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Open Source Sermons

April 22nd, 2005 by Jason · 1 Comment

Isaac mentioned below that at his church in Durham the congregation has a time afterward to give feedback and discern the Word. I’ve only been to one church that does something like this—Saint Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco (informally called The Dancing Church). I really enjoyed the practice as it gave us laypeople a chance to hear how others planned to flesh out the message in their daily lives and what additional insights they had about the message. It’s also a time to offer critiques if things were said in the sermon that aren’t “of the Spirit.” The practice seems similar to what goes on in open source software: a democratized community where everyone gets to contribute to the product.

However, I’ve never heard of this practice being done anywhere else, which is odd since I’ve grown up going to evangelical churches that emphasize the priesthood of all believers. I think churches shy away from this kind of thing for at least three reasons:

  • It’s messy. All it takes is one person who goes off for ten minutes on some insignificant detail of the sermon for a church to decide it’s not worth it. And in an age when civility seems to be on the decline it’s pretty likely that there will be a few such people in a church. However, given how rare it is for a church to even try it makes me wonder if this really is that good a reason.
  • It takes too long. In a church that’s over a couple hundred people this could start taking quite a while. But size doesn’t stop us from having other times of sharing.
  • It provides too much of an opportunity for community to be disrupted. Even though Camassia is talking here about the tendency of liberals to avoid conflict by maintaining a “safe zone” where certain topics aren’t talked about, I think it also occurs in more conservative circles as well, but for different reasons. Instead of avoiding conflict because we believe in “relative truth” we avoid it because modernism assures us we’ve arrived at “objective truth” and thus deviance from the “party line” is grounds for being booted out. In both cases the result is the same: communities with little room for difference. A forum where something so important as the sermon is open to critique from all may just show how much difference is bubbling beneath our outward unity.

It seems the last problem is the biggest to be overcome if such a practice were to work in a church. Liberals and conservatives alike have to learn how to hold on to a truthful story that unifies their community, and yet be willing to listen and dialog with the “stranger” who brings a different perspective.

Tags: theology

1 response so far ↓

  • 1 isaac // May 16, 2005 at 7:42 am

    Yeah, a few months ago at church during the response time this guy talked for a good 15 minutes! It was totally crazy. Not only was it completely crazy for him to think this was the right venue for a 15 minute monologue (that rivals the length of some of our sermons), but the guy didn’t make much sense. I could not track what he was trying to say. So, yeah, an open meeting where every voice has a chance to speak is risky business. It opens up the service to strange possiblities. But that calls us to remember that the Holy Spirit appears in strange ways—like making people appear like they are drunk in the morning (Acts 2).

    I think you bring up an important issue that i am still struggling to account for. Church size does matter, it seems, in terms of how many voices can be heard at one time, in one place. Part of what seems to be at stake here is an understanding of what is most important to a community. If the point of the gathering community is to discern the proclaimed gospel, then it seems a good chunk of the service should be dedicated to conversation about the word of the preacher. I think this is also a wonderful way to see how disagreements are fertile soil for unsettling our previously conceived judgments—and realize that this is what the “finality of Jesus” is all about: “The finality of Jesus’ authority is simply this, that all must ultimately come to this light and this presence for their final place or destiny to be made known” (Rowan Williams). This could mean that our meetings of worship should make room for holy conversation—words transfigured by the Word—in which we come to see ourselves and our perspectives in a new light, the light of Christ’s authority, and change our mind because we realize someone else might be able to see us better than we can see ourselves—we always have a backside that we can’t see.

    I think you are totally right about the allergic reaction against entertaining the possibility that we may be different yet worship the same Jesus Christ. It seems that a community uncomfortable with the disruption of emerging difference actually squelches the Spirit with a totalizing vision of Unity and Sameness: “this difference can’t be part of Us. Conform or leave!” I think it takes a certain degree of that self-emptying Paul talks about in Philippians 2 where the God-man releases his grasp on his divinty and makes himself a slave. There is a radical dispossession of control, a trust in the winds of the Spirit to blow us where the Spirit wills.

    After saying all that I remember a disturbing quote from a Christian voice south of the border. This man lived in the slums of Lima and see the light of the gospel refracted in ways that highlighted the promise of abundant life of Christ for all—even those who suffer under oppressive socio-economic weight. Fr. Gustavo Gutierrez writes, “The poor of the earth, in their struggles for liberation, in their faith and hope in the Father, are coming to teh realization that, to put it in the words of Arguedas, ‘the God of the masters is not the same.’ Their god is not the God of the poor. For ultimately the dominator is one who does not really believe in the God of the Bible.” That voice coming from the margins, the understide of history, disrupts my desire to think that all so-called ‘christians’ are part of the same family. I know that I am not in a position to say that, but it seems that we should listen to these ‘strange’ voices that appear on the perimeter and offer a different vantage point. For Paul, the weakest voice is the most important—consensus descision-making doesn’t happen until the weakest voice is given the floor. Gutierrez might be one of these weakest voices that disrupts our claims and convictions, that is if we want to listen. We don’t have to listen to the weakest voice. That is exactly what makes their voice weak—it takes exercizing the ears to tune into those voices that we don’t normally register.