I’ve just gone through the most active season of preaching that I’ve ever experienced, having preached on four of the past five Sundays. Someday in the near future, I’ll be a regular preacher and having Sundays off will be the special occasion. But in this moment of respite I have a chance to reflect back on what and how I’ve done, as well as process the feedback I’ve received from various people. This blog post is something of a summary of what I’ve learned about preaching these past couple months.
First of all, the word itself. The concept of preaching comes from the biblical Greek word κηρύσσω (kerusso) which literally means ‘to proclaim.’ It’s also related to the word kerygma, which is a proclamation, particularly of the Christian of faith. Preaching, basically, is a tool in the work of discipleship – it’s a way that Christian elders, pastors, priests, or any other sort of minister who is able, can speak in such a way that the Body of Christ is built up. Now, because the Bible is reliably and unquestioningly the word of God, it is the natural source from which a preacher should derive his or her message, but preaching is not necessarily expounding a particular verse, chapter, or section of the Bible.
Rather, preaching is about proclamation. Preachers proclaim the faith of the Church or the truth of God. There are many ways that one could go about parsing out how to go about this, but I’d like to start with the summary of God’s Law according to Jesus: love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. With that in mind, I’ve found it makes sense that Christian preaching needs to reach our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. In other words, preaching needs to 1) stir up our love for God and neighbor, 2) elicit deeper faith, 3) teach us new things, and 4) inspire us to ethical Christian living.
Stirring up our love for God and neighbor… that’s the newest lesson I’ve begun to grasp from my mentor (my overseeing priest while I’m a Lay Pastor). He asked me a question that I’d never heard before: “How are the people supposed to feel after your sermon?” I grew up in a church that was not very ‘enthusiastic’ in the charismatic sense; emotional outpourings were not the norm by any means, and were probably somewhat stifled. Additionally, this is New England; being outwardly emotional isn’t really part of our culture like it is in other parts of the country. Nevertheless, the Christian life has a critical foundation in the spiritual gift of love, and preaching ought to connect with, support, and grow that relational aspect of our faith and religion. This is the biggest challenge before me as I continue to grow in my pastoral identity and learn how to be a better preacher.
Secondly, preaching to stir up faith is something I’m familiar with, but not something I’ve always liked. “Altar calls” at the end of sermons were rare at the church in which I grew up, but they did crop up on occasion. Again, it’s a counter-cultural thing in New England; we don’t like drawing public attention to ourselves for the most part. That and we’re generally under the assumption that if you’ve bothered to show up to church, you’re probably a Christian already and don’t need to be called upon to repent, convert, and so on. As I’ve matured, I’ve realized that my attitude was somewhat naive… you never know who needs to hear a call to repentance and conversion. And beyond that, all Christians need refreshment and reminders of their faith. We need spiritual food from God’s word. Yes, the Sacrament of the Eucharist is spiritual food, but the Word & Sacrament together make an especially healthy diet. This is also a challenge for me – remembering not to take the gospel for granted when I preach. I ought to be on the lookout for how to speak to the soul when I preach.
Preaching as teaching, now, is something I’ve got down just fine. My mentor told me today that my last sermon this Sunday was the most heavy, rich, and academic delivery I’ve preached yet. That sermon was so prepared to inform the peoples’ minds that they couldn’t take it all in! Obviously that’s both a compliment and a criticism – I went overboard on the teaching side of preaching. That’s partly a symptom of who I am (being a semi-academic myself), and of the preaching I experienced for the first 20 years of my life. For sure, good preaching needs to inform and stretch the minds; it’s an important aspect of the Christian life and the human being, but preaching is bigger than just teaching.
Finally, there’s preaching as exhortation to Christian living. When I was in college and early in seminary, I had an idea of preaching that was “teaching+application.” First you explain what the Bible says, then you apply it to their lives. If the application went really well it’d result in something that the people could actually physically do (or refrain from doing). That has since expanded to this category of Christian living, especially in terms of ethics or “good works.” We, as Christians, are called to live biblically, according to the Law of Christ in God’s word. Preaching should help us, remind us, train us, equip us to do so.
Quickly summarizing (and rearranging) these four points, preaching needs to inform the head, heart, hands, and spirit. I’ve been brainstorming ways these can be accomplished:
- Head: teaching doctrine, the Bible, a catechism
- Heart: linking to other acts of worship, expounding God’s love, relating on-topic heart-warming stories
- Hands: identifying moral lessons, illustrating through real-life examples, suggesting ministry opportunities
- Spirit: bringing it back to Jesus’ incarnation, sacrifice, death, resurrection, ascension, or return
Disclaimer: I don’t mean to suggest that every proclamation of God’s truth must address all four of these categories. How these four are balanced in the overall preaching/public discipling should be complementary to the disposition of the congregation. Generally, people are different, and everyone needs to be fed as frequently and completely as possible.
Of course, I’d welcome feedback as I expand these ideas. Much of this is still theory on paper that I’m still working out how to realize in my preaching and teaching.