SERMON: Practicing Christians
Introduction: Dave Ward serves as a regular guest speaker at Central Wesleyan Church in Holland, MI, where this message was preached. Dave teaches Homiletics at Indiana Wesleyan University. He has served as an Itinerant Preacher for the last ten years, preaching at local churches, Christian colleges, conferences, and camps. He has also ministered as a local church pastor, ministry director, and trainer of itinerant evangelists. He received his M.Div. from Asbury Theological Seminary and is currently finishing his Ph.D. at Princeton Theological Seminary. Dave and his wife, Holly, have three young children: Ella, Zoe, and Dawson.
Lenny: You didn’t preach this message on the last Sunday of the year, but it has all of the elements of a fantastic new year’s message. Dave, your point came across loud and clear- practices shape our lives. It’s not beliefs or good intentions but habitual practices that shape us to embody the Christ-life. What did you see going on in American Christianity or culture that led you to design and deliver this message?
Dave: I actually came to this sermon from a very different direction than culture or reflections on American Christianity. I was writing a Wesleyan theology of Christian practices (some call them spiritual disciplines) for a work on preaching. I never expected any of that material to end up in a sermon. In the middle of that project I had a light bulb go on for me personally. I realized the Wesleyan view of Christian practices is that they form a way of life, not merely a set of habits. I had always subconsciously viewed Christian practices as the add-ons to my life. I added on scripture reading, jail visitation, fasting, etc. The more you grew, the more add-ons you had. I added more, or beefed up the old when I felt like it or “felt led to” do so. My study led me to believe this was a very backwards way of going about it. In other words, I was deeply convicted and had a personal lifestyle conversion of sorts. It’s changed me personally more than any other concept I have ever preached. It was much later in the process that I looked at the broader culture and came to realize most churchgoers in America are cultural Christians, not practicing Christians. So theology led me to a new way of seeing life. That led me to a new way of seeing culture. The sermon came a lot later. The whole process took about a year. I have only had one other sermon emerge that way before, so it’s unique for me.
Lenny: Dave, you said so many good things about so many good things. Sometimes these kinds of content-rich, comprehensive messages can come across as a stale lecture or lacking some cohesive focus. Your message, in my estimation, avoids both tendencies. One of the tools that prevented your sermon from feeling lecture-like or haphazard was your use of metaphor and mantra. Can you tell us how you used these in the sermon?
Dave: Yea, this sermon is sort of a homiletical no-no in lots of ways. I felt I had to give this comprehensive view because that was the reason I never had the insight earlier in my life. The practices were always preached about individually as far as I remember. This was probably done in honor of the first homiletical rule “say one main thing.” The first way I hoped to make the message still coherent and interesting was with the repeated question “Are you a practicing Christian?” It gathers all the threads into one knot. I am assuming that is what you are calling my mantra. I think Gene Lowry is on to something important for preaching when he talks about maintaining tension in a message. Some preachers get a hold of a concept like a mantra or a “refrain” in African American traditions and end up just giving a static statement like “We want to be practicing Christians.” That’s a yawn statement for me. It doesn’t create tension in me as a listener. So, I don’t want to repeat any phrases in a message that don’t maintain or further that tension within the listener. There needs to be some sort of compelling center for the interest, a question does that better than anything I know. However, you can’t use a repetitive question every sermon or it gets old.
The other element you mention, the metaphor, is an actual concrete object I use metaphorically. Two backpacks represent two lifestyle choices. We have the wrong lifestyle shape, wrong backpack, if we are overloaded and tired. The Christian way of life is actually more simple than the American way of life. It isn’t easier, but it is simpler. You might notice that the metaphor here is not only making abstract things concrete, but it is keeping the tension alive. The implied question is the question regarding practicing or cultural Christianity.
Lenny: You asked some challenging questions throughout your message. These questions kept your sermon anchored to the focus. You started out your sermon with “Are you a practicing Christian?”. Throughout your sermon you stayed inquisitive. You asked, “Are you an American first or a Christian first? A student first or a Christian first?” You use carefully crafted questions with intention. Tell us more about how and why you use questions strategically in your sermon?
Dave: A question though can do more than create tension and maintain interest. It can focus the listener on the real issue you want them to deal with in the sermon. I think sermons are as hard for the listeners to participate in as they are for the preacher to present. Good listeners are going to ask questions anyway. I like to help listeners focus on what I want them to think about. A question helps them do that. It also presses them to a crisis of decision. Questions beg for answers. It’s like humming half of “twinkle, twinkle little…” Everybody just goes crazy until that tune is completed. A question helps a sermon refuse to be completed on its own. The listener has to engage, has to participate, and has to face the crisis of their own authentic decision.
Lenny: Your distinguishing of Christian practices in the categories of either devotion or compassion was very helpful. You stated strongly that to engage in practices of devotion without compassion or practices of compassion without devotion can lead to worse kinds of evil. Can you say more about this?
Dave: Sure, though I bet most people think I already said too much. This comes from Wesley and his use of the traditional categories of “works of piety” and “works of mercy.” I simply translated these into more understandable language for today: practices of devotion (works of piety) and practices of compassion (works of mercy). To practice devotion without compassion is to completely misunderstand devotion. We can’t love God without loving neighbor in a comprehensive way. If we think we can, we are deceiving ourselves. That was Evangelical Christianity’s 20th century mistake. We cannot say we love God and then say we don’t care that the average lifespan of Native American men is 60% the rest of the country’s average or that thousands of foster kids are getting ready to age out of the system virtually alone in the world. On the other hand, to practice compassion without devotion is to lose our first love. This is why the social gospel movement was like a hollow candy: sweet in the beginning, but hollow in the end. That is Evangelical Christianity’s likely future unless we change directions.
Lenny: The preacher’s ultimate identity is “Christian” before “preacher.” It seems to me that the preacher must, of all people, be a practicing Christian. Can you sketch a description of what it might look like for a preacher to be a practicing Christian. How does this idea of practicing Christian surface in the practice of Christian preaching?
Dave: First, I would emphasize the word practicing in practicing Christian. Many people hear legalistic perfectionism any time someone speaks about practices or “spiritual disciplines.” Preachers do not have to be perfect performers of the Christian life, as if such a concept even made sense. We practice our way toward this way of life. Practice implies lack of perfection seeking to become better. There is grace wrapped up in the idea of practice. God’s grace is more than enough to make up for our weakness. On the other hand, a preacher who is a practicing Christian realizes that the practices of fasting, praying, searching scriptures, communion, baptism, corporate worship, hospitality, prison visitation, face to face ministry to the poor, and actively fighting oppression are both promise and command. These practices are the places where the Spirit of Christ will show up most clearly in our lives. They are where he has commanded us to be, to abide, to wait for him to show up. In this way, they are preaching preparation in the broadest sense.
Second, the practices can also energize preaching on a week-to-week basis. I meet more preachers who have integrated practices of devotion with their preaching preparation than practices of compassion. But many of us haven’t integrated either. I imagine a world where the practice of preaching and the practice of pastoral care are not so distinct and separate as they are today. What if we read next Sunday’s text to shut-ins and asked for their perspective on the scripture? What if we learned to read scripture through a prisoner’s eyes, the eyes of the homeless, or the eyes of an impoverished single mom? Usually we think of visiting shut-ins or ministering in a soup kitchen as distraction from sermon prep. On the contrary, these practices are a way of knowing. They give us an understanding of the Christian life we can’t get any other way. It is an understanding that comes from participating in the life of Christ from the inside out. Practicing Christians who also happen to be preachers are more rare than we think. When we hear one though, we know there is a difference.