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myk habets – peculiar preaching

We hear so often today in diverse ways and places, that preaching needs to be ‘seeker sensitive’, that the language and the concepts used in our sermons have to be accessible to the unchurched in such a way that they will immediately comprehend the content and be gripped by the message. If we don’t do this, we are told, people will stop coming to church and the Gospel will be stunted. In short, unless we preach in ways which mirror our culture that culture will not be able to respond to the Word and thus we preachers will be single-handedly responsible for the demise of Christianity.

Phooey! I know of no more appropriate theological term to use.

In the early 1990s William Willimon produced two works; one entitled Peculiar Speech: Preaching to the Baptized; the other The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized. In the former work he made a strident and persuasive appeal that we are to preach the Word of God to the people of God – to those people in our congregations who have been called to church by the living God expecting to hear from that God. As such we preachers must rediscover the distinctive language of the baptized community. We preach of the living God of grace, of his triune ways in the world, of his love and mercy, but also of his holiness and justice, of his electing providence and of his suffering compassion. When we preach in the language of the baptized we are dedicating ourselves and our congregations to Christian formation, Christian discipleship, and Christian community. We are, Willimon argues, attempting to help contemporary culture be relevant to the Gospel and not vice-versa.

This means we have to know the Word and we have to know the God of the Word – and in that knowing and being known we have to bear witness to God’s Word in the pulpit. This is our primary task as preachers.

In the companion work The Intrusive Word, Willimon shows how this sort of preaching to the baptized is also appropriate to the unbaptized who venture into our communities (but not as often as we would like). Here the preacher is sensitive to the alien message of the Gospel, to the ‘funny talk’ and the ‘weirdness of the Gospel’ that we so love and proclaim. But rather than change the message, or dilute it, or compromise it in a myriad of ways which tempt us to be more ‘appropriate and relevant,’ rather we continue to talk funny and bear witness to God through his Word knowing that God has called these people into our congregations as well and it would be arrogant at best, blasphemous at worst, for us to substitute the Gospel for any humanly derived ‘message of love and hope.’ After all, the Gospel demands repentance from its converts, it seeks change and renewal, it is a confrontation of the powers, a clash of cultures, a radical call for a radical lifestyle – and if we change that in our efforts to be ‘seeker sensitive’ we are no longer interested in seekers of God and we are no longer sensitive to God’s call on people’s lives.

May 2011 be a year in which we preachers up and down this nation are known as talking funny and bearing witness to that strange new world of the Gospel which calls for a radical conversion, a radical repentance, and a radical discipleship. In short, may we be peculiar people with peculiar words and in that very divine peculiarity – may the Word continue to draw all people to himself!

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Myk Habets teaches systematic theology at Carey Baptist College and is Director of the R.J. Thompson Centre for Theological Study. Myk was an itinerant preacher for over a decade but now, with his wife Odele and two children, he attends Windsor Park Baptist Church.

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