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Preaching In The Emerging Church: A Response To Dan Kimball

  • Mark Shivers
  • 2005 1 Jun
Preaching In The Emerging Church: A Response To Dan Kimball
Cultural Context 1

The emergent conversation, of which I consider myself a part, is difficult to pin down, which may be its purpose. The dialogue consists primarily of post-evangelicals (and a growing number of post-liberals) who have become dissatisfied with the way in which evangelical (or liberal) leadership has dealt with the advent of changing culture.2 Instead of simply shouting louder and digging in with a fortress mentality at the coming of postmodernity, many would rather widen the conversation and critically engage diverse viewpoints and traditions. In 1995, Mark Noll wrote that the “scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.”3 Those in the “emergent village,” as it is often referred to, are actively seeking to leave the evangelical ghetto and begin serious dialogue without forsaking or denying their evangelical heritage.4 One of the central issues in this conversation has been worship and the ways in which traditional evangelical liturgy is becoming inadequate as cultural desire for modes of expressions and engagement shift.

There is a growing call to rethink worship taking into account influences from the past, such as the Celtic Church and the Eastern Orthodox contemplative tradition.5 Others have focused on finding relevant ideas for worship within contemporary culture so that worship is made up of the stuff of everyday life.6 A common thread through this diverse conversation about worship is the need for more communal participation and engagement within the service. Emphasis on engaging the Word through multiple senses instead of only through hearing a sermon is of growing importance in the conversation. The effects of these calls for reform can be felt everywhere from the changing architecture of worship space to new (at least for many evangelicals) expressions in liturgy such as art, dance, and poetry. Imagination and innovation, not for the sake of change but for clear theological reasons, have made a powerful impact on the lives of many churches and communities.  

It is striking that, within this time of creative explosion in which traditional forms of “practicing” church are being critiqued and re-imagined, that the act of preaching has been largely ignored. For some, preaching seems to be an outdated mode of communication, while for others, traditional expository sermons are still the order of the day.7 In a recent interview in Preaching magazine, Dan Kimball, pastor of an “emerging” church, speaks about preaching, but contributes little to a theology of preaching for the emergent church.8 Instead of declaring preaching obsolete or continuing in the same forms with seemingly the same presuppositions as classic evangelicalism, the sermon can be re-imagined as an act of witness that testifies to divine engagement within a shifting culture.

A Proposal: Preaching as Invitation to an Open Door 9

Revelation 4:1-8 (NRSV):

After this I looked, and there in heaven a door stood open! And the first voice, which I had heard speaking to me like a trumpet, said, “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” At once I was in the spirit, and there in heaven stood a throne, with one seated on the throne! And the one seated there looks like jasper and carnelian, and around the throne is a rainbow that looks like an emerald. Around the throne are twenty-four thrones, and seated on the thrones are twenty-four elders, dressed in white robes, with golden crowns on their heads. Coming from the throne are flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder, and in front of the throne burn seven flaming torches, which are the seven spirits of God; and in front of the throne there is something like a sea of glass, like crystal.

Around the throne, and on each side of the throne, are four living creatures, full of eyes in front and behind: the first living creature like a lion, the second living creature like an ox, the third living creature with a face like a human face, and the fourth living creature like a flying eagle. And the four living creatures, each of them with six wings, are full of eyes all around and inside. Day and night without ceasing they sing,

“Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come.”

The preacher, the one who has been affirmed by the community as called by God and gifted by the Holy Spirit for this particular role, attempts in each sermon to give a glimpse of an alternative reality, a salvific reality in which what can be and what will be is witnessed too. The preacher witnesses this other world when she accepts the divine’s urgent invitation/promise to “Come up here, and I will show you what must take place after this.” This open door is experienced at the intersection of the Word, communal experience, and interaction with the Holy Spirit. At this place that cannot be falsely manufactured, the divine invites the preacher to take a dramatic step into a deep level of intimacy. If the preacher, like John, chooses for a little while to give up the various “texts” that the world offers and fully step into the offering of scripture, he will experience an alternative reality from which to view and live in the world. It is from this place, a gift of grace from God, that the preacher testifies.

