Before anyone visits a church, they want to know as much about it as possible. More than that, with the Internet, church visitors expect the knowledge they want to be easily accessible. Christianity may be mysterious but the congregation you are to visit had better be a known commodity. Whether congregations like it or not, that is the present reality.
Your average churchgoer is also going to be especially attentive to the preaching. Even though in the Lutheran, Anglican, Catholic and Orthodox traditions, the preaching is always seen as being just one part of the full liturgy, modern church audiences expect the preaching to be dynamic and the highlight of the Sunday morning. Pastors like me may not like it, but our media age has created this monster and we have to live with it.
But rather than try to sell you on my own dynamism, I thought a more honest approach would be to fill you in on the thinking behind my preaching, as I can only speak for myself. So if and when my preaching does not fulfill modern expectations of dynamic or relevant public speech, you will at least know why. Here are what I call five pillars of preaching that preachers might consider and apply. I don’t offer these because I think myself an especially good preacher or teacher, but because these seem to me to be inescapable parameters for faithful proclamation to a Christian body of believers.
1. Preaching is all about hitting singles. To borrow from baseball, pastors would do well not to put pressure on themselves – or the congregation – to hit a home run every Sunday. Work with a single text, preach it clearly, and preach what it teaches. Be content to teach what that text addresses and let next week’s text address its subject. So if you attend a church and it seems that the pastor didn’t cover a lot of ground, its because he expects his flock to basically be there every Sunday and hear the whole counsel of God over time, not on one Sunday. So go back the next week, and the next, and eventually those proverbial singles will turn into proverbial runs. Chicks dig the long ball, but parishioners need to be content with singles.
2. Preaching is about building an invisible and forgotten foundation. It seems that pastors are terrified of parishioners hearing a sermon and then forgetting it. So sermons are sometimes packed with props, devices like five points that all conveniently start with the same letter, or a fill-in-the-blank outline that you take home. But the fact is, few people remember much from more than handful of sermons. And yet, the preaching works through the believer in spite of that. It’s not so different from eating. We don’t remember every meal we ever ate, but we know if we didn’t eat regularly, we would die. Not every sermon can be or should be memorable and quotable. The point isn’t to give parishioners a handy, memorable tip, but a foundation piece from God’s Word that is there even if you don’t remember it being built.
3. Preaching is more about your eternal future than your present life. Preaching that appeals to us wanting to have “our best life now” or specifically is designed to our “felt needs,” is actually cheating the hearers of God’s Word. Churches do not exist to help us have better lives now, but to have eternal lives with God. Therefore, the object of preaching is more about one’s eternal future than one’s present life. Therefore, if you hear a sermon and you don’t hear enough that might help you in your daily life, consider that that may not be the point of preaching at all.
4. Stories, props and jokes will always necessarily communicate worldly wisdom. It is practically impossible to find a story, joke or prop that perfectly fits with a biblical sermon. There are many that fit well with sermons that are more focused on our present life. But the truths of the scripture are so profound that props and stories are rarely up to the task of bringing the point home. It’s not impossible; it’s just hard. So such devices should be used sparingly. “What about Jesus’ parables?” some might ask. But the point of the parables was not to make things clearer for his audience, but to confuse them and effectively weed out those who had or did not have faith.
5. Preaching is primarily for the regenerate Christian. Preaching for the non-Christian will not convert non-Christians to the faith; it will also turn Christians into non-Christians. (Chris Rosebrough gets all the credit for pointing this out.) What do I mean by that? Well, if the Gospel is so simplified and watered-down and if the historic and biblical language of the faith is ignored so non-Christians can have few barriers to the Church, then how can anyone grow to mature faith? If all church members – new or old – ever hear is a pared-down Gospel, how can they move on in Christian discipleship? The folks who are already Christians who are hearing this watered-down Gospel for the sake of the non-Christians are going to be stilted in their spiritual growth, as well. Therefore, for the rising tide to raise all boats (mature Christian, new Christian and non-Christian), the preaching simply must be the whole counsel of God, including some complex terminology and ideas from time to time and not shying away from controversial passages. Therefore, if you attend a service and the sermon seems a little over your head, see it as a challenge to learn more, not an invitation to find easier preaching.