Preaching New Ways to Reach Masses: Religious Leaders Fight Secular Crisis
Witham, Larry, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)
Preachers who deliver shocking, authoritative or practical sermons and who can keep their congregations "religion literate" stand to gain influence as society faces a "crisis of secularity," a panel of clergy agreed yesterday.
"We've had decades of the `crisis of faith,' but now people are speaking of the `crisis of secularity,' the problem secularity is having explaining anything," said the Rev. William Willimon, dean of the Duke University Chapel and widely acclaimed as a teacher of preachers.
While the failures of secularism, by its exclusion of all spiritual values, may turn the public ear to sermons for guidance, preachers still must cast their messages into a "bubbling, competing marketplace" of views of the world, he said.
"One lesson I've had to learn as a preacher is to expect discordance, to expect conflict" after delivering a sermon. Mr. Willimon keynoted a forum hosted by The Washington Times called "Spiritual Voices in a Secular Culture."
He once thought preaching was about precise explanation but now is pleased if a sermon shocks or puzzles.
"What you are saying is true, and we live in a culture of deceit," he told the audience of preachers of widely diverse denominations. "You are speaking about God in a culture that has taught me that `I am god.' . . . I prefer to speak now more in terms of collision than communication."
The forum saluted 80 Christian priests and ministers, Jewish rabbis, and Muslim imams whose sermons have appeared in The Times' continuing Monday-morning feature "Capital Pulpit."
Five panelists, speaking from the Christian and Jewish traditions, agreed that seekers must learn a basic scriptural tradition to join in a group's religious discourse - and to get the most from sermons.
"In a generation, the basic language of the Judeo-Christian heritage has been lost," said the Rev. Nancy Cox of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in Alexandria. "In preaching, I have to be active in teaching the basics of the faith."
She told of a study session in which students mistook the concept of "the fall" for one of the four seasons, unaware that she was talking about the fall of Adam and Eve in Eden in the biblical account of human separation from God.
Rabbi Matthew Simon of B'nai Israel Congregation in Rockville said rabbis have always applied their spiritual voice to a secular environment, and not always in conflict.
"To have a feeling that this is a new thing is a misreading of history," he said. The first rabbis, who also held secular jobs, gave sermons to answer practical questions from Jews seeking to adhere to religious laws. …