The substance of this witness, like John’s, is almost always absurd. John testifies about creatures with many eyes and many wings, precious stones, twenty-four elders, flaming torches, and flying eagles. The preacher testifies about a world of peace, churches where racial and cultural diversity is embraced, a baby who brought revolution, and an act that robs death of its fear. The preacher testifies to alternative realities that reveal the foolishness of God and then dares to claim that this is where the hope of the community and (with proper confidence) of the world are found. This is not simply retelling the story of the encounter, but also making claims about why this encounter with a new reality matters for the community. Inevitably, there are risks involved in making these claims, risks that never can be eliminated from the preaching event. There also are risks in being silent, however, risks that force preachers to consider what accountability to the call of God really looks like. Sermons are not safe; each time, the preacher offers not only a vision for the community, but a deep and vulnerable part of herself, as well. In essence, the message must be so “true” that the preacher is willing to put his life on the line again and again. This is the substance of the witness, the substance of preaching.

Traditional homiletics has little use for visions and dreams like these, for its advocates seek to deal in propositions that are verifiable and concrete. The enlightenment project, upon whose foundation traditional homiletics is based, cannot deal with these non-provable, unexplainable stories. It tries to reduce these visions, these glimpses into the divine, into symbols of propositional truth. The visions then can be charted and explained, lined out and diagramed, much as John’s vision has been over the years. Instead of living in and through the text, traditional homiletics has sought to reach one hand in to pull out “relevant” truths for the day.

Under different guises, advocates of the “New Homiletic” have operated with these same presuppositions of certainty. For them, certainty came not in unquestionable propositions that could be pulled from scripture, but in authoritative forms that ensured persuasive transmission. While some claimed to be “a way” among many, others like Lowry and Buttrick argued that their forms should be globally accepted. The New Homileticians’ proposals in the end reduce scripture just as the Traditionalists do, but from a different angle. With primary concern given to “fitting” texts into forms, the advocates assumed a universal receptivity to certain guidelines or rules of communication.

Preaching in the emerging church, however, will have a different approach. There is no longer need for explanation and verification in the same ways as the Enlightenment mentality demanded. There will be no basis, no standard by which to “prove” the claims of their witness. Preachers choosing to engage in this type of witness have no unquestionable “foundations” to fall back upon for support of their arguments. This, however, does not mean that the preacher witnesses with any less passion or conviction. Instead, the power of divine intimacy, combined with the failure of non-circular reason as “proof,” should urge the preacher to bear the truth of the witness with all the more power and sincerity. This divine encounter will become nothing less than “fire shut up in the bones” that simply must be expressed lest the preacher betray the Holy. It will be this sincerity, this fire, by which the hearers will primarily judge any sense of validity. This fire is not exclusively adjudicated by the physical manifestation of excitement although deep passion cannot help but come through in the flesh. It cannot be exclusively judged by tone of voice, although intense fervor will inevitably influence vocal tenor. Over time, the community of hearers learns to hear in a way so that they know and feel how true the testimony is. Of course, the community will choose to accept or reject the testimony on the basis of scripture, tradition, and their own experience, but not in ways that would aim to verify the witness scientifically. As with most testimony, verification is impossible, and so the choice to accept or reject the pastor’s claims becomes the means of assessment.

It may seem that this approach places too much pressure on the preacher to get into an open door, to this deep level of intimacy with God. On the contrary, this proposal seeks to leave the tension in the classic discussion of sovereignty/responsibility within many evangelical circles. On one hand, the preacher, like John, must be willing to accept the invitation and enter. On the other hand, the door is not always available and is only opened at God’s initiative. Preachers can try in vain to barge down the door, or even to falsely testify about what they have not seen. What then is to happen when the preacher has no “experience at the intersection” before the next sermon? It is here that we must emphasize the fidelity of God to allow Godself to be found for those who are searching. God has called the preacher, has equipped the preacher, and will provide the preacher with a word to proclaim. Even if the preacher, while searching, does not receive a divine invitation, emergent worship should provide space for the preacher to testify exactly that!

Thus, the preacher does not go to the text and then go to the newspaper in order to “find” a sermon to preach. In this method, the emphasis is on observation in the hopes that the Holy Spirit might inspire a connection between the text and culture. Instead, our emphasis is on fully engaging life in community, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. In this matrix of participation, the preacher does not merely observe but lives into the intersection. This place, redeemed and thus made possible by the work of Christ, is where the divine becomes vulnerable and opens up the door to an alternative reality. It is this experience of the Holy that the preacher testifies about to the worshipping community. It is a testimony of hope and salvation for a broken world that becomes the vision for the “already but not yet” kingdom that will be ushered in. As the trumpet in John’s vision signals, this is a vital message that must be witnessed to with urgency.

