Reflection on Preaching

This reflection on preaching was completed for my Preaching course in Winter 2011.

Images of the Preacher

Long (18-51) identifies four basic images of what it means to be a preacher: the herald, the pastor, the storyteller, and the witness. For the first three, he refers to images presented in works of others. Each of these I feel like are incomplete images, just as Long felt they were incomplete images.

The herald is somebody who declares the divine words, verbatim, to everybody throughout the kingdom. On its own, this image would imply that every audience and every preacher is the same and the only thing that matters is the message of God.  While I highly emphasize the importance of the message of the sermon being grounded in the message of God, it is an incomplete image to say that God’s message will be the exact same to every person across all circumstances. If that were the case, then the message of the Bible would be sufficient and we would not need to preach at all but would rather only ever need to read those texts aloud. Preaching as a herald can lead to a blindness to what is really going on in the congregation, which can be not only ineffective but sometimes outright damaging, as the Word you choose to preach that day could be the exact opposite of what the congregation needs at that moment.

The other extreme is that of the pastor, making the primary task of preaching to be the care of the congregation. This presents the opposite benefit but also the opposite danger of the herald image, making the preaching task entirely determined by the congregation and leaving God out of the picture.  This has the potential to be at least as dangerous, if not more, than the herald image. In this image it would be very easy to justify being “nice” to the congregation, which I fundamentally believe is not always the same thing as being good to the congregation. I see the pastor image as being focused on making people feel good, which can have the tendency to lead into dangerous areas such as prosperity gospel teaching. When God is left out of the picture, it is a challenge to see beyond the immediate hurts and needs of the congregation in order to provide them with the real growth of good teaching which does require being pushed out of their comfort zone.

The story-teller image I’ll admit simply does not work for me. The focus is on the literary style more than on the message and I have experienced far too many sermons that were eloquently spoken but I came away from having felt like nothing was learned. I have felt wrapped up in an interesting story, but then the sermon ended – I never saw any meaningful message for me or the congregation in that story, the preacher did not provide one, and I am left wondering whether he/she had one or not. This style, generally speaking, I think addresses the heart more than the head or the will, and allows for people to walk out feeling good. I don’t deny the importance of that, but I tend to leave feeling like I had wasted my time if it is only the heart spoken to every single week. I’m probably coming at it from a very slanted perspective because of how many sermons I’ve heard like this, but I have a hard time speaking as highly of this image as Long does. To me it is a case of theory versus experience: Long’s arguments for the image make perfect sense so I can embrace it in theory, but rarely when I think of preacher as story-teller is it a positive thing from my experience.

Finally, Long provides his own image, that of the witness. I would agree with Long that it is the most complete of the four images he presents. Of the other three images, I would most lean towards the herald while acknowledging that it is very incomplete. I think the witness image maintains the strengths of the herald image without inheriting its weaknesses as well. Fundamentally the message is still coming from God but not carrying the connotation of a strict dictation that is immune to congregational circumstance. I think that the herald idea is required to keep the preacher grounded in the Word of God (and by that I mean the message of God, not strictly the Bible), but it would be equally foolish to deny the needs of the congregation, so the witness image puts these two concepts together very well.

The image I may like best of all, however, is that of the midwife. The midwife does not create the baby, but only delivers the baby, as a preacher does a message. The baby is both a gift of God and a direct reproduction of his or her parents; similarly the message is both a gift of God and a result of the needs of the congregation. Like a midwife then gives the baby to the parents, the preacher then gives the message to the congregation. Sometimes the parents are not ready to receive the baby, just as sometimes a congregation is not spiritually able to receive a message from God. This image thus captures far more interplay between God, preacher, and congregation than do any of the others.

Influential People

The first significantly influential person in my life toward my view of preaching was Harry Morgan, pastor of the Haliburton United Pastoral Charge in which I grew up. During my teenage years, I began to appreciate his preaching in particular and listening to sermons in general. If it were not for Harry, I would probably not be a Christian, or at least would not be regularly listening to a couple different preachers every week through podcast (see below), and would definitely not be studying preaching in a master’s program. Although my theologies have slowly shifted so I do not always agree with Harry on all points any more, I still appreciate when I hear him speak, both for his technique and for his well-grounded messages.

Looking back at those sermons – and the occasional one more recently as I return to those churches two or three times a year – there are definitely some lessons I could learn for my own preaching. One thing that I greatly appreciate is being able to say a point gently. I would always prefer a preacher say something that I disagree with, so long as I had the freedom to openly disagree, than walk out of the service with nothing to think about. When I was home over the Christmas Break and heard one of his sermons, I didn’t agree with everything he said, but nonetheless I came out feeling like it was one of the better sermons I’d heard – at least in person – in quite a while. It challenged some of my views of God, and I was left with things to think about for the next few days. Although I didn’t that time, I also know that it would have been no offense to him whatsoever if I set up an appointment to debate his sermon with him. He presents in a way that is strong yet gentle, and that is something that I aim to emulate.

