Conversation with the Community

May 28th, 2012

Since much of my ministry has been devoted to the planting of new congregations or the revitalization of existing congregations, much of my preaching has been centered on three primary themes: mission development, visioning, and witnessing. These share a common theological bond in their focus on God’s intent for the church to be the vehicle through which people come into the knowledge of Christ as Savior and greatly influence my preaching agenda. My preaching focuses on the primary mission of the church, namely making disciples for Jesus Christ. This understanding of the salvation message and the importance of disciplemaking has helped shape my preaching, which has evolved over the years to capture not only making disciples but also, more importantly, maturing disciples.

I believe that the most important things we do in the church are invite, transform, and send believers to attract, mature, and dispatch other believers into the world. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, puts it this way, “No prolonged infancies among us, please” (Ephesians 4:14). This has caused my preaching to change over time, and the evolution in my preaching has been shaped in my roles as pastor, Evangelism Director at the General Board of Discipleship, Adjunct Seminary Professor, Conference Director of Church Development, and guide for thirty-three congregations.

Preaching at its best leads believers to hear God’s instructions regarding God’s purpose for our lives. I understand the proclamation of the gospel to be compelling, confrontational, and covenantal in its scope, and the good news of the gospel sometimes comes in the midst of uncertain circumstances. This good news demands an encounter with God in our quest to find God in the midst of life’s circumstances. Such an encounter may come as a gentle nudge that occurs at 4:00 a.m. and which leads me to a passage in the Bible that explodes with relevancy for the context of the sermon. At other times it may come as I consult the lectionary, my normal starting point, or as I listen for sermonic messages in the rhythms of life. Over the years I have developed series preaching as a pastoral discipline, so I tend to hear sermonic messages in ongoing stories. The seasons of the year and faithfulness to the theological themes of the liturgical season often shape the starting point of a preaching series, but the everyday encounters of living and the rhythms of congregational life may take over as the preaching series progresses.

I understand preaching to be a conversation with the community within and beyond the doors of the church. There are times when the preaching moment arrives and the Holy Spirit directs me in a completely different direction than the written manuscript. What I discern in reflection is that this action is not so much a departure from the prepared words but a God-directed message that the Holy Spirit wants preached in that moment. Since I preach multiple services each Sunday, no two messages are the same. The message for the congregation depends on the contextual connection that derives from the question: “In light of this, what would God have us do?”

Peace and justice are common and familiar issues when preaching to African Americans, who are impacted in every area of their lives because of race and culture. The Anglo congregation I serve in our Cooperative Parish is in as much need of God’s transformative word but sometimes misses the influence that their privilege has upon their thinking. They have to be invited to think more about their role and responsibility as disciples of Jesus Christ instead of passing the needed work of transformation off to someone else. To keep the sermons in balance I generally use an outline or a manuscript. I use a manuscript when the subject matter needs to be precise, accurate, and specific to the context. And I use an outline when I am in my preferred teaching mode, because in this mode I usually am using a number of different scriptures to undergird the message. The outline permits me to walk around while preaching.

The type of sermon determines my style of preaching, and I prefer to wear vestments while I am preaching so that I have the freedom to be more expressive in my posture. My early memories of preaching were shaped in the Holiness tradition where there was little structure, and the preacher was very expressive, up close and personal. Seminary taught me the pros and cons of different styles of preaching. Experience has taught me to get a good feel of the preaching setting, sense how the Holy Spirit is moving, and move accordingly. What I have sought to discern is what best connects the preaching with the setting of the moment. Having preached in many different settings, my preaching is most formal with a high liturgical tradition and freest when moving in the prophetic tradition of laying on of hands and healing ministries.

Beyond my pastor, the Reverend E. W. Stevenson, and my mentor, the Reverend James Jacob Gray, the preacher who singularly influenced me most is James Forbes. This scholar-prophet somehow gave me permission to be multiple preachers and not allow myself to be limited to one style or form of delivery. What I most want the hearers of the sermon to walk away with is a clear understanding of what the gospel message invites us to do. I tend to lean more toward response than comfort, more toward doing than being, more toward learning than just hearing without action. Forbes’s preaching allows all of these things to occur, and my experience of his preaching leaves me feeling as though I have had a nine-course meal. My hope for my own preaching is that by staying in the Word of God, I can expand my knowledge of the many dimensions of God, so that my preaching comes from the heart and not simply from the head.

This is an excerpt from Black United Methodists Preach!, edited by Gennifer Books. Copyright © 2012 by Abingdon Press.

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