Montreat conference continues effort to improve preaching in the PC(USA)

No old-fashioned pulpit, sanctuary or chancel here.

“New generations require new ways of doing church, or relating to God and one another,” preached Hunter, pastor of Community church in Flint, Mich. As meaningful as her grandmother’s church — with its familiar traditions and hard pews — is to her faith, she said a new, media-rich and accommodating approach, maybe even with concert sound and stadium seating, is needed to reach today’s worshipers.

Welcome to Montreat Conference Center’s second annual Reclaiming the Text Conference on preaching, this one geared more toward lay people than ministers. And while the premise of the May conference, in the words of Montreat director Emile Deith, “is to be constructive in helping to increase the effectiveness of preaching,” some 200 attendees this year got a heavy dose of praise worship mixed in with a variety of preaching styles and messages:

From Hunter’s multimedia-laced call for modernizing services to James H. Logan’s admonition to “preach the Bible.”

From Ted Wardlaw’s caution against “niche-marketing the Sabbath” to Tom Long’s reminder that a sermon is “to teach, to delight and to persuade.”

From Paul Eckel’s critique of a widespread “members only” attitude to Curtis Jones’ reminder that “the text, if it is to reclaim us, has to be incarnated within us,” and

To Anna Carter Florence’s urging of memorization of sermon texts “to put us in communion with God.”

The conference had its inception in Deith’s travels as an oil company executive, during which he attended a wide range of Presbyterian churches and concluded “preaching could be improved in the church.” When he came to Montreat and discovered nothing focused on preaching, he turned for help to noted theologian Walter Brueggemann who maintains a residence at the retreat.

Brueggemann agreed to help, Deith said, and lent his name and prestige to the conference. In 2000 some 1,000 persons, mostly ministers, came to listen to Brueggemann and a high-powered cast that included Barbara Brown Taylor, Douglas John Hall, Eugene Peterson, Phyllis Tribble, James Forbes and Gayle Godwin, with liturgy by Ann Weems and music by John Weaver.

The topic of the first two-year minister-lay cycle was “Back to Basics.” Next year, some of the same people will return to discuss “Recovering the Language of Lament.”

David Fleming, an interim pastor and former presbytery executive from Ohio, attended last year’s conference and said he would definitely return and encourage others to come.

“I was very positively impressed,” he said. “I think these folks have had a tremendous sensitivity not just to the preachers, [but] to those who are trying to listen and learn and grow.”

“I think the beauty of the conference is when you get this many different people preaching” in what he called “a delightful variety of ways.”

While he acknowledged a worship service, such as the one led by Hunter, would be “difficult” for his own congregations, “it could be done, with good preparation and good cultivation and development and understanding of worship.” “It would be a wonderful teaching experience,” he said.

He agreed with the conference’s goal, that Presbyterian preaching can be improved, and said members still want to hear sermons and to be instructed and guided.

Preaching “has got to be improved,” he said. During his days on presbytery staff, Fleming said he had witnessed some “abysmal” preaching. “Maybe it was sufficiently academic,” he said. “I think generally preachers were doing their homework.”

But, “it just didn’t have any power in many cases.”

Karel Hanhart, pastor of two yoked congregations in northern Wisconsin, said the conference would help improve his preaching. He said he appreciated the “really good breadth” of styles presented.

“I really have a yearning to preach and to reach people and so it’s been my passion,” he said. “I really feel the need to find a place where I can learn more about [preaching] and be challenged.”

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