Chapter 37

Turning an Audience into the Church

Transforming consumers into the committed

The dynamics of the modern congregation can be discouraging. Sunday has become just another day to consume. Those who do attend worship nearly demand to be entertained. But they are still a Christian congregation, and we do well to treat them as such. How do we preach to such a crowd week after week? How can we move them from being individualistic consumers to a community of saints responding to God's Word?

Is church life a leisure activity?

A number of factors inhibit our Sunday morning crowds from being a congregation, and the first is that our people have adopted many of the values of our consumer and leisure society.

We see this in people's lifestyles. One pastor in Colorado complained because of his congregation's weekend trips. His church is located in a suburb of Denver, and many in his congregation own condos in Breckenridge or Vail. Certain periods of the year—ski season, for example, which can run from early November to the middle of April—many otherwise steadfast members attend irregularly. Trying to sustain a sense of community is hard to impossible.

Second, those attending have fewer strong ties to others in the church. In my last church, for those nearing retirement, the church was their social center. The crowd at a covered-dish social at church would also be the same at a downtown dinner party. If I would have asked them, "Who are your five best friends?" most would have named at least three from the church.

Even a generation ago, the majority attending our churches lived in the same town and got their mail from the same post office and shopped at the same general store. So much of their lives was shared together before they even arrived on Sunday morning. To most of the younger crowd in my last congregation, however, church was only one of many stops along a busy highway. Many commuted twenty to thirty minutes, and they could not name even one close church friend.

Third, today's average churchgoer is largely unfamiliar with Christian speech. People arrive on Sunday morning without a working knowledge of Christianity. They hear our words without some fundamental assumptions of Scripture.

A woman recently complained to me about the youth group her 17-year-old daughter attends. Her daughter had said something like, "The Trinity is an outmoded concept. We don't need to think of God in such a complicated way anymore."

The youth leader had replied, "Well, that's wrong. That's not the way Christians look at it."

The girl's mother was deeply offended: how presumptuous of this youth pastor to tell her daughter she was wrong!

"Your daughter is extremely bright," I said after listening to this mother. "She's gotten a huge scholarship to the college of her choice. But she's ignorant and uninformed when it comes to basic Christian doctrine. As Christians, we're not here to say, 'I agree or disagree with that.' We're here to be instructed, to be enculturated into a very different way of looking at things."

When people don't know, and don't really care to know, the content of Christianity, it's hard to build a faith community.

A pastor's twin temptations

Our fickle congregations can tempt us in two directions. On the one hand, we may pander to their consumer mindset. We avoid the controversial, even if it's biblical, and we strive to make people feel good, designing the service so they're pumped up by the end.

On the other hand, cynicism can set in: "My people don't care about the gospel. They just want to be entertained, to feel good about their miserable little lives." So we preach without expecting any significant change.

A better response requires a fundamental shift in attitude. A congregation's behavior is sometimes deceptive. Though they have a long way to go, there are definite signs they yearn to become a congregation. Here are three attitudes I've developed to remind me of that.

First, I've developed an amazement when people do show up. There are a lot of other things people could be doing on Sunday morning. Many make sacrifices to get to church.

Last winter I was given an assignment by Duke's president to spend more time with students, so early on Sunday morning (2:30 A.M.) after a basketball game with Michigan, I hung out at a bonfire with several of them. I walked up to one student I knew, who was surprised to see me, and I said jokingly, "Good morning, David. I bet you won't be at chapel later this morning."

"It will be easier for me than it will be for you," he kidded me. "I'm used to this, and you aren't!"

"Oh, David," I retorted. "You're so young and arrogant!" We then spent a half-hour talking about his life. I can't believe I'm here, I thought. In just a few hours, I'm supposed to preach.

Later that morning, at five minutes to eleven, I was standing with the choir in the back of the sanctuary when in walked David.

"You're up!" I said in surprise.

"Yeah," he said, "and I look better than you do. And you probably got more sleep than I did."

Yeah, I thought. And I didn't drink what you drank either.

As he headed for the sanctuary, he said, "You better be good today."

When I think of the 500 reasons not to go to church, when I reflect upon how archaic preaching must seem to people—and how lousy I preach some days—I'm utterly amazed at the people who do show up consistently.

The second attitude I've developed is that I've learned to relish the serendipities of ministry. When something remarkable happens as a result of preaching, we're tempted to think, Well, it's about time. Instead, I want to be thankful, for God's Spirit has been at work creating faith and Christian community.

