10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 9–Speak to The Perennial Concerns

(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.



10 Years of Preaching, 10 Lessons: Lesson 8–The Confluence of Journeys

(NOTE: This post is part of a series of posts I’ve been doing over the past few months reflecting on what I’ve learned over the course of 10 years of preaching… hope you’ve enjoyed them!)

If you do all of the things I’ve recommended in the previous posts, chances are you’re going to have the beginnings of a preaching ministry that has some potency. This potency will be due on the one hand to the clarity, precision, and focus of your content. It will be due, on the other hand, to the quality of earthiness and authenticity you bring to the table each week–a disciple relating to other disciples the challenge and promise of following Jesus.

This “earthiness”, as I have called it, is an indispensable element to your ministry among the people of God. No one benefits from having a preacher whose stoic presence each week makes one wonder whether or not they personally have been touched by this stuff. We are not called to stand up and simply recite the lines of our favorite systematic theology or biblical commentary. The Word is living. For disciples of Jesus, as that Word lives and moves and shapes us, it will (or should, anyway) be evident to those watching our lives–and no one’s life in the community is more on display than the preacher’s. Our transparency about that process has a powerful function in the lives of the people we minister to–among other things, it gives them permission to themselves be a people “under construction”, as it were, yet-to-be-finished masterpieces under the wise governance of the life-giving Spirit of God. All of this is at it should be.

Nevertheless, as anyone who has grappled with the call to preach for any length of time knows, this call to earthiness, authenticity, and transparency about our own process carries with it a hidden peril. A friend of mine, in describing why he, for a time, was stepping back from pulpit ministry, stated it like this:

I can’t quite separate what God is doing with me personally and what He is speaking to us as a congregation. I feel like I’m shedding a bunch of theological misconceptions and stuff I’ve just believed as believe-ism as opposed to a grounded faith. I guess you’d call it a sort of deconstruction simultaneous with a reconstruction…but [I realize] then that might be quite jarring for a communityIs there no difference between the personal journey of the preacher and the communal journey?

That right there, the question of the relationship between the personal journey of the preacher and the communal journey, is precisely the peril I am talking about–the peril of the preacher’s own “self” being insufficiently differentiated from that of the congregation, with the result that the communal journey and the personal journey of the preacher are one and the same.

This can happen on two fronts:

The Theological. From my where I stand, it seems that this struggle has been most pronounced in recent years among those feeling the Spirit’s call for them to emerge from the extremely narrow, sectarian, and often fundamentalist or conservative ways of thinking in which their faith was reared and into the breadth of the faith of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church”, as the Creed declares. The struggle here is very real, as we begin to come to grips with alternative vantage points from within orthodoxy–vantage points that challenge our own prejudices and assumptions–we long for the congregation to experience the same beautiful disequilibrium that we are experiencing, knowing its power to bring about transformation.

This longing for the congregation is well and good; it is part and parcel, I would argue, of the pastoral task–the task of bringing the people of God out of their enclaves and into the shared faith of the global Church. The problems start to occur when we either (a) fail to appreciate the length of time it may take most of the folks in our congregation to catch up to what we’ve seen, (b) fail to appreciate the reality of the traditions and structures we’re laboring within, thus dishonoring the “house” in an attempt to help people, (c) begin to obsess over our own newest pet doctrine or issue within Christianity, thus imbalancing the congregation’s “diet” as it were, and finally (d) in our zeal foolishly lead our congregations to swap one ideology for another.

One of the worst mistakes I ever made as a preacher was preaching a sermon on the call to make peace to a more or less conservative, Bible-belt church I was serving at in Oklahoma. At the time, I had been reading a lot of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas, and was really grappling with the biblical and theological case for nonviolence. That journey was so very real and fresh for me, that I felt compelled in this message to say something about it. I wanted to challenge the congregation to see that even if the case for absolute nonviolence was a contested one in the Church (as it is), even so, the call of Christ to make peace, to absorb blows rather than inflict them, and to forgive our enemies, was so very powerful that it must continually challenge our fear and hatred of “the other”, leading us to become a prophetic voice in a world so massively torn and conflicted.

A good impulse, no doubt. The problem, among other things, was my total lack of pastoral sensitivity. Instead of simply laying the richness of the call of Christ to each one of us at the feet of the congregation, I foolishly abstracted that call into the ideology of nonviolence, and then proceeded to lay that at the feet of the congregation (a congregation, I should note, full of veterans and families of veterans). Why did I do that? Because I was personally wrestling with nonviolence and decided to use the pulpit as an opportunity to work it out. Bad move. The brew ha ha that ensued over the next few days told the tale, and even though I was tempted at the time to simply write off those whom I had offended, the truth is that they were helping me straighten out my course as a preacher–I am not tasked with lobbing abstractions at people and trying to get them to adopt those abstractions as their own. I am called to help each one hear and respond to the call of Jesus in their own lives. If I personally am wrestling with lofty ideas like “pacifism”, I had better make sure that if that journey makes its appearance in the pulpit, it is positioned as a journey and handled with great care–something that in my youthful zeal I did not do.

