Bridging the Ideal and Reality of Sermon Preparation

February 21st, 2012

When asked about the general method of preaching, John Wesley replied, “To invite, to convince, to offer Christ, to build up; and to do this in some measure in every sermon.”

While we might agree that these components should, in fact, be included in every sermon, we may not necessarily agree on how to get from text to tongue. The act of preaching is not for the timid or the spiritually weak, but requires a complete abandonment to the workings of the Holy Spirit in one’s life and the grace to speak prophetically with Christ’s love. This occurs when the preacher understands that his or her vocation first begins with invocation. When a preacher’s life embodies the living Christ (resulting from a life infused with Christian virtues), preaching becomes much more than mere public speaking and human effort. When the motivating factor for a sermon is love for others, the act of preaching is able to transform into a living sermon.

Seminary students and recent graduates often discover an idealistic love affair between Bible study and preaching. For those embarking upon the exciting journey of inductive Bible study, making seemingly new discoveries in the text through the process of observation, interpretation, and proclamation can be exhilarating moments that serve as another confirmation of one’s call to ministry. The seminary atmosphere fosters theological discovery and biblical introspection. In this spiritual environment, students sometimes feel a bold, prophetic call to hammer home biblical truths to a wayward and lackadaisical Church. Many have confidence to proclaim boldly both the Law and the Gospel.

However, in the actuality of life after seminary, freshman pastors soon discover that the spiritually academic aura of seminary education seems like an ocean away from pastoral ministry.

Conflicting Expectations

Whereas seminary students can dedicate extended blocks of time for theological introspection and prayerful study, in the real world of pastoral ministry, these opportunities are woefully the exception. The ‘people in the pews’ expect their preachers to present thoughtful, engaging, relevant—and yes, entertaining—exhortations from Scripture that take a minimal amount of time to prepare. Meetings, home visits, planning, hospital calls, community engagement, and other important activities in the pastor’s day prohibit the luxury of being able to dedicate many hours each week to prepare the weekly sermon. The temptation for the pastor is to surrender to this time-pressure and prepare a sermon in the shortest amount of time possible in order to fulfill other ministerial duties. But as pastors soon realize, congregations often evaluate pastoral effectiveness on the quality of preaching alone, which drives many pastors to spend an inordinate amount of time preparing for this one public act.

The problem, then, is the difference between the homiletical theory and the ministerial reality. The solution is finding a balance between these two extremes.

If I may be so bold as to compare the task of proclamation with the on-field performance of a professional athlete: Screaming fans care little about how the athlete trained for the game. They simply want the athlete to perform. The many hours of training and studying playbooks behind the scenes are of little interest to most fans. They have an expectation that this preparation has already taken place and the player is ready to go. Likewise, most laity do not care how many ancient languages their seminary-trained pastor can read, they are not interested in the role of a Greek participle in a given sentence, or even what Jürgen Moltmann has to say about eschatology.

Yet, unlike the physical and mental preparation that trains a professional athlete, a cognitive understanding of Scripture and sound theology are not enough to prepare preachers for the task of proclaiming the Word of God. A life of personal and social holiness is key.

Let Your Life Preach

For the most part (and certainly this statement is a generality), when it comes to preaching, laity care little about seminary degrees or letters behind their pastor’s name. They simply want to know that their pastor is prepared and able to proclaim the Word of God. Unlike patients who are comforted by seeing their physician’s medical diploma and recognitions on the walls of the doctor’s office, it is my experience that laity do not look for seminary diplomas proudly displayed in their pastors’ offices. They are looking for what the Apostle Paul writes in Colossians 3:17: someone who represents the Lord Jesus in everything she or he says and does.

How can we preach what we do not exhibit in our own lives? Perhaps this is why we are seeing a renewed interest in the subject of “incarnational preaching,” in which our preaching becomes an extension of who we are. We embody that which we preach. The task of thoughtful and prayerful sermon preparation is ever before us, yet eloquence of speech does not substitute for holiness of heart and life.

