Preaching to the Choir: Propaganda and the Pulpit

I. Turning Our Backs

Every preacher has a style. I don’t know what mine would be called, but its main characteristic is: I try to sound like myself.

I abhor “Preacher Voice.” If you are listening to me preach, I want what you hear to sound similar to the conversation we had the other day or how I spoke during Bible Study or what I sounded like during that recent meeting we were at together. I try to make everyone feel like I’m talking to them. A sermon isn’t a thing that soars out into the ether, but words from one person to other people. So, as much as possible, I like to make eye contact with people, and I even occasionally turn around and look at the choir. These are good folks who give Sunday after Sunday to the service of the church, and they deserve to not be treated like props or stage dressing. They’re real people who need a word from the Lord, too, right?

These days, people complain because they don’t like the visual, but it is true that the practice once meant the preacher could not be heard by the congregation. This is a problem. Most preachers so tightly construct our manuscripts that it’s a challenge to figure out when to take time to look and speak behind us. You certainly wouldn’t want to do it on the main point, but which set-up point do you allow the larger congregation to miss in order to throw a word or two to the faithful in the loft?

Definitionally, “preaching to the choir” is a common phrase we use to indicate we’re telling people something they already believe, or talking to a group of people who won’t disagree with us. The “choir” in this case are the faithful, the ones in our corner, the ones we don’t need to convince. Conversely, the “congregation” are those who might need the Word of the Lord you’re speaking today. That’s where the work is to be done. That’s where the word of hope or conviction really needs to land. The “choir” is committed. The congregation, less so.

It’s an imperfect binary, to be sure, but it serves our purpose: When we preach to the choir, we turn our backs on those who really need to hear what we have to say.

II. Art and Politics

The idea of “preaching to the choir” resurfaced for me as I was reading an essay in the magazine The Point discussing the idea and viability of “the political novel.” In “Resisting Oblivion,” novelist and poet Ryan Ruby probes the intersection of aesthetics and politics in light of calls during the Trump presidency to produce literature with “explicit politics,” literature that would contribute to #TheResistance.

In his piece, Ruby asks the question of whether art can serve politics. In his estimation, it can’t. The essay makes more than one point, but its main argument concerns the form of the novel itself. Ruby says:

If the answer is that novelists should contribute to the production of a desired political outcome through their fiction [emphasis in original], it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on why, in the current media environment, the novel is particularly ill-suited to achieving this.

In short, if you want a “political novel” to successfully impact society, it has to reach as many people as possible. To do that, the novel must trade on the overly familiar and simplistic, thrusting the “point” all the way to the front, leaving no doubt what the author wants the reader to think and believe. “By instrumentalizing the form, however, the explicitly political novelist depletes the novel’s symbolic power.” The novel ceases to be a novel, and becomes propaganda.

A significant difference between a novelist and a preacher is that the novelist can choose whether or not to write. Preachers do not have that luxury. There are significant moments which require us to speak, and not just speak but speak on behalf of the Lord as we find it in scripture. The question of how to do this is a constant one, and I have devoted a lot of brain power over the years to figuring out how to do it well.

Personally, I have asked versions of Ruby’s question of whether art can serve politics, for I understand the sermon to be an art form. Like the novel, I believe the sermon is “ill-suited” to achieve political results. To achieve those ends, the preacher would have to trade on the overly familiar and simplistic. They would have to resist nuance and subtlety, and, along the way, make the erroneous claim that scriptures written millennia ago in remarkably different contexts than ours provide a one to one correlation to the issue presently before us. That cannot be done with a straight face. To say the words of the Holy Writ apply wholesale to today’s social or political occurrence is a lie. And every preacher knows it. There is just too much literal and metaphorical translating that needs to occur in teasing out the meanings of a particular Bible passage.

When we preach, we are merely offering our best guess at what a scripture passage means. We are not 100% certain. Nowhere near it, in fact. We’re just trying to do our best to be faithful to the particular Bible reading in use that day. We work hard to let the Bible itself tell us what it means, instead of cherrypicking passages to serve our own point. Any preacher worth their salt studiously tries to avoid making the Bible say what we want rather than vice versa. (Which is, in large part, why I chafe when I read on social media: “If you’re not preaching X this Sunday, then you’re not doing your job.” I will note that, almost without exception, these words are written by those who do not have the responsibility of building a long-term relationship with a congregation through weekly preaching.)

Yet there are those who genuinely believe the purpose of the preaching moment is to utter a political Call to Action, to “instrumentalize the form.” With Ruby, I am of the conviction that this depletes the sermon of its power. The sermon is the chief instrument in the process of metanoia, of changing hearts and minds. To do this, a sermon has to surprise and delight with new ideas or new perspectives. Resorting and reverting to old simplistic tropes that merely regurgitate what some already expect to hear will not open anyone up to the new ways God is moving. It will only serve to reinforce a previously occupied position by allowing the hearer to feel smug or defensive in their “rightness.” To belabor and strain the metaphor of “preaching to the choir,” if a preacher chooses to instrumentalize the form that same preacher not only turns their back on the congregation, but they also have to make a choice of which choir to preach to.

So how do we meet important moments and bring a true word from the Lord without deciding ahead of time what needs to be preached and devolving into propaganda? How do we honor the need to meet a particular moment without wholesale becoming a tool of someone’s (perhaps our own) political machinations?

III. Repetition and rhyme

For many reasons, my favorite theologian is Paul Tillich. I discovered Tillich at a time when I was deconstructing my faith and honestly wondering if I could even call myself a Christian. The things my religious upbringing emphasized I found to be interesting but not life changing, and certainly not worthy of giving my life to.

