Returning to the rhythm of weekly preaching after a three week interruption has prompted me to reflect more on how one decides what one will address. This emerges from a set of interactions in the famous homiletic triangle, at the corners of which stand God, the preacher and the congregation. As a preacher one approaches the Word (encountered in the text) seeking the guidance of the Spirit (that’s one side of the triangle). One thinks and prays about those to whom one is called to speak and then one actually stands up before them (that’s another side). And then the congregation hears one’s words and responds to them in the Spirit (the third side in which the preacher is not directly involved).
It’s very easy to get too focused on the part of this one can imagine one can control, which is the relationship of preacher and God (Word). The sermon can become a lecture about the part of the Bible under consideration, not immediately or obviously connected to the situation and life of either preacher or congregation, a sort of objective (from the point of view of the preacher) statement of the truth. For some this will involve historical-critical material about the “original meaning” and situation of the text, for others the eternal truths that God communicates in the text and which are its true and only meaning. In either case they depend on neither the person of the preacher nor the character of the congregation.
Alternatively the sermon might be primarily about the speaker, a testimony or a confession of faith, perhaps a working out of doubts and difficulties or a clear statement of commitment and opinion. This is an honest and personal response to the text but does not directly connect to the situation of those hearing.
Either of these approaches can have its place and its usefulness and sometimes (where the preacher knows little or nothing about those to whom they speak) is the best approach. For the regular preacher in a consistent setting and especially for those in pastoral charge they cannot, though, be the only approach. Having pastoral responsibility for a congregation, being the shepherd who is to keep them safe in the Lord’s pasture, means thinking about what they need.
It seems to me that each week the pastor has to have as part of their preparation for preaching a strand of prayer and reflection, of discernment, regarding the life and discipleship of their congregation. The sermon should emerge, in part, from spending time along the side of the triangle that joins speaker to listener. As a Christian leader the preacher has to accept the responsibility to lead in this area of their work and that means knowing where you want to take people.
This will not always (or perhaps even often) mean telling people what they should do or think. It might more often be guiding people towards questions they should ask themselves and ask God, what problems they should wrestle with, what doubts they should acknowledge and live with. It does though mean showing a path to follow or a domain to explore, pointing a way or exemplifying a mode of travel.
At any rate the preacher should, in my view, almost always have an answer to the question: “What am I trying to achieve with this sermon?” that is specifically and directly related to those to whom it is addressed. These aims might be very varied:
- a congregation with doubts and anxieties about its future might need to be reassured of God’s love and the validity of their communal witness and life;
- a congregation that has retreated into a closed and isolated life might need to be encouraged to look outwards in love;
- a vibrant and growing congregation might need to be lead towards humility and gratitude and away from pride and self-assurance;
- a congregation beset by tragedy and loss might need comfort;
- a settled and comfortable congregation might need to be reminded of the suffering and need that surrounds it;
- and so on.
It seems to me that a sermon that does not have a primary and purposeful objective is likely to fall back into the repetition of whatever the pet theme of the preacher might be, whether that be the centrality of justice, the atoning work of the cross, God’s unconditional love or the need for vigilance against sin. Any of these are fine themes for preaching if they are repeated week after week without regard to the difference they’re supposed to make “here” and “now” they will simply become predictable and easily digested familiar cliches that will make no difference at all.
Making a difference isn’t everything, of course, faithful witnessing may even be more important, but making a difference is, I’m sure, part of the purpose of preaching. So, preachers, what are you trying to achieve this week?