“Preaching is truth filtered through personality.” – Phillip Brooks
Try as I might, I cannot separate preaching from the person. I have memories of each of my childhood pastors, but I confess that I cannot remember a single sermon. What I do remember is a pastor who was passionate about social justice, a pastor who gave me opportunities to lead as a youth, a pastor who was a wounded healer, and a pastor who exhibited grace and integrity in every fiber of his being.
Through preaching, local church pastors have the single greatest opportunity to transform lives. We spend many hours researching, exegeting, and preparing sermons. However, we are not always aware that the specific content of our sermon often has less impact on our congregations than the personhood of the pastor.
When Marshall McLuhan published his groundbreaking book in 1964, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, a new phrase entered our societal vocabulary, “The medium is the message.” McLuhan’s thesis was that there is a symbiotic relationship between the form of the medium and its content, which results in the medium influencing how the message is received. Because specific media have characteristics that engage viewers in different ways, the form becomes embedded in the message itself.
What that means for preaching is this: Effective preaching (message) occurs when the preacher’s life (medium) is incarnational, congruent and attentive.
The preacher’s life is incarnational.
Christianity is an incarnational religion. From the beginning of the world, God created by the Word. The gospel writer John tells us that the Word was with God, and the Word was God. When the fullness of time had come, God decided that the Word had to become flesh in order for humans to experience the wholeness of God’s grace and salvation. Jesus not only saved us by what he preached and how he died on a cross for our sins. He also saved us by who he was. Jesus was God in human form.
In the same way, pastors incarnate the life of faith by what they preach, but even more so by what they do and who they are. I guess that’s where the phrase, “Practice what you preach” comes from. Unlike former NBA basketball star, Charles Barkley, who kept insisting, “I am not a role model,” pastors are role models.
Our parishioners take their cues from us. When we take advantage of our pastoral authority, lose our temper in a meeting, or show favoritism toward some church members rather than others, people notice. On the other hand, when we remain steady in difficult times, demonstrate grace to all, and are honest in our relationships, people also notice. Whether we are lay persons or clergy, we are only as credible as our actions. When others see in us a life that incarnates the life of Christ, they will be more receptive to our preaching.
The preacher’s life is congruent.
G.W. Kuhne and J.F. Donaldson characterize the pastor’s work as highly varied, taxing, fast-paced, unrelenting, and fragmented. (“Balancing Ministry and Management: An Exploratory Study of Pastor Work Activities,” Review of Religious Research, 1995) Pastoral ministry asks for the very best that we can offer to God. When lay persons describe their pastor as having a “pastor’s heart,” they imply that we offer a grace-filled ministry of presence, compassion, teaching, prayer, preaching and outreach. At the same time, the overwhelming demands of ministry and the complexity of skills required threaten to rob us of balance and an integrated life.
Well-balanced pastors nurture their own spiritual life before shaping the spiritual lives of others. Healthy pastors set clear boundaries and are self-differentiated. Their inner and outer lives match up. They take adequate time off to refresh and renew their spirits. They put family first, develop friendships outside the church, and devote time to personal hobbies. Congruent pastors make for healthy parishioners, healthy churches and inspired preaching.
Without a doubt, there will be times in our ministry when we feel depleted and burned-out and believe we have absolutely nothing to say. Jane’s crankiness has completely done us in, Joe’s refusal to give up being the treasurer after 30 years has made us sick, and canceling VBS because of a lack of volunteers has depressed us further. Yet Sunday comes every week, and much as we’d like to, we cannot sleep in!
When we are not being fed ourselves, we have little to offer others through our preaching, and our congregation will sense our emptiness. We can’t fool most of our parishioners because they experience more than words. They are watching our face, feeling our energy, and wondering if we are really leading from our heart.
Be aware of the state of your spiritual life. If you are on the edge, take a week’s retreat or just stay home and rest for a few days. Find a spiritual director. Talk to a trusted colleague. Or better yet, allow God to use the broken vessel that is you to bring hope and healing to others. What people want the most is for you to be authentic.
The preacher’s life is attentive.
Outstanding preachers are cognizant of the world around them. They are not out of touch with societal movements but do not acquiesce to the latest fads, either. Transformational preachers are engaged in their communities, understand the lives of their parishioners, and are a visible presence in congregational life. By listening to the voices of those who lead us to a deeper encounter with God, we are better equipped to preach from our heart and lead others to faith.
Effective preaching also employs the Biblical narrative as a catalyst for interpreting the world around us in light of our faith. Using various translations of the Bible and being familiar with John Wesley’s sermons, ancient and contemporary theology, world religions, and the latest United Methodist news enrich our sermon preparation. At the same time, accessing local and national newspapers and magazines, keeping up with world events, and reading a broad array of secular literature filter into our preaching and prayers and remind parishioners that the world is, indeed, our parish.
Most of all, preachers (and all of us) must be attentive to still, small voice of God and the stirrings of the Holy Spirit. By making ourselves consciously available to God and allowing time during the week to let our sermons incubate, we create the conditions for the Holy Spirit to blow where it wills.
“Preach the gospel always. If necessary, use words.” – St. Francis of Assisi
P.S. This is the second in a series of 4 essays about preaching: The Preacher’s Poise, The Preacher’s Life, The Preacher’s Audience, and The Preacher’s Craft.