In seminary, I avoided taking the preaching courses until the very end. Instead, I preferred to preach the gospel to empty pews in our chapel on my lunch break and in between classes. In fact, I would offer the hymn of preparation and then preach the sermon. Where I’m from, persons would say, “I could have church all by myself.” Consider this privileged information, since I’ve never shared this story with anyone until now.
Like athletes who analyze game footage, I listen to sermons every day. I don’t listen for analysis only but also for application. While I am always looking to improve in the art and craft of preaching, I agree with Martin Luther: “We need to hear the gospel every day because we forget it every day.” Needless to say, I take preaching very seriously and lament when I hear others stand behind the sacred desk to deliver the six o’clock news. Despite the increase in apathy and cynicism, I still believe in the mystery of the gospel, that it cannot be revealed through gender, political party affiliation, the social construct of race, economic status and the like. If I have lost you, you can find me in Galatians 3.27-28.
Consequently, my avoidance of the pulpit was not out of fear that I was not good or even good enough. My first pastor was a woman so I never felt that my body wasn’t created to preach. Instead, preaching, like writing, has always come naturally. It has been normal for me to do both for much of my life. What I couldn’t verbalize then but understand now is the fear of disappointing others. Once a proud people-pleaser, I knew then that if I opened my mouth, it would destroy the dreams that others had for me, call into question cultural expectations and prescribed social roles.
Before you become my “Amen corner,” these stereotypes still order our worship services and choreograph our fellowship. While we have made great strides concerning women in ministry, it has been engrained in us that women go here and men go there. Most of us are not used to seeing a woman in the pulpit, but I have never felt more alive anywhere else. If not for the pulpit, I would have nowhere else to go. Like those who look at a boy and say, “He has the shoulders of a football player,” I have the mind of a preacher. While other girls were playing with dolls, I was writing to an audience of one.
I know that my gifts are God-given and so I think that I was trying to protect them while in seminary. I didn’t want anyone else to hear me preach and in turn, to experience what God had given me. It was our little secret, but I needed to learn how to share the gospel.
Regrettably, some of today’s preaching is done a la carte. We preach sermons separate from the Holy Scriptures but in line with business agendas, with the hopes of keeping key leaders happy or producing larger offerings. Preachers are fast becoming theological DJs, spinning scriptures to keep people moving in their pews and reaching into their pockets.
But preachers, too, must be careful what they reach for when preparing a sermon. Perhaps, a little of my unwillingness to let go of the gospel could serve us well here. Karl Barth encouraged heralds of the gospel to preach with a Bible in one hand and a newspaper in another. It is quite a balancing act of revelation and relevance. But by no means did his words imply that we pick up one and put down the other.
In fact, recently while traveling to a denominational gathering, I shared with a fellow pastor that we needed to preach with a prayer list. I hadn’t planned to say it but there it was. We needed to keep the joys and concerns of our members in front of us. And it struck a chord with him. “You’re right. I’m going to use that,” he said.
I am, too. While there are those of us who are positioning ourselves for global platforms, stages and ministries, there are others who are called to preach to a community. And the message must be consistent. It cannot move from headline to headline but preaching, like pastoring, should be contextual. It must match the life cycle of our congregations.
We must preach where the sheep are and according to the Great Shepherd’s leading. Our preaching should speak to the needs of our flock and may not always follow the liturgical calendar. Do we have a word from the Lord for college students struggling academically or a couple groping in the darkness of infertility? What is the good news for those who have received a troubling diagnosis or a pink slip? Where do we place the good news in a hospital room or at a grave site?
I would suggest that preaching is the partner of prayer, that the two work together. It is the intertwining of reality and mystery. More than the newspaper, the prayer list makes our preaching relevant and resourceful. The prayer list, much like the Holy Scriptures, gives us insight into the human condition. The prayer list should not be mishandled for power’s sake or manipulated to produce a desired emotional response, but, when done well, preaching will sound like a prayer answered.