My good friend and fellow pastor Jerry and I were recently sent to new churches. In fact, during the time of our ministries we attended seminary together and also have moved simultaneously three times. Our last move, however, made me feel some sympathy for Jerry. I was going to a 140+-year-old congregation with a venerated tradition and strong community standing. The bishop, though, appointed Jerry to a vacant six-acre field and said, “Have at it, son. You have our blessing.”
Trying to be both Jerry’s pastor and friend, I sounded like I pitied him. He helped me rethink both our positions quickly. He said, “You feel sorry for me? You are going to a congregation having a sizable segment thinking that being a church member is like having an American Express card — membership has its privileges.”
“No, Dave,” he continued, “I’ve got the easy job. Starting a church from scratch entitles me to tell all joining our church that Christian discipleship is — from the perspective of the New Testament — servanthood at best, and at worst slavery. You try saying that to your fifty-year members, those professors, those church-shoppers, and those retired preachers. Go ahead, see how you do. In fact, now that I think about it, I feel sorry for you. We’ll compare notes a year from now.” Moving to my new church, I kept coming back to Jerry’s prophecy, especially regarding preaching.
Preaching in Today’s World
We live in a society that considers itself Christian — the percentage depending upon which pollster you trust. Unfortunately, I was trained for nineteenth century preaching. The revivalist era presented the Christian response by confession of faith, baptism, and new life in Christ, lived out in the community of faith. The only problem with this “conversion-model” for preaching is that now many church people need nurturing and maturing — not conversion per se. Their formal decisions of faith were made long ago. Many consider themselves “cradle-to-grave” Christians, never having made an explicit or substantial decision for Christ. We have all heard people say, “I go to church, don’t I?” Also, many folks today claiming to be “born again” understand the moment of decision to be the end, and not the beginning, of life in Christ. In Paul’s time, no one had been a believer for long — there were no second-generation Christians. Faith decisions are not bequeathed, nor can they be borrowed. Today’s world is full of different expectations.
During a revival, a woman came forward after the rousing invitation delivered by an excellent evangelistic preacher. Behind the pulpit, as she moved forward, the evangelist turned to the pastor and asked, “Now what do we do?” His question reflected different methods of receiving people into the Body of Christ by baptism or other rituals. The question also reflected that most people to whom we preach have already typically made a decision for Christ. The woman who came forward was unusual, not characteristic of many churchgoers. The people we customarily preach to are already converted to faith — or to their way of thinking, in any event. Habitually, our preaching presupposes an audience no longer with us — those who have never heard the gospel directly or convincingly.
In talking to fellow preachers, we share the frustration of a lack of excitement in church people’s gospel response. In China and what used to be known as the Soviet Union, stories are told of valiant churches’ faithful struggle.
One of my former professors was fond of saying, “The church is at its best when under attack.” In the United States and Europe, little organized resistance either to church or gospel exists. Political and business folk chatter about God blessing America as if it were a constitutional conclusion. We’re caught nodding in agreement, little reflecting what this means if taken seriously. Most church resistance is the disorganized variety by those feeling the gospel is irrelevant to twentieth-century sophisticates.
Preaching Atttitudes
Stepping into the pulpit on Sunday mornings can be a terrifying experience. Looking over my congregation, I realize I have three attitude choices regarding our preaching relationship. First, I can simply succumb to feelings of futility. That is, preaching is a piece of an ongoing ritual, important to the cohesion of the church community — nothing more. Here and there, perhaps, I may speak an important word to isolated individuals. Cynical though it is, one of my main functions is helping people feel good about their lives, encouraging them to share minimally their good fortune with the less fortunate.
The second attitude I can choose, and have chosen from time to time, is resenting the way the gospel is twisted to bless middle-American materialism. The “church as country club” attitude incorporates basically nice people; not wanting to hurt anyone, but not being bothered enough by the issues of nagging poverty and justice, among others always with us. Perfunctory is this faith’s name. Mechanical faith’s tenor provides nods and winks to genuine religious conviction, “cleaning the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside full of greed and wickedness” (Luke 11:30). Perhaps most of our people are not so much full of wickedness as simply full of themselves and an attendant self-absorbed insecurity.
