Preaching to the Choir

Photo by Brian Smithson

Photo by Brian Smithson

Yesterday’s sermon at Fourth Presbyterian Church. The scripture text is Luke 8:26-39.

One of the best books I have read in the last few months is Sacred Ground by Eboo Patel, who is the founder and president of the Interfaith Youth Core, an organization based right here in Chicago. The book is a brilliant articulation of a vision for interfaith cooperation and service as an expression of the most fundamental values of American democracy and civil engagement. The United States is becoming increasingly diverse, and Patel makes a compelling argument for why and how we should embrace this diversity and make religious pluralism a norm for our society. This book evoked in me more national pride and patriotism than I have felt in a long time, weary as I am with our polarized and paralyzed political system. This book, written by an American Muslim, is a breath of fresh air.

Before digging into two parts of this book that were especially fascinating to me, I want to pause to announce a remarkable event that happened this past week. As an expression of the kind of interfaith collaboration championed by Eboo Patel, on Tuesday the Presbytery of Chicago voted to enter into a covenant relationship with the Council of Islamic Organizations of Greater Chicago. It is a formal and symbolic recognition of a relationship that has already been happening for years. Our own Joyce Shin has been instrumental in this relationship and in the drafting of this covenant, and we are grateful to her for this good and important work. Having laid out a vision of mutual cooperation toward the common good, the covenant lifts up the following commitments:

With sincere effort, we commit ourselves

  • to deepen our understanding of each other’s religions

  • to recognize that we do not agree on all things

  • to model respect for each other’s religions

  • to work together on issues of human equality and social justice, consistent with our religious values.

I hope you will share my pride in this progressive covenant with our Muslim sisters and brother. Please find an opportunity to thank Joyce for her good work in this endeavor, and be sure to ask her about ways that our own congregation has been partnering with Muslim groups in the city of Chicago and how you can get involved in this important work.

Back to Eboo Patel. As the president of a non-profit organization like Interfaith Youth Core, he spends a good amount of time raising money to support their work. He tells the story of finally getting a meeting with a wealthy philanthropist to make his pitch. He brought his “A game” and nailed his presentation. But the astute businessman floored him with a simple question: “How does Interfaith Youth Core measure effectiveness?” As someone accustomed to making decisions based on the expectation of a return on his investments, he wanted to know how Eboo measured the success of his organization’s efforts. It was a question Eboo didn’t have an immediate answer for. He believed in their vision and their work, had compelling and inspiring stories to tell, and could point to a rapid growth in their organization, but when pressed he had to concede that the social problems they were committed to address were growing even faster than their interfaith movement.

Sometime later, one of his board members, who happens to work as a consultant for McKinsey and Company, offered to provide a pro bono analysis of the effectiveness of Eboo and the Interfaith Youth Core. Their goal is clear: “to make religious pluralism a social norm within the course of a generation.” The question was: how effective are they at accomplishing this ambitious goal?

The answer to this question was not what Eboo wanted to hear. “It’s not working,” his board member told him. The organization had spread itself too thin by trying to work in a variety of contexts yet reached less than 5% of the people in each of those sectors. Further, while they excelled at telling inspiring stories, they fell short of providing concrete action plans for people to follow and actually bring about the changes they were advocating. And Eboo himself had become too satisfied with his growing public profile and opportunities to speak in front of distinguished audiences or on national television. He liked being the visionary young leader with cool ideas, but those ideas weren’t translating to measurable results.

Humbled by this frank assessment, Eboo orchestrated a major shift in operations at the Interfaith Youth Core. They streamlined their work and focused on one area: university campuses and seminaries. They concluded that working with college students and seminarians would give them the best opportunity to actually bring about the kind of societal transformation they envision. This new strategy causes Eboo and his organization to be judicious with their time and resources. He doesn’t accept nearly as many speaking engagements as he used to. They now have crystal clarity about their goals and a highly disciplined approach to accomplishing them.

I wonder what would happen if other religious organizations took this approach. There are 9.5 million people in the Chicago metropolitan area and only about 35,000 Presbyterians. That’s a reach of less than 0.4%. The population of the United States is 313.9 million and the Presbyterian Church (USA) is now just 1.8 million. That’s just over half of one percent. As a movement, our brand of Presbyterianism isn’t doing very well.

Yet perhaps membership isn’t the best way to measure our reach. After all, we understand that central to our calling is service to others and social justice advocacy. I have no idea how we would quantify this kind of outreach, but given the enormity of problems in the world we can only conclude that we’re just barely scratching the surface. We clearly haven’t ended poverty, hunger, or homelessness. We haven’t brought peace to the Middle East or stopped gun violence in Chicago. How would a McKinsey consultant rate the Presbyterian Church or any of its congregations? In what ways could we streamline our operations and refocus on our core mission?

You may bristle at this kind of analysis. This may not at all reflect what you think church is about. But the reality is we have domesticated and privatized the gospel in such a way that we’ve lost the radical nature of the movement Jesus initiated. When Jesus announced the coming of God’s kingdom, I don’t think he had in mind the creation of institutions as interested in self-preservation as in the transformation of the world. I don’t think he had in mind individualistic spiritual journeys of privilege. Jesus didn’t die so that we can gather in ornate buildings to hear beautiful music and inspiring speeches that make us feel good and challenged, but not too challenged. Jesus didn’t confront the powers of his day in order for his followers to conquer the world in his name and then refuse to fix the mess we created because we now have the luxury of saying that religion is a private matter that doesn’t belong in politics or economics. I can’t imagine that Jesus envisioned Christianity as a way for a relatively small number of individuals to get into heaven sometime in the future while the world suffers right now.

