Consider … The Preacher. Whether tall or short, mop or marble-topped, skinny or not so skinny, he’s not exactly a breath-taking sight, is he? And our TV-trained generation demands a sight for sore eyes.
Or does it?
Okay, so he isn’t so attractive physically. How does he sound? It’s been years since I regularly attended college chapel, but with many such services under my belt, I think I can speak knowledgeably about the average preacher’s delivery. Generally, the Post Office does better. They say the mind can absorb no more than the seat can endure. Unfortunately, the ears of the average churchgoer are not nearly so hardy as the posterior.
Or are they?
For some time now I’ve wrestled with the concept of the pulpit ministry. I’ve asked myself, “Why, in a day of computers so sophisticated a child can see the world with a few clicks of a mouse –a day in which the operative word is ‘see,’ — why is such an anachronism as the preacher tolerated?”
TV seemingly has become as necessary to our lives as the soap and burgers it hawks. Everybody knows about the Incredible Shrinking Attention Span, a river reduced to the width of a spill thanks to remote control, special effects, and the ever-shifting image. I consider the Preacher again: A person standing in one place, talking one thing for the ungodly space of 25 or even 30 minutes! You can’t ‘surf him, you can’t ‘click’ him. You can only sit there and take it. Surely he is obsolete — high button shoes on the feet of a church dashing into the twenty-first century.
Three years ago, the question “To preach or not to preach?” was of more than academic significance to me. It stabbed at my mind as I prepared to launch a new church. I’d read the Church Growth literature, attended the new church conferences, drunk deeply from the well of modernity. The expert consensus seemed to be “Up music and media, down pulpit and preaching.”
At the time, this made perfect sense to me. After all, who had ever told me he came to church for the sermons? I knew that, statistically, a few do actually come for the preaching, but that percentage is negligible. Those on the cutting edge of evangelism report that image, not substance, attracts the Postmodern prospect.
The evidence seemed conclusive. Yet I considered preaching one of my strengths. At the very least, the notion of preaching appealed to me. What was I to do? As I started the new church, I decided to include preaching but make it as short and sweet as possible.
Now, more than 24 months and a hundred messages later, how do I feel about it all? Have abandoned the pulpit in favor of the skit and the video clip? Well, I have yet to move a pulpit into the movie theater where we meet. But I continue to use a music stand and I continue to preach. What’s more, I’m preaching expository messages, much meatier than the fare I first served. And, to top it off, I’m preaching to a growing congregation!
There’s Joan1 sitting there. She was raised in a denomination not noted for its preaching. She’s been living with a fellow ‘without benefit of clergy’ for a couple years, but preaching has convinced her that God doesn’t want her to live this way. It’s convinced her friend, Don, as well. Popular wisdom has these two now shunning Sunday morning service like the plague. After all, you catch flies with honey, not vinegar. Nevertheless, Joan and Don, who have no desire to be married, are splitting up. They say it’s what God wants them to do.
There’s Roger on the third row, so close I can almost touch him. Apparently, Someone has. Here’s a single guy whose wife ran off two years ago, a seeker with two young boys to care for. He sits there with eyes riveted to mine, ears locked on every word. But I’m not talking about How To Get Along Without A Wife and Mother For Your Children. I’m talking about worship, the Lord’s Supper, redemption through the blood of Christ — not the practical and relevant themes church growth literature touts. And Roger keeps coming.
Why?
I’m pretty sure it isn’t the preaching alone. We’ve worked at creating an environment of color and warmth — a soft nest, if you will, in which to lay the message.
We have fun with skits and show clips from popular movies to introduce a theme. We bring our coffee into the theater (what else are those little cup holders on the armrests for?). We clasp hands, ‘circle the wagons,’ hug and get hugs. We don’t sweat mistakes in the program. Instead, I tell our people that the flubs are actually brilliantly choreographed to help everybody relax.
