There is a book on my shelf titled Invading Secular Space. Something about that title always grabs my attention. William Willimon writes about similar ideas in The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized. While I am not convinced that Willimon would be willing to concede space as secular, he does make it clear how he feels about the way that God enters one’s life. He might prefer that God interupts or invades or intrudes into one’s life. He talks about the preacher’s role in this process. He talks about a recovering cocaine addict named Velma who reminded him of these things.
People like Velma remind us that evangelism is not about getting new members for the church or finding deeper meaning in our lives as much as it is “a gracious, unmanageable, messy by-product of the intrusions of God.” Evangelism may change the life of an outsider, but it will also change the church. This is what I think Willimon is after. He wants to see “the transformation of God’s people from an enclave of the culturally content into a beachhead for divine invasion.” In the end, I am not sure that he writes about preaching to the unbaptized in any different way than preaching to the baptized (which by the way is another volume by Willimon).
He discards things that others may find helpful to communicate truth. So preaching is no time for apologetics or worldly wisdom or marketing. These things, despite their good intentions, may instead get in the way of the gospel. Any starting point other than God and the Gospel of God carries some implication that those things are more important than God.
Willimon warns preachers not to promise what the gospel does not promise. He might say that preaching that becomes too pragmatic borders on atheism. After all, such pragmatism may not require God at all. He might say that preaching that promises our lives to become easier is a move that sounds more like a salesman than a preacher. Such promises are the wishes of the current regime and not of the gospel.
In contrast to excessive promises and practicality, Willimon calls on Jonathan Edwards as an illustration of preaching to the unbaptized. While Edwards writes of “surprising conversions” Willimon suspects that Edwards was “genuinely surprised when anyone heard, really heard and responded to his preaching. We ought also to be surprised.” Willimon suspects this because of his belief that the gospel is so different from any other words that it is a miracle when it is really heard.
He calls on Easter as the miracle that drives our preaching. Willimon states that “it is only because Jesus has been raised from the dead that I have confidence in preaching.” And only because of his return to “disheartened followers after Easter that I presume that he has made me an agent of gospel subversion through preaching.” While others may have different reasons or motives, Willimon concludes that “preaching in the service of anything less than a living, intrusive God is not worth the effort.” I respond in agreement.
Preaching does not attempt to relax the tension between the way we are doing things and the way that God says to do them differently. Preaching does not aim for agreement, but conversion. Preaching communicates that we do not know what is really going on around us or to us until we are encountered by the reality of the gospel.
Willimon rightly challenges us with the reality that preaching is an assault, an invasion, an intrusion into a complacent, rational, and conventional world. Preaching should not aim to improve lives. Preaching should not encourage you to find deeper meaning in the things you already do. Instead, preaching should come more like a collision in the intersection that causes you to stop because you were going the wrong way at the wrong speed at the wrong time. Preaching grabs the map from your dashboard and tosses it out the window as a reminder that you do not have your journey figured out. Preaching should remind us that we have been listening to the wrong channel and need to tune into a different voice in order to learn where we are to go next. In short, Willimon desires that our contentment with the way things are is not ok. He calls for an invasion by an intrusive word.