We must reclaim the radical nature of the gospel. The church doesn’t exist simply for spiritual comfort and generic inspiration. The church exists as an instrument of God’s transformation of the world. We are here to participate in and extend the movement Jesus started nearly two thousand years ago. And I don’t think we should be satisfied with anything less than the vision of God’s kingdom that Jesus lived and died for.

I know this sounds like classic liberalism or pre-war social gospel idealism, and maybe it is. But I was raised to believe that we have the resources to radically change the world, to end poverty and hunger, to bring about peace and reconciliation—so why shouldn’t we try to do those things? Yet we lack the will to take on the sacrifices that such a transformation would require. We lack clarity about the gospel and an urgency to follow wherever it leads.

Like Christians around the world, we gather here each week to be refreshed, comforted, inspired. But then what? What happens when we walk through those doors back into the world and the busyness of our lives? Does what we do or say in here make a difference out there?

In another section of his book, Eboo Patel reflects on that familiar phrase, “preaching to the choir.” He introduces his reflection with a story about hearing the Dalai Lama at a massive rally here in Chicago. A friend wondered if the Dalai Lama was just “preaching to the choir” of those already converted to interfaith cooperation. “Pretty big choir,” was Eboo’s response. “A choir that size, it could do a lot in this world.”

He goes on to challenge the notion that there is something wrong with preaching to the choir of the already converted. It would be problematic if the preaching ended here, a bunch of similar people who believe the same things and like the same music gathering to share in self-indulgent spiritual introspection. But that is not what this moment is for.

“After gathering the choir,” writes Eboo, “the job of the preacher is to teach us the song.” Friends, we are gathered here to learn the song of the gospel—not the loud and obnoxious song of popular and commodified Christianity that is all too easy to find on television and in feel-good mega-churches. No, we are here to learn the song Jesus sang as he wandered the countryside of Galilee, the song he sang when confronting the religious and political powers of his day, the song he sang as he followed God all the way to the painful end, the song he sang on the new beginning of Easter morning.

But we don’t just sing this song for ourselves, marveling at its beauty and complexity. As Eboo reflected on the Dalai Lama preaching to his choir, it became clear to him that it doesn’t end there. Each of us that learns the song are to become preachers ourselves. We are to gather our own choirs, preach to them, teach them the song, and they will in turn go out and do the same. It is a movement of God’s Spirit transforming the world, one choir at a time.

Like the demons of today’s scripture lesson, the problems of the world are indeed legion. It is daunting and discouraging to even think about addressing them all.

When the man was healed by Jesus and liberated from his legion of demons, he wanted nothing more than to stay with Jesus. Perhaps he had in mind a comfortable little congregation of followers sitting at the master’s feet to be inspired and cared for.

But Jesus wasn’t interested in this. “Return to your home,” he said, “and declare how much God has done for you.” He learned the song from Jesus, now it was his turn to go out and sing it, teaching it to others, who will in turn teach it to others, until the whole world is singing along.

“So he went away, proclaiming throughout the city how much Jesus had done for him.”

Amen.

Comments

  1. Mike Welf says:

    Amen indeed. I love the analogy of teaching them the song now that the choir has gathered. Of course, we do still have to gather the choir in many cases however I believe both can occur simultaneously if we prepare ourselves to do these together. I also think your BBQ church idea continues gain merit… Gather them together and feed them… Hmm…

  2. Susan Van Hooser says:

    John, much of your sermon was inspirational. However, I feel the need to point out something which I totally disagree with you about. So you have an idea as to who I am, feel free to ask Joyce Shin, Judith, or John Buchanan. Anyway, your comment about “feel good mega churches” shocked me. Many of those churches draw in people who are learning the gospel in a different style than our Presbyterian Church. The same gospel is taught to people who have not been comfortable with traditional churches. Dress code is relaxed to suit common lifestyles. The praise and worship music may seem “feel good” to you. But, I know firsthand that learning and trusting are the messages. I love both the traditional and praise. I think God does as well. It is all praise! The mega churches do teach the message of serving our fellow man and understanding of those with different beliefs. It is all Jesus’ message. I am concerned whenever churches are singled out negatively. How can we ask people to respect all religions and criticize a Christian church whose style is different? I’ll hope to hear your opinion. Respectfully, Susan

    • Thanks for your comment and feedback, Susan. My mega church reference wasn’t really about style. Truth be told, I’d probably prefer that style (done well) to the traditional style at Fourth. And you are right that some mega churches preach the gospel in ways not that different from us. (And, it’s worth pointing out that by Presbyterian standards we are a mega church.)

      But what I really had in mind are the mega churches that preach a message that really is mostly about feeling good and less about the radical gospel of Jesus. When I wrote that, I specifically had in mind Joel Osteen and his mega church in Houston. There is not much about that form of Christianity that I find an authentic version of Jesus’ gospel. Are you familiar with that church and churches like it?

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