3 Preaching into a New Century

David Buttrick

A few weeks ago, we were sitting in a Nashville coffee shop looking at a theater building across the street. While we watched, a moving van backed up to the stage door and workers started loading scenery into the van – a rolled up backdrop, some side flats painted to look like a Victorian garden. A play had closed.

But then, while we were watching, another moving van pulled up and, suddenly, new scenery was being unloaded into the theater. A new drama would soon take the stage. Wasn’t it Karl Barth who described our world as living “between the times?” The phrase catches the current cultural mood. A world begun in the Renaissance/Reformation is closing down and soon something new will be taking the stage. So here’s our question: What will preaching be like in the next century? What is the future of the pulpit?


Let us begin by facing the fact of change. All over the world there is turmoil. Everything that seemed so secure has been shaken. Russia is struggling to find a new political system. South Africa is rebuilding an interracial life. The Middle East is torn by conflict between modernization and a Muslim old-guard. Everywhere our world is troubled, and will be troubled for decades to come! We are passing through a period of epochal change not unlike the breakdown of the Greco-Roman world or the collapse of the Medieval synthesis.

Have you noticed, we’ve been rewriting dictionaries lately? Language that normally gives societies stability has suddenly been changing – our dictionaries, our Bibles, our liturgical texts. Ever since von Humbolt, we have known that language embodies worldviews, so when language changes, as it has all over the globe, then – guess what? – a whole wide world is changing its mind.

During the last great epochal change, the shift from Medieval to a modern world, we saw feudal fiefdoms give way to nations, and cathedrals replaced by multiplying parish chapels. Now in another time of change, we can anticipate different political systems and new patterns of church life as well. So begin by marking the turmoil around us. The scenery is changing. We live “between the times.”

Certainly, the world is widening. These days, to use a horrendous term, we are being globalized. So-called third- and fourth-world people are stretching awake. South America, Africa and Asia will be economic centers of the future, while the West – that’s us – will be displaced. But locally, even in southern Indiana, we are being globalized.

We have Chinese “take-out” in our villages, and Argentinean wine in our supermarkets. Good heavens, Mariah Hill has a Mexican restaurant. Look over the products that fill our homes. How many have labels from somewhere else in the world – Taiwan, Japan, some new African nation? The world is widening everywhere.

Of course, “globalization” can be a religious term as well. Soon, yes, very soon, the world’s religions will be showing up in your community. Catholics may well be troubled by rival steeples; “free-church Protestants” – we say with a degree of dismay. Well, what will we say of the Islamic mosque or the Buddhist temple that soon may be an option in American villages?

Worldwide, Christianity is a minority religion but, during the next centuries, it may well become optional, one of many religions in our own land. The dialogue with other religions has been deferred during the 20th century by the rise of biblical theology; but it is returning. Once more, the Christian pulpit will have to give an account of faith on a competitive basis.

Of course, the real rival to Christianity these days is not another religion, but no religion, no religion at all. Since the mid 19th century, when it became an “ism,” secularism has swept Europe as well as the English-speaking world. So, here in America, the Christian population has been shrinking steadily. The people who drop out are not leaving our parishes for other churches; they are leaving for no church at all. The secular realm has grown large and, as secular parents breed secular children, secularism will claim still more territory.

Do you read the comic strip “Doonesbury”? Recently, Doonesbury pictured a gothic church with only three people attending, two little old ladies and a decrepit gentleman huddled on a first pew. A young priest was standing in the pulpit, his arm raised in triumph, saying, “Our Day Will Come Again!”

We laugh at the cartoon but, in a way, are laughing at ourselves. For to most of us, the renewal of our parishes seems unlikely. We live amidst the collapse of what some have labeled “The Protestant Era”; the Catholic centuries having dimmed some 400 years ago. So again the question, in an unbrave new world, what will preaching become in the next century?


Before we go further, maybe we had better stop and affirm a hard fact: There will be preaching in the future. There will be preaching, probably quite unlike our Sunday sermons, but there will be preaching. There will be preaching because God has commanded us to speak.

