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Peek a Boo Jesus:
Looking for an Emergent Saviour in a Post-Christendom Culture
“As I went through the city and looked carefully at the objects of your worship,
I found among them an altar with the inscription, ‘To an unknown god.’
What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.”
The shopping mall food court buzzed with the usual Monday afternoon mix of
chaos and energy. As a sea of retail-enticed humanity flowed all around me, I sat with my
elbows on a small square table, hands over my face in yet another invigorating game of
peek a boo with my two young children. All good things must come to an end, of course,
and after several rounds of “hands open, hands closed” the children became restless and
started squirming in their seats. Time for a snack. It didn’t take long for Emily and Jack
to settle down, this time distracted by an intoxicating mix of sippy cups and goldfish
crackers that immobilize toddlers for minutes at a time. With this brief reprise from
“Daddy Duty” I relaxed in my pre-formed plastic chair and eavesdropped on the
conversation beside me. Two young moms, having distracted their own kids with snacks,
compared notes on all the activities they had signed their children up for during the
autumn. Their conversation quickly escalated into a game of “one-upMOMship” where
dance lessons trumped piano lessons and gymnastics vied for importance over hockey.
Just when the competing schedules seemed to stall, one mother played the trump card in
this bizarre comparing of notes – swimming lessons. The other mother, her face contorted
in a mixture of defeat and envy, asked with astonishment, “How did you possibly find
time for swimming lessons?” “It was easy,” gloated the triumphant mom in response, “we
go down to the pool on Sunday mornings and all three kids have their lesson while my
husband and I relax with a coffee and the newspaper. We just couldn’t think of anything
to do as a family on a Sunday morning.”
impressed. “Besides,” replied the young woman leaning in close, as if to share a secret,
“what they learn at the pool will save their life
A few years earlier I may have responded in shock to such a statement by tumbling
off my hard plastic chair, spilling goldfish crackers and apple juice in a tremendous crash
of public embarrassment. Not anymore. Of course, once upon a time we may have had
the knee jerk response of saying to that young mother, “Nothing to do on a Sunday
morning? You should
be in church and your children in Sunday School!” But that was
back in Christendom – those glory days that as a Gen X pastor you always hear about in
your “tea cup” pastoral visits with elderly congregation members. “Reverend, I remember
when there were 1,000 children in the Sunday School and we had to set up special
classrooms in the janitor’s closet and the bathroom stall just to fit everyone in.” Funny
thing, however, is that those of us in leadership of this next generation don’t remember
those days. We recall Sunday School as sitting with a few other kids in a mold infested,
crumbling 1950s era Christian Education wing with a faded “blue-eyed and blond hair
Christ” poster in the corner, aimlessly doodling on “connect the dot” Jesus colouring
sheets to keep us busy. No, Christendom is not a part of our
memory and that may be a
huge advantage in the years ahead. Instead of trying to “get back” to the glory days, we
look forward in hope trusting that just as the Almighty went ahead of the people like a
pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, so too our Triune God is moving
forward – the holy ground ahead of us saturated with prevenient grace.
Those mothers in the food court simply remind us that we now live and minister in
a world in which Jesus is no longer as easily recognized as in the days when the culture
conveyed the gospel (or a distorted version of it). It’s like we are playing a game of peek-
a-boo Jesus in the communities where we now live, work and play. Certainly, as a thirty-
something pastor, I’ve learned over the years to accept and adapt to ministry in our post-
Christendom context. Church-going has been in a steady decline since the 1960s and now
less than twenty per cent of the population regularly attends worship. Where I live and
minister in West Van church attendance is estimated at only 2 - 5% of the population. As
the old joke goes, the hardest thing about preaching “heaven” in Vancouver is most people
think they’re there already. It’s like Jesus is hiding behind one of those gorgeous west
coast Douglas Fir trees, up the mountainside behind my home playing a curious game of
Peek-a-Boo with the world he came to save.
A Generation Raised Without Religion
One street over from our home in West Van lives Douglas Copeland, the famous
novelist and cultural guru. In his paradigm shifting book Generation X
that those of us in our thirties and forties are the first generation raised without religion.
