Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Pastoral Preaching

A fairly recent reflection on two kinds of preaching.

I consider myself a good speaker. Not great, but not poor either. I’m good. I consider myself an emerging preacher. Not good, but not poor either. I’m emerging. Preachers communicate. They deliver a message from one person to another. More specifically, they communicate the gospel from God to his people. Therefore, preachers must know God, and his message. They must study the Bible and learn ancient cultures to understand the message clearly. If they do not understand the message, or the author, no amount of speaking skills will get the message communicated. A mist in the pulpit is a fog in the pew. Second, a preacher needs good skills of communication. He needs to speak clearly, loudly, use imagery, etc. Seminary gave me the tools to understand God’s message and equipped me with good speaking skills, as it does for many ministers. However, seminary is not able to give preachers what they need to understand their parishioners, the receivers of their communication. Without this, the message of preachers may be clear, but it will not be received, and good communication will not happen. So, to whom are we talking? When I first started preaching, I fell into the common beginners’ trap of treating my listeners as if they were exactly like me (this was probably more unconscious than conscious). But they are not all like me. The emerging preacher in me has been thinking about this. Who are these people? What do they need? What are they like? What is God’s message to them? How can I communicate it to them?

Hosptial vs. Military Base
Is the church a hospital or a military base? Of course it is both. The church is a place where people with spiritual illness and injury can come and receive care, working toward spiritual health. The church is also a military base where people who are ignorant and poorly equipped to face a spiritual enemy can come and receive training, education and equipment to go once again into the battle and face the spiritual enemy. Which is a better analogy? Which one fits better? I am not sure there is a correct answer to the question – hopefully pastors and preachers will utilize both analogies in the course of their parish ministry. However, I would think that most ministers primarily think of one of these over the other.

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Those ministers who are more intellectual will probably favor the military image. They are trained in doctrine and church dogma; they’ve been to seminary and know the right interpretations of the Bible. Their development into a minister has come primarily through learning. They are well-qualified ministers because they have been equipped – they’ve gone through the military training, and are now able to equip others.

Those ministers who are more emotional will probably favor the hospital image. They have been spiritually and emotionally healed (to some degree); they’ve seen their share of hard times and have held on to the promises of God. Their development into a minister has come primarily through their own existential pilgrimage of suffering. They are well-qualified ministers because they have been healed – they’ve gone though spiritual surgery, and are now able to heal others.

What kind of sermons will these ministers preach? Military Generals will preach sermons that are primarily doctrinal, equipping. Hospital Physicians will preach sermons that are primarily pastoral, healing. I would guess that parishioners gravitate toward preachers based on their felt needs – some feel poorly equipped and others feel ill or injured. Of course no one (preacher or parishioner) is at the polar ends of this spectrum, but somewhere in between.

Illness and Injury
I have found the actual hospital to be a good place to practice and hone the skill of this analogous hospital preaching. My “parishioners” are those hurting physically, not just spiritually. In fact their physical illness or injury has given rise (in almost every case) to a spiritual illness or injury. A physical crisis almost always leads to spiritual crisis. When a person is struck by physical illness or injury, they must face their own finitude, brokenness, and the depravity in the world (and sometimes their own personal depravity). The faith of the sick is challenged and taxed by their difficult circumstances and they often (if not always) begin to doubt the promises of God in ways they never imagined. Physical illness or injury leads to spiritual illness or injury, which calls for pastoral-type preaching. These are my people, and probably yours, too. For physical illness or injury are not the only paths to spiritual illness or injury. In a typical congregation, how many are going through a divorce? How many are still grieving the loss of a loved one? How many are suffering from infertility? Undiagnosed mental illnesses? Racism? Unfulfilled hopes and dreams? Family fights? Lost jobs? Injustice? Bad marriages? Poverty?

Hospital Preaching
If these are our people, or at least some of them, let us not try to equip them with doctrinal defenses and weapons to go back into the spiritual battle. Rather, let us heal wounds and infections. How do we do this? I think the first step to pastoral preaching is getting to know your people – it is relationships. Get to know them in their pain, their struggle, their particular illness and injury. Listen, learn, and bring their suffering to yourself.

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Second, I think we should prepare our sermons by asking and answering the questions of the text that they are asking. In my private study, for my personal growth and learning, I am able to ask whatever questions I want (I will probably ask questions which are related to how I developed as a minister, the General track or the Physician track). However, our study in preparation for a sermon is not just for us, it is for our people. So, we must ask and answer the questions of the text that they would ask. These questions will probably include, “So what?,” “Where is God?,” “Why doesn’t he rescue me?,” “Does God really love me?,” “Why me?,” “How can I get God back on my side?,” “Why can’t God help me?,” and “What did I do wrong?” Of course, a preacher will never know what questions the people are asking if he does not know them.
Third, we must be honest about our own illnesses and injuries. The obvious question that many will ask of us is, “How do you know?” or, “How can I trust you?” Or said another way, existential questions need existential answers; just as doctrinal questions need doctrinal answers. Both can be rooted in the Bible, but they apply the same truths quite differently. The most common way of applying truths doctrinally is through logical proofs (of which there are many methods). The most common way of applying truths existentially is through stories (again, there are many methods). It is interesting to me that the Biblical literature contains both stories and logical proofs, and it is even more interesting to me that the stories far outweigh the logical proofs in terms of length, number.

Fourth, preachers can find a close friend or other parishioner to honestly give feedback about his or her perceptions of the sermons as to their relevance to the questions and concerns of people suffering spiritual illness and injury.

Fifth, there is no better way to improve preaching skills than by observing good preachers. For pastoral preaching specifically, it would be helpful to identify some good pastoral preachers, and digest their sermons in your own way for our personal spiritual nourishment. This will help us see the illness and injury in our own souls so that we can identify with others. We can identify because we are fellow-sufferers and we can identify because we have experienced the process of healing. Also, this will help to put us in the mindset of a Physician, rather than a General.

I do not pretend to have discovered anything fantastic or paradigmatic. This paper is simply a reflection of my continuing journey as an emerging preacher. It has often been said the gospel afflicts the comforted and comforts the afflicted and this is true. It seems to me that Military Preaching’s goal is to afflict the comforted (to spur new growth and equipping), and Hospital Preaching’s goal is to comfort the afflicted (to heal wounds, and eradicate infections).

It has also been said that seminary graduates usually need at least as many years in full-time ministry after graduation as they spent in seminary before anyone is able to understand what they are saying. And sadly, this is true too often. Seminary Generals equipped with the truth can easily get caught up in themselves, thinking (unconsciously, sometimes) that their congregation is mostly like themselves – rarely is this a good description of reality.

I pray that God will help all of us to be mindful of the many and diverse needs of those to whom he has called us to minister – those whom he has bought with the blood of his dear Son.


Blogger nickg said...

very good, very interesting

I need to think about this a little bit more before I respond

10:04 AM, August 16, 2006  

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