Has not God commissioned preachers in every age since the world began? Count up the number of times the phrase, “The Word of the Lord came to …” is found in the Bible? The Word of the Lord came to Abraham, Moses, Elijah, Elisha, Amos, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Hosea, Micah, Zephaniah, the list is too long to recite.

As for the Christian Scriptures, count up the references to preaching the Gospel – they occur on almost every page of the Epistles. During his lifetime, Jesus commissioned disciples and sent them into the world with news of God’s kingdom come. Then, later, the risen Christ commanded witnesses, “Go tell.”

As Willi Marxsen has noticed, the command to “Go tell” is a feature of every resurrection account. Apparently God, in God’s wondrous humility, has trusted the divine presence to our speaking. So, yes, in the future there will be preaching. Why? Because God has called the Church and set the word of the Gospel on our inept, frightened, stammering, ecclesial lips and that, as they say, is that! So there will be preaching.

But, look, there’s a deeper reason for our vocation, a more human reason. We will preach because people nowadays are lost. The problem of the modern world, said Paul Tillich, is neither death – a first-century epidemic, nor guilt – a Medieval preoccupation, but meaninglessness. Surely, he was right. People wander in and out of groups, each group with a different small scale social agenda.

If there is no obvious end-purpose to human life, as Philosopher Lyotard says, no “metanarrative” to give us meaning, then we will live and move and have our being in a series of short term purposes – “I will buy a car,” “I will finish schooling,” “I will get a job,” “I will be married,” “I will buy a house,” “I will have a family,” “I will make some money,” etc.

These short-term purposes are urged by advertising agencies and fed by desire but, to keep life going, they must be satisfied and then replaced by still other short-term desires. With no plot and few values, people’s lives are diminished. We are bored by the repetition of our small-scale busyness day after day.

As W.H. Auden put it, “Life goes on like the gnawing of a mouse / There’s this little job and this little house.” The terrible truth of our age seems to be summed up in the great confessional catch-phrase: “We haven’t got a clue!” So let us acknowledge our calling: We are preachers and, at least until God’s “will be done,” there will be preaching. But the questions remain: What will preaching be like in the next century? What is the future of the pulpit?


Are you ready for some answers? There are few to hand out. But at least we can wave toward the future. What will preaching be in the next century? Preaching will be less biblical, but more evangelical. Repeat: Less biblical, but more evangelical. The phrase may seem a contradiction in terms; it is not. During the 20th century, we have witnessed the rise and fall of a biblical theology movement. To avoid cultural compromise, we turned back to the Bible.

The results have been impressive. Think of the great commentaries that line our library shelves. Think of biblical research; archaeologists have shoveled the Holy Land from one end to another. And what of books, thousands of books, on biblical meanings – the biblical understanding of psychology, of death, of church, world, sex, suffering, marriage, old age, you name it, and it’s been written!

For half a century, the biblical theology movement influenced our preaching. Early in the century, P.T. Forsyth called us back to biblical preaching, and Karl Barth insisted on preaching the Bible – “The Bible,” he said, was emphatic, “The Bible and nothing else,” underline the word “nothing.” Most priests and ministers followed along. Once upon a time, 19th-century Catholics preached sermons aimed at providing some reasonable basis for faith; they wrangled with the mind of their age apologetically.

Twentieth-century preachers have simply preached the Scriptures with a kind of biblical imperialism. Of course, the only problem is that, along the way, churches have been emptying! (Wasn’t it Harry Emerson Fosdick who said that, “Only the preacher proceeds [on] the idea that people come to church desperately anxious to discover what happened to the Jebusites.”]

So can we admit that somehow or other biblical preaching has failed us? Sermons based on biblical passages have not provided meaning for a meaningless people. Maybe the problem has something to do with the lectionary. Can a little scrap of Scripture, six to eight verses long, interpreted in a 10-minute homily, offer meaning for life? One of my doughty British grandmothers had a box divided up into 31 compartments. In each compartment was a rolled-up little scroll with a printed Bible verse. So each day Grandmother could tweezer up a Bible verse Word of God to guide her steps.

