(NOTE: This post is part of a series of posts I’ve been doing talking about the art and craft of preaching on this, the 10th anniversary of my own preaching ministry… hope you’ve enjoyed!)
One of the things that I did not (could not) sufficiently appreciate about preaching when I began 10 years ago was how it related to the general life of the congregation over time. I can very clearly recall the more or less two-dimensional picture I had in my mind of that relationship: there is the content I have in my head about a whole variety of topics, and there is this group of people that demand that someone share compelling content with them week in and week out. The preacher’s job is to keep coming up with that compelling content.
The result of this highly simplistic notion of preaching was that (to borrow an image from Henri Nouwen) I saw myself as a person with a backpack full of neat stuff that people might find interesting: theological concepts, biblical knowledge, opinions about this and that, and some clever stories. My task was to find a way to share what was in that backpack with the crowd that gathered each week. (God forbid that I should ever run out!) The practical outcome of conducting my preaching ministry this way was that the sermon space consisted of a never-ending carousel of topics seemingly chosen somewhat at random: spiritual disciplines, the sermon on the mount, ecclesiastes, community, liturgy, etc etc.
I could hardly be faulted, I suppose, for so conducting my preaching ministry. This, after all, is what most churches and most preachers do. Of course many of them have created pretty sophisticated approaches for making sure the “diet” of their congregation is balanced over time, and they should be lauded for this. The problem was, it didn’t work for me.
Actually, I might correct myself there. If what we’re judging the preacher by is what I outlined above (his or her ability to consistently come up with compelling content), then in point of fact it did work for me. It’s just that I’m not sure it was the right approach, since it rested on what I think is a more or less faulty understanding of what congregational life in fact is.
And with that, here’s lesson 9–Get comfortable claiming and speaking to the perennial and central issues and needs for the people of God.
Despite all of our rhetoric about being “missional” and “non-consumeristic” and “non-performance-driven” and all of that, we still had set up our congregation’s life to basically consume good messages every week. The pressure could at times be crushing. “Ok, we just talked about prayer. What if we did an Old Testament book? I could do some things in the pulpit I’ve never really done before… freshen things up a bit.” It’s no wonder that after a few years of preaching every week, I found myself pretty burned out.
One of the things that time in the pulpit has afforded me is the ability to see the texture of people’s lives, and then to perceive with more clarity what role the gathering of the congregation plays in those lives. The way I see it now is something like this: this particular people that I have the privilege of pastoring have been living their lives “out there”, in the world where in truth most of the action is. The Spirit of God is at work there. There are other forces at work, too. For the most part, they find themselves caught up in the push and pull between the Spirit of God and the powers of this age, in the struggle between life and death.
Being so caught up can be in various measures perplexing, invigorating, confounding, and inspiring. In any given week, there is a good chance that there will be both incredible highs, and incredible lows. They will have the opportunity to witness God powerfully at work saving and delivering and healing not only their own lives, but the lives of the people around them. At the same time, they will also have ample opportunity to witness the gut-wrenching pain of the world. Some of that pain they will experience personally. They will be betrayed, hurt, disappointed, and let down by others. Some of the pain they will cause through their own rebellion and shortcomings. There will be failure and frustration even as there will also be triumph and celebration. They will most likely wander into our gathering on Sunday a bit disoriented, to say the least. What is it that they need? What do ANY of us really, REALLY need?
What I am learning now is that the corporate gathering of the people of God has an incredibly important role as it relates to the disorientation I’ve described. Namely, we gather to be reminded who and Whose we are, to see the world once again with baptized eyes, to encounter Christ the Lord, to experience the ministry of the Holy Spirit, and to be sent, blessed and strengthened, back into the lives that God has given us to live. Our worship, and our preaching with it, is part of how we say to this family gathered in front of us, “Your whole life belongs here, in the presence of God; for you are his. Open your life to Jesus Christ again. See the world under his reign again. Let him claim you. Let him call you into his life and purpose. He can be trusted. Trust him now.”
