Preaching in the Context of Diversity

Next Tuesday, as a part of a conference at the Iliff School of Theology, I will sit on a panel about Preaching in the Context of Diversity.  We’re covering the topic in three ways: rhetorically, liturgically, and biblically.  I’m responsible for the liturgical angle, which basically means considering how preaching relates with the rest of the service, and how the relationship between and among the elements address what it means to connect with a diverse congregation.  And here is, approximately, what I’ll be sharing….

Last week I met with the leaders who have been facilitating our new “Sermon and Theme Based Small Groups.” We were checking in on how the group has been going, the format, and the future of the groups.

Along the way, the leaders wondered if my colleague, our current Interim Lead Minister, would be posting his sermons online the way that I do.  They appreciate the chance to return to the written text as they prepare to reflect more deeply on what they heard, and how it relates with their lives, their faith, and their spiritual path.

I confess I chuckled at their request.  My colleague, now in his 50th year of ministry, would not be posting anything online anytime soon, especially his sermons.  He, like the senior minister who served our congregation for the past 23 years before him, is not inclined to think of the preached event as necessarily accessible beyond Sunday morning.

I start with this anecdote for this exploration of the use of liturgy as a tool for preaching in the context of diversity for three reasons.  First, because it underscores how even “preaching” is no longer just about preaching.  Secondly, because it points to the multi-media and dialogical impulse of today’s congregation.  And finally, because it immediately troubles the idea of imagining the sermon as always contained in the context of a wholly-conceived service, and hopefully this contrast will serve as emphasis for my general thesis.  Which is: preaching in the context of diversity requires way more than preaching. More on this “way more” in a moment.

First, let me tell you about my own “context of diversity.”  I serve as the Associate Minister and was recently called as the Senior Minister for the Foothills Unitarian Church in Fort Collins.  We serve about 800 adults and 300 children, with about 400 adults on a given Sunday. We’d see more except our space can only hold 320 without going to overflow.  Can you say capital campaign?


I am the first female minister in 112 years, and the first queer one ever.  My age and sexual identity has brought a natural increase in younger and more GLBT folks, and so part of our diversity is the increasingly about age and sexual orientation (thank God). These younger folks, as with other denominations, tend to be more unchurched than religious refugees, as well as lifelong Unitarian Universalists returning to church as adults.

We are a majority white congregation, which is partially due to being in Fort Collins, but also the trend in the UUA.   We have a great variety of class diversity, more so than I find is typical in UU churches. Though we are mostly a highly educated group, a good number live at or below the poverty line, and many are just barely getting by, despite an external middle-class appearance.

As a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we contain a great diversity of theological orientations, with just as many reacting negatively to the idea of God as there are who embrace God . Most happily live in the mystery – less interested in theistic clarity than manifesting a sense of belonging, crafting lives that matter, and feeling connected to life in the largest possible sense.

The large majority come to Unitarian Universalism from other religious traditions, which means we can be a place for theological deconstruction rather than constructivism, knowing way more about the things and the God we don’t believe in than the things and God we do.  One of my central aims in worship and in preaching is to provide the tools and inspiration for a new communal theological imagination.

Our congregation is waking up to the possibility of being the “big tent” church called for by the emerging, quickly growing Northern Colorado – a big tent for theological, class diversity, and racial diversity – a big tent that would model what it means to build relationship rather than foster division across difference.

Sermons are sacramental in our tradition, and I’m not overstating.  Having long ago jettisoned the practice of communion, the sermon became the new center of worship, with many expressing the highest aims of church life to be something that makes me cringe: “intellectual stimulation.”  I find when I dig in to this still-named goal, however, that their aims are not so different than my own – which I generally identify as bringing the good news of our tradition in an urgent call to the present, inspiring the future.

Given my context, I hope to connect my congregation more fully with our faith, and I want to wake up our people – too long slumbering from the long ministry of a beloved pastor and from their potential as a leader in our area and tradition.  Simultaneously, I want to honor and care for the injuries they experience as humans in the United States in the 21st century – what a colleague calls the “consequences of lovelessness and injustice.”  Most of all, I want to connect with people both in their individual real lives while at the same time, inspiring a communal identity and path of transformation.  I think of church as forming a people, and not just any people, but the people who are needed in this time, in this place. Love’s people, God’s people.

This is where diversity becomes an issue.  If I only wanted to try to speak to individual diverse people, I could probably manage to speak to them and “stimulate” their thinking with just the sermon.  I could vary the sermon week to week, use different sources – some weeks referencing Ted Talks, others, Hebrew scripture.  Some times both.

But if I want to transform these diverse individuals into a religious community – if I want to leverage this diversity into true pluralism: that’s going to take something more.  Way more.

