When it comes to the pulpit, I am generally not a “rules” person.
After all, “rules” are generally not meant to be flexible and fluid; by their very nature rules are meant to limit, create boundaries, and exert control. So when it comes to the pulpit, I am even less convinced that there are many rules that make one a better or worse preacher. Tactics, sure. Practices, okay. But rules? No thank you!
Yeah, you know what’s coming.
I do have one rule about preaching — Love them.
Keep in mind, I did not say “like them,” or “agree with them,” or “don’t poke and prod at places of comfort and complacency” but — LOVE THEM.
Before I go too far, I want to acknowledge that there is always the possibility that a relationship becomes so toxic and destructive that one or more of the parties involved must walk away. So, please, if you find yourself embroiled in a personal relationship, congregational environment, or any other aspect of the calling that is slowly draining your soul of every drop of joy, you should feel free to hop on the next teleporter out of Dodge.
But … assuming that most congregational settings are not First Church of Destruction, Despair, and Derangement, the most effective strategy to ensure that your preaching will make an impact is to make sure that the people to whom you are preaching know that, at the end of the day, at their deepest moments of despair, and/or at points of brokenness and struggle that you, their pastor, love them.
In my own preaching I have found that when I have pushed on hard issues, congregational, social, or personal, no matter how strong the disagreement; as long as that person or family knew that if they needed the church to be present during a time of struggle or celebration, we could work through it together. My love for them, and my role as their pastor, in some ways trumped my own need for us to agree.
This mutual forbearance was reciprocated time and time again, as I sat by the bedside of people as their earthly lives were coming to an and — people with whom I have vehemently disagreed with about everything from how I was “running” the church, to who should be “allowed” to be in leadership, to the very nature of Jesus. It was during these tender moments when life and death began to converge that our mutual humanity, commitment to community and love for one another as created creature of God demanded us to be the Body of Christ — to be love, and to be loved.
It was in these moments that I learned what meant to not only be an effective preacher, but to understand that no matter what I said from the pulpit, if people didn’t believe that I loved them, no amount of powerful oration or linguistic fortitude would make a difference.
So yes, preach with the fire of the prophet, the compassion of the pastor, the spirit of the priest, and the imagination of the poet as each of these will impact and move each person differently. And as you do, do so built on a foundation of love — your love for them, their love for you, and your shared love of the church you are striving to be.
Bruce Reyes-Chow’s bimonthly Working Preacher column, “Preaching Wholeness,” is all about proclaiming harmony and hope in a world of division and discord.