When I arrived at seminary, I had a major problem understanding the task of preaching.
Throughout my professional career as a writer, there were certain flaws in style that were considered especially amateurish, undisciplined, and ineffective. Being called out for one of these basic level criticisms would be mortifying. One of the worst things an editor could say about a piece of writing was that it was “preaching:”
- Preaching is the term for what happens when the writer takes on the air of the know-it-all.
- A preacher stands high above the audience.
- A preacher shows so little respect for that audience that he or she claims the right to tell them not only what is true (whether opinion or not) but how to act and what to think.
- A preacher’s ego gets in the way of, and often overwhelms the message.
- Preaching is the level of discourse that parents often take with small children, and it is not an effective way of communicating even with them.
So here I walk into seminary where preaching is considered not only a good thing, but the crown jewel of a pastor’s existence. I hear that preaching is a great responsibility and a privilege. It is the unique task to which a pastor is called and the primary way in which we are to witness to the message of the Gospel.
This posed a huge dilemma for me. My time in the pulpit is my best chance to communicate the message of the Gospel. Yet I know that preaching is a terrible form of communication. How can I stand up there and use a form of communication that I know to be disrespectful, amateurish, and ineffective?
The way out of this dilemma came to me in a quotation from a book in Dr. Martinson’s Pastoral Care class at Luther Seminary. It has stuck with me, even though I cannot remember which book it came from or even quote it exactly. The gist of it was: “The preacher is the person whom the congregation sends to the Scriptures on its behalf to see if God has a word to speak to them this week.”
Now there is a task and a role that I can handle in good conscience. As the preacher, I am not the know-it-all, ladling wisdom from my vast pitcher of knowledge into the empty heads of those sitting before me.
All I am doing is giving the report that these people staring at me have assigned me to give. They have asked me to go to the lectionary readings this week on their behalf. They have entrusted me with the task of wrestling with and pondering those words, to open myself to the power of the spirit to see what God might be saying through those words to these people in this time and place.
The sermon is the result of my struggle to carry out that task. Nothing more, nothing less.
This understanding of the task of the preacher gives me the perspective and the humility I need in order to have a chance at delivering a timely message in an effective way.