Tom Long talks about preaching in challenging times
CHATTANOOGA, Tenn. — “About every 60 years or so I think preaching has a nervous breakdown,” said Tom Long, to an October gathering of Baptist preachers in downtown Chattanooga. “…We start looking around for the next thing.”
Long, a Presbyterian minister and the Bandy Professor Emeritus of Preaching at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, preached and taught during the annual preaching consultation sponsored by Mercer University and Cooperative Baptist Fellowship organizations.
“Narrative preaching is beginning to take on water a little bit,” said Long of his own preaching style that he defends. The Gospel, he said, is narrative.
“There is a sense that orality can take you places that a flat screen image cannot,” he said.
Through presentations and dialogue, Long explored preaching as it relates to the biblical genres of parables, wisdom sayings and laments.
The “surprise” that comes from parabolic sermons is missing in much preaching, said Long, noting however that Jesus used this method.
“Simply telling listeners that God loves them is not enough,” he said of the contemporary narcissistic culture: “They aren’t surprised.”
He called for enough “disruption” to show how “the kingdom of heaven corrupts the corruption of the culture.”
Preaching “wisely,” he said, should emphasize how “life has purpose and value, but also form and shape” that goes beyond rules to wisdom.
Concerning the role of laments, Long warned preachers: “On Good Friday, you don’t really want to go to Easter yet.”
Lament, he said, properly startles listeners who have been raised in an American culture summarized as: “I was born an extraordinary person but have had some setbacks, but with hard work I’ve put them behind me and the future is bright.”
Long, who has researched and written on Christian funerals, said: “Lament is not the ultimate voice of the Bible, but praise only becomes authentic when the lament is there.”
Popular megachurches, with an over-emphasis on positive thinking, tend to ignore the biblical laments, he said. “But they are going to have to come to grips with the full range of human life.”
Death “with a capital D” is not our friend and comes to every funeral, he said. Lament is a proper response. “Yet it is our duty and delight to raise our fists and say, ‘O Death, where is your sting…?’”
In an interview with Baptists Today, Long responded to questions from editor John Pierce. This exchange has been edited for space and clarity.
BT: You said some affirming words about the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship being “salt in southern Christianity.” We don’t often hear that from someone outside of CBF life. Will you say a little more about how you as a Presbyterian perceive Fellowship Baptists?
TL: As a southerner, I watched with alarm as the Southern Baptist Convention drifted to the hard right and was finally taken over and some marvelous institutions were deeply damaged.
Take, for example, Southern Seminary. People know that was a wonderful Southern Baptist seminary but … it was one of the world’s finest theological schools and it was damaged.
Baptist life is so important to southern religious life because of the dominance of it. If the whole southern Baptist movement had become hardened, like the dominant strain was, it would have been hugely damaging to the rest of us.
But there were these courageous people and many of them are found in the CBF who said, “No, this is not the Gospel; this is not the way of Jesus Christ.”
It was painful and a price was paid by many of those people, but the lesson was not lost on the rest of us. It was very encouraging.
BT: What do preachers call or write to you about most often?
TL: A couple of things: First, most of the emails I get from preachers are: “I remember a story you told one time and I want to use it. Could you give it to me again?”
But beyond that I think it’s the anxiety of preaching centered on the generational split — and along with that the use of technical media in preaching and how far one can go in that.
This especially comes from people who were trained to preach a generation or a half ago when that wasn’t even in the picture and now they have to learn a new language and they wonder what they ought to do.
BT: Can you say a little more about the challenge to preaching that comes from digital communication?
TL: I think we are battling a cultural assumption and a cultural preference. The cultural assumption is that the visual trumps the oral. The preference is for the moving image — something to delight the eyes.
The old Jesuit scholar Walter Ong, who studied orality and literacy, once said that there’s no form of human communication more powerful than someone who loves someone else telling the truth in love, speaking the truth. Orality has a power that literacy, in his case, or visual art does not.
So I think the challenge is to figure out the appropriate use of the visual. It’s with us; it’s appealing to our culture.
I don’t think we know all the rules yet, but I think the big rule is something like: the visual must always support the oral in preaching, not compete with it or replace it.
So if I’m preaching on Corinthians and talking about the historic reality of meat being offered to idols, I might want to put a picture of excavated Corinth on the screen where you can see the little butcher shops next to the shrines.
It would be informative; it would support the proclamation of the Gospel. It is informative and supportive.
I can imagine preaching a sermon on the sacrifice of Isaac in Genesis 22 and putting up Rembrandt’s depictions of Abraham as a young man and as an old man. They are quite different.
As a young man, Abraham is going to do God’s will and … the angel has to wrestle the knife away from him. But when he’s an old man, the knife is held reluctantly and the angel only has to touch his arm for him to drop it.
It’s the changing and maturing understanding of the will of God and tragedy. So art could support that theological point, I think.
BT: I recall you saying a few years ago that there is a tendency for worship leaders to draw vertical lines to separate the styles of music they will or will not use in worship. You called for drawing a horizontal line that simply separated good music from bad music regardless of style. Are worship leaders doing better at that now?
TL: I actually think there is a little progress on the worship wars. Different churches are at different stages about this, but there is a loosening up of hidebound traditionalists in worship. They are recognizing that we are in a different generational setting.
But there is also a maturing of the youth-oriented, contemporary worship. It burns out pretty quickly when it only runs on fizz and high-energy music.
I think the incorporation of global music is really helping because there are deeply reverent hymns and other musical compositions that come from all over the world that have a kind of musical appeal to younger folks — but aren’t standing up and shouting “Awesome” at the screen for two hours.
BT: Two questions: What is the biggest challenge you see facing the church right now? And what is the most hopeful sign?
TL: I think the huge challenge is that we have spent centuries building up Christian institutions and structures that are falling down. And I happen to think that, to some degree, God is the one who is tearing them down.
That’s a good thing to say that God is actually reconstructing the church. But it doesn’t minimize the pain. I’ve spent almost my whole ministry in theological education, building up schools.
Wow, the changes are dramatic in theological education. And a lot that I built up is now in dust. I have some personal grief about that, and I think those of us raised in the church — the generation I am — have some grief about all of these churches that are now empty.
So I think that is our big challenge: not only to live in a time of collapse and reconstruction, but to get over our grief about what we loved that is now gone.
But the hopeful sign — and again it’s connected to my vocation as a teacher — is when I look out at my classes and see the very creative, very bright young people who are deeply committed to the ministry and they have a nimbleness that I don’t have about what’s happening in the church.
They are willing to bet their ministries and bet their lives on highly experimental structures. A lot of those will not work out, but some of them will, and they will be there in the building up of the new Christian community. I’m hopeful of that. BT
Story and Photo by John Pierce