Resisting Relevancy

The church suffers when pastors confuse anecdotes with parables
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Jesus said "Feed my sheep," not "Nurse my lambs." I recorded this observation on the margin of a bulletin while sitting out a particularly simple-minded sermon in the back pew of a church I no longer attend.

Reformer John Calvin, so I'm told, claimed that stupidity is a sin. By this I assume he meant something like willful ignorance or mental sloth rather than limited native intelligence. Having witnessed for 20 years the squandering of intellectual resources in the dumbing down of school curricula and news media, I am now distressed to see the same trend at work in the church. When I retreat from the educational trenches to the sanctuary on Sunday, I too often find the meat of the Gospels boiled down to mush. Preachers I know to be intelligent human beings who love God and are called to proclaim the Word succumb to the downward pull of media culture by seeking to entertain rather than to challenge or to "re-mind"—to make us mindful. Homely references to daily life certainly have their place in sermons, but the temptation to compete with standup comedians or to indulge in mediaspeak for the sake of a spurious relevancy seems to be almost irresistible to clergy who think their flock comes only for the fun parts.

Amusing anecdotes don't necessarily function as parables. References to New Yorker cartoons, Dilbert, Seinfeld, or Star Wars might serve to illustrate a point, but too often digress rather than direct our attention to the Word that hangs like a plumb line in a crooked world. Moreover, invoking popular culture can have the dubious effect of endorsing it. A reference to Seinfeld suggests that we all watch it and chuckle together over its variable repertoire of narcissistic preoccupations and flip one-liners. And Seinfeld, ...

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