One thing Tillich taught us is the questions people ask about their lives today are not the same ones we asked in the past. Remember when a lot of white Americans considered an “interfaith marriage” to be when a Methodist married a Catholic? That’s absurd to us today because questions about the varieties of religious expression are not really ones that concern the vast majority of people anymore. In my own ministry I use a rhetorical question that is “Tillichian” to its core when I ask: “Do most people really spend time thinking about whether they’re going to go to heaven?” I don’t think they do. I think there’s a real opportunity to teach people a fuller expression of who God is and what we mean by “Eternal Life,” but scientific thinking and discovery has blown a hole straight through our pre-modern conceptions of the the way the universe is put together. Including the afterlife. That horse has left the barn. (Not to mention those pre-modern conceptions of the afterlife are Greek/Hellenistic imports, and not solidly rooted in the Bible. But I digress.)

Tillich said, in his Systematic Theology: “The Christian message provides the answers to the questions implied in human existence.” From my experience, the questions people are hoping religion can answer are the ones raised by the anxiety and fear we experience in our daily lives. We are troubled by the unpredictability of life and the reality that good does not always win. We are troubled that injustice runs rampant. We see our place in the vast universe and struggle to combat the belief that we are insignificant. What is this “abundant life” Jesus was talking about, and why don’t I have it? Why don’t I feel joy when everything is working in my favor? Why can’t I seem to catch a break? The list of questions and concerns goes on and on, but the characteristics remain the same.

It should go without saying, but “the Christian message” Tillich wrote of is rooted in scripture, especially where preaching is concerned. When we attempt to provide answers to the questions implied in existence, it is required that any answer be found in the Bible. But how do we accomplish that when, as we previously said, there can never be 100% certainty regarding the meaning of a given passage? To borrow again from Ruby: We make analogies.

To make an analogy is not to claim that a phenomenon has repeated itself in all aspects, it is to draw one’s attention to the continuities that nonetheless persist through historical change…

If [historical events and occurrences] are intelligible to us at all, it is because, while specific contexts change rapidly, structures of thought, feeling, and being change at a much slower rate. (Some, in fact, never change.) This is one of the things that makes it possible to translate experiences across the contingencies of time, place and circumstance – in other words, to make historical analogies.

Or, as Mark Twain said: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.”

The job of a preacher when delivering a sermon is to make analogies between the present moment and the scriptural text. In the pulpit we don’t say, “This is That.” We say, “This resembles That.”

To repeat is to propagandize. To rhyme is to preach.

IV. A Case Study

In 2015, the world was grappling with the Syrian Refugee Crisis. The UN Refugee Agency estimated over 75 per cent of those arriving in Europe during the year had fled conflict and persecution in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq, and many were the caused by the Syrian Civil War. In November of that year, a more than half of the US’s state governors had signaled or taken action to limit and oppose the welcome of Syrian refugees. In the midst of the debate and reporting Oliver Willis, Senior Writer at The American Independent, tweeted:

No doubt many a preacher who saw this tweet in the context of the political posturing of the moment thought to themselves, “That’ll preach.”

But will it?

Let’s assume the text Mr. Willis is referring to is Matthew 2:13-14, The Flight into Egypt:

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.

A propagandistic sermon would blatantly and directly draw a line between Mary, Joseph, and Jesus fleeing Egypt and the plight of the Syrian refugees. Much time would be spent laying out the horrors of the refugee crisis, and the US’s historic lack of welcome for refugees despite being a nation “founded by political refugees.” I can imagine a point by point comparison of the two situations (and I can imagine it because I’ve heard numerous sermons doing just that on a variety of topics). The preacher might even say “Just like the Holy Family was able to seek refuge in another country, so we, too, should offer a home to the refugees of this crisis.” The propagandistic sermon (like Ruby’s “political novel”) puts the scripture text in service to the political message. The Bible serves to underscore the political point.

An analogical sermon would take a different approach. Rather than drawing clear lines of one to one correlation, it would note the similarities and raise questions. An analogical sermon would spend the majority of its time on the content of the biblical text. It would survey the form and flow of the narrative, often from a literary perspective. It might highlight translation choices. It would revel in examining characters and motivations. And only once the biblical text is well and truly explored does the sermon turn to the present moment, and doing so would resemble an invitation more than anything. “As we read this story of the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt as refugees, I cannot help but think about the present crisis in Syria. Here’s what thinking about these two stories, one ancient and one contemporary, has done to me.” Those preaching an analogical sermon would take the advice of Anna Carter Florence, who counsels preachers to see their task as one of “testimony”: The preacher enters into the text and is changed, and then testifies to the congregation of that change as a way of inviting them to be changed themselves.

V. Face Forward

Sermons are, and have always been, the best evangelism tool. Being evangelized is not a one and done occurrence, but is part and parcel of the “daily conversion” Christians are called to. To preach is to participate in the Spirit’s metanoia of the faithful, and this is why allowing a sermon to become propaganda is so offensive to me: In doing so, the preacher betrays a belief that they, not the Spirit, are the ones who change hearts and minds.

I do not think congregations are opposed to hearing a sermon that addresses difficult, or even political, subjects head on. I’ve done it many times. What congregations are opposed to is being treated like idiots who are pawns in the preacher’s performative game. Congregations want to be respected as people of sound mind who are struggling to be good disciples, They want to be respected and taught how to think about life vis-a-vis scripture, lest they be reduced to automatons.

When a preacher chooses to “preach to the choir,” it is a lazy choice. It is not difficult to say things you know people will agree with. It is not difficult to say something that will upset those who we don’t care about in the first place. But our call is larger than that. We are called to do the difficult work of equipping all people to see their lives as a part of the ongoing story of God’s people. And to speak to all the people we cannot turn our backs and face the choir. We have to plant our feet in the pulpit and face forward.

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