to hear and formulate their own thoughts. Courageous preaching is important, but we need to find our own clarity and calm as we deliver those messages.
What are your thoughts on the disturbing nature of preaching? Have you heard a disturbing sermon? Delivered one? Thinking about delivering one?
2 replies on “Is Preaching Disturbing?“
Thanks, Jason. Perhaps one approach is to be honest about the way these texts disturb us, too.
Rev Jason Gamble
I’ve always tried to stay closely to the Biblical passage in preaching, exegeting not eisegeting. So if the passage says ‘forgive 7 times 77’ the message is about extreme forgiveness. If the passage deals with eternal damnation as the result of a callous neglect of the poor in one’s earthly lifetime, ie Luke’s parable of Lazarus the beggar and the Rich Man, then that is what I try to preach. Disturbed people sometimes leave our congregations, that’s just inevitable.
A professor from Princeton told me that if some people were not leaving our congregations then we must be spending too much time trying to make them all happy (keeping them from being disturbed).