Shawnthea Monroe writes about preaching so that visitors who consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious” can feel welcomed into hearing the gospel news of Christ Jesus.
I have always believed that the first obligation of a Christian community is to be hospitable and welcoming of all people. One Latin word for hospitality is hospitium, which can also mean hospice: a place of refuge; a place where strangers are entertained. By its very definition, Christian hospitality is not an insider’s game or a social transaction among friends. No, Christian hospitality is offered to outsiders—strangers—or in the words of Walter Brueggemann, “people without a place.”
Most thriving congregations understand this. We post greeters at the door, set aside prime parking spaces for visitors, make sure that our liturgy is accessible, and carefully avoid insider language. But what about the sermon?
Although some might consider preaching the last frontier in Christian hospitality, I believe that the sermon is actually the first and most essential place to extend a welcome. It is in preaching that the implicit welcome becomes explicit, where strangers are treated as holy guests and the door to faith is opened. The sermon is nothing less than a mediated encounter between God and the gathered people, where the preacher acts as both host and guest, where Jesus is welcomed and does the welcoming. To the extent that the sermon bears the hallmarks of Christian hospitality, the good news of Jesus Christ can be heard “openly and unhindered” (Acts 28:31) even by people who are spiritual but not religious.
Monroe’s essay in Liturgy names several practical ways preaching becomes hospitable. Here are just a few:
Let your authenticity come through in your preaching.
The first step is to know yourself as a preacher. What do you sound like? What do you look like when you preach? There is probably nothing quite so painful as listening to or watching your own sermons, but it is a critical discipline.
See your preacher self as part of the body to whom the sermon is addressed by using “we” rather than “us” and “them.”
Speak the truth that being a Christian is an intellectual as well as a spiritual way of life.
People who are spiritual but not religious do not want to check their brains at the door. If they are going to be drawn into a sermon, then it has to be one that engages reason as well as faith. As I write these words, I recall that it was the intellectual engagement of Dr. Jones’ preaching that captured my attention all those years ago.
Engage the real world as you unpack the biblical words about faith.
In a time when more and more people believe that organized religion is irrelevant to everyday life, it is especially important that preachers address (and frame theologically) the issues of the day. A preacher must bring all the resources of the Christian faith to questions of poverty, war, racism, climate change, and community building—to name only a few.
Give yourself a chance to read the entire essay through your library’s or your own subscription to the journal. Monroe concludes with an admonition to start seeing with new eyes our brothers and sisters who are reluctant to participate in “organized” religion but whose deep spiritual lives would be nourished by and give nourishment to the body of Christ, the church.
Perhaps God is present to us even in those who are spiritual but not religious. If we really seek to follow the self-emptying ways of Christ, then we might want to approach our SBNR brothers and sisters—whether we are in the pulpit or out—with an attitude of welcome and embrace, receiving them for who they are: beloved children of God who may have a message for the church.
Shawnthea Monroe is the senior minister of Plymouth Church, United Church of Christ in Shaker Heights, Ohio. She is most recently the coauthor of Living Christianity: A Pastoral Theology for Today (Fortress Press, 2009).
Shawnthea Monroe, “Preaching to the ‘Spiritual But Not Religious,’” Liturgy 30, no. 3 (2015), 23-31.