Nowhere is that more true in general than here in Canada. Nowhere is that more true in
particular than the west coast and the city of Vancouver. When I compare my ministry
today to other pulpits I’ve filled in places like Northern Ireland (where the troubles put a
unique European freeze on secularization) or rural pockets of eastern Canada (where
Christian memory still lingers), here on the west coast I am fascinated by what is truly a
As churches are sold and turned into condominiums,
bulldozed for shopping malls (our new cathedrals) or, my personal favourite, in my last
Presbytery when Mount Zion United Church was sold and converted into “Church Key
Brewery” (slogan: Have you been to church lately?), there is a growing sense of defeat
and despair among the faithful. If Jesus is no longer visible and insists on playing this
game of peek-a-boo with us are we in the final inning of a hard fought but ultimately futile
gospel game? Is this what we truly mean by the Emergent Church?
Teaching an Old Dogma New Tricks
Hardly. In fact, I am discovering some encouraging signs of hope in this post-
Christendom ministry. In many ways walking through the streets of my parish I feel a
little like Paul strolling through the streets of Athens long ago. It is probably helpful for
us to remember a time in the life of the church when Jesus also played a game of “Peek-a-
boo” with the culture. Long before cathedrals, schools or hockey rinks bore the name of
“St. Paul” the newly converted Saul of Tarsus wandered wide-eyed in the idol-congested
streets of Athens in Acts 17. It was hard for the struggling apostle to see signs of Jesus in
that culture of sophistication and spiritual syncretism. Saul turned Paul, through an eye-
shattering epiphany and the gentle touch of affirming Ananias, ran into a believer’s brick
wall. Paul’s usual technique of setting up shop and sharing the gospel through a local
synagogue breaks down in the city of Athens. He looks around for touchstones of the
Saviour and becomes frustrated with playing a game of “Peek-a-boo Jesus.” As Paul
considers his options he looks at the culture around him and discards the lens of judgment
and suspicion, replacing it with a viewpoint of grace and opportunity. For Paul, it’s time
to teach some old dogmas new tricks
. Paul preaches evangelistically to the philosophers
of the city by quoting “pop culture” Greek poets and appealing to them differently than if
he were speaking to a Jewish audience. Paul accepts the “peek a boo Jesus” reality and
tries successfully to pry one hand off their eyes in order to see the unknown God in their
Paul’s ability to adapt both his evangelistic preaching style and method is a
comfort and a challenge for those of us standing in our own contemporary Areopagus-like
pulpits before a less than homogeneous congregation trying to figure out what they
believe and what difference their lives are making in the world. For we too live in an age
of overwhelming personal choice and freedom when it comes to what to believe and
which values we allow to influence our moral decision-making. As someone said to me
lately, “Here in Vancouver we are spoiled for choices.” The unknown God is everywhere
around us. From the empty pew to the bar stool to the bus bench to the cold, hard plastic
seat in the food court, we hear the sincere and spiritually hallow statements, “We just
couldn’t think of anything more important to do on a Sunday morning.” While another
generation might chastise folks for not having their children in Church School on a
Sunday morning, we know that there are other ways of prying one hand off their eyes to
end the game of Peek-a-boo with Jesus. Just as Paul did not blast the Athenians for
worshipping so many gods and instead found a playful and clever way to connect with
people through the culture, so too God calls us to be more imaginative and flexible in
proclaiming the gospel in this new ministry setting. I have no doubt that the young mom
was totally sincere when she whispered to her friend in confessional tones, “what they
learn at the pool will save their life.” I began to wonder, however, if I invited her out to
one of our worship services on a Sunday, whether our members would view children’s
participation in church with the same urgency and passion as the life-saving lessons
offered at the pool. Do we believe any longer that worship, preaching and Christian
education can literally save or transform one’s life and mend this broken world?
