By Revd Dr Peter Sanlon
Woke Cultures Make Weak Preachers
We all know and value preaching in the context of church services, as a key way God grows and sustains us in our pilgrimages. The strength and health of the church at large, down the centuries, can be mapped onto the power of preaching. When preaching is disdained, done with lack of insight or passion, or when it is tainted with heterodox doctrine or compromise with the age – then we inevitably find the church weak.
Each age has different challenges to overcome in preaching. So in the third century, before Augustine recovered the discipline of preaching, many preachers so called, did not speak the same language as the people around them. That was a major problem. In the medieval church preaching was most ably done by scholarly monks in monasteries – the people did not have easy access to preaching.
What are the challenges to preaching today? There is no point training people to avoid the problems of past eras, if we leave them to be devoured by the spirit of our age.
Much could be said — let me gesture to merely two points of pressure, in the culture, and in preachers. Obviously these are generalised patterns – observed in many places but not universal.
The culture in the Western world is now dominated by the post PC ‘woke’ linguistic elite. Gatekeepers of the culture who police what is acceptable to say in public place special guards around what can be said to rebuke protected groups of people. Hurt feelings and challenged identities are currency of the realm. That culture in our world makes it very difficult for preachers to preach in a way that challenges, rebukes, corrects and trains listeners. Decades of formation have gone on in listeners to make them hear any challenge to deeply held beliefs, as a personal attack. This makes many preachers step back from the brink of what previous ages would view as full preaching.
If that is a problem in the culture, what problem is there in preachers that undermines the calling to preach?
The problem is not lack of technical advice, linguistic information or models to follow. Rather I think the problem is that many — perhaps most — of us have lost the sense that our sermons are to be spoken as the very Word of God. ‘Whoever speaks, speak as one who speaks the oracles of God.’ (1 Peter 4:11) If a preacher really believes this, then he will be humbly dependent on God in prayer. He will speak boldly, in an unconstrained manner, with the full range of human emotions – of the unconstrained passion of God for His people. The full range of scriptural images and doctrines, preached with fitting power and pathos. Few preach like that today – most preachers share a few bits of information from the Bible, rather than preach the Bible in God’s power.
If these are the two cardinal challenges to preaching today – are the problems linked? Is it not the case that woke cultures make weak preachers?
Rev. Dr. Peter Sanlon is rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church, Tunbridge Wells: www.emmanuelanglican.uk