Now, ask yourselves, is lectionary preaching any saner? Rightly, the lectionary serves the Church year and the Church year, in turn, helps us to recall the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ our Lord as the meaning of our lives. But if lectionary passages become separated from theology – not to mention systematic study of the whole Bible – then lections may provide no more than a schedule of little moralisms and/or pop-psyche insights from the pulpit.

To be blunt, there is more biblical preaching today than ever before in history and yet people are still biblical illiterates and, worse, have no theological meaning in which to live their lives. We are called to preach the Gospel, a message that will give meaning to life. But can any little snippet of Scripture declare the whole Gospel? The question we face can be phrased bluntly: Can we find a way to give meaning to meaningless people?

Look, look at our predicament: We get little minute-long news items from all over the world on the TV. We get short minute-long political bites from candidates for office. And then, on Sunday, we get little swatches of Scripture in church. What we cannot seem to do is to put all these bits and pieces together into any consistent pattern of meaning. The great Christian myths – creation and fall, redemption and consummation – have faded along with any widespread sense of the presence of God-with-us.

Secularism has eroded common faith. After all, late, leisurely breakfasts with The New York Times crossword puzzle is an attractive option! But the world will not come back to fill our churches until we are able to address the secular arena and offer something to make sense of life. So if we do preach Bible, then we must do so in such a way as to interpret not only Scripture by the human world and human meanings. After all, if the Bible is “a lamp unto our feet,” it is not because it shines down at our feet, but ahead of itself giving light to the world!

Now stop and take note: There’s a kind of pulse in the history of the Church. There are times when the Church pulls away from the world and there are times when we go out from ourselves into the world with news of God. For most of the 20th century, the Church has drawn away from the world. Instead, we have gone back to sources.

So we have preached Bible passages, talking about biblical backgrounds and biblical meanings, and we have chased down early Christian origins for the liturgy – Hippolytus is big-time these days – and we have dedicated ourselves to preserving ourselves in a time of cultural upheaval. Of course, we have forgotten our Lord’s blunt words: “Those who would save their lives will lose them!” – a fixed formula that surely applies to churches as much as individuals.

Can we be a Church without preaching good news in the wide world – a world, incidentally, that God loves? The agenda of the Church can never be itself! No, our Lord did not live out His life for 33 years redecorating the stable in Bethlehem. No, He walked out into a wide world and, at risk to Himself, announced God’s new order. In our century, the Church has withdrawn from the world.

So now once more, the pulse beat! We must begin all over again to converse with the worldly world – something at which Catholics have always been rather successful. We must present the Gospel message evangelically but with apologetic smarts. Secularism has spread so that the world we live within is suddenly a mission field all over again. Yes, we will preach the Bible, but again and again we will reach beyond the biblical paradigm to relate the Gospel to the changing world we live within.

Let Billy Graham speak with a limp Bible in his hand, but early Christian preachers strode into the Gentile world without benefit of Scripture. They preached good news. There was a science fiction novel a few years ago in which, after some global catastrophe, a remnant human race gathered. The leader of the ragtag group stood up and, with a kind of crazy confidence, raised his fist and shouted, “With us the world begins all over again.”

Was that the attraction of the first Christian missionaries? They announced the world’s new beginning in Jesus Christ and invited people to join God’s new humanity. Now, in turning of the ages, our message must be as compelling. In a broken-down world, we say, “Come be members of God’s new creation.” A message, incidentally, a bit more exciting than an invitation to attend a local parish quilting bee. Like the Lord Himself, once more we must dare proclaim God’s new order. So, yes, in the future, preaching will be less biblical but, oddly enough, more evangelical.


Again the question: What will preaching be like in the next century? What is the future of the pulpit? Answer: Preaching will rediscover eschatology. We will turn once more to the future of God.

