“Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church” is a book that seems to be all about proclaiming, nurturing, maintaining, preserving, promoting, and exhibiting “The Church,” the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), and Presbyterian Church preaching in particular. In a phrase, this is an insider’s book. There’s nothing wrong with this, you just need to know it up front.
Cartoonist Gary Larson has a cartoon where the first frame is titled “What we say to dogs” — a man points at his dog and says, “Okay, Ginger! I’ve had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage, or else!” The next frame is titled “What they hear.” It is identical to the first except for the language bubble that now reads, “blah blah GINGER blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah …” For a number of years, this is one way I have come to understand preaching. As a preacher in a PC(USA) congregation, I oftentimes wonder if all our talk about Church doesn’t render the Gospel as blah, blah, blah.
It is with this bias that I read, “Proclaiming the Great Ends of the Church.” I encountered a lot of familiar words and phrases, occasional quotes from a list of usual suspects. As a church insider, I should have liked it. Then why did it leave me feeling so empty?
Maybe it’s because I don’t perceive much new in this book. The editor’s introduction seems to even lament the loss of a time when sermons were literary and preachers were “dignitaries of the city.” The amazing “… age of quick, interactive, communication…” (too easily labeled “entertainment”) in which we live is presented as a problem, a stumbling block rather than an opportunity to engage a growing number of people, who in survey after survey claim to be “spiritual” but not “religious.”
As for the sermons themselves, suffice to say, I found some excellent, some good, some mediocre, and a few bad. But, I’ve preached long enough to know that rating the quality and effectiveness of a sermon is a slippery slope. The closing paragraphs of the editor’s introduction characterize sermons as living, spoken word, endlessly subject to the context of speaker, hearer, and shared community. Hence, the sermon I may perceive as bad (even my own) can be life-changing in the ears of another, and vice versa.
So, what is the value of this book? For me it is as a mirror in which I see my/our own reflection — a community of faith that pride’s itself in progressive thought, inclusivity, and the idea of always being reformed; yet which tenaciously clings to worn ways and ideas, accepts diversity only up to a point, and does all it can to preserve and maintain the status quo. Is this who we really want to be?
In the end, just like any sermon, you need to hear (read) the book yourself to see what words ring true and what you hear as blah, blah.
ANDY WALTON is pastor of Capital Hill Church in Washington, D.C.