Saturday, February 2, 2019
The problems of preaching. . .
In one of my favorite BBC shows The Great British Baking Show, noted artisan baker and one of the two judges, Paul Hollywood, says that while presentation counts greatly in determining the winner, nothing can replace the taste as the single most important factor for choosing the star baker. That is just as true when it comes to preaching. Wonderful presentation does not trump substance. What is said is more important than how it is said. Sadly, I fear that some folks in the pews are not so sure about this just as I am sure that some folks in the pulpit or those supervising those in the pulpit are not sure they would agree. Therein lies some of our problem.
It has become fashionable to say that we have a crisis of bad preaching in our day. You have read some of it here on this blog. Lutherans are not immune from the problem. But what constitutes bad preaching is a matter of some dispute not just between denominations but even within Lutheranism. Most of the focus and much of the complaints are on the preacher's style or craft and less of it on the content that is preached. I have said repeatedly to those who complain about the delivery that if the Word of God is being preached faithfully, if the Law is being preached truthfully, if the Gospel is being preached clearly, if the doctrines of the faith are being preached regularly, and if the hearers are being urged to repentance, faith, and good works in response to this good news, they should count their lucky stars for they have a faithful preacher even though he may not be a star in the pulpit. We don't need stars. We need faithful preachers who preach faithfully.
Part of the problem is the amount of time spent in preparation and when that time is spent. I learned a long time ago that the preaching task is easily interrupted by the crises in the parish and the needs of God's people and the urgencies of your own family life. It cannot wait until Saturday night. It cannot wait until Thursday morning. The preaching task is so vitally important that it deserves the first and best use of the pastor's time and not the leftovers after all kinds of other things are dealt with along the way.
My own practice is to work months in advance (it is something I like and you can try it but you don't have to) to outline and even begin to attach phrases to a manuscript so that the sermon is well in place weeks before I am to preach it. It does involve balancing a variety of texts and sermons in your mind at one time but some weeks I preach 4-6 times and that must happen no matter what. Week by week the sermon is edited and considered until it is ready to be preached and then I spend some time learning how to preach it and marking the manuscript to this effect. One of the great benefits of working so far in advance is that you see the church year unfold through the lectionary and do not end up preaching the same topic weeks in a row. You are forced to look at the bigger picture. That is a good thing.
Another aspect of this is that I listen to sermons all the time and read sermons regularly -- the work of other preachers, mostly Lutheran but not always. In fact, I am sure that my sermons regularly borrow from those sermons I read -- mostly unintentionally but sometimes I deliberately use what I have learned from others who are well schooled in the art of writing sermons. You can listen to a great number of preachers online and you can find many sermons published on line. Read and listen. It will help you and, even more than that, it will feed you. You need to hear even more than you need to preach the Word of God. I would heartily recommend the sermons of the Fathers, especially from the early church period but even sermons by such figures as St. Thomas Aquinas. It goes without saying that Luther's sermons ought to be regularly read, especially the Hauspostille.
Write a manuscript. Even if you preach only from an outline or a few notes or without any paper in the pulpit (which I find personally rather scary), write a manuscript. Make sure you have something to keep you on task, to make solid use of the time allotted to the sermon, and that you can hand out a copy for the folks who wish to read it at home or share it with a friend. I must admit I have little patience with those who think that the Spirit is inspiring them and that a manuscript binds them when the Spirit wishes them to be free. Creativity is not necessarily a good thing in the pulpit and pithy writing can be its own curse. The Spirit bound Jesus to the words of the Father, He has bound the apostles to the words of Jesus, and we are likewise bound to this Word of the Lord. Yes, we preach it in our own voices but God is not looking for a new take on what He has said but He does expect His Word to be faithfully spoken to His people (and to those not yet of the Kingdom) so that the Spirit can continue to bring forth the Lord's intended fruits from that speaking.
Finally, it does not hurt to have other pastors review your sermons from time to time. My associate and I regularly discuss our sermons and it is a great help to hear what another preacher has to say about your sermon (and about your preaching style). Winkels may be helpful here or Circuit Visitors or your Bishop/District President. Criticism is not a bad thing given the weight of the importance of the preaching task. We all have our weaknesses and we all have our foibles. I will ever be grateful for the good soul in my first parish who told me that I used words hardly anyone else in this blue collar parish knew. It saved me from folks either presuming I was trying to let them know how smart I was or me thinking I was communicating when I was not. It is sometimes a temptation given the fact that you just come out of a seminary atmosphere in which the vocabulary may be out of step with the folks in your pews. I still watch for this and am forever grateful for this helpful criticism.