Apostles, Atheists and Apathy
Just at the moment, however, when we should be standing up and pointing with
glee towards the unknown God we have hit a low ebb in the life and work of most
When we stand to speak we are so often overwhelmed by
discouragement and disillusionment in pulpit and pew that the best we have to offer is
tongue-tied apostles suffering from liturgical laryngitis outside of the safety of our stained
glass sanctuaries. It would be like Paul standing up at the Areopagus and just at the
moment when people lean in with a genuine curiosity to hear “this new teaching” the
apostle from Tarsus freezes with stage fright. Some of our church leaders have privately
confessed that operating for so long out of a “hermeneutics of suspicion” has left them
feeling hallow and with little grace left to offer. Others have whispered that the dramatic
change in both church and community culture has left them overwhelmed. As one retiring
minister declared with resignation in his voice, “I was trained to be a caretaker of an
institution, not an apostle for a movement. I don’t know how to do ministry anymore.”
Still others have shared their shock at the growing presence of militant atheism in the
media and feel ill equipped to speak faith in a “secular world.” Of course, in Acts 17
when Paul does present his gospel story there is a mixed reaction from the crowd with a
mix of scoffers and others who were keen to hear him speak more about this unknown
God in Jesus Christ. We too have our scoffers in the post-Christendom west with such
vocal atheists in recent years as Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens and Philip
Instead of 1st Century Greeks at the Aeropagus, these angry atheists are
attracting an unusual amount of media attention these days. At least the Greek scoffers
seemed a little more polite. Today’s militant atheists do not appear to be winning over the
masses, however, with their straw man theology of God and their need to speak only about
what they are against instead of what they are for in the post-Christendom west. In fact, I
find that the majority of young adults I share conversations with at the coffee shop,
treadmill, or seawall are the furthest thing from angry with Christ. Our biggest obstacle
today is apathy, not anger. Today’s young adults, raised without religion, are surprisingly
open to a story they have never heard before just like the Athenians listening to Paul in the
Aeropagus, eager to hear more about Jesus.
So, if our mischievous Messiah insists on returning to this “Peek-a-boo Jesus”
game, what does that mean for the practice of ministry in his church? How do we connect
with this new generation of the children of God when the structures and style of our
congregational life seems so foreign and inaccessible to the culture around us? After all as
Rob Bell concludes in Velvet Elvis
, “Jesus is more compelling than ever. More inviting,
more true, more mysterious than ever. The problem isn’t with Jesus; the problem is what
comes with Jesus.”1 These emergent and missionally minded questions began to stir
across the United Church of Canada a few years ago. After years of discussion, debate
and dithering the General Council, made up of elected lay and clergy representatives,
dipped deep in our denomination’s “rainy day fund” and gave birth to the “Emerging
An Emerging Spirit for an Emergent Church?
Emerging Spirit was conceived as a program of The United Church of Canada
designed to nurture relationships with Canadians aged 30-45 years old who were not
actively involved in a faith community. The following mandate was established:
raise awareness and recognition of the values and beliefs of The United Church of Canada among30-45 year olds
create a willingness among non-churchgoers to discover a United Church congregation
renew a sense of positive identity and enthusiasm for mission among United Church congregations
equip United Church congregations for ministry in the new Canadian context2
The Emerging Spirit campaign, launched in November 2006, was divided into three
The first part of the program was developed in light of
marketing research done by Environics and TerraNova Marketing Strategies, and in
partnership with Smith Roberts and Co. Creative Communications, and focused on
provocative advertisements for publication in major Canadian magazines that challenged
Canadians to reflect on spiritual and moral issues in society. These advertisements in turn
directed people to the second part of the campaign – www.wondercafe.ca.
website, set up for Emerging Spirit, was designed as an interactive forum for young
1 Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis: Repainting the Christian Faith
(Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005) 167.
2 Lesley Harrison, ed. Living the Welcome: The Journal
(Toronto: The United Church of CanadaPublishing House, 2007) 7.
Canadians to discuss moral and spiritual issues in a safe and non-judgmental environment.
The website included profiles of United Church congregations and the ability for online
users to locate a congregation near them.
involved emergent pastors writing workshops and traveling the country equipping
congregations and their leaders to engage in missional conversations and actions within
their own context. It was here, as a speaker at these weekend events that brought clergy
and lay leaders together, that I encountered the hopes, dreams and too often despair
present in so many of our congregations.
People of faith came frustrated with their
congregation’s inability to connect with young adults and stymied how to transform their
congregational culture and structures to be more accommodating and truly hospitable.
