We must change because we have not yet arrived

My evening reading lately has been Overhearing the Gospel, by preaching professor Fred Craddock. It’s deeper than I find most texts on preaching to be, mining for insights on philosophy, communications, literature and theology.

I found particularly interesting the author’s discussion on “preaching to the converted”. The fact is that most of the people who listen to my sermons have self-identified as Christians for years. Not all, for there are always seekers in our midst, testing the waters of faith; but living in the “buckle of the Bible belt”, the vast majority has heard countless sermons over the years.

That’s a unique challenge, if a common one. How does one preach to the converted? To put the question another way, what does it mean for the converted to be converted? Many of my listeners hang on to long-held assumptions and opinions on many subjects. Often they evaluate sermons on how closely they support those opinions.

However, the message of a sermon should be to affect change in the listeners’ attitudes, prejudices and behavior. Even if the message begins with ancient scripture, it must become contemporary in the lives we lead.

As theologian Karl Barth once said, the preacher must always enter the pulpit with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. My wife calls it the “so what?” factor. If, having heard a sermon and asking “so what?”, there is no apparent answer in the message, something crucial is missing. The preacher, in this case, is “so heavenly minded that he/she is of no earthly good”.

So I pose the question to you, the reader — especially those of you of strong religious conviction: What does it mean for the converted to be converted? Do we need further conversion, or have we somehow “arrived” at some intended destination on our spiritual journeys?

My own Calvinist Presbyterian heritage has a motto: “Always Reformed, and always being Reformed, by the Word of God.” Calvin was convinced, in other words, that we never have it right. Part of our fallible humanity is that our best efforts fall short of what we are created to be.

I’m reminded of Jack Welsh, the former chairman of General Electric, who said that one of the secrets of his success was that he believed that, no matter how successful his company was, that “we never had it right.” He believed that, to be successful, a company needs to be open to constant change and reform.

I believe the same is true for us. Speaking for my Christian family, we still don’t have it right. We’ve had our high moments, certainly. Christians at their best have been responsible for much social progress. But at our worst, we have a long way to go.

Studies show that racism among “Christians” remains a scandal. Prejudice is no stranger in churches. Sometimes our long-held positions have divided people and impeded progress.

So, having heard Craddock’s question about converting the converted, I think he is right on. That’s why I keep preaching to the believers. That’s why I keep preaching to myself. Someone has said that the job of the preacher is to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” The latter is more difficult, because I love my people, but it is essential.

My mind needs changing, too. And so does my heart.

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