My Approach to Preaching

I received many comments after yesterday's sermon, following the events of this past weekend in Charlottesville, VA. Thank you to everyone for your support and feedback! You can listen to the audio recording of the sermon here.

The experience of writing and delivering that sermon has me thinking this morning about the nature of Christian preaching as I understand it. Preaching is deeply personal and relational between:
  • preacher and God
  • preacher and the local congregation/community/parish one serves
  • preacher and the denomination s/he represents, when applicable
Every preacher has their own models for sermon development, and ministry in general. Some preachers consider preaching the least important part of their work; they are more caregivers, for example. Others see preaching as a mode for teaching, so the sermon has more of a lecture style. From the beginning of my ministry, I decided preaching best fit my gifts, and had the capacity to deliver the gospel to the most people. When I was in seminary, all of my electives were geared toward preaching. While my annual conference only required one preaching class, I took three. My other electives were in advanced Bible interpretation. During the late '00s, I felt my preaching beginning to lag somewhat, so I enrolled in a doctoral program with a focus on preaching.

As a pastor, my focus is connecting people with the gospel in everyday ways. So my preaching tends to be grounded in the events of public life. So when something important happens that has clear implications for our Christian faith, I will feel compelled to address it from the pulpit. In fact, the focus of my doctoral project was preaching on specific issues in the news; you can read a few sample posts about that series here. Some believe there should be a separation between the pulpit and the news. Others believe preachers too often neglect events in the everyday where, creating a bubble-like atmosphere in the church. Many voices I heard over the years were ok with news topics being addressed from a faith perspective, as long as what was said matched one's own personal views. I don't recommend this position; you will no doubt be frustrated from time to time!

Because preaching is a deeply personal issue on many levels, it is a public trust. The congregant trusts the preacher's words are inspired by God; the preacher does not manipulate the hearer's faith or emotions for gain. It can take years for this trust to be built, especially when a prophet-like preacher follows a pastor who had less of a focus on preaching. The change can be an adjustment-- not just in worship leadership but also in expectations of how one spends one's time during the week. Good preaching requires many hours of prayer, study, and listening. So priorities may need to be shifted.

For most of my preaching ministry as the lead pastor (2003-2013), I preached in sermon series. These were usually topics I was interested in, or they were geared to reach a new audience (sermons on parenting can be a way to reach young families, for example. I don't do this anymore; I've only been a parent for fifteen years. Someone said to me a while ago: "Until you've raised teenagers, keep your parenting expertise to yourself." Yup.). During my last appointment I became reacquainted with the Lectionary, the three-year cycle of assigned texts for each Sunday. This was the method I was taught in seminary. The Lectionary is great because it builds community across the Church. One knows thousands of other preachers are struggling with the same texts. And it's easy to create sermon series around Lectionary texts. When I came to Grace last summer as a lead pastor once again, I began preaching series based on Lectionary texts. We just finished a summer series from Genesis; I led a 10-week Genesis Bible study for reinforcement. I also preached in a new format. It was very effective. 

The biggest question for preachers who plan series is: how do I know when to break with, or adapt, a series when "stuff happens"? What events are too important to ignore? What is better addressed in the prayer time-- or not at all? How the preacher answers that question is directly related to how h/she understands the role of preaching.

By early Saturday afternoon last weekend, denominational leaders were encouraging pastors to focus their Sunday messages on the Charlottesville tragedy:

This is my bishop; he also sent a note to us promising to "have our backs." I loved that. The bishop of the Florida area of the United Methodist Church said this:

I appreciated these and other encouraging words from our leaders; although throughout Saturday, I knew I was going to change the focus of my sermon, even without the challenge. Fortunately, yesterday's Lectionary gospel text can be interpreted in a variety of ways. This was my process: I went to bed early, after reading all I could stomach about the Charlottesville situation. I set my alarm from 5:00, with the goal of writing out a manuscript (normally I preach without notes). I woke up on my own at 2:15, and wrote until 5:00. By that time there was no point in going back to sleep! So by the time I crashed around 1:30 for my weekly Sunday afternoon nap, I had been awake nearly 12 hours!

I'm saying all of this not for praise, but so others, clergy and layfolk, have a better understanding of the process of sermon development. Encourage your pastor to be faithful to the movement of the Holy Spirit in preaching. Reward them with positive feedback when they take risks. Over my career in pastoral ministry, people have left the church over things I said from the pulpit. Some of them were significant financial contributors. Preachers can feel vulnerable and threatened to speak when inspired to do so. Again, preaching is an issue of trust. Congregants may disagree with comments in a sermon, but if they believe the pastor is authentically inspired by God, they'll usually deal with it. Pastors: teach your congregation, and remind them occasionally, of the purpose of Christian preaching. Be faithful to the gospel and your calling.