The first of two preachers that I listen to on a weekly basis over podcast is Bruxy Cavey of The Meeting House chain of churches throughout Ontario. I have been following these over the Internet for a few years because of the amazing depth of his sermons, as well as those of the other less-frequent preachers at The Meeting House. Over and over again I hear people – particularly in the mainline – say that nobody wants to hear a sermon longer than 15 minutes any more, but I find Bruxy and the rest of The Meeting House team to be a counter-argument.  Even listening on my own through my computer or BlackBerry, lacking the community of others joining me in listening, I find it no problem to be engaged for 45 minutes. I don’t think that length of time really has anything to do with whether people want to listen to a preacher – I think people are eager for good messages and will gladly sit for 45 minutes if they are being lovingly challenged.

In our first class we talked about preaching needing to reach heart, will, and mind, but arguably the most important in our current culture is mind because we simply do not know the intellectual aspects as we used to: the biblical texts, the church’s history, theological positions, etc. What I find so encouraging for my own spiritual growth, as well as for the state of preaching in North America as a whole, is that in the 3 or 4 years I have been listening to Meeting House sermons weekly, I don’t think there have been more than five where I felt like I didn’t learn anything.  Yet it is not a dry intellectualism, either, as there are still clear points of application every week; I can always leave with a sense of what it means it for me in day-to-day life.

The other preacher I am finding more influential has been a more-recent discovery in Greg Boyd of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota. The same can be said of Greg and others of his team as of Bruxy in a couple respects. His sermons also run at about 45 minutes long but still feel like an easy listen. I feel like I can learn something every week. As I have already reflected on the value of those things with Bruxy, I will leave those comments at that.

What I would also add for Greg is passion. In some ways, we often mock that passion which is typically associated with the United States, and particularly the Southern United States. I am often sceptical myself because that passion is too often associated with anger or judgement. When I listen to Greg’s preaching, though, I get genuinely excited about God, and if I ever end up preaching myself, I hope to be able to re-create that excitement in others. I would also add that although Bruxy does speak to the will as well, Greg is especially strong at completely shifting my paradigm of thinking about the world. I have only been following Woodland Hills’ podcasts for about two months, but I find myself going back to messages I heard even in early December and still wrestling with new applications for my life.

Preaching as God’s Word

I know that Christians debate the definition of what the Word of God is, and that is a very healthy debate to be having, I believe. For some it is strictly the Bible, or for others, it may be the Bible plus church tradition, or the Bible plus preaching from anybody ordained, or probably any number of other definitions. For me, I would define the Word of God as the message of God, and I would be hesitant to constrain that message to any one source. I believe that the life of Jesus was the fullest expression of God’s Word to us – Jesus is first and foremost the incarnate Word – and we know the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus primarily through the Bible. Yet I think the Word of God could come in other ways, too, such as wisdom of the saints past and present, or charismatic gifts, or coincidental “signs” in our daily life, or lots of other ways as well. I don’t believe God is limited in the way that he speaks to us.

What a preacher says, to me, is not the fullest expression of God’s Word in the same sense as existed in the life of Jesus. We are image-bearers of God, albeit flawed ones, so we still speak out of our relationship with God. I believe as with so many things in the spiritual life, preaching is a partnership between God and the preacher. I think it is the preacher’s word in some sense as well because a broken image-bearer will not perfectly reflect the fullest image, but I do see the Holy Spirit at work, interacting with the preacher both in his or her preparation and in his or her delivery of the sermon. I believe that when a preacher is truly speaking out of a relationship with God, it is hard to define where the word of the preacher ends and the Word of God begins.

Denominational Views of the Preacher

As a teenager, my first experiences with hearing preaching were in the United Church of Canada. It was a small-town United Church, where preaching was highly respected by also relatively casual. Harry would usually wear the stole, but it was a small church where realistically everybody could call each other a friend, and if it happened to start to fall off he would also have no problem making a joke out of removing it. He used notes but no manuscript, and as somebody who attended two of the three points of the Pastoral Charge (my mom was the organist at those two), I know that he modified his sermons on the fly from one congregation to the next. In the United Church I am currently attending, there is far more formality: the preacher wears a robe, does not move around, and works strongly from a manuscript.

In both, as well as a Canadian Baptist Church I attended throughout the majority of my undergraduate degree, I got a similar sense of the role of the preacher. The vibe of the congregation to me both times seemed that the pastor was clearly higher in some sense, although not more inherently valuable. This makes sense with what I know of the Reformed tradition as a whole: nobody is more special to God, and even the preachers make mistakes, but there is clearly some extra sense of hierarchy by virtue of the call to preach. His or her words do carry more weight simply because they are the preacher, especially if they are ordained for ministry. Preaching is generally the centre of the service, which is also reflected in the architecture with the pulpit usually in the middle or just a bit to the side of the centre.

