Papa Please Preach
You know that churches have dropped the ball when one of the foundational words about church has become a slur. The term “preach” has been so sullied by the church that it has become almost unusable in polite secular conversation.
Think of the classic Madonna song “Papa Don’t Preach":
Papa I know you're going to be upset
'Cause I was always your little girl
'Cause I was always your little girl
But you should know by now
I'm not a baby
You always taught me right from wrong
I need your help, daddy please be strong
I may be young at heart
But I know what I'm saying
The one you warned me all about
The one you said I could do without
We're in an awful mess, and I don't mean maybe - please
Papa don't preach, I'm in trouble deep
Papa don't preach, I've been losing sleep
But I made up my mind, I'm keeping my baby, oh
I'm gonna keep my baby
So, Madonna has messed up. She’s been seeing a guy of whom her father doesn’t approve, and she’s gotten pregnant. In her own words, they’re “in an awful mess.” So she goes to her father, and her one request is that he not “preach.”
Phrases like, “don’t preach at me,” or “I didn’t like that movie; it was so preachy” shine a light on the redefinition of the word: “to preach,” in common parlance, now means "to judge" or "to criticize." When the Madonna of the song goes to her father, she’s saying, “I already know that what I did was wrong, so I don’t need you to tell me again. I need your help, not a sermon.”
And who wouldn’t agree with that sentiment? “I need your help, not a sermon.” But that’s the tragedy: sermons are supposed to help!
The preaching event is supposed to be about the proclamation of the Good News: we preach the Gospel. Of course, as some will be quick to point out, we preach the Law, too (and first!) but our sermons should never be typified by law. People should never walk out of our churches feeling the weight of the law; they should walk out feeling the relief of the Gospel.
The church should foster an environment in which Madonna can go to her father and say something like, “Dad, I’m in big trouble. I kept seeing the guy who you told me was bad news, and we messed up. I’m pregnant. I feel terrible. Please preach to me.”
The preaching event, typified by the proclamation of the Gospel, is intended to introduce the listener to Jesus Christ, whose “yoke is easy” and whose “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). For the most part, people come into churches like Madonna came to her father: already aware that they’re in an awful mess. Now, that doesn’t stop us from proclaiming the law: it’s important for people to know why they’re in an awful mess. As Stanley Hauerwas has said, “There's a difference between knowing you're a [bad person] and knowing you're a sinner.” But we never leave people there, not ever.
“Preachy” ought to be a compliment. Preaching should buoy the listener, and give him hope. It should comfort. It should forgive.
Of course, the degradation of the word “preach” in secular society is not simply due to preachers who make their sermons all about what we need to do (“Do more! Try harder!”). It is also due to Christian listeners who actually seem to want such sermons!
Consider another Christian-ese vocabulary word: “convict.” When we want to praise an especially moving sermon, one that really showed us the difference between who we are and who we ought to be, and has given us a renewed fire to bridge that gap, we say things like, “Oh, what a wonderful sermon; I feel so convicted.” “Thank you, pastor, for your words this morning. They really convicted me.”
Listen: the smiles on our faces as we say these words belie their meaning. When has anyone outside a church ever heard the word “convicted” and smiled? It has never happened. The conviction comes at the end of the trial and means that the accused is about to receive his punishment! The accused could only reasonably smile if he was pardoned!
A proper sermon, a true proclamation of law and gospel, should convict at the beginning and pardon at the end. We never end with conviction because it is not we who have been convicted…it is Christ in our place. Perhaps, if we can recover the pulpit for the proclamation of the Gospel, “preaching” can recover a helpful meaning, a comforting meaning, and a true meaning.
“Papa Please Preach.” Now there’s a song!