The Wussification of the American Pulpit

By Paul Koch

Now, with a title like that, you might be thinking that I’m going to ramble on about the lack of masculinity among the members of my own vocation. And you would be right, but not necessarily in the way you are thinking. To be sure, there is fertile ground in making fun of the so-called bravery of the theological-thought police on Facebook (or so I’m told), and who doesn’t love a well-timed and well-aimed rant about the ivory tower theologians that plague genuine proclamation? However, my focus here is on the very attitude and way in which a pastor speaks. To put it simply, more and more pastors today sound like a bunch of wussies.

Now, the term “wussy” as I am using it is from my childhood insult repertoire, which, looking back, wasn’t as clever as I thought at the time. But a wussy is what we labeled a boy who refused to engage, who backed away while everyone else went forward. Whether we were hitting a new jump on our bikes or bombing a hill on our skateboards, whoever didn’t engage or take a risk in the moment was tagged with the label wussy. Now, it didn’t mean you were always a wussy. The next stunt we thought up would usually present an opportunity for redemption.

It is this subtle lack of engagement from the pulpit, this unwillingness to hit the jump at full speed, that marks many of the habits found in (or even out of) pulpits these days.

Several months back, I read an incredible essay by Dr. Jonathan Mumme titled, “The Difference of Differentiating Address,” which is found in a wonderful collection that I highly recommend (Find it here). Stay with me, for this essay is not nearly as boring as the title suggests. In fact, I found it not only to be challenging and inspiring but incredibly practical as well.

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The differentiating address that Mumme explores is the clear and intentional distinction between the first, second, and third person (both singular and plural) from the pulpit. As Mumme says, “Ministers preaching to the pews I have occupied lack a We of ministers distinct from the You of the hearers. This deprivation of differentiated address indicates how such pastors understand of themselves, affects what they communicate to their congregations, and finally impacts the preaching of the gospel as gospel.” (p.118) Or to put it another way, they act like a bunch of wussies who do not have the authority and therefore do not speak with the daring confidence of an instrument of Christ.

Sermons can become group therapy about our standing before our God who has done great and wonderful things for us. But the “I” forgive “You” is flattened out into a nice rhetorical “us.” Instead of proclamation, we have a glorified Bible study. The “us” of our sermons is an attempt of rhetorical persuasion to get the hearers to listen by seeing the preacher as one of them. The image is that we are all in this together, which sounds nice but lacks a certain boldness that preaching demands. It also hides what is peculiar and necessary about the preaching office.

The loss of differentiating address means a loss in the confidence of the preacher to do what he has been called to do. As Wilhelm Löhe cautioned way back in 1848, “Most pastors have themselves no conception of their office and hence lack all basis and confidence for their public activity. They exercise their office as though they had no right to do so…” (Aphorism on the New Testament Offices, 21) Or again, they’re being a bunch of wussies.

Mumme offers a detailed argument from Paul’s letters to the Corinthian church demonstrating how he employed a clear, differentiated address to proclaim both Law and Gospel. He then goes on to demonstrate how this differentiated address is found in the latter sermons of Martin Luther. Along the way, he highlights how this sort of address is marked by a certain boastful confidence, a desire to engage for the sake of one’s neighbor. As he puts it, “Confidence, boasting, and even pride are salutary when they are at play for the service and well-being of others, rather than as ends in themselves for a static status of the preacher/minister.” (p. 132) This is no spiritual masturbation but a willing engagement in the lives of others with an authoritative Word that can both kill and bring forth life.

And here’s the good news in all this: We don’t have to participate in the wussification of the pulpits. There is another opportunity, another moment that calls for boldness and daring, another day that approaches in which we can engage. It’s time to man up and use our pronouns with boldness to proclaim a Gospel that comes entirely from without.

While everyone else is backing away, let us continue to go forward.

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