During the past century, preaching has looked backward. We preachers have been obsessed with the past tense. Maybe we were reacting to the 19th century. For in the 19th century, we watched the rise of the sciences. The descriptive sciences demystified the world of nature. In sermons, preachers used to argue from the beauty, goodness, order of nature to a benevolent God. But the descriptive sciences examining the natural world found no trace of the unseen God. H.G. Wells said it bluntly:

There was a time when my little soul shone and was  uplifted by the starry enigma of the sky …. Now I go out  and look at the stars as I look at the pattern of wallpaper on a railroad station waiting room ….

So what was the result: The result was that apologetic theology simply collapsed. Oh, yes, churches still trundled impressionable youth off to sylvan retreats, hoping that somehow they’d get some feel of God there. But for the most part, the pulpit simply handed nature over to the scientists and looked for evidence of God elsewhere.

Now the same sort of thing happened to “religious experience.” Long ago, Grandma and Grandpa were convinced that the so-called religious affections in some manner mirrored the unseen gestures of God. After all, had not John Bunyan chartered the movements of the soul, tracing the path of everyone’s Pilgrim’s Progress? And did not the sacraments span our lives? But then, in the late 19th century, we began to hear from another science, then called “The New Psychology.”

Nowadays, all of us live A.F., After Freud. So what Grandma used to call God has been relabeled “anxiety hysteria” and, if Grandma is extremely religious, then as “paranoia.” Again, we were dealing with described phenomena that to an analyst displayed no obvious evidence of God. No wonder Freud himself discussed religion as The Future of an Illusion.

So the natural sciences and the social sciences exorcised the presence of God; God was evident neither in nature nor in the movements of the soul, except to those who, like Kierkegaard, dared to leap into faith. Oh yes, there were mysteries of nature as well as mysteries of the deep-pool self, but a “God of gaps,” as Bonhoeffer observed, is no God at all.

So, with the rise of science and psychology, the Church caved in. If there was no revelation in nature or in human nature, where then was revelation? Answer: history. The Church turned to history. God was revealed by mighty acts in history that comprised something called “salvation history,” beginning with creation, the call of Abram, the exodus, the giving of the law, the monarchies, exile, and restoration – all were mighty acts revealing God.

So preachers availed themselves of the historical-critical method, reconstructing historical situations in search of elusive revelation. Of course, the ultimate revelation was said to be the history of Jesus Christ, a personal embodiment of God.

Now all these revelations, including the ultimate revelation, were written down in a book which, happily, the Church possessed, namely the Bible. So, though once upon a time God acted in history, now the history of God is available to us in book form.

Thus there was a chain from the unknowable, transcendent God to Jesus Christ, the Word of God, to the Bible, a witness to the Word of God, to the Church that interpreted the Bible, to sermons that recited the biblical message, to the people of God in Catholic pews. With nature ceded to the scientists and experience handed over to psychology, Christianity ended up with a past-tense history-book Bible. No wonder, back in the ’60s, we began to hear from “Death of God” theologians!

Look, if all we can do is to read history in Scripture and apply it to the world today, we will be in trouble. For our past-tense Bible contains first-century views of women, which are clearly sexist, and early hostile Christian anti-Semitism, and goodness knows what else. The only solution is to preach Scripture in the midst of an expectant faith, a faith that looks to the promises of God that call us beyond such literal prejudices.

At the turn of the ages, when, as the Bible says, people’s “hearts are failing them for fear of what is coming on the earth,” the pulpit must once more turn to the future of God. The promise of the kingdom of God was not invented by liberal theologians. No, the kingdom of God was the Gospel Jesus preached, and it is still central to the Gospel message. Look, if we know that God’s new order will be inclusive, that it will welcome those whom we tend Pharisaically to reject, if it will ring with “the shout of them that triumph and the song of them that feast,” then in the light of God’s promises we can guess where God is at work in our world. We also can recover the Gospel’s original gladness!

There’s a true story about the island of Jamaica. Back in 1969, the island was granted liberty. Freedom would take effect on August the sixth, but the announcement was made in June. As a result, the island started partying for two months because they were living in the promise ahead of time.

