Leaving the Museum: Daring to Preach in Present Tense

Leaving the Museum: Daring to Preach in Present Tense

Once when I was in college, sitting in one of my Bible classes at Lipscomb University, I wandered into a peculiarly vivid daydream. Now, before I tell you about my daydream, I should probably issue an apology to any of my college professors who ever lost me to my daydreaming. The fault was certainly not theirs! I have always had an active imagination; wrangling and disciplining this imagination of mine has taken many years. I digress …

I was sitting in class, taking notes, when I slipped away to an old dusty museum. The museum was dark, with faint beams of morning light beginning to peek in through clouded windows. I could see a haze of dust suspended in the air, and one elderly gentleman carefully tending to a disheveled collection of papers and books. The ceilings soared above me in gothic style, and in every direction I saw hallways filled with historic artifacts preserved behind glass cases. I began to walk around, carefully examining every piece, uncomfortably aware that I was the only person in the museum, aside from the curator arranging papers and books.

This was his museum that he loved dearly. It was his life’s mission to explore, collect, and preserve artifacts of historical significance. Each piece in the museum represented a moment or a collection of moments from the past--moments that inform our present, moments that shaped who we are, moments that are well worth knowing. And yet, this curator will spend the rest of his days in this dusty and empty museum, forever tending to the past, without much of a life in the present.

At this point in the daydream, I asked myself, “Do I think of God like this man treats his museum?” I love the Bible. I love reading the story of our salvation. I love our old hymns that celebrate and capture the beauty of God’s work throughout history. I find myself nesting in the comfort of who God was and what God did, preserving and honoring and loving each artifact as if it were a piece in my museum--informing my present, and well worth knowing. And yet, what can I say about who God is? Would I dare to venture beyond the doors of the museum, equipped with the story of our past, in order to see what God is doing now?

Many years have passed since my trip to the museum. I don’t typically remember daydreams, but this one stuck with me. I think it stayed with me because I did not like my answer to my question. The truth was, yes--I do tend to treat God this way. I think, reflect, study, and even preach quite a bit about who God has been, sometimes without ever venturing to say what God is doing now.

As I move into a season of my academic career where I will focus extensively on Homiletics, I have begun to wonder to what extent our past tense blinders hinder our calling to proclaim a present tense gospel. Every time we approach the pulpit and deliver an expository sermon on a text, or reflect on an event from the “old, old story,” in order to inform our present without ever daring to proclaim what God is doing today, I think we have missed our opportunity to proclaim the gospel. Yes, it is a daring thing to presume that we could speak truth about God’s current movement in our faith communities. But it would be equally daring and perhaps even dangerous to presume that we have seen and known all that we need to know of God in the past, and that proclaiming the past is sufficient or paramount to proclaiming what God is doing today.

I am not the first homiletician to ponder this issue. When scholars like Gerhard O. Forde and Richard A. Jensen incorporated systematic theology with homiletics, both arrived at a similar conclusion concerning present tense proclamation. Understanding proclamation as “first or second person present tense language spoken on Christ’s behalf,” Jensen promotes that, “This kind of proclamation is worlds removed from preaching that only explains what it was that Christ said and did at some point in the past. Understanding is not the goal. Proclamation is the goal. How that proclamation works itself out in the lives of people is the work of the Holy Spirit.” [1]

That last line may tell us quite a bit about our tendency to reside in the past. To proclaim in present tense what God is actively doing requires quite a bit of trust and submission to the work of the Holy Spirit. And, well, sometimes Churches of Christ don’t really know what to do with the Holy Spirit.

One of my dear friends, John Kern, is working on his PhD in Historical and Systematic Theology at Boston College. Much of his work centers on pneumatology, or the study of the Holy Spirit. Having grown up in Churches of Christ, John has also noticed that many of our churches tend to buckle up when it comes to discussing the present movement of the Spirit.

Could our Holy Spirit anxiety be an operating factor in our tendency to stay in our museum? Are we afraid to speak of God’s work in present tense language because we fear our fallibility more than we trust the work of the Spirit? Proclaiming the reality of the gospel in present tense will require a robust (or at least functional) pneumatological foundation.

Now, with all of this being said, I do believe it is important to be careful in proclamation. I am not suggesting that the next time you step into the pulpit you should simply spew whatever you think God is up to, counting on the Spirit to cover up any nonsense. Proclaiming the gospel requires both a careful study of the past, and steady hand in assessing the present. Proclaiming the gospel requires that we cherish the chapters that preceded us, while daring to know the chapters that are presently unfolding. Proclaiming the gospel requires that we accept what God is illuminating before us in each new age.

Our churches are changing and adapting, and we will never again look identical to the first-century church (perhaps this is part of a restoration movement’s quandary), but perhaps our roots could inform a brave march forward, as we dare to imagine what waits for us beyond the museum.


[1] Paul Scott Wilson provides a brief summary of the contributions made by Gerhard O. Forde and Richard A. Jensen to the theology of Homiletics in his book, Preaching and Homiletical Theory. Jensen’s quote comes from his book, Thinking in Story.


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