Many of the congregations I resourced remained trapped in the postwar 1950s
model of “membership churches” that existed primarily for those in the pews rather than
those outside the walls of the church. It reminded me of Michael Foss’ delightful imagery
in Power Surge
where he complains that too many mainline Protestant churches approach
their ministry like belonging to a health club. Foss writes
One becomes a member of a health club by paying dues (in a church, the monthly or weeklyoffering).
Having paid their dues, the members expect the services of the club to be at their
disposal. Exercise equipment, weight room, aerobics classes, an indoor track, swimming pool – allthere for them, with a trained staff to see that they benefit by them. Members may bring a guest onoccasion, but only those who pay their dues have a right to the use of the facilities and the attentionof the staff. There is no need to belabor the point. Many of the people who sit in the pews onSunday have come to think of church membership in ways analogous to how the fitness crowd
This perception of the church as a private club lingers outside the walls of the
church as well. Recently, my wife Laura officiated at a funeral in our church of a young
woman who died in a tragic accident. The church was full of young adults with little or
no church connection. The next day Laura received an email from a young mother who
said how meaningful she found the service. She wanted to know if it was alright if she
3 Michael Foss, Power Surge: Six marks of discipleship for a changing church
(Minneapolis: FortressPress, 2000) 15.
came to church on Sunday with her husband and children. “Am I allowed to just show up
on a Sunday,” came the sincere question from a shaken woman, “or is it like a private club
where you need to be sponsored in?” With impressions like that out in the community no
wonder mainline churches are struggling with Sunday attendance.
One of the major discoveries from the Emerging Spirit program, however, is that
low Sunday church attendance should not be taken as a sign that faith was no longer
important to people. Reginald Bibby, Canada’s leading sociologist of religion, reported
that at a time when only 20% of Canadians say they attend religious services just about
every week, some 80% of Canadian adults and teenagers assert positive belief in God.
Furthermore, this strong belief in God has remained virtually the same since 1975, despite
the fact that attendance at religious services dropped between 1975 and 2000 from about
30% of the population to 20%.4 Nor were young Canadians simple abandoning God for
mammon. Emerging Spirit research revealed that young Canadians aged 30-45 who were
not involved in church still placed the greatest value on relationships rather than financial
success. In fact, when asked by a national polling agency what is most important in one’s
life, three quarters responded with children, family and friends rather than work or
Clearly, whether online or face-to-face, people were seeking
Ironically, Leonard Sweet argues that in the last century
churches have been moving away from this kind of relational space. Sweet suggests that
Churches increasingly became not relational space but propositional place. Instead of going thereto connect with God and with others in meaningful relationship, people started going to church tobe convinced of transcendent truth, or, if they already numbered among the convinced, to have theirbeliefs and religious convictions confirmed from the pulpit. The church lost credibility as a placefor sacred relationship when it chose to specialize in formulating and advancing a better spiritualargument. The result is that people who came to the meeting house got connected with ideas and
formulas than they did with God and with other people.
4 Reginald Bibby, Restless Churches: How Canada’s Churches Can Contribute to the Emerging ReligiousRenaissance,
(Toronto: Novalis, 2004) 14-15.
5 Leonard Sweet, The Gospel According to Starbucks: Living with a Grande Passion
(Colorado Springs:WaterBrook Press, 2007) 132.
While I agree with Sweet’s idea, and deeply believe that a mark of the Emergent
church is that people today are hungry to “experience God” and not just “hear about God,”
this is where the Emerging Spirit campaign hit a wee speed bump. The Emerging Spirit
placed a strong emphasis upon hospitality and inclusivity. A great deal
of the campaign was focused on creating a relational not propositional place – whether
online or in the pew. We know that a hallmark of the Emergent Church in many different
places is its emphasis on relationships rather than regulations. And yet, the challenge
came in deciding what the next step would be. Like Paul standing at the Aeropagus,
somebody has to say something, somebody has to make the connection to the Unknown
God, our peek a boo Jesus. It would be like going all out to welcome guests at a dinner
party, setting the dinner table with fine china and making the guests feel at home by
offering them pre-dinner cocktails, all the while knowing the host or hostess was locked
upstairs in the en suite bathroom. A little awkward, don’t you agree? If the goal is to
build a relational space instead of a propositional place, then surely we need to move from
hospitality into conversation with our host/hostess.
