A Gospel for All Ages

Preaching to the Whole Church

Note: This article is adapted from A Gospel for All Ages by David M. Csinos (Fortress Press, 2022). Used by permission.

It’s Sunday morning at Kent Street Church. As the congregation sits in the pews listening to the sermon, the twenty or so people who attended an evening intergenerational program at the church a few days ago can’t help but smile when they hear familiar ideas echo through the message.

Four days ago, these children, adolescents, and adults were enjoying a meal as they shared ideas about a lectionary reading for the coming week. Their pastor loves crowdsourcing her sermons by hosting all-age events and activities in which a small group of participants opens up Scripture together. What they dig out of the text becomes the raw material the pastor uses to build her sermon. And as she offers that crowdsourced sermon, she pauses, asks an open-ended question about the piece of Scripture on which she was preaching, and invites everyone in the church to turn to a neighbor and reflect on that question together. What follows is a cacophony of voices, from the very young to the very old, all talking with one another about how God is speaking to them through that passage of Scripture.

Across an ocean, the pastor at New Life Community Church is spending the afternoon reflecting on the sermon his congregation heard that morning. Every few months he organizes the worship service so that the congregation, rather than listening to him preach, listens to one another share about what God has been up to in their lives. This week, he’d arranged for four people—a nine-year-old child, a teenager about to graduate from high school, a fifty-something adult, and an octogenarian—to each prepare a five-minute story about how they felt God speaking to them lately. Each testimony was bookended by the reading of a passage of Scripture in which God speaks to God’s people and a hymn of praise for how God continues to speak to the church today. After all the passages were read, the stories were shared, and the songs were sung, a volunteer appeared with a wireless microphone, and the pastor invited others to share about recent moments when they felt they had heard God’s voice or had been wrapped in the warmth of God’s love. Everyone has come to expect that these communal kinds of services last longer than the usual one-hour worship time, but no one seems to mind.

In another corner of the globe, the ministers of Morningside Church are going over the plan for their church’s Good Friday service, hoping that it won’t push people too far outside of their comfort zones. Over the past few months they’d been trying some different things in the time normally reserved for a sermon delivered by one person. Last week they asked people to walk around the sanctuary and look at photos representing different names or images for God: healer, savior, mother, father, friend, etc. But this week they are really going to stretch everyone. Rather than preaching about how God calls us to become involved in the struggles facing our communities, they are planning to open the doors to the church and invite everyone (and they mean everyone!) to join them on a walk around their neighborhood. They’ve prearranged a few stops along the way—at a small tent encampment, at a shelter for marginalized youth, and at a block of low-rent townhouses that are about to be bulldozed to make way for a new high-rise office complex. At each place, a community member will be waiting to share about the lives of those who struggle to survive in their neighborhood and how they are looking out for each other along the way. Yes, the ministers agree, this experience will be far better than just talking about crucifixion.

Three Churches, One Gospel

These stories are composite narratives woven together from real experiments with intergenerational preaching that I have had the privilege of learning about over the past few years. These approaches for interpreting, speaking, and experiencing the gospel are creative responses to the tenacity of adult-oriented sermons that Doug Pagitt has called “speaching,” a mashup of the words speech and preaching that he says is “hardly distinguishable from a one-way speech” (Preaching in the Inventive Age (Nashville: Abingdon, 2014), 10). And such experiments are the direct result of the sort of liturgical innovations that are required for worship among intergenerational faith communities.

Intergenerational ministry calls faith communities to consider their practices—from preaching to worship to community meals to board meetings—and examine the normalization of the preferences of adults therein. When it comes to preaching, including people of all ages means recognizing that the “speaching” sort of sermons that many people expect during worship service aren’t terribly appropriate for or inclusive of younger people. They aren’t always terribly appropriate for or inclusive of all adults, for that matter. So it’s incumbent on leaders within intergenerational congregations to expand the boundaries of their members’ imaginations—and their own, too!—as to what constitutes preaching.

This kind of imaginative approach to preaching is hardly new for the church. In fact, it’s the sort of upside-down, revolutionary, people-first work that Jesus performed two thousand years ago. Marcus Borg has argued that although Jesus wasn’t a preacher in the contemporary understanding of the word—and he certainly didn’t offer sermons as we know them—his mission was wrapped up in the proclamation of the gospel (foreword to The Preaching of Jesus: Gospel Proclamation, Then and Now, by William Brosend (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2010), ix–x).

