First Church of Christ
First Church of Christ, Congregational, West Hartford, Connecticut (October 15, 2006)
The halo production this fall matches the performance of the Dow: up, up, and away.
Close to home this past Sunday we watched in worship as a pastor wisely, carefully, and faithfully led his congregation.
Which prompts me to offer some observations about the pulpit:
1. That it is, like it or not, a performance, to which the performer must bring all the histrionic skill he possesses. Enunciation, variation in volume and tempo, proper use of the microphone, hand gestures, facial affect, felicity of expression, and never forgetting - as my homiletics professor Paul Scherer insisted - that the vessels of faith (congregants), whom the preacher would fill with grace, have very long necks and very narrow openings. So make it short and sweet.
But the pulpit is more than performance. When it is only that, performance, strong on style and short on substance, great on effect and lacking in authenticity, the Gospel plays second fiddle to the "cult of personality." Years ago we worshiped in a prestigious New York City church. The preacher was eloquent. But the second time he gestured with a raised arm and pointed finger toward heaven, I thought to myself, "He practiced that gesture in front of a mirror." We did not return to that church on any one of our bi-annual preacher's holiday weekends until that dramatic pulpiteer moved on. He was, in the apt description offered by a colleague, "a mile wide and an eighth of an inch thick."
2. For the pulpit must also provide content, authentic content, from the Bible and from life, the life in which the local church is immersed. Presbyterian polity aptly names the pastor the "Teaching Elder." The pulpit can and should be used to teach about the Bible, about doctrine, about contemporary issues, and about anything and everything that impinges on the lives of those gathered on Sunday mornings. But the teaching imperative should never be an excuse for pedantry. Any whiff of intellectual arrogance emanating from the pulpit can be deadly... especially for the pedant.
3. The pulpit is also a platform. Teddy Roosevelt referred to the Presidency as a "bully pulpit," by which he meant a position of leadership. There the pastor can explain to parishioners the way, by God, into the future; and exhort them to follow him down the Way. It's the pastor as King David leading the hosts of Israel. It's Martin Luther King issuing non-violent resistance directives from jail. It's Wesley addressing coal workers emerging from the mines. It's Belen Concepcion's father shepherding his exiled Methodist flock up and down the Bataan peninsula to evade the Japanese occupiers.
I especially warm to pastors who employ the pulpit, not only to make an impression or fill heads with information, but to lead the congregation. I can spot such a one, usually, on first hearing. Tom Tewell, lately of Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church on Fifth Avenue in NYC won my admiration for never losing sight of his role as the shepherd in front of the flock, not just an actor in front of an audience, in a sanctuary where the temptation to grandstand must have been overwhelming. (More's the pity that he had to leave that pulpit under a cloud of personal misbehavior.) And I immediately cottoned on first hearing to Bryan Hooper, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Hartford, as he grasped firmly in pulpit and in other church environs the possibilities of the "bully pulpit" the pulpit can be.
Sunday we witnessed another pastor who used engaging performance and teaching skills in the pulpit to lead his congregation. Following the service the members of the church would vote on the UCC covenant on being an "open and affirming" congregation. Pastor Geordie Campbell, less than two years following his installation, took as his text for the morning Revelation 3's format of commending and scolding the churches. He took the high road, commendation, and described the excellences of the flock that gathers on Main Street near Farmington Avenue in West Hartford: a love of Jesus and the Gospel; a readiness to smile; an openness to change; and a willingness to grow in faith. (You can read the sermon for yourself by depressing CTRL and clicking on this hyperlink:http://www.whfirstchurch.org/SER%2006%20Oct%2015%20Commendations.pdf.)
Following the benediction, but before the vote, I found Pastor Geordie and whispered in his ear, "I see you know the quixotic strategy of leadership, telling your flock that they are what they should be to the end that they will become it." Think how Dulcinea, the woman of the streets, is transformed into a Madonna by the loving, if deluded, perception of the knight errant, the fellow renowned for tilting with windmills. I also suggested to Parson Campbell that I doubted he would, as he teased he would, give a second sermon on what's wrong with the congregation. He smiled and guffawed and said words to the effect, "No way am I going to do that!"
Other good things (beside pastoral leadership in the sermon) happened this morning. The children's sermon succeeded in getting us all to "stand up, stand up, for Jesus." The choir, including three of my buddies at Habitat on third Thursdays in Hartford's north end, sang Craig Courtney's version of Psalm 121. The handbell choir, directed by another Habitat volunteer, rang to the glory of God. The new confirmation class was commissioned. The room buzzed with the sounds of life... the way a church should.
The Blueback construction next door has occasioned the church's installation of an elevator. That is, commotion and disruption are everyday experiences at First Church. But not to fear, the church has its own Moses to lead them through the civilized wilderness to a stronger day.
Rating: four and a half haloes.