PREACHING AND PRAYING AS THOUGH GOD MATTERS: In the Post-establishment Church. By Ronald P. Byars. Foreword by Don E. Saliers. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022. X + 143 pages.
Whether we like it or not we live in a different era than our spiritual ancestors of even a few decades past. That is especially true of Mainline Protestants who once dominated the social-cultural landscape, such that Presidents consulted figures such as Reinhold Niebuhr on matters of state. That’s no longer true. Constantine no longer holds sway, even if attempts are made by Christian nationalists to take back lost territory. As the title of a recently published book asks: “What do we do when nobody is listening?” The question of our day then has to do with how we navigate this reality so that our preaching and praying in this era of the post-establishment church might reveal that God actually matters to us.
Ronald Byars, retired Presbyterian pastor and professor of preaching and worship at Pittsburg Theological Seminary (affiliated with the PCUSA), seeks to provide us with a word that ties preaching and worship together, with special attention given to the Lord’s Table. He writes Preaching and Praying as Though God Matters not only in the era of the post-establishment church but from within the COVID-19 pandemic that closed down many congregations and forced them (us) to rethink preaching and worship. So, with the end of our established status and in the aftermath of our recent plague, what might our preaching and worship look like? More specifically, where does God fit into all of this? Byars wants us to ask whether God is evident in our preaching and liturgy. In asking this question Byars seeks to help us restore theological substance to our preaching and worship. Byars believes that giving attention to the eucharistic prayer (Prayer of Great Thanksgiving) is the key to this effort.
Byars believes that the traditional eucharistic prayer, beginning with the Great Thanksgiving, offers Trinitarian substance to our worship. Thus, “preaching may become less narrow, less cautious, and offer a grander view when eucharistic prayer models the renewed accent on a cosmic and universal redemption that is exemplified in the eschatological expectation of the reign of Christ, the kingdom of God, the parousia (return of Christ) leading to the basileia, a new heaven and earth” (p. 7). This is not a conservative, traditionalist rant, but it is a call back to theological roots that enables a more progressive vision, especially concerning God’s ultimate purposes. In other words, not only does Byars call us back to the Table, but he does so with an eschatological vision (something that appeals to me having coauthored a book on eschatology).
First and foremost, this is a book about preaching. Thus, Byars begins the book in chapter 1 with a conversation about “the challenge of preaching in a post-Establishment church.” Central to this reality is growing skepticism as to the benefit of preaching, especially among those sitting in pews listening to sermons. From this conversation about the challenges of preaching in this age, we turn to a conversation about preaching and prayer, especially with the Lord’s Supper in mind. In chapter 2, Byars invites us to recover “an eschatological imagination” and receive a “gift from the East.” In other words, he is among a growing number of Protestants who have begun to recognize that there are great theological riches to draw upon in the eastern churches. This is especially true of the eschatological perspectives present in eastern Christianity. Thus, as we gather for worship, hear preaching, and share the Table, we look forward to the coming realm of God. Here he makes clear that the focus is not on getting to heaven but on experiencing God’s realm.
While attending to the resource provided by eastern Christianity, Byars is a Protestant, and so in chapter 3, he invites us to consider the gift of The Reformation, which focused our attention on Scripture and its message, which prepares us for heaven and more. However, he does acknowledge that the Reformers failed to challenge the “heaven and hell framework” that the eastern churches were able to avoid. Thus, they failed to take seriously enough the vision of the resurrection and new creation. What has developed over time, in many churches, is a reduction of Christian hope to our individual destinies, which he rightfully believes is too narrow.
The conversation continues in chapter 4 with a word about “the cosmic scope of God’s redemption.” The message here serves as a reminder that Jesus’ mission is not just about getting us to heaven but offers a much larger vision of cosmic restoration. Here Byars reflects on the role the Holy Spirit plays in revealing new things and bringing new things into existence. That message includes the healing of creation, which offers a wider vision of God’s work than is often conceived. Byars writes that “we require a redemption that is cosmic in scope; that is, one that includes even those we might choose not to include” (p. 69).
When we come to chapter 5, Byars addresses one of the conundrums of our age, especially in Mainline circles. That conundrum has to do with the Trinitarian nature of the Christian faith. While many Mainliners, especially in my circles, are willing to let go of the Trinity, Byars wants to engage the Trinity, especially as it is revealed in the Eucharistic prayer. That is because he believes it is a key to preaching in this new era. The Prayer of Great Thanksgiving ultimately offers a condensed summation of the Christian faith in three movements. Because it is Trinitarian, preaching and worship will be Christological. That is, it will focus on Jesus through the anamnesis or remembrance of Jesus’ life and ministry leading to the possibility of universal restoration. With the Trinity affirmed and Christology engaged, we move to the third aspect of the eucharistic prayer and its relationship to preaching. That has to do with the Holy Spirit and the Messianic Banquet. Here is where reflection we are invited to reflect on the way the Spirit makes Christ present to us in the Eucharist, which makes the Supper more than a memorial of a dead Jesus. Instead, the Eucharist, as it reveals the presence of Christ through the work of the Spirit, serves as an anticipation of the messianic banquet.
In some circles preaching (the Word) is the preeminent element of worship. In others, it is the Table (Sacrament). Byars believes these two elements go together, such that in our day the Eucharist can help reclaim preaching. He notes that as we ponder the nature of this relationship, we have to deal with skepticism about worship and the fact that people aren’t listening as they may have in earlier times. As a response, Byars wants us to conceive of preaching being a sacramental act in the same way that the Lord’s Supper is a sacramental act. In his view, when taken together, Word and Sacrament serve to connect God with the assembled church. If this is true, then what should we do going forward? Do we continue to minimize God’s presence in our worship and our lives, or do we embrace a second naivete, where we embrace the fullness of God? In other words, in our preaching and worship, does God matter? Byars wants us to reengage with God so that the church lives on not as a social club or activist meeting, but as the locus of divine encounters.
For those concerned that focusing on God in worship might serve as a rationale for jettisoning the church’s commitment to social justice or simply going back to the good old days of the church as a place of social gathering, that is not the vision present in Byars’ Preaching and Praying as though God Matters. Rather this book serves as a call to engage in preaching and worship so that a church that is no longer established is reconnected to God and God’s vision for creation. In answer to the question of whether anybody is listening, Byars wants us to know that the Holy Spirit is still at work and that the story of the Bread and Wine still has power. We might find ourselves in a different place than earlier Christians faced when the church had some form of establishment whether official or not, but “as clumsy as our speech maybe, theologically sophisticated or not, perfectly adjusted to the times or not, our words may, under the right circumstances, become bread and wine for one or many who desperately need the nourishment and joy of the Gospel” (p. 139). The message here is that empowerment in this day when many are not listening, and yet many seek spiritual nourishment so they can navigate this age, the Spirit is still active. For those of us in the church, who may feel weary (and there is much weariness) this is good news. It doesn’t all depend on us, for God is present with us through the Spirit who works through both Word and Sacrament, giving meaning to our prayers.
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest “Second Thoughts about the Second Coming: Understanding the End Times, Our Future, and Christian Hope” coauthored with Ronald J. Allen. His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at www.bobcornwall.com.