The “J” Word(s)
And yet, my experience of the Emerging Spirit campaign is that most people shied
away from engaging Jesus and opted instead for our other, safer “J Word” – Justice. Like
most liberal Protestant mainline denominations The United Church of Canada has
wrestled with our J words over the years. Our church was born in 1925 out of a mix of
denominations that were steeped in the social gospel movement. 6
Woodsworth, Nellie McClung or Salem Bland were “the north of the 49th parallel”
equivalent of social gospel giants like Walter Rauschenbusch or Washington Gladden. As
a result there has always been a wonderfully strong social justice streak in our
6 The United Church of Canada is a union of Methodist, Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches in1925.
When our church was formed, however, the national committee
responsible for social justice was twinned with an unlikely ally – Evangelism. The Board
of Evangelism and Social Service was a force to be reckoned with, influencing
government social policy and essentially operating out of a dual mandate to know Christ
and make him known through justice. Somewhere over the decades, the evangelism part
faded away and we are left today with what often appears to be an unbalanced approach to
Leonard Sweet is right in that we have become a
propositional place rather than a relational space but the belief system we are too often
selling to drowsy octogenarians in the pews is a vague notion of justice that is not rooted
With a whimper rather than a bang, the practice of the Emerging Spirit campaign
for many steered safely towards arms length discussion rather than commitment to
discipleship and generic justice
rather than generative faith
in Jesus. It appeared that too
often providing hospitality came at the expense of proclamation of the gospel, community
without the confession of sin, and relationships without need of resurrection. I completely
understand why many in the emergent church argue for “conversation rather than
conversion” but my extreme post-Christendom context conversion is happening all the
time. A culture that strives every minute for you to convert from Pepsi to Coke, Gap from
Calvin Klein and Cialis from Viagra is anything but benign. As Bryan Stone reminds us
we live in a “culture of conversion” where in “every direction we turn, we are offered the
promise of ‘makeover,’ whether of body, face, wardrobe, career, marriage, home,
personality, or soul.”7 Driven primarily by the powerful, quasi-religious influence of
consumerism and Empire, “places of belonging” today, outside the church, exercise
considerable control and influence over the population that serves as a formidable
challenge to the gospel.8 As Stone concludes
To be converted is not something strange or out of the ordinary in our world.
equivalent to the air we breathe. In fact, part of what makes the call to Christian conversion strikeus as so radical and invasive today is the level to which we have become acclimated to our ongoingconversion and formation by a staggering range of powers that contradict Christian faith and
community and serve ends other than the shalom of God’s reign.
If the culture in a post-Christendom context no longer carries the gospel message (not
even a distorted image of Christ) then the Holy Spirit surely has a special role for
ambassadors of Christ to play in the game of “Peek a Boo Jesus.” Yes, how we live
(justice) is essential but so too is being able to articulate our faith in the One who give us
life from above (evangelism).10 Peter Rollins, a Christian philosopher from the Ikon
Communion in Belfast, highlights the unique gift that the Emergent church offers our
understanding of evangelism when he writes
We need not look far to find that our religious communities influenced as they are by the movementknown as modernity, have tended to emphasize the idea of ‘being’ and ‘destination’: one becomes
a Christian, joins
a church and is
saved. From this idea of destination flows our understanding ofevangelism as a means of sharing our faith and encouraging others to embrace it for themselves.
For those involved in the emerging conversation, this view distorts the deeper meaning ofevangelism, for once we acknowledge that we becoming
Church and being
saved, then the other can be seen as a possible instrument of our further conversion. Even a briefreflection upon the darkness in our own lives bears testimony to the fact that we need to be
evangelized as much, if not more, than those around us.
The stereotypical “evangelistic” language of “When were you saved?” or “Have you been
washed in the blood of the lamb?” are as foreign to us in the emergent church today as a
Beta tape player is to a new iPad. No, the evangelism I am longing to connect with social
justice is a deep and sincere articulation of faith that believes in the process of sharing not
only will the hearer be changed by grace, but so too the speaker. I am longing for the
8 The World Alliance of Reformed Churches defines Empire as the convergence of economic, political,cultural, geographic and military imperial interests, systems and networks that seek to dominate politicalpower and economic wealth. Empire crosses all boundaries, strips and reconstructs identities, subvertscultures, subordinates nation states and either marginalizes or co-opts religious communities.
