“If I profess with the loudest voice and clearest exposition every portion of the truth of God except precisely that little point which the world and the devil are at that moment attacking, I am not confessing Christ, however boldly I may be professing Christ.” (Luther)
I’m writing this on a Thursday which is the day when I generally begin to think really seriously about my sermon for Sunday. This week I have felt that I wanted to preach differently from my usual style. My usual procedure is to take the text given to me by the Lectionary (I have to date almost always followed the Revised Common Lectionary) and to worry away at it from the Monday waiting to see what in it challenged or inspired me.
By Thursday a clear theme generally emerges and some thoughts about it. The next step is to ask “so what?”, what would I want those to whom I’m to speak to hear. What about the life of our church (I tend to see my preaching as preaching to the Church) do I want to address or to influence. Then I work back from the answer to that question to a set of remarks seeking to link the scriptural passage to our common life.
I haven’t come to think that there’s something fundamentally wrong with this but I suspect that my default preaching is too weighted towards ideas and concepts to be as helpful as it should be to all who hear it. This reflects my own personality and not inherently a bad thing but it does mean, I think, that I ought to try to vary it. Sometimes I should try to take things in more affective and emotional or more direct and practical directions.
Thinking through this feeling I have I have been brought to reflect on what I now believe is the purpose of preaching. This in turn reminds me that I have come to suspect any sentence that contains the words “the point of …” Preaching as an activity will have a variety of purposes and perhaps it’s important to remember that and to have some self-awareness of what one is prioritising at any given moment and why.
Off the top of my head the following seem possible legitimate aims of someone preaching (here I’m defining “preaching” roughly as speaking in an ecclesial worship setting using scripture as the point of reference).
- teaching – explaining the meaning and import of the scripture in question to those who accept its authority
- evangelism – trying to bring to faith those who stand outside the Church
- inspiration – trying to raising the level of commitment and enthusiasm of the faithful
- encouragement – helping the faithful to have hope and confidence
- consolation – addressing the hurt and suffering of those who are weighed down with trouble
- guidance – pointing towards some form of action or behaviour that needs to be set out to the hearers
This is not intended to be exhaustive and I’m sure that I could come up with more if I turned my mind to it for longer. I’m pretty sure that I’ve preached sermons that tried all these things except evangelism at one time or another.
Why not evangelism? My preaching so far has all been in church settings where I was sure all, or very nearly all, those listening regarded themselves as committed Christians (or at least as committed members of the church – the difference may be something to reflect on another time). Evangelistic preaching in this context would seem like a waste of time. Where I have known myself to be speaking to substantial numbers of the “unconverted” I have adjusted my style to try to find common ground with them (a procedure explicitly recommended by Paul).
At any rate all of this has led me to think that when preparing a sermon I should be clear about what I think the situation calls for and to try to shape my work to fit it. My natural inclination (as a cerebrally inclined individual) is towards teaching and I need to be careful about that.
Sometimes people need encouragement or consolation, sometimes, I suppose, they will need admonishment (which I realise I left out of my list, so uncomfortable do I find it),
There is no one right style, nor one right message. Preaching, in the end, is subordinate to the overall practice of shared discipleship in which every one of us is responsible for helping all the others along the way.