A healthy self-understanding is the foundation for our relationship with Christ. A healthy understanding of ourselves helps us discern our motivations, temptations, agendas, and desires. For the act of preaching, this is imperative, for preaching is less about what we do than it is about who we are. A sermon begins with God, is revealed in Scripture, is contextualized in our congregational setting, and is exhibited in the holiness of our lives. Only when we understand this process are we in any condition to attempt the act of preaching.

Let the Spirit Lead

Pastors often ask me how I go about choosing biblical texts from which to preach. In recent years, it has become popular for preachers to plan not individual sermons, but sermon series that typically last from 3-6 weeks. The argument for this approach is that this method allows preachers to cover topics that are relevant to the spiritual needs of the congregation, the congregation’s focus for the year, or the time of year.

Early in my pastoral ministry, I planned sermons for the year around major sermon series. However, several years ago this process began to trouble me for two reasons: 1) I found that I was choosing biblical texts to serve my homiletical needs rather than allowing the Holy Spirit through the text to control the situation; and 2) I found a contradiction in deductively choosing a biblical text and then attempting to observe and interpret the text inductively. For this preacher, discovering the Lectionary served as a cathartic moment in my vocational call. It has allowed me to practice obedience to God by allowing the Holy Spirit to guide the homiletical needs of the congregation. After all, God has a much larger understanding of the local church than I do!

I worry that pastors feel too much pressure to perform in the pulpit. Studies have shown that while no one personality trait exemplifies those in parish ministry, preachers sometimes go out of their way to seek positive reinforcement from congregants. The implications of this temptation is to mold sermons in a way that manipulates the biblical text to either 1) flatter the congregation; or 2) make the pastor the center of the proclamation message. When a rhetorical style or pastoral personality becomes the focus of the proclaimed Word rather than the spiritual growth of those in the congregation through the proclamation of the Gospel, the pastor has become a celebrity. The implication of this celebrity status is that congregants can be tempted to ground their spiritual growth not in Christ, but in their pastor.

The solution to this disastrous situation is for pastors to have a healthy understanding of who they are. Self-knowledge is essential to help pastors discern when pride and vainglory are beginning (in Augustine’s language) “to bubble-up in unholy cauldrons.” Remembering why we are preaching and for whom we are preaching are imperative questions that should stay close to every preacher’s heart. If our motivation is not love for God and for others, our preaching becomes prideful, self-focused babble.

God’s Word to God’s People

Preaching is a daunting endeavor. The responsibility of this task alone is enough for preachers to want to keep a bottle Maalox nearby. The timeless, revealed Word of God, placed in our hands, contemplated in our hearts, rightly interpreted with our minds, and proclaimed with our mouths for the edification and spiritual growth of others, is a terrifying responsibility. Thankfully, the work is God’s. Through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives, we can faithfully represent the Gospel in our preaching so others have an opportunity to respond to the call of God in their lives. This sounds eloquent enough, but a simple and fundamental question remains: Do we actually want our preaching to result in people responding to the call of God in their lives? It all depends on our motivation.

As Karl Barth writes, “As a preacher, I am called upon to see these people in front of me as God’s. This is the basic presupposition of preaching. If it is in fact God’s will that I should preach to them, how can I address them except as those for whom God has already acted? Christ died and rose again for these people in front of me.”  For Barth, we must be motivated by love for those who hear our sermons. If we do not love them as Christ loves them, the task of preaching becomes a chore, not a joy. If we love them, our desire is to prepare culturally relevant, engaging sermons that faithfully explicate the Holy Scriptures. One might even make the argument that the process of preparing and preaching a sermon is an expression of pastoral care. We preach not for ourselves (including our love for preaching), but for the sake of the souls in our care.

A realization of the work of Christ in our own lives allows preachers to process both our motivations and the work of Christ in the lives of those to whom we preach. We are able, like Elijah, to hear the “still, small voice” of God in the midst of the sometimes-frenetic pace of ministry. The ideal and reality of sermon preparation come together in this approach to preaching. Becoming what we preach results in not only a life of Christian holiness, but also as a living sermon illustration for others to follow.

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