By now, many of you have heard about the inflammatory statement Pastor Jamal Bryant made in a recent sermon entitled "I Am My Enemy's Worst Nightmare." Bryant, dressed in an electric-blue suit coat, yelled "THESE H*ES AIN'T LOYAL," a popular Rap lyric from singer Chris Brown to his congregation during the sermon about Pontius Pilate and his wife's premonition about crucifying Jesus. Now, if you find difficulty making the connection between "disloyal h*es" and Pilate's wife, you're not alone. There's not enough space or time to really explore the context of the scripture or his comment, but what there is time for is to talk about the loyalty in and purpose of preaching.
Before the influx of social media, preachers had to have a literal platform - a storefront church, a borrowed pulpit, a makeshift theater, a lived-in basement, some form of physical location for the Word of God to go forth. Technology has eradicated the need for a physical platform, making the preaching moment a virtual one where people all over the world can participate in the going forth of the Gospel.
This has presented, however, a challenge in authenticating the voice and role of preaching as the influx of social media and influence of popular culture has removed the need for traditional validation and divine vocational call. It is the inundation people who have taken up the role of "preacher" simply because there is new "real estate" for them to preach without counting the cost.
It is the push to be relevant, known, have the most followers or retweets that has removed the sacredness of the preaching moment and turned it into a 140-character preach-off. Many young preachers find themselves using popular culture as a catalyst for "viral" exposure, maybe with the good intentions to increase their platform to spread the Gospel. But what it does, however, is push the preacher's personality and viral moment past the Gospel, overshadowing the richness of the preaching moment.
Preaching, as defined by Isaac Rufus Clark, is a "divine activity wherein the Word of God is proclaimed or announced on a contemporary issue with an ultimate response to our God."[i]
While the aforementioned definition presents a specific concern for modern preaching, I argue what Clark says Black preaching in particular should do: the liberative power of preaching becomes the marker of good preaching.
Today's preacher finds difficulty in offering liberation to those who listen as the personal agenda of s/he who proselytizes does not "[get] at the deep, fundamental, serious questions of life that people are concerned about."[ii] The role of liberation, then, gets lost in the preacher's inability to know the "what" and do the "why" and "how" of preaching, the part that gets the root of the deep human and theological questions with which the congregants and communities wrestle.
In layman's terms: preaching like Pastor Bryant's is shallow. Nothing in his sermon answered any "deep, fundamental, serious questions of life that people are concerned about." The sermon pushed around all-too-familiar pulpit clichés that get the people riled up but offer no sustainable solutions. If anything, they exasperated deeply rooted, oppressive ideas about Black men, Black women, sexuality, relationships, and God.
The problem with Pastor Bryant actually goes beyond the ill-placed use of a misogynistic Rap lyric. The issue lies in Bryant's inability to do what preachers are called to do: liberate people.
He berates homosexuals and presupposes that one of the reasons the Black community and church is crumbling is because of the inundation of "sanctified sissies." He surmises that the women in his congregation (and subsequently the women who watched the sermon online or elsewhere) needed, desired, and required a man in order to feel complete or to fully experience God's best for their lives. He jumps from one social issue to the another, and while condemning the "neo-pentacostal" church for being too emotional (and in turn "unsaved"), manipulates a congregation made mostly of women through emotional rhetoric full of what I believe to be his own unresolved issues with "ho*s" and "loyalty."
The question remains: Does Pastor Bryant's preaching do what homiletic scholar Isaac Rufus Clark defines as preaching? Does he in fact push people towards an "ultimate response to our God?" Or, does he make an even greater argument against Christianity?
I'd venture to say that he did the latter. It all hit home for me when a Black professor, writer, and social commentator I genuinely respect posted: "Watched that Jamal Bryant clip. Reminded me of why I'm happy to be atheist."
This, then, isn't an issue of this person's (or anyone's) religious choices. It's an issue of how the Church and Christians alike make the Gospel a running joke and laughingstock for many to meme, tweet, and Facebook about.
Preaching isn't about shock value or personal agendas that get you on a Hip-Hop station's rumor report. It's not about trying to keep people bound to narrow-minded ideals, restrictive, oppressive practices, or a disjointed understanding of God rooted in your own insecurities and misplaced priorities.
Preaching, in fact, is not about the preacher. It never is -- and if you listen to or follow a preacher who only preaches for quick soundbites and shock-value, s/he's not a preacher at all.
Preachers are to be loyal to their craft because the role of preacher is about meeting people in the midst of their humanity and offering hope. The purpose of preaching is not rooted in someone's voracious need to be accepted by their pulpiteering peers but about the people.
Preaching is the oral declaration of God's word to help people get free... from whatever. It's not supposed to shame or be divisive -- though it should convict. It should push us to think and to ponder the ways in which we engage with one another and ourselves. Bryant may have been pushing the envelope with his statement for that very purpose, to help people get the point. But when our tactics and personalities overshadow Jesus, then we miss the mark.
Preaching in a 21st century context does present a set of challenges: how does one marry both the sacred and the secular to make conversations about faith and culture relevant? There are varying opinions about what is an acceptable use of popular culture in the Church and many argue about what is reasonable and what is off-limits in the pulpit. What I find, however, is that a preacher whose purpose is to use the Gospel to draw people closer to God should present their words in a way that God's liberating message never has to take a backseat to what a preacher's is saying. If what one has to say diverts attention away from God and toward wo/man, then we do a disservice to the craft and purpose of preaching.
A preacher who is aware of the concerns of the community at large knows when to offer both the spiritual and natural needs to quench their proverbial thirsts. Author Stephen Reid puts it this way: "The challenge, therefore, is to decide when do people need water that will quench their thirst and when do they need Jesus, the living water?"[iii] The same tools that stand in the way of sound doctrinal preaching are the same that lift and elevate the Kingdom of God - it simply boils down to intent. "We are speaking God's word, not ours,"[iv] a resounding reminder of how we temper the walk between the ethics of preaching for a 21 century context.
Maybe Bryant hasn't learned how to quench the literal and proverbial thirsts of the people yet -- it's a skill that takes practice (and is not a reflection of "years of experience"). The loyalty in and purpose of preaching rests in the crux of divine responsibility and human liberation. Anything else is simply just a viral fifteen seconds on Instagram.
[i] Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, "Introduction." Teaching Preaching: Isaac Rufus Clark and Black Sacred Rhetoric. (New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2007), 55.
[ii] Dr. Katie Geneva Cannon, "Introduction." Teaching Preaching: Isaac Rufus Clark and Black Sacred Rhetoric. (New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2007), 19.
[iii] Stephen Reid and Lucy Lind Hogan, "The Panderer." The Six Deadly Sins of Preaching. (Nashville: Abdingdon Press, 2012), 63.
[iv] Fry-Brown, Teresa. "Introduction to Preaching." Lecture, Introduction to Preaching 501 Candler School of Theology, Atlanta, GA, January 21, 2014.