Reflection on Course: Preaching as a Contextual Word


Eric Lemonholm

 A Reflection Paper


The Core 3 course, Preaching as a Contextual Word, has been an enlightening foray into culture context and its impact on preaching and the life of the church.  Our culture has changed and is changing rapidly, decisively, and irreversibly; do we have a word to speak to this culture, in a way that can be heard, especially (though not exclusively) by youth and emerging adults (approximately ages 18-30), the population least represented in the church today?[1]

As I approach my fortieth birthday, I left emerging adulthood behind nearly a decade ago.  In retrospect, my ordination at age 30 (married with two young children, soon to be three) marked my transition from emerging adulthood to adulthood.  And yet, I was an emerging adult in a similar (though not identical) cultural context to today.  I remember after college in my early 20s, when I was discerning vocational (and indeed spiritual) possibilities and drifting from Minnesota, over the Mexican border, and back, I listened to the U2 song “The Wanderer” many times over.  I had forgotten about the song, until this week, I happened to listen to it for the first time in years.  U2 recruited Johnny Cash to sing the song, released in 1993.[2]  Looking back over the span of years, the song captured some of the sense of wandering and searching that I was experiencing at the time:

I went out riding down that old eight-lane
I passed a thousand signs looking for my own name.
I went with nothing but the thought you’d be there too,
Looking for you.


I was wandering, searching for – or forging – my identity, not by following in my parents and grandparents footsteps as people had done in the past, but through personal discernment and choice – not alone, but without much input from my home church either.  My search took me from an Evangelical Covenant mission on the Mexican border, to working with special adults in Minnesota, to getting married, to Princeton Theological Seminary, and into ordination in the ELCA.  Along that road, I could have gone in many different directions, but chose one, by which, in part, my identity has been shaped.

That, in a sense, is the task of emerging adulthood: identity formation.  How does the church respond to that task?  How can we help in the task of identity formation?  Why do so many emerging adults leave the church to find their identity, with less and less of them returning?  How can we change from being a community to which one may belong when one ‘has it all together’ (married, with a career and children) to being a community that welcomes and makes room precisely for people who do not ‘have it all together,’ but are searching, wandering, discerning, doubting, questioning, and forging identity?

The book which I found most thought provoking from this course was Matthew Myer Boulton’s God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship.[3]  Boulton explores deeply the thought of Karl Barth, Martin Luther, and Genesis 2-4 to develop a theological framework that takes seriously the Lutheran insight of simul iustus et peccator (simultaneously justified and sinner) in the heart of religion itself, and especially in Christian worship and theology.  Building on Barth, Boulton defines religion as “that fundamental, widespread human procedure whereby we carry out moral and legal ordering, take and issue instructions, compose and live out philosophies of life, are subject to and subject others to decrees, prohibitions, advice, and applause.”[4]  After the fall, we cannot escape religion; in fact, it is “the outer limit of human achievement.”[5]  As a human work originating with the fall, however, religion shares in humanity’s fallen nature.  Boulton argues that in the garden, Adam and Eve were given a vocation to care for creation;[6] they walked with God in the garden as God’s friends, not as worshipers.  It is only with the fall, the separation between God and humanity, that worship, and indeed religion, are born, as humanity’s curved-in-on oneself, doomed-to-failure attempt to bridge the now evident gap between humanity and God; indeed, religion is the locus of the first murder (Genesis 4).  It is for that reason that God is ‘against religion.’

Do we then despair?  No, because “in Jesus Christ, God transforms worship from an event of fatal separation between humanity and God into an event of saving reconciliation between them.”[7]  Indeed, argues Boulton, “Precisely as humanity’s fall, leitourgia is, after all, the expected locus of God’s graceful rescue, the scenario in which the divine work of reconciliation must and does take place.”[8]  Through Jesus Christ, God transforms “leitourgia (work of people)” into “the work of people-with-God.”[9]  Worship as reconciliation “is the life of salvation itself, the very event of reconciliation between God and human beings, made possible and carried out graciously and decisively by God, but in such a way as to establish human beings as genuine partners and friends, collaborators in the event by conspiracy and solidarity.”[10]  Boulton applies this not to worship alone, but to the whole of human life.  Boulton sketches a vision of human life as a life of gratitude for God’s gifts.  We live out that gratitude in a life of invocation, in thanksgiving, praise, and petition.[11]  Boulton argues that “the renovation of prayer accomplished in the Incarnation amounts to a wholesale renovation of human life, of all ‘thought and speech and action’ so that human being may take place centered not in itself but in God, no longer en-centric but genuinely ec-centric.”[12]  Through it all, we remain, this side of the eschaton, simul iustus et peccator, and so does our worship and theology.  This calls for humility; indeed, Boulton traces Luther’s concept of the Christian as semper penitens, always penitent.[13]  The Christian life is a life of penitence, repentance, metanoia.  If we boast, it is only in the Lord, never in our own righteousness.

I found Boulton’s relentless working out of Luther and Barth’s insights into the nature of religion – Christian and non-Christian – fascinating.  Certainly, Boulton titled his book, and made his argument, provocatively.  But the book’s radical critique of all religion – especially of Christianity from within – is in line with the tradition of the Hebrew prophets, Jesus, Luther, and Barth.  That critique is sound, and thus God Against Religion is an important contribution to theology.

I found this course to be thought provoking and transformational.  The class discussions and readings were excellent.  I am going to carry some of what I learned in this course into my thesis.

[1] Smith, C. and P. Snell (2009). Souls in transition : the religious and spiritual lives of emerging adults. Oxford ; New York, Oxford University Press.

[2] retrieved June 14, 2010.

[3] Matthew Myer Boulton, God Against Religion: Rethinking Christian Theology Through Worship, Grand Rapids, Mich.: W. B. Eerdmans, 2008.

[4] Ibid., 28.

[5] Ibid., 26.

[6] Ibid., 66.

[7] Ibid., 5.

[8] Ibid., 165.

[9] Ibid., 166.

[10] Ibid., 133.

[11] Ibid., 119.

[12] Ibid., 169.

[13] Ibid., 143.