Jesus was a preacher. He wasn’t ordained, he didn’t give homilies in houses of worship, and people tended to call him teacher rather than preacher. Yet the gospels portray a Jesus who proclaimed the good news. Using parables, one-liners, allegories, object lessons, questions, and countless acts of love, Jesus proclaimed that the realm of God was at hand. But Jesus wasn’t just any kind of preacher. He was an intergenerational preacher. Through his words and actions, he proclaimed the good news to families and crowds of people comprising several ages: children too young to walk up to Jesus by themselves (Matthew 19:13–15), teenagers wrestling with existential questions (Mark 10:17–27), adults who were well established in their careers (Luke 19:1–10), and those who were nearing the end of life (Matthew 8:14–17).

Purposes of Preaching

When flinging open the doors for different approaches to preaching—especially in intergenerational contexts—it’s helpful to walk through them equipped with an understanding about why preaching matters in the first place. When we know why preaching matters and what we are seeking to accomplish with it, we can more easily recognize the fact that more common means of preaching—sermons, homilies, and teaching moments, for example—are simply some of countless ways that that gospel can be proclaimed among our faith communities and within the world beyond the walls of the church.

So, why does preaching matter? While homileticians and preachers have identified many different purposes of preaching, they tend to agree upon three key themes: preaching testifies to God’s story, preaching empowers transformation, and preaching catalyzes encounters with God.

Preaching Testifies to God’s Story

To begin: preaching plays a role in the proclamation of God’s story. The act of preaching is central to Christianity because of its relationship with Scripture. The Bible is the primary source of all utterances from the pulpit. The only reason that what we say and do as preachers has any weight at all is because it is founded upon and emerges from the text that we hold to be sacred. Without resting firmly on God’s story revealed to us in the Bible, preaching is merely opinion and conjecture, a motivational speech or a damning tirade born out of and remaining within the experiences of humanity.

Preaching involves opening up our sacred texts for the community and exploring what they testify about the God who calls us from within them. Anna Carter Florence summed up this purpose of preaching well: “The preacher tells what she has seen and heard in the biblical text and in life, and then confesses what she believes about it” (Preaching as Testimony (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007), xiii).

Yes, preaching centers on the story of God within our scriptures. But Florence reminds us that this story is still unfolding “in life,” in the very world in which we and the members of our faith communities exist. Preaching, therefore, must connect the story of God within the Bible to the ongoing story of God within our contemporary world. This “text-and-world” relationship is mutual, with our testimonies of God’s story within each realm—then and now—shaping each other. We do not assume a one-way relationship in which the truths of Scripture are applied to our daily lives. Nor do we assume an inverted relationship and read Scripture only in light of what our experiences are calling us to see within it. To do either is to err toward trite application-based sermons or shallow proof-texted homilies. Rather, the relationship between the text of Scripture and the context of our lives is a two-way street. Liturgist and hymn writer Ruth Duck says it well: “Scripture and contemporary experience illumine one another, helping us perceive who God is and what God is doing in the church and the world and in our particular lives” (Worship for the Whole People of God, 2nd ed. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2021), 149).

Preaching Empowers Transformation

This brings us to the second broad purpose of preaching. We do not dive deep into God’s story and give testimony to what we have seen in order to fill the heads of our congregants or to help them see how intelligent we preachers can be. Rather, we do so because we believe in the power of this story to shape lives. The purpose of preaching, then, is to empower transformation among the community.

Ideally, such transformation happens among everyone involved. And it begins with the preacher. The act of preparing, writing, delivering, and evaluating the messages we offer to our faith communities ought to have an effect on the ones offering that message. When we marinate in God’s story, it seeps its way into the nooks and crannies of our lives, pushing us deeper and further along the path of discipleship. To paraphrase what researcher Shawn Wilson once said about research, “If [preaching] doesn’t change you as a person, then you haven’t done it right” (Research Is Ceremony: Indigenous Research Methods (Halifax, NS: Fernwood, 2008), 135).

The preacher, having been challenged and changed as a result of encountering God’s story, offers words of witness in order to evoke transformation among members of the congregation. For some, the preaching moment might be evangelistic in nature. It may offer a platform for extending the invitation of discipleship to those in the gathered community who have yet to begin down that road (or those who need a reminder or a reset). For others, the potency of the sermon is in its power to evoke ongoing formation, to fuel and equip those already living as disciples and offer advice and guidance for how they might more closely follow the way of life to which Jesus has called them. Either way, the purpose of preaching is not to leave hearers untouched but to move them into a deeper relationship with God.