9 Stone, 258.
10 I am defining evangelism as a congregationally sponsored process that helps people place their trust inJesus, and by the Spirit’s power, transforms them within community into disciples of Christ who participatein God’s saving mission for the world11 Peter Rollins, How (Not) to Speak of God
(Brewster: Paraclette Press, 2006) 5-6.
Spirit to move us to a place where evangelism and justice can mutually inform one
another, where speaking about Jesus goes hand in hand with living for Jesus. Perhaps this
is where the Emergent church can offer old, mainline denominations the greatest hope.
Like Paul in Athens, we too engage our Peek a boo Jesus in this confused world,
with a passion for sharing our faith and seeing justice take root in the world. What might
we strive to do in order to offer an emergent like message as Paul delivered in Athens?
Over the last several years of playing my own little “Peek a boo Jesus” game I have
noticed three critical areas for proclamation through the lens of the emerging church.
My former teacher David Bartlett argues “Right preaching is the interpretation of
Scripture. There is much excellent Christian speech that is not preaching….unless it is an
interpretation of the text or texts that the congregation has just heard read aloud, it is not
preaching.”12 And yet, while Scripture is central to proclamation, like Peek a boo Jesus,
the Bible remains mysterious and inaccessible to most.
describe the Bible to me they remark it is “clumsy,” “foreign,” “awkward,” “frightening,”
“overwhelming” and “cryptic.” It would appear that while the “New Homiletic” of the
last century placed a greater emphasis upon preaching that engaged the biblical text and
provided cultural background and context through historical criticism, our congregation
members remain uncomfortable with handling the sacred texts themselves. As Ken, a
young High School principal said recently, “The Bible has always felt clumsy to me.
That’s why you have to teach me Sunday morning when you preach. It’s through your
sermons that I learn more about the Bible and who God is.”
12 David L. Bartlett, Between the Bible and the Church: New Methods for Biblical Preaching
(Nashville:Abingdon Press, 1999) 11.
When I reflected on my research with young adults and their desire for, and
struggle with, Scripture it became clear that they wrestled not only with a lack of
knowledge of the stories of faith but also with a desire to know that the message was
indeed good news for their
life. Sarah, a young executive with an international courier
company, summarized this tension in the following way
I struggle with the Bible itself though when I read it on my own because there are parts of it thatseem contradictory and brutal. I don't want to pick and choose what to believe so I find that when Iread the bible on my own without knowledge of the context it is frustrating. Going to churchand especially hearing a meaningful sermon helps me put all the pieces together.
Dan, a young high school teacher, echoed Sarah’s call for help saying, “Teach the
faith. We are on a personal journey but how can people decide if they don’t understand
the basic tenets of the faith? If you stop teaching the faith then I can find no shortage of
other “gurus” who will teach me a way of life that does not lead to participation in a
With church attendance in decline across Canada those young adults who are
present in our pews on a Sunday morning taught me that they are cautiously searching for
the bread of life that will not leave them hungry and the streams of living water that will
not lead to parched lips. It is the life saving gospel of Jesus Christ found in Scripture that
can fulfill humanity’s desires, curb sinful inclinations, redeem a lost and lonely generation
and establish a relationship with the risen One that can and will transform their lives.
When we reflect on the need for emergent preaching to be biblical we draw on the
best of the historical critical method and confirm that preachers need to educate their
congregations on the context and cultural influences that shaped the biblical story, but that
is not all. Even more importantly, biblical preaching takes the listener into the biblical
story for a purpose – to introduce them to the life-changing presence of Jesus Christ and
enable the listener to experience for themselves the grace of the cross in light of the
judgment in this world. Biblical preaching is essential in this post-Christendom world as a
way to point towards the Unknown God in our midst and by our preaching we pray that
Martin Luther was right when he claimed that preaching is an encounter where Christ is
While Paul made great connections with the culture in Athens quoting poets in his
game of Peek a boo Jesus with the Greeks, our attempt to be relevant today with the
gospel often draws scorn and anger from church leaders. Like a flyswatter in a moist hand
on a hot, humid August day, I’ve encountered countless Christians over the years who are
ready to strike the fly in the ointment called “relevancy.” And yet, like Paul in Athens I
believe our preaching needs to connect with our listeners on cognitive and emotive levels.
