What's the deal with preaching

Sunday was one of those days. I stood in the pulpit, looked out over the congregation, began my sermon, and promptly forgot what I was going to say. Anguish crept across the blank fields of my mind as I frantically, but calmly, looked through the outline before me.

Then, when I found my place, I got so off track that all I could do was skip a few lines and hope that I didn't lose anyone. It was both a liberating and frightening experience, and all I can see is the blank stares of those awaiting to hear "a good word."

The sermon, in my estimation, sucked. It felt disjointed, poorly executed, and for someone who likes to leave some loose ends, this one felt incomplete. Of course, during the obligatory handshaking and back slapping following the service, people who don't normally talk to me came up and told me what a wonderful message it was. It felt like most of them were genuine, but in my world of harsh internal criticism they're all liars.

I am grateful for their words; I let some of them in, and they did soothe the wounds of my weary soul. But others felt fake, like the people felt sorry for the poor preacher who couldn't pull it off; like I'd somehow dropped the game winning pass in the end-zone during the Super Bowl. No one who wishes to feel effective in the pulpit should carry this kind of weight on their shoulders.

Dave at The Grace Pages got me thinking about the role of preaching in communities of faith. After posting a comment there, I wanted to reiterate some of the things I shared about preaching and how I think it should be re-defined.

My understanding of preaching is more formalized than some of the other conversations that I have read recently. I do not believe that street evangelism (Brandon at Bad Christian has a post on this) is preaching at all. Standing on a street corner "proclaiming" the word of God is not preaching, it is more like a pop-up ad for God. That is more an annoying nuisance than an authentic encounter with the living God. Therefore, I limit my definition of preaching to that which is done before a community of faith, whereby the preacher has a relationship with, a genuine concern for, and a sense of accountability to those who gather with him or her each week.

Therefore, the question that concerns me is, what is preaching? When I prepare each week, I do several things. A simplified version is: I read the text (usually a lectionary passage so that I am not just doing "topical" stuff) and then I let it simmer in my brain for a day or two. I think about how this text plays out in our world today. (ie - this most recent sermon was on the temptations of Christ, I saw a common thread in the temptations as being the arrogance to live a life where we are in power and control over others, versus the life of love and healing and hospitality that we are called to live). I start at the end, and then work my way forward. I see things in newspaper (this past week I stated that I believed the new social security plans were nothing more than rhetoric that furthers us down a path of self-involvement rather than care for our community), I hear things on the radio, in songs, and in my own life and in the lives of others. I try and find a variety of ways of connecting with the experiences behind the faces that stare at me each Sunday. But it all comes down to authenticity and transparency, the ability to be genuine about my encounter with scripture without the sermon being about me.

Ultimately, I see preaching as a narrative tool used to connect the various experiences of a community of faith to an experience of the "word of God" (not always comfortable with that phrase). My role is as facilitator and mediator of my experiences and journeys with the text and how it might connect with others in the congregation.

At times that has moved me to enter the congregation and ask questions, sometimes I tell stories about messy failures or successes, mostly I try help people connect around one key word or phrase that can be translated into their personal language of experience. I don't believe in flashy presentations, smoke, mirrors, and bullet points on an overhead. I believe in being honest and authentic about the struggles that I face, that we face, that we create when we irresponsibly head off into the world and practice our faith.

I don't like to tie things up in neat packages and simplistic rules of faith. Since when has life been about following 7 steps to salvation? For me, preaching is at its best when it presents an open ended idea or question and then allows communities of faith do the work of connecting scripture to their experiences. Then people get the idea that faith is a messy proposition that is not to be undertaken lightly. There are no easy answers in this world, and there shouldn't be any easy ones in sermons either.

Finally, I believe that people learn differently, and sometimes the greatest sermons are not heard but instead register deep within our hearts through a different sort of communication. Preaching is not just standing in a puplit. Preaching is also serving, volunteering, listening, caring, and loving our way through our relationships with one another. At its best, preaching is what happens when life connects with that concept God we hold within us. At its worst, preaching comes from a disembodied, disconnected voice that gives simple answers to difficult questions, or becomes abusive and corrupt through rigidity and lack of forward thinking.

grace and peace



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