Sermons are glad announcements of God’s future, a future we celebrate in Eucharist. We have spent a century seeking the perfect anamnesis or chattering about Eucharist as a representation of past event. No, Eucharist is also an ahead-of-time celebration of the future of God, filled with real presence of risen Christ, and as such is an enactment of the same Gospel we preach. So, what will preaching be in the next century? Our pulpits will recover a sense of the future, a vision of the promised kingdom of God.


Now then, can we admit that the kingdom of God is a social vision? The kingdom is neither hidden in our hearts nor a marijuana dream of liberation theology radicals. No, the kingdom of God is as wide as the world. Jesus preached a new social order and not, emphatically not, some secret in a believer’s heart. So here’s a gesture toward the future: Preaching in the next century will move beyond personalism to speak of salvation in terms of human community.

Well, if we are honest, we’ll have to admit that it’s about time! Ever since Luther, Protestant Christianity has tended to focus on the inwardness of the individual believer – what Catholics have often labeled a “fiediest heresy.” Protestants have cherished an objective word of God Bible, but also the subjective inward testimony of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of believers. (No wonder that in every age we have been troubled by a charismatic left wing and a fundamentalist right wing.)

Certainly in the past two centuries, Protestant individualism has been predominant. Nineteenth-century pietism arose, swept through Methodism, and in the 20th century continued in what Philip Reiff once labeled the “triumph of the therapeutic.” As a result, we clerics have preached a Gospel designed for personal self awareness. We have tended to describe sin in psychological terms – our hates and prides and, above all, our anxieties – and we have described salvation in much the same way; salvation is feeling good inside of ourselves. By the way, priests have preached in much the same way.

But these days the promise of inner peace doesn’t seem to do much. Shall we tell the millions of American workers dumped by “downsizing” corporations to have a little Jesus in their hearts? Good heavens, they want jobs. Or shall we preach Jesus as a prince of inner peace to citizens of Sarajevo? Our age has rediscovered what the Bible calls the “powers that be.” If the liberation theologians have taught us anything, it is to read the Bible as a social promise. Sin is being in bondage to the social dimension of powers that be and salvation is a social liberation.

So in the future we will struggle to discover the social, interpersonal nature of sin. Is sin something that is fabricated in social groups before it is internalized? Perhaps. When Paul tries to explain how come Christ was crucified, he does not point to the human heart; he says bluntly, “the powers that be.” Perhaps sin begins as a society attempts to preserve itself against the sweep of time and destiny. But more, we must begin to picture salvation not as a one-by-one ticket to heaven for one-by-one people, but as a new society with God and neighbors, as an interpersonal miracle of grace.

Maybe individualism began with the Greek invention of the soul – so some scholars suppose. But individualism has all but destroyed preaching. How can the Gospel relate to Eucharist if it is narrowly personal? For at table we do not see individuals feeding on their inward faith. No, we see the people of God prefiguring the future promise – “They will be my people and I will be their God!”

There’s a wonderful little parish church in the American Southwest. The congregation meets in a deserted school building. Crowded in, many people are sitting on the floor to hear a sermon. Then, they stand and gather around a borrowed kitchen table. They are black and they are white, Chicano and Indian. And you look around and see in their difference the promise of all humanity together.

There’s someone’s black baby in your arm and with your other arm you’re supporting a shaky old man. And they sing, the people sing, to the tune of “John Brown’s Body,” “Mine eyes have seen the coming of the Kingdom of our God, a kingdom that is coming according to the Word.” In the new century, we will preach the future of God, picturing salvation as a new creation community. And we will celebrate our social salvation as Eucharist people.


Listen, when you spin a crystal ball, you’re always guessing. God alone is Lord of the future. Preaching will probably be shaped in the other world, in the barrios of South America, among the thatched huts of tribal Africa. In 1900, 80% of the Christians in the world were in Europe and North America. Now 70% of Christians are in Asia, Africa and South America.

Christianity is enlarging in these lands by a quarter of a million people every week. In our world, we are beginning to discover our own minority status. But we have a chance now, as never before, to rediscover our calling. We have been picked out to be preachers. Let us find a new and lively speech for the future, a future still filled with the sweet promises of God.