Proclaiming the gospel these days to newcomers and long time members alike requires a
curious mix of practicality and mystery at the same time. To say it differently, relevant
preaching requires some application to our everyday, ordinary lives but when it appears to
be a cookie cutter/one-size-fits-all approach to life, the listener’s finely tuned “postmodern
ear” becomes suspicious.14 The preacher must remain with the congregation as both the
“teaching elder” and the “seeker” at the same time. As John D. Caputo argues in his
deconstructionist approach to postmodernism and the church
The spiritual journey on which we are embarked is, we say, a journey of faith.
That means thatthose who insist they know
the way have programmed their lives on automatic pilot. They areknowers (Gnostics) who have taken themselves out of the game. They are like vacationers eagerfor an adventure, to set forth into the unknown – but not without an air-conditioned Hummer withfour-wheel drive, an experienced guide, and reservations at a five star hotel.15
Canadian sociologist of religion David Lyon warns that preaching and liturgy are
in grave danger of becoming irrelevant to much of the population. Lyon suggests that
13 Jana Childers, Performing the Word: Preaching as Theatre
(Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1998) 30.
14 While there are many ways to define “Relevant Preaching” I choose to define it in terms of a homileticthat helps bring the listener deeper into God’s presence through linking God’s story in Scripture with anindividual’s, and congregation’s, life story.
15 John D. Caputo, What Would Jesus Deconstruct?: The Good News of Post-modernism for the Church
(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic Books, 2007) 41.
worship no longer operates at the centre of modern consciousness and that we now live in
contemporaries are more likely to listen to the weather forecast than to pray for rain, and to heedopinion polls than to hold tenaciously to pre-set principles.
communicative context quite different than that provided by the liturgy. Where that earlier timewas dominated by the written word and print, ours is increasingly an electronically mediatedcontext.”16
Relevant preaching to the times we live in is especially critical in our context when the
church no longer enjoys the privilege of being at the centre of society. For so many
Canadians the church, and its Christian message, has become irrelevant to pursuing a
meaningful life. If, when the Holy Spirit calls people back into the church on a Sunday
morning by personal tragedy, spiritual curiosity or social duty (Christmas, Easter,
Baptisms, funerals, and so forth) will the church’s supposed “irrelevant message” be
confirmed or will the skillful preacher be able to shatter the widely held stereotype with a
relevant message? As a friend of mine named Grant who lives in Ontario wrote in a
We attended church intermittently over the years and usually due to family events or publicholidays. My image of the church was a place full of stuffy people and irrelevant teachings. Whatwe discovered is that the warmth of the congregation and the personality of the minister combinedwith the relevance of the message makes all the difference in the world.
The challenge for preachers in a Peek a Boo Jesus culture is how to convey a
Christian message that is both suitably applicable to their lives while leaving room for
their on going soul struggles and new discoveries of faith. It is, in short, preaching that
values the questions of faith as much as the answers that are discovered along the way.
I deeply believe that proclamation today with a deep sense of authenticity is both
critical and challenging for Christian leaders since it requires the preacher’s character and
discipleship to influence the content and delivery of the message in our postmodern
16 David Lyon, Jesus in Disneyland: Religion in Postmodern Times
(Cambridge: Polity Press, 2000) 61.
context. In his study of preaching in postmodernism David Lose argues, “preaching that
seeks to be both faithful to the Christian tradition and responsive to our pluralistic,
postmodern context is best understood as the public practice of confessing faith in Jesus
Christ.”17 Lose claims that confessional preaching means reclaiming a Christian practice
that rests not on empirical proof but on a living confession of faith, leads not to certainty
but to conviction, and lives not in the domain of knowledge and proof but rather in the
realm of faithful assertion.18 If Lose is correct, then the authenticity and character of the
preacher is tied to the validity and passion of the proclamation in a postmodern context.
