On Confirmation Sunday, I was reminded once again of an important truth about preaching. Preaching is most effective when we direct our words not to people but to individual persons. It also helps to speak not as a pastor but as a person who happens to be a pastor.
The events leading up to this reflection began with a standard assignment I ask all confirmation classes. At one point in his ministry, Jesus asked his disciples, “Who do others say that I am?” He followed up this expression of curiosity by asking, “Who do you say that I am?”
It is useful to know what others say about Jesus, especially the Gospel writers, and so we spend time looking into that. But ultimately, affirmation of faith comes down to that second question. Setting aside any notion of a correct answer, who do you say Jesus is?
This was the first year the class turned that question back on me. Several of them asked me point-blank, “Who do you say Jesus is?”
I made a deal with them. I would not answer — yet. It’s too easy to think there is a correct answer, that the pastor has this answer and that this is what they are supposed to believe. But if they made the effort of wrestling honestly with that question themselves and then shared their answer with me, I would share my answer with them in my sermon on Confirmation Day.
They lived up to their part of the deal, so I had to live up to mine. The Confirmation sermon resonated more than usual with listeners. I think the reason is because I wrote that sermon for individual persons. I did not write it for a nebulous audience known as my congregation. I did not send it out into the blogosphere to faceless unknowns. I did not deliver that sermon to any particular demographic. I did not give a sermon that people need to hear.
I wrote it with individuals in mind, whose faces I could picture as I did so.
I did not deliver it as a pastor whose job is to occupy the pulpit and dispense the Gospel or wisdom and inspiration. Instead, I thought of the sermon as sharing a personal witness, from one person to another. Heart to heart.
The danger in personal witness is a tendency to make the story all about me. So I made a point of not telling any stories about myself or my life. All I did was try to answer the question Jesus, and the confirmation students, asked of me as honestly, as thoughtfully and joyfully as I could. This is me sharing with you, one on one, what happened as I wrestled with this question — this is where my mind and heart went.
The most effective sermons are one-on-one communication. That’s why there is a danger in using sermon slides, as my congregation does. Sermon slides often fall into the category of mass communication, or at least group communication. If not used judiciously, they tend to get between the speaker and the listener. They are not particularly effective as teaching points. They are effective only when this is a picture I want to share with you, person to person.
The art of giving a sermon is the ability to communicate one-on-one with many people simultaneously. That may not make complete sense. But anyone who relies on the Holy Spirit for guidance lives in a world of mystery, a world in which that is possible.
In Nathan Aaseng’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Preaching Life,” a writer and preacher reflects on the rhythms of preaching in a parish in central Wisconsin.