Have I failed if someone in my congregation mishears something I say and instead hears something I did not intend? What if they come to greet me after the service and thank me for a beautiful explanation of the Trinity after having preached a message intended to be about the mission of God? Well, that recently happened to me; and quite frankly, I was almost without words after this person approached me. Had I missed the mark by that much? Was it my explanation, my illustrations? Was my introduction not clear enough about where the message was going? How could I have missed so badly? Is this my fault or the listener’s? “Maybe they just were not listening well enough,” I thought. All this went rushing through my mind like water bursting from a fire hydrant. There was no stopping it, and it was quite alarming to say the least.
First some context: I am an intern at a multi-generational church, with an approximate attendance of 200 congregants. My primary responsibilities involve all things technical: sound, website design, projection systems, stage design, lighting, etc. I also oversee the children’s ministry. I have been at this church for seven months, and in all honesty I know the kids better than I know their parents. This particular Sunday was my first time speaking to the adult members of our church rather than their offspring—no pressure! I was nervous going in, but I had done ample preparation, felt the message was tight, practiced several times, and was feeling that I was as ready as I was going to be. I took a deep breath and began.
I really thought it went well! My wife, and best critic, tells me I sped through the middle a bit, but the rest was well-communicated. I was in victory mode! The senior pastor said I did well and only had one small technical thing to mention for next time. “Wow,” I thought, “maybe I can be a preacher.” I was feeling some serious affirmation considering any questions I had for myself regarding how I had spent my previous five years at school and almost $40,000 not of my own.
Then a lady from the congregation walks up as if to congratulate me on a job well done…and drops this bomb. She loved the message, but it had communicated something totally different to her than I had intended. This is when all of those questions listed above began to flow through my mind. Honestly, I did not dwell on them long. I am glad she learned or was touched by something I said, and really she was only one person. I hoped others got the point I had intended.
Recently, I began studying preaching for my master’s degree, and it has come to my attention that this should not have been an entirely unexpected occurrence. There are some obvious reasons for this congregant’s confusion. My message was about “The Mission of God,” but it focused on the missions of the individual members of the Godhead and brought them all together at the end to communicate God’s one mission. She thought I was speaking about the Trinity. Clearly, there was some discussion of the Trinity involved, but from the beginning to the end, every focus I made was on the mission of God. Why, then, did this lady hear something so incredibly different?
Well, it is actually quite simple, and it has to do with the nature of preaching. In his book The Witness of Preaching, Thomas G. Long makes it clear that there are four essential pieces to preaching, and no one part of these pieces, or a majority of the pieces, constitutes preaching unless all pieces are present. These pieces are simple, and you probably can name a few of them: the congregation, the preacher, the sermon and the presence of Christ. While examining and reading about the nature of preaching, something hit me that began to make a lot of sense.
If we say that we expect Christ to be present during our services, what does that really mean? Is He in a seat idly watching, taking in what’s going on and giving His silent blessing simply by being present? Is that what our living, present God does? I hope not! How impotent is that? The Christ I know is present in churches everywhere in the world every Sunday morning. Indeed, He’s present wherever “two or three might gather in His name” (
If the God of the universe is present in our services, could it not mean that our attempt at messages that reflect Him might be used in ways that we could not fathom? Let me use the example of Scripture itself. Mortal men wrote the original words on scrolls that now are printed and organized neatly in a book we call the Bible. I do not believe most would contend that it was the hand of a man that wrote, “In the beginning,” and, “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s people. Amen.” However these words are special, are they not? Something is transcendent about them, exceeding our understanding. Yet we know it to be true. God made these words, and the hand of a man wrote them.
Scripture is inspired by God in a real and powerful way. He may not have written them Himself, but He exercised influence on the writers to write on those pages of His story, which we call the Word of God. Something else we know about the Word of God is that while it certainly is true in its content, meaning can be influenced by a number of factors that are generally referred to as context. Put simply, one verse can mean different things or teach different things depending on our surroundings and season of life. The Word of God is powerful in this way; it can speak into many different situations from every point within itself. Yet is this the only word from God we have? Is Scripture the only thing that can speak such dynamic, yet stable, truth into our lives?
Is not preaching also the word of God? If so, then it stands to reason that perhaps a sermon can speak just one set of words but speak differently into the individual contexts of those who hear it. The congregation is, as Long tells us, just as much a part of the preaching as the sermon, the preacher and the presence of Christ. Perhaps the presence of God works in a powerful way as it did at Pentecost, when everyone heard in their own languages the wonders of God. Doesn’t that give our every-week kind of preaching a new power to speak into the hearts and lives of everyone present? Honestly, I hope no one who reads this has an every-week kind of preaching, week in and week out, tired and dead. Our churches do not need this. We have the power of God on our side and working powerfully alongside us to enact real change in the hearts and lives of people. Isn’t that what we are trying to accomplish?
I call on preachers to wake up to the reality that the presence of Christ means more than an idle, “You got this, buddy.” Your messages can speak to more people than you could have ever imagined, but not in your own power. Don’t pray that you would disappear and that the presence of Christ take over, lest you risk some homiletical heresy. Instead, pray for the presence of Christ to come alongside your efforts and be in your efforts, to bring powerful and fresh messages of truth to your people. Don’t be confused when someone learns something you did not intend to preach. Remember that Pentecost is alive and well and that you get to be a part of it.