Preaching and discipleship
Last week, I was honored to serve as moderator for an Episcopal Church Foundation (ECF) webinar on preaching and leadership. Basically, I hosted a conversation among three preachers and fed them some questions of my devising and some from our audience. The panelists were the Rev. Ronald Byrd, rector of St. Katherine’s in Williamston, MI; the Rev. Brenda Husson, rector of St. James, Madison Avenue in NYC; and Mr. Brendan O’Sullivan-Hale, layperson from All Saints’, Indianapolis, IN.
I’d encourage you to watch the webinar, which will be an hour well spent if you’re at all interested in preaching. Much of the focus is on sermon preparation and delivery, but there is also some valuable advice for those who listen to sermons. I know I’ll listen to preachers differently because of this conversation.
My hope is that you’ll find Ron, Brenda, and Brendan as helpful as I did. Because I was moderating, I didn’t say much in the conversation on preaching, so I wanted to share a few thoughts of my own for preachers. I say this not imagining that I’m a great preacher, but hoping I can at least claim to be competent on a good day. Your homiletical mileage may vary.
This isn’t exhaustive, by any means. These are thoughts I’m having on a Saturday night when I don’t have to get up the next morning and preach. I wanted to post this tonight, so it doesn’t seem like a rant based on the sermon I’ll hear tomorrow!
Preach Salvation and Grace. The state of preaching in the Episcopal Church is pretty bleak, though there are encouraging signs. For a generation or more, the core message of preachers has been “I’m OK, you’re OK,” which doesn’t leave much room for redemption or salvation, let alone Christ and him crucified. Sure, God loves us, and preachers need to say that, especially laying on lots of teaching about grace (which is profoundly countercultural for us). But scripture makes it perfectly clear that Jesus expects something of his followers and that this commitment to discipleship vital to Christian life. Jesus is our redeemer, our escape from the prison of our sins and fears, and you have to preach the whole of the Christian story for this to make any sense. What I find encouraging is that younger clergy — looking at you, millennials — seem eager to preach about the cross and the empty tomb, and that’s a good thing.
Focus on scripture. Not long ago, a wise friend and I were talking about how rarely we hear a great sermon, and she remarked that too often the cause is alarmingly simple: preachers haven’t done their work. Good sermons don’t just spring from nothing, and they certainly don’t pop into one’s brain during the Sequence Hymn. Almost always, great sermons require great preparation. In the webinar, the panelists shared their practices, and I whole-heartedly agree with what they said. As for me, I tend to focus on the scripture text, reading it a bazillion times and doing exegetical work (which rarely makes an overt appearance in my sermons). For this, I find Logos Anglican software very helpful. I use it to study the text and compare versions, as well as exegetical work. If I consult commentaries at all, my favorite is the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture series. While I own the complete set in paper, the version of Logos I use contains the full New Testament set of ACCS volumes, which is pretty handy. It’s great to be able to do sermon prep work on my phone, on a tablet, or my laptop. After years of using Logos, I’d have trouble preparing to preach the old fashioned way. Whatever you do, focus on the scripture. I heard a sermon a couple of years ago that was 16 minutes about a novel the preacher had just read and 2 minutes about the lection. Don’t do that.
Look at all the lections. For much of Christian history, the most popular book for preachers was the psalter (wish I could recall where I read that 20+ years ago, but it bears out in the work I’ve done). If you read 16th and 17th century Anglican sermons, they’re likely to be based on the Old Testament. The idea that we always have to preach the Gospel lection is comparatively recent, and I’d encourage preachers to consider all of the lections as options for preaching. Personally, I like to preach on just one text, but I’ve heard perfectly fine sermons on two or more (though it’s much harder to get that right). Whatever lesson we choose, we are always charged with preaching the Gospel.
Seriously, do the work. Make time. However one prepares for preaching, it takes hours. Some years ago, I used to attend a church where the rector was a fantastic preacher. It was a large, multi-priest staff. I asked how the rector could hit so many home runs, and I learned that he spent 20 hours working on his sermons whenever he preached. Makes sense. A solo priest in a smaller parish won’t be able to carve out 20 hours, but it should be possible to carve out enough time. Eugene Peterson gives great advice on how to do this in The Contemplative Pastor.
Proclaim hope. Carol Anderson, who is my priest hero, said something last year when she was speaking at a RenewalWorks Discipleship Matters conference. She spoke about how often preachers try to be dazzling or impressive, and in so doing they miss the mark. What people in pews need is not an impressive sermon, but hope. In every church there will be a few people sitting there on a Sunday morning who are trying to figure out how to get through Monday. Those are the people we should be preaching to. (This is my lousy paraphrase of her eloquent and impassioned plea).
You get what you preach for. I read this years ago, and it seems about right. If preachers talk about generosity regularly, the congregation will eventually become more generous. Preaching hope can help make people hopeful. It takes steady repetition of a theme, working it from many angles over a period of time. What do you want to preach for? How do you want to change? This is why “I’m OK, you’re OK” isn’t that great of a theme, because it invites people to stay stuck in their spiritual growth. No one wants to be chastised regularly, but it’s certainly a good idea to find ways to challenge a congregation to grow. Jesus, after all, never said “Keep on keepin’ on,” but always had a word of hope, a gesture of love, and a challenge to transformation.
Pray. Before you start to prepare your sermon, pray. While you are preparing, pray. When you’re not sure what to say, pray. Before you preach, pray. When you finish preaching, pray. Get it? Prayer should infuse every moment of preaching, from before the first inklings of a sermon until the “amen” at the end of the sermon. It makes a difference. It keeps our perspective.
Write new sermons. Recycling sermons is almost always a lousy idea. The context has changed. You’re in a new community, or at the very least, the world is different since three or more years ago. Not only does the congregation miss out on the proclamation that they need to hear, but the preacher misses an opportunity to dive deeply into God’s word, and that’s something that we all need to do regularly if we want to stay fresh as disciples, especially as leaders.
Get feedback. Find someone who’s honest to give feedback. Listen to what they say. Ask what works and what could be better. Try not to be defensive, but curious. To be sure, this is easier said than done. My own preaching has gotten better, I think, in the last few years, and I certainly hope I continue to improve! Sometimes criticism is hard to hear, but it’s often helpful. And, of course, as our panelists said in the webinar, it’s not necessary to hit a home run every sermon. Getting onto base is good enough, and every now and then, we’ll strike out. We’re human, and hopefully we learn from our mistakes. Keep asking for feedback, and keep learning.
It’s not about you. It’s about Jesus. Sure, go ahead and tell a personal story if it helps. Pro tip: if you’re always the hero in your narratives, you’re doing it wrong. Use a joke if you want to. But if the thing people always remember about your sermons is that time you were in the grocery store or that cute thing your kids did, something’s not right. The thing that should stick is how much God our Father loves us, or the claim Jesus lays on us, or the power of the Spirit to empower us to be daring witnesses in our world.
Ultimately, I think churches are communities of disciples. As disciples, we’re all followers, and followers are always on the move. So a pretty good way to think of preaching is as a way to keep the followers moving, for Christ our leader is always challenging us to grow into the full stature of his likeness.
In Christ we have also obtained an inheritance, having been destined according to the purpose of him who accomplishes all things according to his counsel and will, so that we, who were the first to set our hope on Christ, might live for the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:11-12)
Image: St. Mary’s, Leighton Bromswold, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons. This is a church that George Herbert helped to restore around 1626.