Pastor Janice gazes out from the pulpit.
She sees Sandra whose business let her go after years of service. Three rows back, she sees Alex who is seeking ways not to lay off people employed in his business, but how?
The preacher sees Bill and Maria whose home is in jeopardy due to ballooning loans. Janice sees Estella who came here after abuse in another congregation. She notices Landon still brooding over his school’s decision to cut the band program.
Pastor Janice asks herself, “How can I create a trusting community given all the betrayals these people have known? How might God’s Word recreate trust?”
Recently theorists have written much on what creates trust in institutions. Their lists vary, yet three broad characteristics surface. People trust institutions when leadership demonstrates:
- equal regard1
To be honest, as a church leader, this list points out my own shortcomings. Yet if we keep our theological bearings, grace arises. But first, their list.
First, people trust those who accomplish what they promise. A leader’s intentions may be pure, but if he cannot make plans become reality, then people won’t trust him.
Second, people trust those who demonstrate good will toward them. A competent leader who is mean-spirited or apathetic is not trusted.
Third, people trust those who act with consistency toward different groups within an institution. Sandra wants to know that the pastor will attend to her with the same commitment that she dedicates toward Alex.
Now the grace! The preacher must not seek first to establish her own trustworthiness in the hearts of her congregation. Rather, God calls her to establish for her hearers the trustworthiness of the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ.
In other words, trust is born in the congregation when preachers proclaim the Gospel faithfully, establishing that God is all-competent and able to bring to fruition the divine promises.
The Word grounds us, as we declare the mighty works of God throughout history. The preacher turns our collective hearts and ears to recall the God who led Israel through the waters toward freedom, who came in the flesh and dwelled among us. The preacher announces the one who raised from the dead the crucified Christ, who makes enemies of God into friends, and who breaks down the dividing walls of hostility. Trust is born as preachers declare the many and various ways that God remembers the divine oaths sworn from generation to generation.
Secondly, we must proclaim that the mighty one is, above all, mighty in mercy.
In Jesus Christ, we encounter a God who is benevolence itself. While good religious people often present God as the judge of us all, we announce that the judge has declared an amnesty for the guilty based on deep grace. We announce with Mary that the one whose outstretched arm is so powerful not only does great things, but has chosen to do great things for you!
As the preacher rises to speak on God’s behalf, the hearers not only are told that God is merciful, they experience mercy and benevolence as it happens in their midst. The friend of sinners comes and welcomes them with wide-open arms.
Finally, the preacher declares that this God loves without measure, showering grace on all without distinction.
The Holy One does not carve up the congregation or the world into us and them. Rather, God sends divine grace to rain on the good and evil, on the outsider as well as the insider, on both friend and foe. This God holds the often contrary hopes and fears of all in divine grace.
The hearers of such proclamation find themselves trusting because of the Word. The preacher announces the one God who can accomplish what is promised, the one who promises mercy for you and then provides mercy for all. In the presence of so much that manages to disgrace and divide us in this life, the God revealed in Jesus comes through the Word to grace us with renewed trust.
Proclaiming this Word faithfully is the first competence that those speaking from the pulpit must possess. Preaching makes the preacher. If the pastor cannot proclaim this Gospel, no other competency matters. Who cares if someone can decorate a house, if no one is there to lay the essential foundation?
Yet the whole ministry of the pastor flows into the pulpit when she stands there. If she treated Landon without compassion in youth group, how can he hear a credible announcement of mercy from her on Sunday morning? How can a hearer grasp the embrace of God proclaimed if God’s messenger crossed her arms and stepped back from him in the narthex?
The lives we live — whether rooted in God’s grace or in human disdain — create the context within which our proclamation is understood.
Jesus calls us to conform our lives to his, offering equal regard to all whom we encounter. Thus we can announce the Word in such a way that it drives Jesus and his mercy home into each particular and idiosyncratic heart.
When we have spoken intentionally not only to Alex, but also to Sandra, to Maria and to Landon, the God of all creation moves toward those who hear. In the Gospel’s proclamation, trust becomes the work of God among us.
1Roger C. Mayer, James H. Davis, and F. David Schoorman, “An Integrative Model of Organizational Trust” in Organizational Trust: A Reader ed. Roderick M. Kramer (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 90-94.