The “Existential”. I call it this because I really can’t think of what else to call it. What I’m talking about here is the depth of pain and anguish that you are going through in your personal life. It may be you wrestling through offense. It may be frustrations within your family or circle of friends. It may be your feelings of doubt or lack of faith in God. It may be you beginning to come to grips with how your having been abused as a child or a teenager is influencing your behavior and choices, and starting to slough it off. It could be any number of things.

I want to say here again that this impulse–to share your journey with the congregation, even and perhaps especially this existential one–is well and good, as it demonstrates the reality of how you personally are being confront with the reality of the liberating Spirit of God and are being transformed from glory to glory. Even so, there are pitfalls. One is the undue burden that is placed upon the congregation when it is put in a position where week in and week out it must act as your sounding board for dealing with all your issues. Another is what happens to your soul as a preacher when (what should be) the secret things of your life are constantly on display for all to see.

I can speak from deep experience on this point as well. For the first several years of my time at Bloom, I was so committed to authenticity in the pulpit that I far too often used my own “stuff” to illustrate or deepen a point I was trying to make. It tended to feel good when I did it, and I know that the congregation appreciated the honesty. What I did not realize, however, was the impact it would have on me over time. I vividly remember waking up one Monday morning and realizing that I was burnt out, in large part because over the years I had given away all the precious things God had given to me in secret, mostly because I wanted my sermons to be good (by my standard). Many of those precious things–insights, stories, journal entries, etc–I know fell on the soft soil of people’s hearts and helped them. Perhaps an equal measure, however, were simply consumed and discarded by people who were not in a position to really appreciate them. My beautiful things, trampled and tossed out like common rubbish.

This should not be. Whatever our journey, whether theological or existential, our commitment to authenticity should also likewise be chastened by a humility, by a self-differentiated relationship with the congregation, and by a certain reticence about giving away the things that should be held in the secrecy of our communion with God and the wisdom of trusted, intimate community. Let me give you a handful of things that are helping right now with respect to the above…

  1. Keep the general good of the people of God in mind. Do they need to hear about this lofty theological concept right now? Are there more patient and careful way to open up their thinking? Is this sermon going to satisfy my desire to “be prophetic” and say something edgy, or will it genuinely help them live more faithfully tomorrow morning? Don’t use your sermon to work out your unfinished theological business. Do that in conversation with friends, or on your blog, or in your noggin. Put it in front of the people of God when it can be genuinely helpful to them and when you can talk about it without being antagonistic or forcing them to adopt new ideologies, and not before.
  2. Once again, shorten your messages! On both the theological and the existential sides of this conversation, the longer your messages are, the more prone you will be to say something you should not say, to become undisciplined in the pulpit. “Where words are many, sin is not absent; but he who holds his tongue is wise” is advice not sufficiently appreciated or adhered to by preachers. If you’ll limit yourself to a narrower window of time, you’ll find that you simply won’t have the opportunity to either to lob clunky theologies at people or to bare the bits of your soul that ought not be bared. Limitations are a good and beautiful thing. Apply them liberally, and everyone will benefit.
  3. In that same vein, I have found over the years that preaching through the lectionary is an immense help. Too many pulpits (and therefore too many churches) are driven along by the preacher’s newest theological obsession or existential crisis. The lovely thing about the lectionary is its power (not an absolute power, mind you–clever lectionary preachers will find ways around it) to bracket out our ideology by focusing us week in and week out on Christ as he has been revealed in space and time, the wandering and universally compelling Galilean prophet. “Read these texts,” the Church bellows at us, “and finish with this Gospel. Invite people to know and love and yield their lives to Christ. Then sit down and shut up.” Give it a try. You may like it.
  4. Remember that the congregation is not your therapist and the sermon is not therapy. It may have therapeutic qualities from time to time, but the moment you feel that you cannot do without baring this or that piece of your journey to the congregation, or the moment you start to feel like nothing in your heart is private anymore, you’ve got problems. Don’t put that on them, in the same way that while you want to be honest with your teenagers about your struggles, if you and your spouse are having trouble with your love life, you’ll keep it private from them, for the excellent reason that they are not positioned to be a help to you, and the mis-positioning of them by you will only confuse and frustrate and draw them into anxieties they have no business holding. There is no substitute for healthy process. I AM IMPLORING YOU–If your faith is failing, if your marriage is hurting, if some wound from the past is all of a sudden starting to leak its poison into your life… GO SEE SOMEONE. Work it out in the wisdom of community and the secrecy of prayer. And perhaps one day, when the moment is right, you’ll be able to tell about it without skewing the relationship between you and the congregation. Perhaps. But don’t assume it. Some things are simply not for public consumption.

Hope all that helps. Would love to hear your thoughts.