What’s more, we’re training our people in proper pastoral care. We’ve made Meeters and Greeters out of them. We send them out on ‘Cookie runs’ to first-time visitors’ homes. We do our home Bible Studies, of course, giving folks a chance to talk back.
The congregation is growing. Slowly, but steadily. Each week I preach to a group of seekers and young believers. I preach what I consider to be expository messages; that is, I read a text of Scripture and try to explain its meaning and its relevance. I experimented for a while with the Inductive Method but, really, my people seem to like the old “Tell’em what you’re gonna tell’em. Tell’em. Tell’em what you told’em” as well, if not better.
Maybe preaching feels particularly good right now because our church is still so young and enthusiastic about Jesus. Maybe, down the road, the thrill will fade and I’ll have not only to switch homiletical horses but other tactics as well. If and when that day comes, however, I don’t believe I’ll quit preaching. You see, I’ve never really believed that the pulpit was passe. Recent experience has simply reaffirmed my commitment to the Word of God. Deep down I’ve always believed that God wraps Himself in the absurd costume of The Preacher to come near those who have come to meet Him.
Why do people come to church on Sunday morning? They come to meet friends, to be encouraged, to learn something new. Why church on Sunday morning then, and not the bar on Sunday night? Easy! People don’t expect to meet God in a bar! But in church — in the music, in a Special Book read, in a room dedicated to the Holy — people expect, in some sense, to meet the God they want and need.
The greetings fly, the music plays, the prayers are prayed. A tension is building. Some mornings you can almost cut it with a knife. The anticipation is growing. That special song is sung out like a sigh, a prayer for God to come, come now! We have reached a crisis point. Then … the breeze of His coming lifts the pages of the Bible on the pulpit. A voice, a lone voice speaks to the hushed crowd. God has arrived in His Word.
No, I’m shoveling no New Age dung here. The preacher does not “channel” God like a bargain basement Shirley Maclaine. Nor does he speak ex cathedra. He’s just a person with a raspy voice and bills to pay. He’s a sinner and his notes are smudged with last night’s cherry pie. An absurd costume for the Lord of Glory to wear, indeed! But for the spiritually hungry, he offers more and better than pie. The preached Word gives life.
Sure, he’s a bore sometimes! So’s a peanut butter sandwich. So’s a long marriage on Wednesday. So, I suppose, a rainbow would be if it hung around long enough. But there’s nourishment in the sandwich, security in the relationship, and wonder in God’s bow. Not so much in these things themselves as in their ultimate source — God. And all the preacher has — his voice, his job, his word — come from God. If that isn’t wonder enough for both preacher and pew-sitter, I don’t know what is.
The whole thing mystifies me, just as it occasionally fatigues and frustrates me. It thrills me too. Lately, however, it’s begun to scare me.
“In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word …” (2 Timothy 4:1-2a NIV).
Paul’s words suggest a stark, Twilight Zone landscape. On a vast, open plain the preacher speaks to his congregation, the last people on earth. The sky has gone from navy to deep blue and there’s a strange light in the eastern sky. Is it dawn … or Something greater? Again and again the preacher’s words slice through the heavy silence. Heaven holds its breath. Hell licks its lips. Souls hang in the balance.
What are we doing, preachers? What are we doing, pew-sitters? Why have we come together in this place to preach and hear this word if not to rehearse for the Final Drama? Take the low view and we see only the baby’s foolish grin, the preacher’s receding hairline. We see a ritual, maybe helpful, maybe comforting, maybe neither. Take the apostle’s view, however, and the Preaching Moment becomes a life-and-death struggle on the edge of eternity. Feel the heat of the Evil One’s darts whizzing by, hear the clang of the Sword of The Spirit! It’s a Moment to enervate and elevate, to thrill and terrify. And, want it or not, whether I’m mad or glad about it, its my Moment. Yours too.
Quit preaching? What? Abandon the battle now when we’re nearer its finish than ever before? Quit preaching? When souls are at stake? “Preach the Word,” says Paul; rather, says the Lord. Yes, Sir! I, for one, intend to.
1All names have been changed.

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