Practical Preaching and Pastoral Priorities

In my last post I was sharing with pastors, and any other interested readers, my personal views on preaching, including making an appeal for more “evangelistic preaching,” by which I meant Christ-centered preaching and preaching for a verdict. In a broader sense this would also include more preaching on major biblical themes, with the hope of transforming “hearers of the Word” into “doers of the Word” (i.e. followers of Jesus who realize that the teachings of scripture are meant for practical use, which includes taking the social implications of the gospel seriously). Doing justly, showing mercy, and demonstrating the compassion of Jesus Christ in a ministry of unconditional love, forgiveness, and acceptance — not only a ministry of proclamation, but application.

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The calling of pastors is to much more than the ministry of preaching, but that is where pastoral ministry usually begins. In fact, if it does not begin there, it ordinarily does not begin. Before a pastor is called in most denominations there is usually a Pastor Nominating Committee that hears every candidate preach. Historically speaking, there has always been what most parishioners have called a “trial sermon.” I confess I have never liked that term, probably because I have never wanted to think of myself as being on trial. The fact that I grew up in the Methodist Church, where preachers are assigned to churches, rather than called by the congregation may also have something to do with my aversion to so-called “trial sermons.” Most of all I have always believed in the particularity of every call, not only an initial call to the Ministry of the Word and Sacraments, but a call to every particular church I have been privileged to serve.

Furthermore, I have always given preaching a high place on my list of pastoral responsibilities, because Scripture says it is of “first importance” (I Corinthians 15:3) — the plain preaching of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In a day when philosophy and politics have invaded the pulpit, when sermons have become so issue oriented with “good views” frequently substituted for the “Good News”, and with theological jargon so often obscuring basic Christian truth, I believe we pastors need to understand that, with the exception of the Holy Spirit illuminating the Word of God, the greatest asset we have in preaching may be plain speech. The late C.S Lewis told of a young parson in the Church of England whom he heard close a sermon like this: “My dear friends, if you do not accept this Christological truth, there may be for you grave eschatological consequences.” Dr. Lewis says he asked him after the worship service if he meant his listeners would be in danger of hell if they did not believe what he had said about Christ. When the preacher said, “Yes”, he responded, “Then why didn’t you say so?”

As pastors, in our preaching ministry we are called to make the truths of the gospel plain. We are not called to impress our hearers with our wisdom and eloquence. The Apostle Paul, the greatest preacher in the Early Church, is very plain spoken when he reminds his friends in the Corinthian church, “When I came to you, brothers and sisters, I did not come proclaiming the mystery of God in lofty words of wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified…My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God” (I Corinthians 2:1-5).

In the preceding chapter Paul had already warned those Greeks who prided themselves on their wisdom, and expected any speaker asking for their attention to speak with the tongue of human eloquence: “The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to all who are being saved, it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise’…Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs, and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom” (i.e. human reason, which our own age exalts, and which has become one of the major dogmas of our modern world), “and God’s weakness is stronger than human power” (which this world covets) (I Corinthians 1:18-25).

No one ever entered the kingdom of God head first! No one has ever reasoned his or her way into an intimate relationship with the true and living God, who has been revealed most fully in the person of the historical Jesus, “The Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). The question that every preacher should ask himself or herself, when examining their ministry year after year is not “Have my people been impressed with my preaching,” but “Have they been inspired by my preaching?” — not only, “Have they been sufficiently challenged by my preaching,” but “Have they been significantly changed? Do they have a deeper understanding of who Jesus Christ is, what He accomplished by His death on the cross, and by His resurrection? Are they more committed to becoming disciples, faithful followers of Jesus out there in the world? Is their commitment to Christ more evident in their character and conduct, not only in the church, but in their family life, and in all their relationships?”

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How are pastors going to be able to answer these questions truthfully if they do not even know their people? And how are they going to get acquainted with their people if they do not consider pastoral calling important? Oh, I know all of the excuses busy pastors offer for not visiting, for not taking the time to sit down with members of their churches on their homes, for not carving time out of their full schedules to get acquainted with those to whom they preach Sunday after Sunday —especially if they are the senior pastors of large churches. Yes, I know because I have been there. I have served both small and large churches, from fifty members to five thousand members, and I have learned there is no way to preach most effectively (i.e. practical preaching which is speaking to the needs of your people) if you do not know your people and their needs. The question is, how can any pastor who spends most of his or her time in the office, and seldom, if ever, in the homes of members, ever really get to know his or her people? How can their pastoral ministry include such things as crisis intervention, the ministry of presence, a ministry of compassion and caring, a ministry of intercessory prayer except by “secondhand” information passed on by other staff members who are responsible for pastoral calling and visitation?

I believe strongly that every pastor’s preaching should include sermon series that share healthy and helpful biblical responses to the crises of life. For this task to be most effective pastors need to know the kind of struggles and suffering, the types of crises and conflicts, their people are dealing with. How else can pastors hurt with those who hurt? How else can they bear the burdens of those in their congregations who are victims of abuse, going through grief (not just from death, but from divorce, the loss of a job, bankruptcy, or any other loss)? How can they provide pastoral care for those who dealing with any life struggles that are testing their faith, causing them to question the sovereignty and goodness of God, to wonder whether God really answers prayer, to ask such questions as, “What has happened to God?” Yes, these are questions that can dealt with from the pulpit in our preaching ministry, but this is no substitute for the personal touch, for warmth, for loving and caring, for the ministry of presence.

Furthermore, I must add that I do not believe pastors can really make themselves understood unless they understand their people. The most effective communication requires knowing where your people have been as well as speaking to them where they now are, and challenging them to go in the direction you believe God is calling you in your shared life in Christ’s Church. I believe the best test of every pastor’s ministry is how they use the spiritual gifts God has given them to help the people entrusted to their care to grow toward spiritual maturity in Christ, to not only help build up the church to which they belong, but to also live by faith every day of their lives, in the midst of life’s changing circumstances.

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