To start: it takes clarity of aim – being clear about how we hope to grow as a people through this experience.  Imagining a wide variety of beginning places, all sorts of stories in the room, the questions is always: what common thread connects – what connects who we are now, and where we are going.  Sometimes, when I am brave, I think of this thread as God – or God’s call.

Once we know the aim, then next, the arc of the service as a whole.  It doesn’t have to be linear, but it has to be intentional. What’s the emotional ride we’ll be going on, how will it flow one moment to the next?

At the same time, what are all the different ways to offer to offer and explore this arc and aim? This means paying attention not just to content, but also form, not just the ingredients, but how those ingredients are arranged, offered, and experienced.  My folks may think they come to church for the “climax” of the sermon, but my hope is to wake them up to many other ways of experience, meeting them in unexpected places and in unexpected ways.

Also, it means paying attention to who is offering these elements.  My favorite services include multiple voices that “perform” the mission and message in their own ways, their own style, their own voice. We try to represent the congregation not just as it is, but as we hope it to be – performing so as to become.  We try to consider who remains absent, whose voices and creativity aren’t yet in the mix.  This is what I call the unspoken aim.

My collaborative orientation requires that I hold tightly to my sense of the aim or purpose, but loosely to most everything else.  If it is truly going to speak to the diversity of life today, I try to act as the facilitator in a creative process – inviting input, ideas, experimentation.  We maintain an environment where it’s ok to try something, and then forget it if it isn’t working – where we edit things out as much as we keep them in.

Intimately connected with the aim, and the arc, is the music.  All sorts of music, from various styles – sung, and sometimes just heard.  But always felt, true, real.  This Sunday we’ll have nine different pieces of music – and that isn’t unusual.  All further the message of the service, keep the flow going according to our hoped-for arc, and all come from different sources and styles.

In November I was preaching on the big tent of our faith, and calling us to a new vision in light of our transition into a new ministry, and affirming in the midst of change that all would be well. It was a two service arc.  On the first Sunday, I invited my colleague, a Jewish Rabbi, to offer the opening invocation as we lit our chalice.  In doing so, she embodied our message of partnership across difference in ways more powerful than anything I could have said in my sermon.

In the second service, I had a band on the chancel made up of musicians of all ages and styles, all singing a song based on Julian of Norwich’s “All Shall be Well,” a song that evolved into a flash mob of singers each taking up a line or two, all planted throughout the congregation.  There were long time members and newbies, the youngest was 3 and the oldest 87, some great singers, some just simply enthusiastic.  By the end of the song, the whole congregation stood and joined in spontaneously, singing “all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” Nothing I could have done in the sermon by itself would’ve accomplished this lived-in experience.

A few more way-more’s. Preaching in the context of diversity requires intentional silence, prayer, readings, ritual.  But as with the formation of the congregation, it is less about any one of these elements than about how they work together. But not just like, filling diversity slots within a given service – like affirmative action for liturgical elements.  But more, hitting a theme or a question from different angles, and learning styles.  Using all the senses.  And, allowing the message to breathe. Inviting the congregation to be ready to come to the message in their own ways, at their own time – as if the experience of the liturgy is a developmental process.

I think of the sermon now as a part of a larger script, a script that I am responsible for from start to finish.  My tradition uses the phrase, “freedom of the pulpit”, and historically it has referred simply to what is said in the sermon itself. I have been itching, however, for us to claim this authority and freedom as rightfully over the service as a whole – as I cannot say for certain anymore what it means to write or preach a sermon outside the context of the other elements in the service.  If we are to imagine our goals for preaching as lofty as the ones I’ve shared, we’re going to need the whole deal, all the elements, working together, mixing it up, creating something new.

About Rev. Gretchen Haley

Gretchen Haley is relentlessly curious about most things, especially the big stuff of theology, the beauty of creation, the magic of collaboration, and the great joy of pop culture (reflected in this blog by random posts on Beyonce, Taylor Swift, Scandal, Orphan Black, or the latest Marvel movie). She has an audacious ambition for the liberal church, believing in its capacity to transform lives and our world by way of hyper-local relationships and partnerships that inspire the unleashing of courageous love. She's all in on adrienne maree brown's emergent strategy, and finds solace in the trails in and around Fort Collins Colorado where she serves with the brilliant Rev. Sean Neil-Barron as one of the ministers of the Foothills Unitarian Church. She and her amazing partner of over 20 years, Carri, have 2 children, Gracie (14) and Josef (12) who both relish and resent being PKs, and who keep her grounded, frustrated, inspired, and humbled, everyday. She is basically obsessed with her puppy, a large sized mutt, Charlie.
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