I now identify myself with the Anabaptist tradition, which is also represented by Bruxy Cavey as mentioned earlier. Since I have only attended The Meeting House in person once, it is hard to speak to the sense of how the congregation views the preacher.  Based on what I hear in the sermons and my general knowledge of Anabaptist theology, however, I get the sense that the Anabaptist tradition has a slightly lower view of the preacher. This makes sense within the Arminian framework without the same kind of emphasis on “the calling.” The preacher’s words may carry more weight than the average Christian, but that has nothing to do with a calling or a special ordained status. Rather, it is a simple matter of education and preparation: as somebody who has studied, achieved the degree, achieved ordination, and spent a great deal of time researching for every particular sermon, they simply know more on this particular subject. Preaching is still usually the centre of the service and that is still usually evident in the order of service and in the position of the pulpit, but for different reasons, and I do think it allows more freedom to disagree.

Disciplines to Nourish a Preaching Life

I am recently beginning to see the extent to which one must intentionally work on their own spiritual development in order to be effective in ministry, whether congregational or otherwise. This may be especially true of the task of preaching in which we endeavour to deliver the Word of God to people eagerly (and some not as eagerly) listening for something that will change their lives for the better. If we do not take the time to nourish our own spiritual life, how can we claim to be of assistance to others in their spiritual lives? Using Long’s witness image, imagine attempting to be a witness for something which we have never experienced. Simply put, it wouldn’t work.

Recently in a video I watched on spiritual disciplines as part of a small group, it referred to the reading of Scripture and to prayer as the two bedrock disciplines. I would agree with this statement, making the distinction that familiarity with Scripture will often underlie your intellectual basis of a sermon and prayer will underlie the relational basis of a sermon. To these two, I would also love to add the concept of imagination, as Taylor speaks about in Chapter 4, and briefly mention some other spiritual disciplines as well.

Looking at the first, if I were to begin a sermon based on a small segment of Scripture without knowledge of what other Scripture has to say about the same themes, then it would be very easy to misinterpret. Having both a broad sense of all of Scripture makes sure you don’t miss the forest because of the trees. Information is important: if we don’t know the story of God found in Scripture, we cannot possibly share this story with others who are looking to us for it. Thus, as a tool for communicating to the congregation, being familiar with Scripture is one of the two key starting points for nourishing a preaching life.

I would agree that prayer is the other bedrock for both the layperson and for the preacher.  Prayer is not simply conversational, but is a relational concept that extends far past informational exchange. To be regularly communing with God in prayer – to pray without ceasing as Paul would say – grounds us in a profoundly counter-cultural relational paradigm for the world. If we get caught up in Scripture alone, the information can be dry, and the quest of preaching can be simply to pass on more information. In the real spiritual lives of us and of the congregation, this doesn’t do any good by itself.  Especially for those of us who have committed ourselves to the academic study of theology and ministry, it is challenging to maintain this relational paradigm and is very tempting to slide into the academic or informational paradigm. This is a challenge that must be regularly met with deliberate attempts to counter and the basic form of this is communal prayer: prayer that brings us into the very presence of God.

Chapter 4 of Barbara Brown Taylor’s “The Preaching Life” talks about imagination.  This is a challenge for me as I am a very scientifically-minded person. I like my life to be fairly organized and I appreciate routine. I am simply not a creative person. That’s why I really liked Taylor’s look at the role of imagination, even while (or maybe because of) finding the idea challenging to me personally. Human beings are not just rational – we are also creative, and we are also designed to play. I think this is a key point for a true spiritual discipline of Sabbath: not just avoiding work because we’re exhausted and we crash but actually celebrating the joyful things in life. Many pastors take Monday off after their big day on Sunday, but as I think about the meaning of taking a Sabbath, I am inclined to make sure that my Sabbaths are not just being mindless in front of movies and television shows. Even for the scientifically-minded introvert like me, it is necessary to play in order to be truly rejuvenated. And we cannot rejuvenate others without being rejuvenated ourselves, as it leaves us open to passionately and lovingly stand up and preach what we hear God saying to the congregation.

I think of other spiritual disciplines as well. Fasting is a valuable way to ground ourselves in our finitude, and this may be especially valuable in denominations in which preaching is highly esteemed. It is a reminder that we are not higher than the congregation, but that God is. Fasting is an exercise in relinquishing control, which is precisely what is needed to allow God control over a sermon. The same can be said of practical acts of service, whether in the church or elsewhere in the community. I also think of the importance of self-awareness, because if we don’t know ourselves, it is easy to preach what we happen to think or feel that day and not what God is really saying to us for the congregation. Keeping ourselves grounded in God, through these and other disciplines, enables us to help others stay grounded. We must nurture our own spiritual life if we are ever able to provide effective preaching.

Ryan Robinson

It is easiest to identify Ryan as both theologian and tech guy. By day, Ryan is a Technical Consultant work with PeaceWorks Technology Solutions. There, he works on websites, CRMs, and SharePoint implementations. Along with blogging here, Ryan is a founding member of the MennoNerds blogging network and a contributor to the book A Living Alternative.