25 years ago Martin Marty painted for us a vivid portrait of the public church. His three assumptions about the public church were that it: 1) expresses itself in discriminately engaging the secular order or disorder; 2) interacts in meaningful ways with religions outside biblical faith; and 3) provides a counterforce to religious communities that impose a complete set of norms on its people, form tribes who reject outsiders, or practice a privatistic faith of individualism.
Marty further suggested that the public church need not rely upon a Christianization of American culture, but can draw resources from those who preach a justitia civilis, a civil righteousness. Preaching in the public church proclaims the intrinsic values of grace and hope for the world. There is still wisdom today in Marty’s description of the public church and public preaching.
More recently, in her book Public Church: For the Life of the World (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 2004), Cynthia Moe-Lobeda illuminates the significance of the North American church’s public identity and vocation in an “age of privatization.” The church of Jesus Christ cannot be a place for privatized spirituality, a personal religion that does not impact the public good. She presents proclamation of the good news as being “in and to the world.” A public church calls for public preaching.
These and other reflections on the public church incite the need for further reflection on the relationship between an understanding of the church as a public assembly and the shape of public preaching.
Distinctions between what is public and what is private go back to political philosophy in ancient Greece. Aristotle distinguished between the polis, public or political space, and oikos (i.e., household), familial or private space. In his understanding the family existed for the sake of the polis, not the polis for the sake of the family. Personhood is to be defined by the polis. Human identity is shaped by the public sphere.
As Western Christianity took on many of the assumptions of the 18th century Enlightenment, the church’s identity became defined more by the private individual or the personal family than by the polis. Over time the understanding of the church shifted from being a public space to being a private space. As a private space the emphasis within the church has been upon responding to the felt needs of the individual believer, ministering to the family, and creating an intimate environment for worship and fellowship. The Western church has fallen into what Richard Sennett has called “the tyranny of intimacy.”
To understand the church as a private space for the individual or family has had a profound impact on the proclamation and mission of the church. As private space the church focuses its energies on nurturing individuals and families. Theology is replaced by therapy. Mission is replaced by maintenance. Public worship is turned into a private, intimate affair. Preaching seeks to meets the ever changing needs of the individual believer.
The public church is the church in mission, the church empowered by the Spirit and turned toward the world. This does not mean the public church neglects to meet the needs of individuals and families, but its raison d’etre is its mission to the world. For God so loved the world… To use the imagery of Aristotle, in a real incarnational and missional sense the church as oikos (i.e., household) exists for the sake of the polis (i.e., public).
James Fowler has offered us a significant list of characteristics of the public church (Weaving the New Creation: Stages of faith and the Public Church. San Francisco: Harper, 1991, chap. 6). His list grows out of observations of particular congregations. I will offer my own list of characteristics of the public church. My short list is intended to focus on a few of the characteristics of the public church that connect with its practice of public preaching.
* The public church has a clear sense of mission- The public church is a missional church. Mission is not relegated to a special committee or project. All that the church is and does in worship, discipleship, practices, education, and ministry is permeated by its call by God to be salt of the earth, a light of the world, a “city set on a hill.” As salt and light the public church’s witness penetrates to world in which God has placed it. A city on a hill is not a private enclave, but rather a collective public witness to the world around it.
* The public church engages in public witness and the common good- The public witness of the church involves social responsibility within the wider community and world. This takes the form not only of acts of charity, like soup kitchens and food banks, but in the work of resistance to systemic powers of injustice and active engagement in social and institutional transformation. Some theologians have proposed a type of “sectarian future of the church” in which the church’s primary focus is upon living in the world as “resident aliens.” The public church seeks the common good not only of the body politic of the church, but also the res publica, the world that surrounds the church.
* The public church is hospitable and diverse- If North American society is pluralistic, one should expect that the church within such a context would reflect cultural, racial, economic, and social diversity. Hospitality, an open welcome to strangers and a cultural value in the ancient Mediterranean world of the Bible, has to be recaptured in new ways by the public church. Hospitality to the stranger has profound social and political implications for the public church in a religiously pluralistic world where there is talk of the “clash of civilizations.”
Homiletics and ecclesiology are inextricably linked. How we understand the nature of the church and its mission will shape our practice of preaching. If our concept of the church is parochial and self-referential, our preaching will be circumscribed by constricted ecclesial boundaries. The public church, as I have characterized it, engenders preaching which engages the public beyond the walls of the church.
Preaching in the public church is, in the words of Arthur Van Seters, a “social act.” As a social act preaching is consciously aware and shaped by the social contexts or “publics” in which it is embedded. These social contexts include the communities within the biblical texts, the local congregation, ecumenical, and universal church, other faith communities, the nation, and the wider world.
Preaching that addresses a diverse public demands a polyvalent voice. The good news will fall on ears male and female, young and old, liberal and conservative, rich and poor, powerful and oppressed, and people from a various races, cultures, and ethnicities. Public preaching will seek to tune its voice to speak to the rich diversity of its audience. That does not mean the message will be the same for all, particularly if it is “good news to the poor.”
The characteristics of the public church I have previously outlined lend themselves to shaping some characteristics of public preaching. The following list is a brief sketch of what public preaching that grows out of the public nature of the church might look like.
· Public preaching is missional Mission-oriented preaching is not about telling exotic stories of foreign missionaries in strange cultures or using the Bible as a thin springboard from which to leap for support of missionary institutions. Missional preaching illuminates the connection between the church as an apostolic (i.e., sent) community and the public as the arena of its mission.
* Public preaching is emancipatory and political- Public preaching involves more than widening the audience of the Christian proclamation. Preaching that addresses the common good and witnesses to the public of the reign of God will of necessity proclaim the prophetic message of “good news to the poor, liberation for the captives, and freedom for the oppressed” (Isa. 61:1-2a; Luke 4:18-19). Public preaching is political not in a partisan sense, but in the sense of being good news that shapes the body politic of the church and its engagement with the wider polis or world.
* Public preaching is communal and conversational. Monological preaching that is lodged in the solitary preacher and isolated from dialogue with its communal context loses its public character. If preaching is a practice of the church for itself and the world, it will be shaped by diverse public conversations. It is the challenge of the public preacher to form practices of biblical study, contextual analysis, and sermon preparation which are in dialogue with a diverse persons and communities within and beyond the church.
A congregation focused on its individual members and families or even buzzing with social ministry and political activism will not suffice for a polis needing to hear the good news of God’s reign. A public church instigates a practice of public preaching.