Preaching Happiness

It is clear that there are 3 predominant Christianities in place in Canada & America.

  • Prophetic Christianity – critiquing the empire
  • Therapeutic Christianity – chaplains to the empire
  • Messianic Christianity – escaping everything (including the empire) through utopian visions

Nowhere are these three more evident than in the realm of preaching.

I found this flowchart a couple of weeks ago. It is just a simple illustration but it reminded me of so many sermons that I have heard. I love a good sermon. I love listening to good preaching and I love trying to deliver a good sermon.

But I have been haunted by this funny flowchart since I first saw it.

The reason that it got to me is that so many sermons I have heard follow this exact formula. It is like they are using this exact progression for sermon prep.
…which wouldn’t be terrible – IF the point of the gospel was to make people happy.

If the point of the gospel was to make people happy then this progression would be the best and most helpful thing that has ever been invented.

But, and this is a big butt, if the point of the gospel is anything other than making people happy, then this kind of formulaic thinking is the most distracting thing in the world.

In fact, I am almost willing to go out on a limb and say that the point of the gospel is something other than to make people happy and therefore… this is not the way that we should be constructing sermons. I’m not the only on who thinks so. One of my favorite books has a section about Postmodern Christology that says:

 Of course, the goals and ethos of spirituality in this culture are very different from those of the early church or even the modern church. The postmodern notion of religion is characterized by consumerism:

“the individual in the role of consumer is encouraged to pick and choose from a vast inventory of religious symbols and doctrines, to select those beliefs that best express his or her private sentiments.” 2

Such spirituality is individualistic; it does not require a form of communal direction or oversight but may be enjoyed in the privacy of one’s own life. This kind of spirituality is effectively delivered within the marketplace of desire. The church of the third millennium finds itself in the midst of a culture that has become

“nothing but a meeting place for individual wills, each with its own set of attitudes and preferences and who understand that world solely as an arena for the achievement of their own satisfaction, who interpret reality as a series of opportunities for their enjoyment and for whom the last enemy is boredom.” 3

 

I am haunted by this reality. If we think that consumerism is the problem and we think that christianity is the solution then we are in competition with other options. What is clear is that we are no longer the big kid in the sandbox. Christianity no longer has a monopoly as it did during Christendom when so many of our doctrines and expectations were solidified.

 I have utilized a lot of whit, sass, and spunk in this post but now I just want to say it:

The point of christian preaching is not to help people be happy. In a consumer culture we are called to empower the believer, comfort the downtrodden, challenge the status quo and proclaim a preferable future.  It is also within the scope to proclaim freedom to the captive, remind the righteous  of their roots, impart gifts to those in need, and call the wayward to repentance.

The one thing that I am sure of is that the goal of christian preaching is not to make consumers happy. If that is the case, we need to utilize a different flowchart than the world provides when preparing to preach.

if anyone doesn’t want to talk about preaching but would rather chat about environmentalism and postcolonial stuff – I have this other article as well. 

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21 comments
Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

I have been thinking about your response. I wanted to thank you for your insights here and let you know that I am pondering what you have said. Thank you Dr. ;)

Nate
Nate

Bo, You may congratulate me if you must, but be sure to address me as "Dr. Gilmour." :) I can understand your point, though I don't share your general approach. Certainly I don't think that simply being able to articulate older positions is sufficient; the heart must be led towards the most adequate intellectual picture of happiness. (How's that for a rhetorician's manifesto?) My worry when people seem too quickly to discard the old ideas is that, too many times, folks seem to assume that novelty is too high a criterion for an idea's adequacy. In short, if the older idea is better, I don't just want to teach its form and content; I want to persuade folks that it's a better way to imagine reality.

Bill
Bill

Bo! Such a good post. It's interesting to me too though that there are plenty of very conservative and Calvinist preachers, for example, who would completely agree with this - except for the part about all three options being framed in terms of empire. I think most people who take the gospel seriously are going to eventually realize that Jesus wasn't interested in bringing consumer happiness. That one is not hard to figure out. What continues to evade the masses of Christian church-goers somehow, however, seems to be the urgency with which we have been entrusted the task of actually participating in bringing about this alternative future - much like what you guys were talking about in the eschatology/resurrection TNT. I really appreciate that this is explicitly addressing preaching as well. Even progressive churches can really slack in this area, as sometimes fairly well-paid ministers strive to remain politically neutral so as to keep the peace. We have to be creative with ways of being very political without being overly and obnoxiously partisan - as well as without completely reducing our message of hope to the social realm.