There is a second component to this daring and counter-cultural act of witness. The preacher testifies about her experience at the intersection and then takes on the role of the angel who urgently invites the worshipping community to come in and experience for themselves. Thus, an integral part of witness is invitation. Barth writes of how the sermon should always follow the Eucharist and precede Baptism. This emphasis on the sacraments stems from Barth’s roots in the Reformed tradition in the same way that the “evangelical sacrament” of the invitation will be a necessary practice in the emergent sermon. This is not necessarily an invitation as classically practiced, in which the hearers are invited to walk down the aisle as a public proclamation of an inward decision. Instead, it can take on increasingly imaginative forms in which the preacher invites the hearers to accept with him the divine invitation to salvation and hope. It is in envisioning this communal practice of invitation that the emergent community can direct their passion for engagement with God.

One of the emerging church’s most valuable critiques of classic evangelical worship is the disjointedness that worship events often exhibit. In this issue of liturgy, conversation with more mainline traditions has inspired and challenged emerging practices. With the proposal presented here, this invitation into a particular intersection of life with the Word, the community, and the Holy Spirit should be centerpiece around which liturgy is crafted. The whole service, then, with the sermon as an element, seeks to invite the worshipping community into the open door of the Holy. In a way, the service itself becomes a glimpse into this alternative reality, a place where the community cannot stay forever, at least not yet. It is a place however, in which the everyday stuff of life is re-imagined and realigned with the coming kingdom of Jesus Christ.

Lucy Rose asserts that expecting “a sermon [to] consistently change people may be expecting too much.”10 Expecting God to do anything less in a sermon, however, is expecting too little. This is an important place for the emergent church to reclaim an aspect of the revivalist tradition, the forerunner of the contemporary evangelical tradition. When the revivalists (and those influenced by that tradition) preached, both the preacher and the hearer expected change. They believed that eternity depended on decisions that would be made that very night and eagerly anticipated changed lives. While emerging churches no longer share many theological presuppositions of the revivalists, this anticipation of change will continue to be important. While a major difference will be a cessation of trying to measure that change through decision cards, etc., emergent preaching will expect to change not only lives. Through offering alternative visions of reality and inviting the worshipping community to experience those visions, preacher and hearer alike can leave with a changed world.


Mark Shivers is Founder and director, Souled Out, Decatur, GA.


1. In a postmodern world, grand claims about preaching will prove to be inadequate. Theologies of preaching will be grounded in particular community contexts and only humbly will claim to present a homiletic primarily to that community. While the homiletic hopefully will create dialogue as it is translated across cultures and communities, the era of speaking about a “theology of preaching” for “the church” is over. Thus it will prove important for a homiletician to claim his or her community and speak, as Newbiggen would say, only with “proper confidence” while dialoguing with others.
2. For more info on the Emergent conversation, two recent articles from different perspectives are helpful: Scott Bader-Saye, “The Emergent Matrix,” The Christian Century 121 (November 30, 2004): 20-27; Andy Crouch, “The Emergent Mystique,” Christianity Today 48 (November 4, 2004): 37-41; as well as an article about preaching to the emerging church, “Preaching to the Emerging Church: An Interview with Dan Kimball,” Preaching 20 (Nov-Dec 2004): 7-9, 48-51. Also helpful is Brian McLaren’s A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am Missional, Evangelical, Post/Protestant, Liberal/Conservative, Mystical/Poetic, Biblical, Charismatic/Contemplative, Fundamentalist/Calvinist, (EmergentYS, 2004).
3. Mark Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 3.
5. For more on this move to the past, see Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Time: Forming Spirituality Through the Christian Year. (BakerBooks, 2004).
6. Jonny Baker, Alternative Worship: Resources From and For the Emerging Church. (BakerBooks, 2004).
7. At the Emergent Network conference in May 2004, Jonny Baker from the Anglican Church in England argued that preaching “didn’t work anymore” for his congregation. On the other side, Mosaic and 1027 (church communities) in Atlanta, GA, both of whom would claim to be part of this emerging church conversation, employ traditional expository sermons in which didactic truths are exegeted and applied to the congregation.
8. He chooses to engage in a verse-by-verse form of preaching. “Preaching to the Emerging Church: An Interview with Dan Kimball,” Preaching 20 (Nov-Dec 2004): 7-9, 48-51.
9. I am greatly indebted to Anna Carter Florence’s homiletic of testimony in the following proposal. Much of her influence has come through class discussion and conversation so that adequate footnotes are impossible until her upcoming work is published.
10. Lucy Rose, Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (WJK Press, Louisville), 1997; 84.