Preaching in Collective Protestant Worship

My son’s class at seminary is discussing the topic of preaching in ecumenical settings. He asked me to write a short essay about how I approach the task of preaching in Collective Protestant chapel services. Here’s what I wrote. As always, the thoughts are mine and not necessarily those of the government that pays me or the church that ordained me.

The Setting for Protestant Preaching in Army Chapels

The Army’s personnel system offers soldiers hundreds of different labels with which to state their religious preference. The particular labels range from extremely broad (e.g., “Christian – No Denominational Preference”) to very narrow (e.g., “Ukrainian Evangelical Baptist Conference”). Those whose faith groups have any sort of Christian connection, but who are not Catholic or Orthodox, are usually grouped under the broad label of “Protestant.” About 51% of the Army’s soldiers claim one of the “Protestant” identifiers.

It is impossible to offer a distinct worship opportunity for every faith group represented in the Army. To accommodate the religious needs of its Protestant soldiers, most large installations offer three or four “Collective Protestant” worship services from which soldiers and their families can choose. The services are “multi-denominational” in that Baptists, Pentecostals, independents and so-called “Mainline” Christians worship side-by-side.

These services are often further labeled with identifiers such as “liturgical”, “traditional”, “multicultural”, “contemporary”, or “gospel”. The distinctions are more stylistic than strictly theological, although there is some correlation between the participants’ theology and the services they choose to attend. In addition, if possible, installations may also offer separate services in the Anglican, Lutheran and other highly distinctive traditions. The vast majority of non-Catholic soldiers and family members who choose to worship on-post attend one of the Collective Protestant services.

To lead these worship services, the Army calls on its chaplains, over 90% of which represent Protestant faith groups. As chaplains are reassigned, the particular mix of chaplains at any one location changes. The Army expects that its chaplains will remain theologically and liturgically faithful to the particular churches they represent and yet work together to serve the broader constituency in every chapel service.

Considerations for Protestant Preaching in Army Chapels

Most church bodies that send chaplains to the Army belong to the National Conference on Ministry to the Armed Forces (NCMAF). One paragraph of the NCMAF Code of Ethics states:

I will work collegially with chaplains of religious bodies other than my own as together we seek to provide as full a ministry as possible to our people. I will respect the beliefs and traditions of my colleagues and those to whom I minister. When conducting services of worship that include persons of other than my religious body I will draw upon those beliefs, principles, and practices that we have in common.

The NCMAF Code of Ethics is a good place to start, but I follow a few other guidelines as well.

Know and Respect Your Constituents. When done well, Collective Protestant worship intentionally makes a place at the table for the variety of faith traditions represented in the congregation’s constituency. The mission statement of the congregation I lead in Korea included this affirmation:

Our congregation serves as the temporary spiritual home for a wide variety of Christians brought together in this place by military service. We welcome the diverse gifts that our constituents bring to our congregation from their various Christian traditions.

Preaching should not cast aside or marginalize any part of the constituency. Find ways to recognize and appreciate the different faith traditions present in the congregation. Think vegetable soup, not fruit smoothie.

Be Critical of Your Own Assumptions. Chaplains sometimes make unwarranted assumptions about the “belief, principles and practices” that we have in common. Don’t assume, “I know what’s central and what’s peripheral, and of course everyone else sees it the same way.” We don’t all see our beliefs and practices the same way. It’s important to become aware of how the members of the congregation and the other chaplains on the preaching team really see their faith.

Make Affirmations, Not Denunciations. Chaplains who work together to serve a particular congregation should not intentionally undermine each other’s faith traditions or injure each other’s ministry. When dealing with other faith traditions, do so in a way that a person in the other faith group can recognize and claim as their own. Represent your own faith tradition well; don’t make the primary point of your message, “Other Christians are stupid and evil.”

Respectfully Offer Your Distinctives. I think there is room in Collective Protestant preaching for educating the congregation on the distinctive emphases that each group brings to the congregation. I once told a charismatic chaplain on my worship team, “I see you are preaching on Pentecost. It would be a great time for you to talk about the Holy Spirit in your tradition.” He said, “I didn’t think I was allowed to talk about that in Collective Protestant worship.” “Sure you can,” I said. “There is a way to do that and still respect the faith of those who see it differently. You could start by saying something like, ‘I know we come from a number of different traditions here. I want to tell you why what happened on this day is so important to people from my tradition. If nothing else happens, when the sermon is over you’ll know why some of the people in the pew with you believe the way they do.'”

Be Inclusive When You Can. I have a rather high theology of the sacrament of the table. Most of the people I work with do not. In a recent sermon I simply referred to it as “the fellowship of the table.” The point I was trying to make at the time did not particularly depend on distinction between a sacrament and an ordinance. I intentionally used the more the inclusive phrase to affirm the unity of the congregation, and to keep the listeners’ minds focused on the point I was actually trying to make. Some cognitive dissonance is useful; some is not. The trick is to know which is which.

Stay within Your Range, But Expand It. Collective Protestant services can differ widely in style and tone. The manner and purpose of preaching may vary considerably as one moves from a liturgical to an evangelical to a gospel service. Chaplains may find themselves leading services for which they are culturally unprepared. The first rule here is to stay within one’s own range of genuineness. My demeanor and tone may change as I move from a traditional service to a gospel service, but I will never try to mimic the mannerisms and vocal characteristics that some gospel preachers display. That’s just not me. However, I can let the experience stretch me and help me grow so that my preaching both feels genuine to me and connects with the members of the congregation. The second rule, then, is to expand your range of genuineness. Many evangelical chaplains are unaccustomed to using the lectionary or the liturgical calendar. Those who use them in a stumbling, half-hearted or resistive manner rob these elements of their power. If chaplains are going to use these “high church” approaches to preaching and worship, they need to grow comfortable with them.

Know When Not to Preach. For the purpose of this paper, preaching is what chaplains do within their faith communities. Chaplains are also invited to speak on occasion in secular military settings because of their experience and expertise in caring for matters of the human spirit. The chaplain’s role in a Christian worship service for the dead is to proclaim the death and resurrection of Christ. The chaplain’s role in a military ceremony for the dead might be to speak briefly about the human meaning of grief or the various sources of strength on which one can draw. Not every public speech a chaplain gives is or should be a sermon. The rule about knowing and respecting your audience is paramount in public government settings.

Lead and Shape the Church. In the end, the preacher still seeks to lead and shape the church through the preached word. By itself, drawing on “those beliefs, principles, and practices that we have in common” may simply result in reinforcing the status quo, both individually and corporately. The sermon should confidently reflect the preacher’s vision for the congregation and its members, a vision that flows out of the preacher’s own theology, ecclesiology and encounter with the scriptures. Without this, why preach?