Festival draws stars of Christian preaching (not as seen on TV)

The New York TimesJune 6, 2014 

— Quick: Name a famous American preacher.

Chances are you came up with a television evangelist. The names come easily: Billy Graham, Robert H. Schuller and Oral Roberts; Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker; Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes. Since World War II, American preaching has been synonymous with high-tech, media-savvy soul-winning, usually with a conservative, evangelical theology.

But while these evangelicals have sizable audiences and book sales, they appeal primarily to like-minded Christian conservatives. For those in the more liberal wings of the Congregational, Episcopal, Baptist, Lutheran, Methodist and Presbyterian Churches, there is a parallel world of preaching stars.

Last month, Minneapolis was the center of that sphere.

About 1,750 Christians, mostly pastors and seminary students, gathered here from May 19 to 23 for the annual Festival of Homiletics (the word refers to the art of preaching) to pray, sing and hear 18 sermons and 17 lectures on preaching. The big names included Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament scholar; William Willimon, a Duke professor; and Barbara Brown Taylor, who teaches at Piedmont College in Georgia and is admired around the English-speaking world for her preaching on the Bible.

In between sermons, the attendees renewed relationships, made new friends and asked their favorite preachers to sign copies of their books and CDs. They also came for inspiration on how to keep preaching relevant in their churches, where congregants are not looking for the charismatic, come-to-Jesus style that stirs people in many evangelical churches.

The Rev. David Howell, who founded the festival in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1993, said the audiences he described as mainline have needs and expectations that differ from those of evangelical congregations.

“They are both grounded for the most part in the Bible,” said Howell, a Presbyterian minister who also founded the journal Lectionary Homiletics. “The takeoff point is the biblical text. But mainliners probably talk more about social issues and community issues. Evangelicals talk more - and this is a generalization - more about personal salvation, or a personal relationship with Jesus.”

Sermons differ in style, too.

“You might find, in mainline preaching, a little more tendency for narrative preaching, crafting the sermon as a continuous story,” Howell said.

The audience here seemed to be about half women, with many gay men and lesbians.

“I’m excited,” said the Rev. Melissa Bills, a Lutheran pastor from Decorah, Iowa, who was holding her baby boy, Sam. “There are lots of people here whose writings I’ve read, and I am a little star-struck. I have been waiting 10 years of my life to hear Walter Brueggemann speak in person. And Barbara Brown Taylor.”

Bills, like others I spoke with, said that being a woman made a difference as a preacher.

“Being female and young - and people assume younger than I am - I score really well with little old ladies,” she said. “Sometimes it’s as if I am their granddaughter and they are proud of me. So the challenge, sometimes, is to preach the word in way that it’s not just that they are saying, ‘Right on,’ but that it gets through.”

The conference fosters conversations about trends in preaching, ones that carry on over years. Lauren Winner, an Episcopal priest and Duke professor, who gave a sermon on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, talked about making preaching “more democratic.”

“You have seen this metaphor for 20 years, in homiletics, that the sermon is a ‘conversation,’ not just a clergy monologue,” Winner said. “But what does this mean? Does it mean have a Wednesday afternoon Bible study, so that your Sunday sermon can engage the congregation’s concerns about the passage? Or it might mean emailing out a passage beforehand, and saying, ‘What do you want to know about it?’”

Some preachers - though not her, Winner made clear - take interactivity further.

“There are preachers who stand there with their iPhone on the pulpit, and their audience texts and tweets questions and comments, and they riff on them,” Winner said.

Though I did not have a chance to see Taylor’s sermon, I reached her later by email and she discussed the different approaches to preaching.

“Evangelicals tend to approach Scripture as the direct word of God, while mainliners approach it as the inspired work of historical human beings,” Taylor said. “Evangelicals preach with salvation in mind, while mainliners seem more focused on discipleship.”

That difference is not necessarily a problem, she said.

“We don’t read the same authors or revere the same heroes, but together we reach more people than either of us could alone,” she said.

And no matter their theology, Christians will always find a role for preaching.

“One way or another,” Taylor said, “the church will always protect her bards and poets - those people who can say what we all know is true but who can say it so beautifully, so memorably, that we all hush to hear them.”

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