I’m more aware now than I have ever been that when a person, for instance, finds out that their parent has been diagnosed with cancer, the very last thing they need is to wander into a worship gathering and listen to a preacher wax on for the better part of an hour on how to be a better employee (though that is important, and we need to work hard to develop spaces and places where issues like that can be addressed–and in reality, a good preaching ministry will find ways to speak to things like being a good employee in elegant and subtle and powerful ways, without distracting from the central task of the pulpit). They need, rather, to be reminded that God is good. That Jesus is real. That the Spirit is at work. They need to hear once again the good news, the “gospel” about how in Christ Jesus the Triune God has come and taken all of the pain and hurt and confusion and brokenness of the world up into himself, and overcome it with his limitless life, such that Resurrection (not Death) is revealed now the defining dynamic of the universe. They need to know that this gracious God, revealed in Christ Jesus, and made “immediate” to us by the Holy Spirit can be trusted. That (to use Dallas Willard’s poignant phrasing) he is competent to handle all the things that matter most to us. That if we’ll enter into deep relationship with him through prayer and worship and obedience, our lives will be healed and dignified beyond all reckoning… that we’ll find ourselves made able, for instance, to forgive our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to share our possessions with the poor and with the needy in our congregational family. We’ll find strength to keep hoping beyond hope for the world to come to the knowledge and love of Jesus. We’ll discover resources to keep going even and perhaps especially when it seems like God is absent or not working, for faith beyond our senses will grow in us. They need to know that “the kingdom of God” is not a far off concept, but a reality now that can be entered into and lived out of at any point. That God is for them and not against them.
10 years ago, even five years ago, I might have taught a series on prayer and then thought when it was over, “Well, now that I’ve taught on prayer, I’ll have to leave that aside for awhile.” Now, I can’t teach on it enough. And actually, what I’m finding is that as I attune myself to my central job, which is to proclaim the gospel each week to this gathered people, all of the big, recurring themes find their way rather elegantly and effortlessly into my messages… Because the truth is that at the end of the day, wherever you drop down in the narrative of Scripture, it is going to call you…
To cast yourself at the Mercy
To commune with God in prayer
To live faithfully in community
To love your enemies
To reach out to your neighbors in love
To open yourself to the Holy Spirit
To forgive your enemies and those who have hurt you
And so on and so forth…
You have to, you just have to keep hammering away at this stuff, approaching it from a variety of angles and through whatever texts you are preaching on (once again, this is why the lectionary has become an invaluable resource to me: I can just drop down into the Gospel narrative, get a feel for its movements and edges, and then based on what I sense happening in the community, can call this people back to ruthless trust in and joyful obedience to the peculiar God made known in this peculiar text), because the life of the people of God depends on it.
Preaching, I have found, descends into so much trivia when we neglect this. Sermons becomes places where we do a lot of theological and rhetorical gymnastics to impress people. The people of God are often impressed under such circumstances, but also starved… Behind what I am calling for here is a need to continually discern the form of the Church’s life and then preach in such a way that the people of God are constantly called into it, to live faithfully in it. I remember being so impressed listening to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, talk about his pastoral concern for the global Anglican communion to a group of pastors not too long ago. With some 90 million people under his care, he spoke with great emotion of things like the need to help people pray, to teach them to be reconcilers in a world riddled with strife, and to reach out their hands in love, drawing those who don’t know Christ into a fellowship with the Triune God. I remember thinking, “Yes! Those are my concerns too!”
But they are MY concerns precisely because they are the PERENNIAL concerns of the global Church–whether Catholic, Protestant, or other. As servants of the church, I am not sure that we preachers are living up to our calling by conducting preaching ministries that roam far and wide across every conceivable theological or personal-interest landscape. I think that in the main what we must do is preach to those perennial concerns. If we’ll do that, we’ll create rich environments where our local churches can rise in faithfulness to God. This also is one of the reasons that teaching/preaching pastors MUST be deeply involved in the lives of people. The further the teaching ministry of the church floats away from actual people, the more arcane and irrelevant it will be.
Now I am not saying that we can’t or shouldn’t stop here and there to address specific issues. It’s just that when we do, we ought to make sure they are THE issues that the whole people of God need to be hearing about. (This is one of the reasons why I’ve never done, for instance, a series on parenting or the family at Bloom–how in the world does that help the single person live more faithfully to Jesus? How does that address the whole people of God? Maybe there’s a way and I’m just not seeing it… 🙂 ) I want to make sure that our whole congregation is nourished and strengthened each week at the Table, and I see my preaching as a function of that Table.
Christ Jesus is made manifest in history and is calling people to trust him with their whole lives. This will be the healing of the world. Are we preaching to THAT, or to something else?
That is what I’m always asking myself.
Love to hear your thoughts and questions.