Michael Frost picks up on this theme of authenticity when he writes that church leaders
today must earn a right to be heard in the postmodern world. As he boldly states
When we have no impressive buildings and no swollen budgets to sustain our work, often only thendo we realize that the best we have to offer this post-Christendom world is the quality of ourrelationships, the power of our trustworthiness, and the wonder of our generosity….Is it toosimplistic to say that we earn that right [to be heard] through our authentic lifestyles? In a cultureyearning for authenticity – the real – the pressure is on us in the Christian community now morethan ever to put our time and money where our mouth is and live what we preach.19
I recall a conversation with a newcomer to the church named Tanya. In her early thirties I
asked her what she felt the role of the sermon was in worship during a small group
ministry exercise. She replied, “I choose church over Starbucks on a Sunday morning
because of a need to be close to God.
The reason I listen to the minister is because ‘I
feel’ that he/she has a relationship with God. Instead of being focused on speaking well or
being knowledgeable about
God or Scripture, the minister is focused on letting God speak
him/her with real passion and excitement. God working through someone is
17 David Lose, Confessing Jesus Christ: Preaching in a Postmodern Word.
(Grand Rapids: William B.
Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2003) 3.
18 Lose, 3.
19 Michael Frost, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture
(Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers,2006) 99.
I marvel at the emergent desire within my own congregation for passionate,
biblical preaching that in the proclamation and living out of the gospel reflects an
authenticity that this sin-sick and cynical world is longing to hear.
proclamation of the Unknown God will be heard in the food court or sports court, the
classroom or locker room, the shopping mall to city hall.
The End of Peek a Boo Jesus?
A while back I spent the afternoon playing “hooky” from a preaching conference
in Nashville, Tennessee with my buddy and former classmate Dr. Rhoda Montgomery of
College Station, Texas. We decided to check out the Country Music Hall of Fame. With
its soaring architecture and folksy greeters we felt right at home like being welcomed into
a big ol’ church. As we worked our way through the museum we came to a special
exhibit of the legendary country music star Brenda Lee who had such hits as “I’m Sorry”
and “Rocking around the Christmas Tree.” It was fascinating looking at all the exhibits,
old dresses and shoes, musical scores and album covers, pictures of her with other famous
celebrities and a hand written note of appreciation from Elton John. Amazed by the
collection of such a full and meaningful life I turned to Rhoda and said, “Is Brenda Lee
dead?” “I don’t know Honey,” replied Rhoda in her Texan drawl, “but she’s either dead
or buried alive under all this memorabilia.” As we turned the corner and neared the end of
the exhibit there was a crowd of senior citizen visitors gathered around a short, striking
woman of a similar age. Seniors were jostling with one another for a picture with this
mysterious stranger. Rhoda looked at me and we both exchanged a look of disbelief as we
both asked the same question. “Is that the real Brenda Lee – alive after all?” Sure enough,
as we approached the living legend greeted us with a warm smile and embrace. “Hello
y’all,” she beckoned, “come on over and get your picture with Brenda Lee.” Rhoda and I
stood there with goofy grins – utterly speechless. That doesn’t happen to preachers very
Later, as we strolled down the street in silence I thought about a story that Luke
told at the end of his gospel about two followers of Jesus on a road with a signpost for
Emmaus. I wondered whether that same feeling of astonishment was shared by those two
disciples felt long ago playing their own game of Peek a boo with Jesus. On that day the
mysterious companion proclaimed a message that was biblical and relevant to their times,
ultimately revealing his authentic identity in the breaking of the bread. Could it be that
even now, as we emerge from our stained glass bunkers in the church (like a postmodern
troglodyte from a prehistoric cave) to proclaim the unknown God, that Jesus might meet
us and put an end to his Peek a boo ways? From the ordinary breaking of bread at a table
long ago to the in-breaking of grace at an ordinary Food Court table of today, the world is
Once thought dead, or at least buried alive under the
church’s memorabilia of dusty hymnbooks, diamond encrusted cross earrings and surplus
WWJD bracelets in an old museum-like Cathedral somewhere, could we
witness the great
emergence of the One who is life, grace and joy eternal? Heaven only knows. But I can’t
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