I once preached a sermon on sex, and the next week I received a call from a father. "I don't know what kind of reaction you got from last Sunday's sermon," he said. "But I just want to tell you my 17-year-old son was there." I braced myself for shock and anger.

"Getting my son to church last week was such a hassle," he continued. "I physically forced him to come. When he arrived, he was angry and sat with his arms folded.

"I didn't hear much of your sermon because I was so busy watching my son. But when you started in on sex, his mouth dropped open. He was stunned that you would preach on such a topic. I was so proud that we were there. I was proud of you.

"When you finished, I didn't say a word. But on the way home, my son said, 'Gosh, was this sermon typical of him?' 'Yeah,' I replied. 'That's a typical Willimon sermon.' I lied—all your sermons are not that interesting—but I just want to thank you for what you said on Sunday."

That's the type of incident I want to be thankful for—sort of.

Finally, I treat those who have shown up for worship with pastoral respect. Many people are coming with burdens for which they are seeking God's help. My first four years at Duke, I solely taught in the divinity school. It was the first time since graduate school I wasn't preaching, so I attended a local church. One Sunday I walked into the church sanctuary and sat beside a middle-aged woman. The organ was still playing the prelude, so I turned to her and asked how she was doing.

"Not so well," she replied. "My husband was killed last week."


"A drunk driver killed him," she continued. "What makes his death so hard is that we were separated at the time."

"I'm so sorry." Taken back, I turned to greet an older man who had just sat down on the other side of me.

"George, how have you been?" I asked.

"I haven't been here in a month," he replied.

"Anything wrong?"

"Well, my mother died," he said. "It's just the worst thing that has ever happened to me. I miss her so much."

"I'm so sorry to hear that," I said. Just then the service began, for which I was extremely grateful. I've never since presumed my listeners don't need and want the community created by the gospel.

Reading the corporate culture

Our listeners yearn to be a congregation, but that doesn't mean that becoming a congregation is easy. It requires training. The centrifugal forces of our culture pulling our people apart are strong. We simply can't expect them to arrive on Sunday knowing what they're supposed to do.

I've learned that training them might be easier than we think. In one of the congregations I pastored, I was warned about a member who was considered a "hot head." A couple of months after I arrived, this man approached me after a service. "I just don't see it the way you told it this morning. Pastor," he said. "Maybe I missed something, but I don't think you're right."

I immediately got defensive. "Wally," I said, "I don't know exactly what you heard …"

"Wait a minute," he cut in. "I didn't ask you to take it back. I'm only saying I didn't understand and so I disagree. What kind of preacher are you, anyway? Someone who stands up and says something and then takes it back when someone disagrees?"

Later this man said, "You know, you get to read books all the time. You get to think about all these great things. I run a hardware store, and you can learn to run a hardware store in a year—I've being doing it for nineteen years. Sunday is the only time I can feel like a thinking person."

Wally, it turned out, wasn't a hot head, just a man who was impatient with preachers who didn't take their jobs seriously. I've never forgotten his comments. He gave me authorization to conduct business on Sunday morning. If a hardware store owner was interested in interacting with Sunday's sermon, I knew I could train others to do the same.

A sermon is, first and foremost, about Jesus Christ and what he has done for us and what he calls us to do for him and one another. I want to train people to ask not "Was this relevant to the latest things going on in my world?" but "Was this sermon faithful to the revealed text of Scripture?"

In a recent sermon on a passage in Ephesians, which was about not letting filthy talk come out of our mouths, I said, "You know me. I like to preach on the big stuff—sex, war, racism—the large sins. What Ephesians is saying this morning, however, seems so petty. One reason I like to go for the big sins is because it's easier to talk about South Africa's racial problems than what happened at the last board meeting."

I contrasted what I wanted to preach on with the text's clearly stated aims. Then I proceeded to preach the passage I had been given. I sent a clear message that what I preach isn't necessarily my idea; I am bound by Scripture, and this is what people are getting.

If my first task is to get people to hear the Word (versus human words), my second task is to get people to react to the Word, to get them talking about that Word.

I recently preached a sermon on Romans 1. The apostle Paul introduces Romans with a laundry list of sins: envy, malice, murder, and the like. After referring to the passage, I gave some statistics on the number of violent crimes in North Carolina.

