The Rev’d Dr. Micah Jackson, President of Bexley-Seabury Theological Seminary in Chicago and Faculty at Backstory Preaching, says if we look back through our sermons we can probably discern a running theme.
His theme is “Be not afraid.”
Mine is “compassion.”
This theme likely reflects the value(s) we believe most important—our most cherished, scriptural values.
We regularly preach our values without stopping to name them.
Common values include trust, compassion, honesty, security, social justice, tradition, respect, hierarchy, kindness, independence, detachment, community, authority, peace, and shalom.
Of course, our listeners have their own values: their own running themes they take from Scripture and uphold as most important
What happens when the preacher’s cherished values differ from our members’ cherished values?
If we’re not aware of this dynamic, our listeners might gain the impression that we believe their values are out of step, wrong, or incongruent. They might feel preached at, unseen, or dismissed.
That disconnect leads to discord. Listeners’ may feel defensive and stop listening. And when anyone stops listening, they’re missing an opportunity to hear the Gospel.
How do we better understand how our preaching choices are heard and understood?
We must do the work of identifying the sometimes competing values at play in our congregations, lives, and world.
Identify the Values of All Parties
1)Identify your values.
As you read Scripture and interact with your congregation, notice what feels harmonious. Pay attention to what frustrates or angers you. Underneath those feelings is a value. Something that matters to you is being affirmed or challenged. Figure out what it is, and you’ll have identified that value.
2) Make educated guesses about your members’ values.
Your listeners give you clues about their values when they express what is balm for their soul or share something that really resonated with them. Likewise, when they dash off an email about something that frustrates them in a Bible study or a sermon, you’re receiving information about their values.
What’s at stake in these circumstances? What is redeemed? What is restored or broken that elicits their reaction? You don’t even have to guess. When you notice the energy, use your pastoral care skills to ask. For instance, “It sounds like carrying the past forward, or tradition, is really important to you. Is that correct?”
3) Identify the values in Scripture.
The characters in and authors of Scripture hold values, too. They were humans, too. Therefore, many of our own values are reflected in the pages of the Bible. Your list of values might include legacy and safety, while members of your congregation may value detachment and risk-taking, all of which can be supported scripturally.
Why bother to identify values in Scripture? To expand our appreciation that we all have a “biblical leg” to stand on. Proof-texting to defend one value as better than another’s probably won’t move either of us. But using Scripture as “way in”—to better understand each other’s priorities—can build empathy and respect. (For more on this, see the Conclusion below.)
4) Take Note.
Take note of which values you hold in common with your listeners and which you don’t. Consider times when you heard sermons that are congruent with your values—and times when you didn’t. Regarding the latter, did you listen? If you didn’t, what caused you to tune out? If you did, what did the preacher do to keep you listening?
Preach Everyone’s Values—with Integrity
1) Start with the text.
What values do you identify in the Biblical text? What’s so important to God in this particular story that it has been preserved for thousands of years? What in this story is meant to orient us toward God?
Remember to take context into account. The author imparted values to his particular hearers for their particular time and place. Some values are explicitly stated and some are implicitly understood by who’s present (or not) and who has a voice (or not), and who has power (or not). And some values are specifically (uniquely?) relevant to them. What difference does this make?
2) How do those values sit with your own?
As you identify these Biblical values, are your own values affirmed or challenged? Maybe the values are affirmed, but the way we live them out is not. Might God be leading you in a new direction? What humility is required to admit your values—or their expression—might be askew from the values you read in the text?
3) Imagine members of your congregation listening to a bible story and how it feels to hear their values affirmed or challenged.
Our listeners’ values, too, might be affirmed or challenged—or their expression might be. If listeners feel affirmed by the Scriptures, they’ll probably expect more of the same in your sermon and be ready to listen. If they feel challenged by the Scripture readings, they may feel on guard before you even walk to the pulpit. Knowing this, we can prepare our sermons in a way that acknowledges the values at play and the difficulty of having them challenged—thus lowering defenses and helping listeners feel more receptive.
4) Find the intersection
In a Venn Diagram of your values, your listeners’ values, and the Bible’s values, which values overlap? What values are upheld by all? Even if your core value is safety and a member’s core value is risk-taking, you may find intersection in a desire to live fully. Identify what’s in common, and work from there.
5) Preach “Both-And.”
Acknowledge listeners’ values while upholding your own. Then explore where God is leading us together. How have we all fallen short? What does God need to redeem? What’s the Good News for all of us? When we do this, our listeners feel seen, dignified, and respected. They trust us and what we have to say more. They keep listening and we can explore where our values are leading us together.
REcognize God’s Values May Disrupt our own
Humans are masters of self-deception. We want and expect to see our personal values reflected in Scripture so that we feel safe, assuaged, and confirmed by God in our choices.
Confirmation bias leads us to focus on where our values are reflected and explain away the parts where they are not. Our listeners do the same.
But God is often asking us to re-evaluate our values.
Consider the story of the Good Samaritan. The characters of the Priest and Levite were religious leaders who were well respected in their communities. When they saw the wounded man on the side of the road, they chose the religious value of “cleanliness”—crossing to the other side of the road away from the man in need—over “compassion.” The Samaritan, considered a societal outcast and “enemy” by the Jewish people, stopped to help the wounded man, secured and paid for his lodging for a night, and returned the next day to check on him.
Jesus, as an observant Jew and teacher, understood the religious values of the Priest and Levite. So when he held up the Samaritan as the model of “kingdom values,” he challenged his listeners’ values.
What does this suggest about a hierarchy of values? How do we determine when our values need to shift? How do we know when we need to call our listeners to reconsider theirs?
None of us is congruent with our values in all times and places. We are not always congruent in our words, nor in our behaviors or sermons. That’s why we need Christ’s forgiveness.
And that’s also why we need the loving support of other preachers. We need each other to ask the thorny questions, go deeper into the nuances of preaching with integrity, and keep one another accountable to the holiest values we have promised, with God’s help, to uphold.
We’d love to have you join us in The Collective, our online community where we work out our sermons each week and discuss questions like these.