The first attitude is deadly to the gospel, perpetuating a false sense of security. Preaching with the attitude of maintaining the status quo only massages our false notions of discipleship in today’s world. The second attitude is deadly to preachers. The persons we are called to shepherd become adversaries, for lack of response in discernible ways indicates, at least to the preacher, no real movement in faith. We fight our congregant’s attitudes and then we fight them, expending energy in anger and frustration, rather than in understanding. Thus, a third attitude for my preaching must surface. How can I preach to those having decided for faith, but who may have let that decision become content and complacent?
Thinking about my congregation’s gospel resistance, I consider my own points of resistance. Nothing rings more falsely than a preacher asking people to believe and do things which the preacher is neither willing to believe or to do. Parental epigrams, “do as I say and not as I do,” for instance, do not work well either. Does what I say in the pulpit make sense to me? Am I willing to live under the same gospel terms I presume for others in my congregation?
For better or worse, a preacher’s life is intrinsically lashed to the message proclaimed. Who and what Jesus was gave authority to what He preached. This standard directed Paul, Peter, Timothy, and those who first proclaimed the gospel. For Paul, establishing his pastoral credentials occupies fully one-third of Galatians. People hearing the gospel measure its truth by how it has affected those who claim they have been changed by it. Thus, Peter’s attitude toward the Gentiles was not only heard; it was watched, too. This is, of course, not to say preachers are in any measure perfect people, but our stewardship of the gospel’s mystery is linked more directly to congregational faith than we often perceive. No less than others, we are under an obligation to believe (and practice) what we preach.
If, for instance, we preach the message that the gospel gives comfort and encouragement in the midst of persecution of many sorts, then we are obligated to live by this pronouncement. Early in my ministry an older person made my life a living purgatory, saying things patently false about me. These rumors hurt me deeply, but the congregation was timid about crossing him. These good-hearted folks encouraged me but refused any defense, saying, “After all, we have to live with him long after you’re gone.” This was little comfort.
So I went to a mentor-pastor, asking how to manage the situation which was exacting both an emotional and physical toll. Wisely, he said “David, for most people in your church, you are as close to Christ as they ever expect to get. This is unfair, but a fact of life for many pastors. Like it or not, you represent Jesus to them in a concrete way.” This helped my perspective on forgiving my enemies, which I have often preached about.
Like other believers, we preachers assume responsibility for our own faith. Never simply going along with the crowd, we have our own theology, too. We are responsible for it and to it. Regardless of others’ opinion, or how congregants look to us for authority concerning doctrine, we, like them, are on a journey of faith. This sojourn includes issues with which we have made our peace, but also those issues which are yet to be resolved. This is because the nature of discipleship is more than merely getting our “theological ducks” lined up and in order. When faith meets life, many decisions must be made again and again. The Christian faith is dynamic — the situations to which the gospel must be applied are ever-changing.
Thinking people appreciate our efforts to honestly share points where faith troubles. Dealing frankly with these issues, like other folk do, gives preachers human credibility touching divine things. Christians embark on a life-long voyage to find God, or at least to be found by God. Preachers are no exception. Acting as though faith’s questions are all resolved calls into question our sincerity or our intelligence. In other words, preachers need to be constantly aware of the tension existing between “being all things to all people” and remaining true to our unique call to Christ’s church. The gospel is, after all, more than merely a set of intellectual propositions which one either accepts or rejects. The gospel is a way of living.
The church is, at its very worst, seductive to pastors, preachers, and believers. Often those handling holy affairs most routinely forget the great power in spiritual things. In Jesus’ ministry, the demon-possessed recognized His life-changing power to cast out demons. For instance, at Mark 3:11-12, we remember, “Whenever the unclean spirits saw Him, they fell down before Him and shouted, ‘You are the Son of God’!” But He sternly ordered them not to make Him known.
Our own honest gospel struggle and its implications for life will be acknowledged by our hearers. Disciples of Christ want to live life fully, but not by means of false or wobbly promises. Preachers stand in need of grace, as do all other Christians. Conceding this incarnates the power of the pulpit into congregations. Conversely, to preach gospel matters as if decided long ago robs faith today of its transforming power.