Then I said, "Paul gives us his list of devastating statistics. But then, after setting up this dismal picture of 'God left us,' he moves to 'God came to us.' "

I illustrated with a story from the Durham Morning Herald about a black woman whose brother was shot and killed as he was going to cook a turkey for some poor people before Christmas. Along with the article was a heart-wrenching picture of this woman lying prostrate on the sidewalk, screaming with grief.

The article reported her words: "It ain't supposed to be this way." The mother of this man and woman was also there, holding a Bible. Some friends were there as well, and they were quoted as saying, "We're going to find out who did this. We're going to kill him!"

But pointing to the Bible, the mother said, "No, this is my weapon."

I closed the sermon by saying, "I want you to listen to these two women and remember two things: first, it ain't supposed to be like this; we created this mess, and we can change it through Jesus. Second, the Bible is our weapon, not rockets or guns."

I wanted my listeners to walk out reacting, whether they said, "I found that terribly depressing," or "That seemed sort of simplistic. Does Willimon really believe the answer to the crime rate in Durham is Jesus—just accept Jesus and everything will be okay?"

After an exceptional movie or concert, people walk out and find themselves talking to complete strangers because both experienced something so powerful. I want that same thing to happen as a result of my preaching. I want people to react to the outrageous truths of the gospel. As Martin Luther said, "The sermon is the thunderbolt hurled from heaven to blast unrepentant sinners but more so righteous saints."

Turning preachers into pastors

Training our listeners to expect something more out of Sunday morning than consumption, however, assumes we understand the world in which they live. This requires our own training. To put it another way, we've got to become pastors if we want our people to become congregations.

I once visited a frail woman from my congregation at her place of employment. The two men she worked for were brothers, both loud and obnoxious. The office air was clouded with cigar smoke. I gasped for air as I walked into the office.

As I was talking to this woman at her desk, one of the brothers shouted from his office, "Where the hell is that report?"

"I don't know where that G-- d--- report is," shouted the other brother, sitting in his office across the hall. "You get the report."

"Peggy," one of them yelled, "find that damn report."

"I'm talking with my minister," she answered. "I'll get it for you in a couple of minutes."

"I don't care who you're talking to," one of them said. "Just get us the G-- d--- report!"

She turned to me and said, "This is what I live with eight hours a day, five days a week. I can already hear them yelling all the way down the hall as I arrive each morning." Several months after my visit, I still couldn't shake the memory of her working environment.

Pastoral visitation is great training for the preacher; it's sermon preparation. Many times, when I've struggled with a passage during the week, I've suddenly gotten an "Ah ha!" connection while listening to someone in his living room. It chastens my language and provides me a window into people's souls.

Our pastoral care will affect how we preach.

An audience becomes a congragation

A former student of mine was pastoring a small congregation, and one Sunday, just before the pastoral prayer, he asked the congregation for prayer requests.

A woman named Mary stood up: "Joe left us this week, and he's gone for good. I don't know how the girls and I are going to survive. Please pray for us."

The pastor was stunned. How could anybody be so tacky as to lay such a request on people during worship? She's breaking the rules, he thought. We only pray publicly for gall bladder operations or hospitalized mothers-in-law. This is too messy.

"Well, honey," an older woman piped up, interrupting his thoughts, "I don't know that we have to pray for that. When my husband left me, the way I survived was through some of the people right here in this church. We can help you."

Flabbergasted, the minister listened in silence.

"But what am I going to do?" said Mary. "I've only got a high school diploma. I've never worked in my life."

"This is weird that this should happen now," said a man seated further back. "I'm looking for a new employee. I can't pay a lot for this position, but it would be enough to keep going. No experience is really necessary, and we would train you for the job. Why don't you talk to me afterwards."

The pastor recovered enough to pray and then finished out the morning service.

The next Sunday, however, when the pastor stood up in the pulpit, he said, "Last Sunday when Mary requested prayer was a holy moment for us. Mary made us a church. I'm not sure we were a church before she laid that on us.

"I've often wondered if going to seminary and becoming a minister was worth it. I've questioned whether church was no more than a glorified Rotary Club or Women's Garden Club. I want to speak for all of us and say, 'Thank you, Mary,' and 'Thank you. God,' for making us a church."

My student friend was a touch too humble, because it was his preaching and pastoring—the age-old tasks of the minister—that nurtured virtues that sprang forth in that service. It's just one small example of what can happen in church: it really can become a congregation.