Friday, December 31, 2010

Reflections on Preaching, Ministry, and the Five Finger Exercise

This week I start a new sermon series. I'm ususally a "let the text pick me" kind of preacher, either sticking to the lectionary or preaching through a block of texts related to some sense of a balanced, biblical diet. So, it usually takes a pretty good reason to bounce me off of this. Sunday's sermon is the start of a series on what people in Churches of Christ, if they've been around awhile know as the five finger exercise, or the five steps to salvation.

This might come as a surprise to many. I'm not exactly known as a straight down the line Church of Christ preacher. I once had a member tell me that I would make a good BAPTIST preacher. He didn't see that as a compliment (and neither did I, but for very different reasons). I have from time to time made what sound like strange sounds to Church of Christ orthodoxy. Some of my friends might suppose that this is a series thrust opon me by a group of nervous elders. Not, so. This was my idea, and I think I was fully present and in charge of my mental faculties.

For those of you not of CoC pedigree, or of a more recent vintage, the five finger exercise has a large place in CoC lore. Walter Scott, a 19th century evangelist and colleague of Alexander Campbell, is said to have travelled the Western Reserve in Ohio and Pennsylvania preaching a rather Arminian form of the gospel. When he would ride into a town, he would gather school children and teach them the five steps to salvation--one for each finger. It is often said that if humans had six fingers per had, there would have been six steps. Children would go home, tell their parents, many of whom were not sure if they showed the requisite marks of regeneration to be counted among the elect, who would in turn receive with gratitude (on occasion) a simple message of assurance related to salvation.

By the time the steps to salvation reached my generation, they had morphed a bit from Scott's original list. I learned them as hear, believe, confess, repent, and be baptized. Any Church of Christ member worth their salt could reproduce this list along with the requisite prooftexts. The list provided me and countless others what it provided Calvinists on the Westerm Reserve--assurance. And that's no small thing.

The power of the five steps lies in its simplicity, and this is increasingly an important goal to me in preaching and in life in general. Simplicity, however, is often the gateway to simplistic. And the five steps approach is certainly open  to that charge. I simply do not understand salvation in the way it is arranged and presented in this little exercise. So, why would I propose a series on this?

Let me say right up front that I am not doing this series as an exercise in deconstruction. I am not hoping to turn the five fingers into a fist with which to beat poor, unsuspecting members of the congregation. I happen to think that hearing, believing, confessing, repenting, and being baptized are pretty important things. I am doing this series, in part, because I believe that if these things could be lived into as more than just a list, we would be producing some health in our congregation. I am not looking to suspend these categories, but to enlarge them.

But there are other reasons as well, central to how I view ministry in general. Our congregation has gone through a series of pretty rapid shifts in the past few months, one of which was to invite me to preach 20 Sundays per year. I was not a member of this congregation at the time. I only within the last year moved to the area to teach ministry at a local Church of Christ college. This is my first gig east of the Mississippi River, which is a fairly significant boundary in Churches of Christ. I have preached in Texas and in Oregon, and these places are  not  Michigan. Things are simply different here. As one example, it is striking how much of church politics here relates to how Catholic the area is. These things are simply not issues in Gresham, Oregon and Arlington, Texas. So, they have taken as a congregation several significant risks in the past year, one of which was to invite a little-known foreigner  to stand in their pulpit for roughly half the Sundays a year.

I will say one  more thing about this. My sermons are an aquired taste. It's not obvious to listeners what exactly they are at first. When I first preached at for the congregation in Oregon, the first few weeks the notetakers eagerly pulled their spiral notebooks from their purses (yes, they were all women) and look at me expectantly for the first part of the sermon, only to put away their notebooks 10 minutes into the sermon with looks of clear disappointment. It wasn't until about two years later that the notebooks came out again. They has discovered some of the rhythm of my preaching and now knew where to anticipate the thumps and rim shots that make up the take-aways of many sermons. My current listeners are still in that bewildered state. Their faces are twisted in question marks. I am hoping they give me about two years.

So, I represent change in many ways whether I want to or not. I am not business as usual. And part of ministry is the capacity to interpret oneself in light of the congregation's narrative and expectations. I have symbolic value that is in surplus of my own self-understanding or intentions. And effective symbols do two things.They orient and disorient. They have to do both to have any kind of dynamic staying power, or for a congregation to utilize them for continuing life. Anderson and Foley, in their outstanding book, Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, talk about the mythic and parabolic functions of symbols and rituals. The mythic provides orientation, the parabolic upsets equilibrium for the sake of new understandings.

My sense is that I am primarily now a parabolic symbol. That has positive value. It represents the possibility of growth and newness. But it also introduces a sense of instability and uncertainty. The positive aspects of parabolic function, I am convinced, can only be realized if people feel sufficiently oriented. Put another way, people are more willing to take the necessary risks associated with newness (discontinuity) if they feel adequately moored in what they already know (continuity). Good ministry knows how to manage or engage various moments of continuity and discontinuity.

So, in this large moment of discontinuity, I am hoping to find some rich places of continuity. I am hoping someone will accuse me of being a good Church of Christ preacher.This week--Hear!


Anonymous said...

I am glad to see u living in this role again along with teaching. I have also been doing some thinking and planning along this line. Seeing those categories in the context of God's story and journey with him is really important. Folks who love bullet points and steps do get frustrated with preaching that has twists and turns on the journey into the life with God life.

Anonymous said...

I think my friends in Rochester (Harrisons, Tallmans, Cuchrans, etc.) will soon love and appreciate you totally. Tell them hi for me.
J. Bordine

Anonymous said...

Hey Brother Love,
Dana Brown here...I had to giggle to myself when you first mentioned the Five Finger Excercise. We never called it that but I knew exactly what you were talking about. Wish I could hear you preach this series...and hear your other thoughts as well. I shall have to check back to you blog on a regular basis!
Blessings to You, Sir!

Mark Love said...

Aw, thanks Dana. Welcome to the blog.

JamesBrett said...

just last night at our new year's eve party (the entire mwanza team came to geita for a little get-together), several of us stayed up talking about memories of church from our childhood. i asked them if they thought it'd be alright for me to teach the "five items of worship" and the "five steps to salvation" to all of their children this next sunday morning. they told me they were sure they could later undo any damage i could teach in this one bible class.

but just for the record, a "five-finger exercise" sounds to me more like shoplifting than the steps to salvation.