No doubt churches look to pastors for authority involving theology and doctrine. Still, people need to see us also as fellow strugglers, who — like them — face Christian obstacles in today’s world. This is why preaching today is not simply converting people; it is a means to re-convert and nurture those already responding — and I am in that number. Good preaching, like good parenting, is never finished; it simply changes forms depending on the relationship’s depth.
I consider persons to whom I preach as peers on a journey of faith. Granted, my task as a preacher is to think theologically and to do so all the time. Yet I also facilitate theological thinking within my congregation. Preaching’s greatest accomplishment results when congregations become conversant with the faith in new ways. Perhaps having corresponding expectations for our congregations as we do for ourselves will stimulate a good model for preaching. It is easier to have high expectations of others, but often it is difficult to put ourselves as preachers in the congregation’s place.
I’m reminded of the high expectations people have of the church which they do not have for themselves. While visiting a member of a former parish who was dying of cancer, our conversations would invariably end with his asking in anger, “Why don’t any of the members of our church come to visit me in my last days?” Finally, fatigued by never having a response, I asked, “Albert, how many people in our church who were dying with cancer did you ever visit?”
He said, “None.”
“Well, Albert, why do you expect people to do things for you that you were never willing to do for them?”
Preachers, expecting folks in the pews to struggle with faith, must be likewise willing to struggle. We all travel the road of discipleship together. We are not good servants of the Word if we expect more of people than they can deliver without us. Simultaneously, we are called to move people to a newer and deeper relationship with God through Christ. The rub for many of us is fear of the risks of leading. Leadership is often lonely. But the gospel calls us here if we are faithful to the preaching task.
The Hidden Partner in Preaching
Preaching the gospel to people who have always heard is at times unwieldy. In pastoral counseling the helpful distinction is often made between “hearing” and “listening.” This contrast, if heeded, will help preachers relate to those in the pew in a more vital way.
Today our people are “lovers of the new.” New gadgets, new ideas, and new techniques capture this generation’s imagination. For many, the gospel is too familiar in its basic outline. Two suggestions I use in preaching are imagining how my family would respond, and how I would respond, upon hearing my message for the first time. My family gives me the objective, if not brutally honest, feedback about what they hear. Their candid perspective is helpful. How do they hear what is said? Does it make sense? Is it honest and forthright?
When preaching to myself, I supply the subjective yardstick: how does this sermon “feel”? Many pastors operate through intuition, acting on feelings we solicit from others. I’ve heard good pastoral counselors remark that they listen to what a person doesn’t say, rather than to what they do say. This subjective strategy helps when checking my pulpit statements against my faith understanding. Do I believe this? Why? Does it make sense? Is it appropriate?
The church is my faith family. Treating the church as people I love as family, rather than customers, gives new tones of respect. This respect is mutual and abides in pulpit and pew. Failure does not always reside in the pew when preachers think people don’t hear the gospel. Churches having dug a deep, ugly ditch between clergy and lay have, in fact, separated the Body of Christ. We all gain by frankly sharing with one another faith and its difficulties.
Last of all — and paramount — is the reality of the gospel. It cannot be controlled, manipulated, or used to promote any particular ideology. The gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ, come to redeem God’s world. We are like the sower in Jesus’ parable. We broadcast the seed, sending it north, east, west, and south. These geographical directions comprise the acronym “news.” Some seed falls on unreceptive soil; some on good soil. My task is to be faithful and dispatch the seed, regardless of how I happen to feel about it on any given day. What gives me strength? What gives ability?
God’s grace gives strength and ability. Preachers walk by faith not by sight, just as other Christians do. We place our faith in the Holy Spirit acting with and after our casting is complete. Preparing to preach faithfully and honestly is our call. What happens subsequently is essentially in God’s hand. Much as Jesus committed His spirit to God on the cross, so too must we commit our preaching ministry. The serendipitous Spirit of God continues to range over God’s church. Sometimes we are merely too anxious to wait patiently for God’s fulfillment.

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