Finally, the preacher, having been transformed through an encounter with God’s story and then offering that story as a reorientation for members of the faith community, has one thing left to say: do something with what you have heard! The proclamation of the gospel offers lenses through which the faith community can see the world in new ways—lenses tinted with the unfathomable and far-reaching love of God as revealed by Jesus and empowered by the Spirit. This new perspective causes us to live in different ways that transform the world through acts of love, generosity, justice, and hope.

Want to learn more?

These ideas are drawn from David M. Csinos’s new book A Gospel for All Ages: Teaching and Preaching with the Whole Church (Fortress Press, 2022). Pick up a copy to learn more about intergenerational preaching. A unique feature of the book is that it includes a collection of best practices for intergenerational preaching written by creative practitioners from different parts of the world.

Preaching Catalyzes Encounters with God

We have discussed how preaching bears witness to God’s story and empowers transformation in the preacher, the community, and the world. Yet most homileticians agree that there is a third purpose: preaching is, perhaps above all else, a means by which the community encounters God.

The claim that preaching is nothing short of an encounter with God is not universally held, and among those who do plant their flag within this camp there is no consensus about the contours of this claim—that is, how preaching actually engenders experiences with God (as if that can ever be known!). Yet across several Christian traditions—among Catholics and mainline Protestants, the Anglican Communion and evangelical churches—preachers claim that God is present in the preaching moment.

While different people put their own spins on how we can encounter God in preaching, the convergence of humanity and divinity in the preaching moment remains a mystery. After all, we might be the ones uttering words among the gathered community, but it is the wholly other God who acts to become present in that moment. Heaven help us if we begin to assume that we can control when and where God appears! Yet to paraphrase Alan Charter, the role of the preacher is to facilitate as many encounters with God as possible, to draw attention to how the veil between heaven and earth might be lifted in that very moment. The rest is up to the God we trust to show up.

Preaching and Hearing a Gospel for All Ages

Let’s go back to the three vignettes that opened this article. The pastoral leaders at Kent Street Church, New Life Community Church, and Morningside Church may not have done a thorough study of the field of homiletics to identify the purposes of preaching, but it is clear that they knew why preaching mattered to them and to their faith communities. This knowledge equipped them to walk bravely into new homiletical spaces because of their commitment to include people of all ages within their church’s preaching practices. Some crowdsourced their sermons through intergenerational Bible study groups that helped preachers prepare messages that reflected the ideas of congregants of different ages. Others expanded the pulpit by inviting children, teenagers, adults, and families to share about how God has been at work within their lives. And some sought creative ways of inviting everyone present for worship services to experience the heart of the gospel, even if this didn’t look anything like a sermon.

I can’t tell you how to adapt your church’s preaching practices so they become more intergenerational. (For ideas see “For All God’s Children: Nine Practices for Engaging God’s Word and Forming Faith,” by Karen DeBoer, RW 140:26). But I can tell you that you’re not alone. Intergenerational preaching is an experimental endeavor, one that gradually transforms our churches from auditoriums for listening to preaching to laboratories that invite everyone to experiment with new approaches together.

This sort of work is not for the faint of heart. Transforming how the gospel is preached in light of God’s call to become intergenerational is fraught with difficulty. Sometimes it might feel as if we are going it alone. At other times, we may want to throw in the towel. We may upset some longtime parishioners and confuse those who are visiting our church. We might even see declining attendance as some people choose to find a church that has more traditional approaches to preaching—and that’s OK.

The trick is to keep asking how we can adapt our methods for proclaiming the gospel in response to the presence of all ages within our faith communities. As we wrestle with unspoken assumptions and long-held norms for preaching so that new practices might be born in the process, we do so remembering that Jesus calls everyone to preach and to hear the gospel—no exceptions!

Dr. David M. Csinos is an associate professor of practical theology at the Atlantic School of Theology in Halifax, Nova Scotia. He also is the founder and president of Faith Forward, an ecumenical organization for innovation in ministry with children, youth, and families. He is the author and editor of several books, including A Gospel for All Ages: Teaching and Preaching with the Whole Church.

Reformed Worship 144 © June 2022, Calvin Institute of Christian Worship. Used by permission.