I have been on more call committees in my life than I care to admit.
One thing I noted in looking over the mobility papers of clergy is that roughly 95% of pastors, in my denomination at least, consider preaching to be one of their strengths. I have often been curious as to how this corresponds with what our listeners think. Are we really anywhere near as good as we imagine ourselves to be? Could some of the greatest obstacles to good preaching be pride or even self-delusion?
It’s no use pretending that preaching is not a matter of pride to most pastors. In a way, it should be, given the emphasis our traditions place on proclamation of the Word. We should take preaching seriously and focus a large share of our efforts on it, develop ways to be effective, and recognize when we are being effective.
Those who believe that merely showing up and proclaiming the Word is all the opening the Spirit needs to work, fail to admit the truth that glazed-over eyes are as much a barrier to the Word as ears that refuse to hear. Good preaching is a skill that can be honed with hard work and imagination, and it can be effective in accomplishing what mediocre preaching cannot.
The downside of this matter of pride is that it turns preaching into a performance — the Christian tribute to rugged individualism. Preaching becomes a solo endeavor. The sermon becomes the artist at work. That time in the pulpit is your moment to shine. It’s how you put your own personal stamp on the Word. It’s how you make your reputation. In that sense, preaching becomes a competitive adventure. Any pride issue is, by nature, competitive. Pride demands that we compare favorably to some thing or some one.
Here’s the problem I see with this lone-wolf, maestro-in-the pulpit. You can, week in and week out, have the most effective, inspiring, life-changing sermons in the world. If the public were all blank slates with no experience with the preaching medium, likely you could accomplish amazing things. Or, perhaps it is more accurate to say that the Spirit could accomplish amazing things.
But if I have given lifeless, uninspiring sermons to my congregation, those who heard them are not receptive to hearing sermons. By anyone. If experience tells young people that sermons are tedious, they will have no interest in hearing you. They will not be inclined to worship with you or anyone else. They will more likely feel their time could be better used catching up on sleep on Sunday morning.
If I have repeatedly failed to connect people to the Word of God through my sermons, you’re not going to get a chance to reel them back in. They’re gone. If hundreds of pastors like me have similarly failed to touch lives in their sermons, how are you going to get anyone outside your dedicated cadre to listen to you? You’re going to deliver your wonderful sermon only to people already inclined to hear it.
No matter how gifted a preacher you are, you are counting on the rest of us to maintain a level of inspiration and edification that opens people to the Word, or at least does not shut them off to the Word. That’s why I love WorkingPreacher.org. It brings us all together. We share, we encourage, we prod, we brainstorm, and we study.
Like it or not, preachers fail as a group or we succeed as a group. We’re all in the pulpit together and (ironically, I guess) I am proud to be a member of the choir of proclaimers.