I cannot estimate the number of hours I wasted in college playing cards. I had three very different groups of guys I would sit down with, but the three groups had one thing in common: dealer’s choice. Who ever deals gets to choose the game. I think this is one of the reason’s I went into pastoral ministry, especially with the opportunities to teach and preach – dealer’s choice. For the past twenty-seven years I served in various extension ministries, and I conjecture that during that time I may have listened to over 1,000 sermons delivered by other “dealers.” It amazes me what pastors and lay leaders choose to preach on.
Preachers hold a very special and precious vantage point called the pulpit. On a regular basis sermons are delivered, but it troubles me how few are actually about God as Creator/Parent, Redeemer/Savior, or Sustainer/Advocate. I have actually made it through entire sermons where “God,” “Jesus,” “Holy Spirit,” or any other name for God never once were uttered. I have heard reprimands, slaps on the metaphorical wrists, diatribes, rants, and verbal abuse disguised as sermons. I have heard, subtle, not-so-subtle, and unbelievably crass, tactless, and downright crude political rhetoric pretending to be preaching. I have witnessed good poetry, drama, monologue, dialogue, and performance (as well as a LOT of BAD) in worship, but I would not call it preaching, per se. I have heard passionate lament, critique, despair, depression, analysis, concern, and controversy without a smidge of gospel. I have heard hilariously funny, highly entertaining, often deeply embarrassing, and grossly inappropriate comedy passed off as preaching. I have been educated, misinformed, bored, offended, horrified, and nonplussed by ineptitude and incompetence, no matter how well-meaning or well-intended. It has been as valuable for me to hear poor and non-preaching as it has been to hear good preaching.
What is my definition of good preaching? Well, my own, of course. (No, talk to Barbara. She will tell you that I am my own harshest critic and do not think myself an especially good preacher…) Here, at least, is what I aspire to and what tends to most inspire me:
- Threefold engagement: 1) what scripture meant in context when written, 2) what has happened to the interpretation of scripture through time, space, culture, and human progression, and 3) what meaning(s) the scripture can have for us today.
- Socio-historical analysis – what motivated an author to create a written record in the first place?
- Psycho-social analysis – why should anyone care about what was written?
- Counter-cultural implications – how are we being called to live differently within our own context?
- Hope, grace, comfort, strength
- A challenge and call; what should we DO with what we HEAR?
Sure, I like telling an amusing story and unpacking Biblical history; I am a word-nerd and a Greek-geek and I enjoy weaving etymology into my sermons. But we are deluded when we think entertainment and education are the critical elements of good preaching. I feel I preach best when I am most invisible; when the message transports and my part in it is essentially irrelevant. I believe we worship to offer thanks and praise and to experience a communal engagement with the divine. That can happen through prayers and songs and scripture and silence; it doesn’t demand my wisdom and pontification. Preaching should illuminate and inspire; it should challenge people to delve deeply into meaning that yields understanding. Every worshipper should leave with something to think about that relates to such questions as:
- what does God expect from me?
- what does living as a Christian mean?
- why am I on earth?
- what difference can I make (hopefully for good)?
- how is God present and active in my life?
- how can I enter more fully into my community of faith?
- how can we use our gifts together to produce and share the fruits of the Holy Spirit?
I think this is why adults often get more out of children’s sermons than they do the weekly message. Children’s messages (which are often crafted WAY beyond the comprehension of their intended audience) tend toward the concrete, where dots are connected, and simple instructions are given. “Don’t be mean” is a powerful message and a more direct way of saying “first, do no harm.” Encouragement to intentional acts of kindness, caring, and compassion are about as gospel as it gets.
I have reentered the “real” church after serving denomination and conference for three decades. I reenter the pulpit humble and contrite. I return from the privileged and pampered role of “guest preacher,” and I am coming back assuming nothing. I talk frequently about why we do what we do the way we do it in worship. I talk a lot about what worship is for, who worship is for, and why corporate worship is important. I share a theology of worship – where God is in what we do. And so far, people are appreciative and interested. Having just a few years left before retirement is freeing. I can spend time getting back to basics, reminding longer time congregants why we do what we do, and helping new generations find meaning and import in our shared worship of God.
It’s dealer’s choice. As preachers, we decide what to say, where to focus, how to explore and explain, what is vital, and what we believe others need to hear. I encourage myself to stay focused on the good and the beautiful and the true. I remind myself to focus on grace and forgiveness, hope and blessing, love and joy. I commit to visioning mercy, justice, peace, compassion, and unity. I will work hard to keep the GOOD news in the gospel and God before all God’s people. That’s my deal. What’s yours?