Nate
Nate

No worries, Bo. You don't have to apologize that my blog comment isn't your number-one priority. :) I'm fine with opposing consumerism as an ideology. Again, I'm not by any means trying to defend consumerism any more than I'm trying to promote a sentimentalist, stick-around-as-long-as-you-feel-like-it "love" or a conception of "justice" (social or otherwise) that's really an imposition of the way I would like to see the world over the way that you would like to see the world (or vice versa). My point is that those old words like truth, beauty, goodness, happiness, and such (I'm an incorrigible Aristotelian, I know) are worth keeping around. I know it's fun (and often a handy teaching tool) to say things like "we need to do away with happiness" (I know you didn't actually write that), but I think I'm getting old and cautious enough now that I'm more reluctant to write such things.

Jesse Tanner
Jesse Tanner

This was an excellent post, Bo. My tradition - Unity School of Christianity - is absolutely saturated with the therapeutic model of preaching and spiritual practice. I think a lot of this has to do with the consumerist-oriented culture in our wider society that you pointed out, but specifically in Unity, the influence of New Ageism in leadership and congregation alike. I've been not only leary of this influence but outright critical of it because I believe it downplays and/or neglects the prophetic heritage to which we belong (yes, even in New Thought churches). It Christologically ignores the life, teachings, and person of Jesus, who certainly calls us into a discipleship of the Kin-dom: inspiring and empowering people, comforting the ostracized and neglected, countering injustices, and proclaiming God's best potentials for now and into the future. As I'm finishing up my ordination process in Unity, I have been consciously trying to bring a more prophetic voice to the pulpit, in the classrooms, and through my theological discourse with others. Thank you for voicing this so well! Peace, Jesse

Nate Gilmour
Nate Gilmour

You don't need my permission to disagree with me, Bo. Just go ahead and disagree. :) That said, I do agree that there's a basic difference between our approaches to historical-cultural-linguistic change here. You can tell me if I'm getting this wrong, but it seems that I'm more inclined to teach all the faithful to think more truthfully about what conceptions of happiness are true and which ones inadequate to truth, whereas you're more inclined to say that the word itself has become the problem and that attempts to educate the faithful in this direction are bound only to compound the confusion. Like I said, let me know if I'm getting this entirely wrong.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

@ Tom - I nominate that for comment of the month! I came back later and read it again. LOVE it. @ Holly - I so love having you as a conversation partner and friend! I can't wait to see what comes out March 4th @ Shawn - thanks for the affirmation and the perspective. I love hearing your take on this @ Nate - is it OK if I simply say that I am highly suspicious of the line of reasoning that you have employed and that I reserve the right to disagree upon further reflection. I am just not sure that the 'happiness' I am interacting with is the same as the classical virtue of antiquity. I will look into but I think that the usefulness of that late-Hellenistic approach may have exceeded its due date for this predicament of global consumer culture. @ Jono - I just listened to an amazing interview with Walter on APM with Krista Tippet. SO thanks :) -Bo

Jono Child
Jono Child

Walter Brueggemann would be proud!

Nate
Nate

Bo, if I could push back a bit on your assertion about consumer culture, I do think that the presence (even if not prevalence) of Epicureanism in the late-Hellenic world means that there were competing conceptions of beatitude available when "the greats" articulated the aim of human existence as happiness. So they're not identical (no two historical phenomena are, as far as I can tell), but I would maintain that happiness was already a hotly contested idea when they were doing their writing, and they posited beatitude as the telos of human existence nonetheless.

shawn
shawn

Bo- You are the only preacher I have met who brings sermons that compel the teenagers to sit near the front with the parents. Here is why: good preaching pulls(draws, compels, woos) you instead of pushing you. It makes you WANT to move forward because of excitement and curiosity, not feel dragged along by fear/quilt. The best preachers draw you into their own process of growth/change. They do make you uncomfortable, but also give you hope/tools for the change they are encouraging.

Holly Stauffer
Holly Stauffer

Hey Bo! I was just mulling over this in my head as I prepare to encourage people to help out with some working groups in my parish. The best preaching makes me uncomfortable, makes me wiggle in my chair a little bit. Challenges me to look deep and thoughtfully at me, the way I behave in the world, the choices I make. Helps me see where am I being selfish, self-centered, individualistic, in it for my own self-satisfaction, which never works to make me "happy" in the first place. Because what makes me "happy" or content is to be of service, where I can give more of myself, love a little bit better, be of service in a more radical way, follow Jesus in the way Jesus asks us to follow. I am preaching on Faith on March 4th and I am going to quote you from this blog if you don't mind! Love you tons! Holly

