Will Willimon, bishop of the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church (UMC), is former dean of the chapel and professor of Christian Ministry at Duke University, and also served as a UMC pastor. He has written more than 60 books including: Who Will Be Saved?, Calling and Character, Undone by Easter, and Pastor. His books are staples of many evangelical pastors around the world.
Interviewing Willimon (WW) is Dean Nelson (DN) of Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego.
DN: You've said that sermons should offend people.
WW: We should be willing to say what the biblical text says-or what we think it says-and then be willing to get whatever reaction is appropriate to that biblical text. There are some texts that say, "You're not right, you're an enemy of God, you're a rebel from God," but there are other texts that say, "You're the Body of Christ, you're God's people, God's taking over the world with you." We have to do both.
I am troubled by preachers who only tell people what they enjoy hearing. I like to ask congregations, "When was the last time you complimented your pastor when he or she said something that was hard to hear, or courageous? You people are getting the preaching you deserve. What do you affirm in your pastor's preaching?"
DN: Growing up in the segregated South, you heard sermons that contradicted what you were reading in the Gospels.
WW: I am grateful for the experience I had in the segregated South because if you're a Southerner you don't have to be told that people are sinners. You've seen sin. As a kid I got on a city bus every week and saw a sign on it that said it was city law that white people sat in the front and 'coloreds' sat in the back. I never heard that questioned by anybody.
That affected me. It showed that it was possible for nice people to participate in a huge social evil, and for the Church to say nothing.
One of the reasons I'm a minister is that I did see and hear some courageous pastors do amazing things. I read some archived letters from the 60s in which people in the congregation wrote to the bishop complaining about their pastor, even threatening him and his family. He was preaching about racial justice.
I think it's sad that I don't get any letters like that today. I'd be better off if some preachers had said something outrageous in the name of Jesus Christ from the pulpit.
DN: It seems that all of the sermons you've preached are really about one thing: It's not about you, it's always about God, and God is always breaking through.
WW: I work from a principle that says the Bible in all ways and everywhere talks about God. Only rarely, secondarily, and derivatively does it talk about us. For us in the pietistic tradition, that's tough.
Our tradition's preaching focuses more on self-help and making people feel better. I agree with Karl Barth when he says that God is so much more interesting than we are.
One of the reasons we love Scripture is that it keeps pointing us to God. Barth didn't even preach about World War II or Hitler, because he said the most important current events are the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
DN: Do you think sermons are supposed to promote conflict?
WW: Sometimes, if they take the Bible seriously. Christian theology was born when the first person said, "Who is this?" The intrusion of Jesus creates conflict. We were having a nice Sabbath sermon, and Jesus showed up and the demons started screaming.
We have a God who works with loss, who makes ridiculous demands, who jerks us around. That's not what I hear from the mega-churches.
DN: You have also said that a number of the laity have been deeply damaged by the sexual improprieties of their pastors. You added, "Yet one can scarcely conceive of the millions of laity who have been exposed to the moral ravages of bad sermons, sloppy administration, and careless pastoral care."
WW: I hear sermons that say God wants me to be happy today. The problem is that it's a lie. There's a lot at stake for preachers-a lot of people have been damaged by stupid ideas about God. People say God has a plan for their lives. I don't get that. I do believe in providence.
But this notion that God is in control-the Wesleyan in me says God could have been in control if God wanted to, but God chose rather to love. When I think of Jesus, I think of a lot of things, but I never think of control. I think of Someone who is the embodiment of divine suffering love. He was willing to be out of control even though He was God.
DN: Finish this sentence. Beware of the pastor who . . .
WW: Thinks ministry is mostly about relationships with people, about loving people, about listening to people, and about speaking to people and their needs. If you're a pastor in a poor country, it's one thing to talk about people's needs. But here we've solved most of the housing and food issues. So we've gone on to non-biblical needs, like having a "purpose driven life."
The hardest part of ministry is not in getting along with people, but in getting along with the Trinity. The people are a breeze. But I can't get the Trinity to cooperate with my programs.
I grieve for pastors who make their ministry hostage to the people-whether the people like it or not, or find you charming or not charming. It's better to say you were called and were baptized. Don't whine to me that this is hard. Your job is to equip and affirm the congregation's sense of vocation.
DN: What advice do you have for pastors?
WW: I think God is taking over the world with them. They're God's best shot at redeeming creation and bringing about a new heaven and a new earth.
It may seem to them that their circumstances are absurd, but I'm telling you that God works in places like Bethlehem, Galilee, and Nazareth. He works through people who Paul says are low and of no account, rubbish to the world. I believe that's how things are changing. I don't know when or how. It's a mystery.
Paul batters a congregation, then ends the audacity by saying, "You're the body of Christ. You're the only visible presence of God in this world." The pastor in me says, "You got that just right. This rag-tag group of people I'm forced to live with is God's answer."
Dean Nelson directs the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. His recent book is God Hides in Plain Sight: How to See the Sacred in a Chaotic World. His website is www.deannelson.net, where the entire video of this interview can be seen.
Holiness Today, Jan/Feb 2011