How Do We Preach in a Secular Age?

Added about 5 years ago by Jenny Wilson

GUEST BLOG: Jenny Wilson, Canon Precentor of St Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide, explores how good preaching in this and every age is about listening for God’s voice in the everyday.

The scholar Charles V. Taylor defines our time and place as having moved from “a society where belief in God is unchallenged and, indeed, unproblematic, to one where it is understood to be one option among others, and frequently not the easiest to embrace” (A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007), p. 3). How do we preach in such a time? How do we preach in a time when the word “God” is unfamiliar or unwelcome, a whisper from the past or so trapped by fundamentalism that it seems irrelevant to most?

A year or two ago I saw a photograph of a kingfisher in an exhibition of photographs in the South Australian Museum. It seemed to me to be an image of God and so I reflected on it in a sermon I gave in St Peter’s Cathedral in Adelaide. Is this what preachers do? Do preachers say to the people sitting before them in church, “Maybe God is like this?” Preachers wrestle with the texts of scripture offered for the day of their sermon using all the intellectual tools that they can muster, mining the texts for some insight into God. Preachers stand in solidarity with those who sit before them struggling with the events taking place nearby in the local community or far away across the world. And after all this wrestling, isn’t this what preachers do... pointing to an image or a story or a paradox... do preachers wonder with their congregations, “Is it possible that God is like this? That living as a child of God might be like this?”

When I arrived on my first parish placement in my formation for the priesthood, the parish priest gave my family a box of chocolates and gave me a book. Under the Unpredictable Plant by Eugene Peterson was my companion and guide throughout that time. This book told me who I was and what I was meant for.

“What pastors do, or at least are called to do, is really quite simple. We say the word God accurately, so that congregations of Christians can stay in touch with the basic realities of their existence, so they know what is going on. We say the Name personally alongside our parishioners in the actual circumstances of their lives, so they will recognise and respond to the God who is both on our side and at our side when it doesn’t seem like it and we don’t feel like it. Why do we have such a difficult time keeping this focus? Why are we so easily distracted?”

Eugene Peterson Under the Unpredictable Plant (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1992), p. 172

That is what I was for, simply, to “say the word God”. Eugene Peterson is right, though: it is easy to get distracted. And one way to get distracted is to fall into the terrible trap that preachers can fall into and that is to try to control God’s blessing of the congregation before us by telling people what to do, instructing them on how to live their lives.

Walter Brueggemann, that wonderful Old Testament scholar who writes so passionately about preaching, put it this way: “People are changed not by ethical urging but by transformed imagination” (Hopeful Imagination (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986), p. 25). Brueggemann describes the challenge of the preacher’s task in one sentence! The preacher is to trust that God will speak to us through our imaginations, will guide us through our engagement with stories. The book Keeping Watch for Kingfishers: God Stories is a collection of some of my attempts at preaching, inspired by Brueggemann’s words.

In Keeping Watch for Kingfishers I have placed the stories of scripture alongside the stories of four of my favourite novels—Middlemarch, The Grapes of Wrath, Bleak House and To Kill a Mockingbird—exploring the God themes of grace and goodness, sin and evil, justice and incarnation. In a sermon for the centenary of the landing at Anzac Cove I allowed the 23rd Psalm to sit alongside Wilfred Owen’s poem ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’. In that sermon I note that we need to be careful not to think that one of these “poems” overtakes the other, that the psalm of comfort somehow anaesthetizes the anthem that is racked with pain. For that is not what is happening when we reflect on scripture, on poetry. We simply place one alongside the other and allow the scripture, the poetry to affect us, believing that God’s spirit is at work.

How do we preach in a world that is in a climate crisis and where acts of terror are daily events? I place the voices of our present-day prophets alongside the voices of scripture, in one sermon allowing David Attenborough’s voice to resonate with the story of Jesus healing a leper:

What does God see as God looks upon our planet from the sky? I wondered. A white film of plastic on the shores and seas that were to be a safe home for sea life, for human life? A white film of this substance that threatens to choke us ... a white film not unlike leprosy, perhaps, on the planet? Does the planet cry out to God: “If you choose, you can make me clean”?

Preaching is the greatest challenge and the greatest joy of those who stand in pulpits in churches or cathedrals in this “secular age”. In our time and place as in all times and places, God speaks; God always speaks. Keeping watch for Kingfishers: God Stories is a collection of my attempts at listening for God’s voice.


Jenny Wilson is Canon Precentor of St Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide, with responsibilities in liturgy, music and pastoral care.​ In Keep Watching for Kingfishers, Wilson invites us to find our own life stories a​nd the stories of our time and place as belonging to the story of God.​ Get your copy today.

Please note: Sacristy Press does not necessarily share or endorse the views of the guest contributors to this blog.

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