The basics of preaching: the message and the messenger

14 Feb

I’ve been reading a few reflections on the role and the responsibility of preachers. I found this wonderful quotation, an old Puritan proverb;
Thou art a preacher of the Word; mind thy business.

The implication is very clearly that it is possible and even probable that a preacher might mistake the priorities and significance of her or his task.

Here are a few other things I have found and thought, which give a little substance to this concern — to mind my business.

Phillips Brooks is often quoted as having defined preaching as ‘truth through personality’. It is essential to recognize that the preacher is a person and that personhood and personality is an essential part of how each one preaches. We should not try to be someone else, but truly ourselves, our most truthful self, as we offer what we have to say. (THAT should make our sermons shorter!)

But having said that, it is also important to say that preaching is not about ourselves. The preacher brings a message.
This old-fashioned expression has almost completely gone from the contemporary church, but it is helpful to recover it. ‘The Message’ is not just the name of a paraphrase of the Bible. In former times it was the name given to that part of the worship service when the preacher sought to bring to people a message from God. That message had been received from God, for the people.
So preaching in this sense requires a number of things.

1. It requires a messenger, who is willing to listen for the message.All the aids that one uses, in Biblical scholarship, the use of the Lectionary, and prayer day by day, along with visitation of the people and reflection upon their lives and our life together in the world—all this is undertaken in order to seek the message. It is a form of hearing, listening for the Word of God, for these people, in this situation at this time.

2. The one who hears must then bear witness: that is what it means to preach. It may be in a formal structure of a sermon. Jokingly, I sometimes call this ‘three points, a poem and a word on baptism’. I don’t know where I first read this ‘formula’. But the sermon can take many other forms, some longer, some shorter, sometimes having more of a conversational form, an interview, with video clips, or whatever. But all of this has one, central purpose. It is not about teaching. It is not about entertaining. It is even less a form of group counselling or coaching. It is about testifying, bearing witness. It is about delivering the message.
Charles Spurgeon once used the illustration of sending one of his employees on an errand, and then asked what would happen if that person decided to change the instructions, or delete some of the message, or substitute their own ideas in place of their employer’s wishes. Spurgeon’s point was that the sermon is not ‘mine’: it is given to me, for the people. In this important sense the preacher is the servant of the Word, a messenger under direction.

3. A final but vital aspect of preaching is about being understood. It is part of the dynamics of preaching that the message is local. It must be spoken in the dialect of the people. They are not there to be impressed by the vocabulary of the preacher and the demonstration of higher learning. If they are, both preacher and congregation have mistaken their identity and purpose as a ‘church’. The preacher must work hard to use language which effectively communicates the depth and truth of the message, to and for those people.
Here there is an important distinction between being simple and being simplistic. I am not speaking about dumbing down the message. My conviction is that many people are actually bored by preaching and church, not because it is too ‘intellectual’ but because in fact it demands so little of them. It is simplistic.
They know that life is difficult, complex, and has many twists and turns. They do not expect a ‘gospel’ that is all sweetness and light.
The preacher can address the complexities of life and of the text, wrestling to find a way to communicate a simple truth, a clear message, even if that message is tough and demanding. To do that, you have to know what you are trying to say. You have to have thought about it, through and through. You have to know also what you are not saying, so that you don’t confuse the picture, or add more than is needed. Leave some things for next week!
Clear thought and deep understanding help to make things simple, without being simplistic. Some of the greatest scholars achieve this. It is something I aspire to, even if I rarely succeed.
A clear structure almost always helps, too!

These are the basics of preaching: the responsibilities of the preacher. The word responsibility implies the ability and necessity to respond. The preacher is responding to the reality of God, offering a word of hope, challenge and healing to the people. It is for the preacher to receive that word, beginning with receiving it for herself or himself, and then to speak it, in ways that can be truly comprehended. That comprehension is not just intellectual understanding. It is ‘taking it in’, as the Word becomes flesh in our lives. All this is what Karl Barth once called ‘the need and promise of Christian preaching’. May it be so.

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