Tom Eggebeen
Tom Eggebeen

Thanks for this ... you rightly say that it is not the task of preaching to make people happy (if that were true, thousands of pulpits would be silent this coming Sunday as they figure out what to say). I think the frenetic pace of much preaching to make people happy is the result of a life-style that can never be happy - a deeply self-centered approach to life, with Jesus-Savior topping slopped all over the place. Rather, real happiness, biblical happiness, is a by-product of a godly life, doing good, loving others, and here's where the prophetic message becomes essential, and the Jesus of the Gospels central, not the theological savior Jesus of nervous Protestantism and anxious evangelicalism.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Here is what my friend TM sent me from the other side of planet Not only do I agree with this post, I would add two things: 1) I appreciate your identification of the Christianity that exists in North America because people who come in to engage in sermons in other contexts many times have a different framework in which they approach a "sermon." 2) I think this "happiness" thing is also related to the unhealthy role definitions of pastors and preachers. In other words, since the professional Christian derives much of his self-worth and personal fulfillment from what he does, and since he's the one that has to do it better than everyone else, if his (OR HER of course) sermon doesn't produce happiness, people don't like him or her (as much...on the surface). And if they don't like the pastor, well, he must not be doing his job right? Which returns to the cyclical consumeristic problem. This "happiness" model is just about stroking each other-people and preacher-without engaging the gospel. One other famous Sanders once told me "if everyone likes you then you're not doing your job." Thanks for the great post Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

I appreciate the thoughts! @Joseph Morgan-Smith Those greats did not live in a consumer culture. what worked for them need to be renovated for our time. @ Joe Carson I appreciate the list ;) I only get so many words in a blog post so I can't cover everything. so I appreciate the additional things you brought

Nate
Nate

I think Joseph's point bears some further thought. The question that your post begs is whether a consumerist pleasure-accumulating concept of happiness and a notion of beatitude in the medieval sense (or of eudaimonia in the Aristotelian sense) are close enough in meaning to share the modern English word "happiness" without some severe qualifiers. As you might imagine, I don't think they should. To make another Aristotelian move (I just got done teaching Aristotle's Rhetoric to my English majors, so do forgive my momentary fixation), would you allow the assertion that prophetic confrontation happens for the sake of a happiness that we human beings cannot realize without the confrontation, or does even that formulation strike you as too happy?

joe carson
joe carson

what about evil, Bo? What about sacrifice and suffering for righteousness' sake? What about "love of money is root of all evil?" Radioactive topics in the consumerist mindset of religion, a preacher who "went there" would be saying "would you like fries with that?" in their next job. I listened to Tripp's rants in the latest homebrewed/TNT and thought "so when does Tripp connect his perceptions to the millienium development goals?" Tripp, as you, are communicating with an elite class of people/Christians, but look at your post - all about us as consumers, nothing about us as highly skilled producers of essential goods and services in our increaslngly complex, interronnected world. Maybe planet earh simply cannot sustain 7 billion people in desirable lifestyles - can you or tripp even wrap your heads around that possibility? there is no organized, intentional, Christian influence in any secular profession, Bo. How much institutional evil is thereby enabled in and through them? Why not? "Love of money "- Christians simply will not risk their professional standing and economic security to play such a role. And elite Christian religious professionals as you take no real exception to it - also out of love of money, so the flow chart above can and does reflect the values of Christian religious professionals, by and large, too. Thanks for putting your thoughts out there and considering mine. See you round the block. Joe Carson

Joseph Morgan-Smith
Joseph Morgan-Smith

Isn’t making people happy (beatitude) exactly what Augustine, Aquinas and pretty much the whole Christian tradition has said the gospel does?

Cameron
Cameron

The aphorism I've been mulling over lately: "Preaching should comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable." I'm going to make a poster of that and put it on my wall, perhaps next to the picture you posted.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Thanks bud! I really appreciate your feedback. I don't blog much about ministry stuff (like preaching) but have considered putting more of it out there and this helps confirm that there is a conversation to be had. -Bo

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Three things 1) Did I hear that congratulations are in order? 2) I really appreciate your responses. 3) You are right that I am not saying ‘lets just move on’. The ONLY thing that I am saying is that it is not sufficient in a global capitalist - consumer culture to simply teach what Aristotle, Augustine, or Aquinas meant when THEY said it. An adjustment-adaption is required.

Bo Sanders
Bo Sanders

Nate, sorry for the delayed response - we had the Caputo 3-D event and then the Mutants & Mystics podcast to get out. You are right that we are coming at this from different points. You are not entirely right about what I would say. My concern is that specifically in a consumer culture that it doesn't matter how finely tuned the faithful's understanding of Augustine, Aristotle or Aquinas' definition of happiness is ... when they say that word outside the wall of the sanctuary, people think that are using it the way Hallmark and the Ad firms use it. I just think it would be clearer to say that the goal of preaching is not consumer happiness. How does that sit with you? -Bo

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