The “Middle Zone” of Preaching
As part of a grant project studying vibrant preaching, I had the chance recently to read over a) the results of a survey taken by more than a thousand people who regularly listen to sermons and b) the in-depth interviews given by about two hundred more. The results have been fascinating and I’m only just beginning to process them. But one thing already stands out: People want to understand why the biblical stories they hear read at church matter. Desperately. More than that, they want what happens on Sunday to matter throughout the week.
When I processed this observation with a group of preachers participating in the study, one voiced the feelings of the whole group: “Aren’t we doing that already?” My response: yes and no. Yes, of course we are working hard to open up these biblical passages, to help people understand them, and to offer them ways to think about their life in light of the faith. This generation of preachers is as talented, hardworking, and faithful in this respect as any other.
At the same time, I’ve become aware of an interesting trend in preaching that was confirmed by the survey results. It has to do with sermon illustrations. (And by “sermon illustrations” I’m not talking about canned stories but honest-to-goodness attempts to help us link the sermon’s message to everyday life.) Most of the illustrations I hear are directed to one of two “zones” or “spheres” of our life in this world. The first is the congregational zone. That is, the sermon relates the biblical passage or theological theme to what’s going to in the congregation’s life, ministries, budget, outreach, volunteer opportunities, and the rest.
The second sphere that a lot of sermon illustrations tend to explore is what I’d call the global zone. Here the preacher takes up the matter of wars, natural disasters, systemic problems, and so forth and invites us to view these things from the standpoint of faith.
Now please let me be clear: both of these zones are incredibly important to preach to. But I nevertheless want to say that what often seems to be missing is all the life (which is most of our lives!) in between our congregational involvement and the world’s very real problems. Jobs, looking for a job, relationships, parenting, managing too many things at once, money, family, volunteering – that is, the stuff that constitutes our daily lives – often seems to be missing.
Honestly, I’m not looking for a simplistic application of the sermon to one of life’s problems, like the answer is to offer a series of sermons on stress management. At the same time, I would like to hear more preachers try to help us see how these ancient stories offer us a lens, a perspective, that helps me make sense of some of the ordinary and mundane things that make up most of my life.
Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer used to scoff at talk of “relevant preaching,” where the Bible is instrumentalized into a self-help book. At the same time, they both – and Bonhoeffer especially – invited preachers to imagine that their job wasn’t so much to interpret Scripture as it was to open up a passage such that it could interpret our daily lives. This focus on how faith impacts the mundane and ordinary elements of our lives – that is, the majority of our lives – is what I’d call “the middle zone” of preaching, and I would love to hear more of it…and so would, as it turns out, a majority of the people we surveyed and interviewed.
The post image is Peter Bruegel the Elder’s Landscape with the Fall of Icarus (1558). What I love about it is how tiny Icarus’ fall and tragedy actually is, located in the bottom right hand corner of the painting. The people portrayed in the painting don’t even notice, because they’re too busy plowing and working and doing all the things that make up their daily lives. I sometimes worry that our preaching can be like that, hardly noticed because people are busy with their “real” lives, lives to which we don’t always give sufficient attention.