Are We Preachers or Prophets?
When challenging your people act more like a preacher and less like a prophet.
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In seminary, I fell in love with the Prophets. I had never read words so powerful. I had never imagined a group of people more passionate about God. They stopped at nothing to shock people out of their sins. They exposed the stupidity of idolatry. They showed that greed harmed the most vulnerable so that the rich could have more luxuries. They made God come alive in moments of holy fear as the wicked had to reckon with their actions.
After seminary, I pastored a church in a wealthy suburb of Minneapolis. One Sunday, I decided to let my love for the Prophets shine through. From my vantage point, my congregation had let their commitment to the American dream cloud their commitment to God's dream for creation. So, I thought that, like many angry prophets, I would let them know that. From the pulpit, I declared that the American dream was dead. I told people they had to choose whether to commit themselves to God's kingdom or American culture.
Lucky for me, the congregation was gracious. My sermon didn't cause long-term damage to my relationship with them. In retrospect, however, I'm not sure I was especially faithful to God, them, or my calling. In moments when I'm really honest with myself, I know that there's little difference between my attempts at prophetic preaching and my giving into the temptation of self-righteousness. I certainly believe that the American dream can come into conflict with God's dream. However, I'm not sure that pastor-preachers have exactly the same job as prophets.
Preachers vs. prophets—similarities
Obviously, prophets and preachers share much in common. However, our commonalities have limits. For example, prophets and preachers often preach the exact same message. That is to say, the prophets' words are part of the Bible we proclaim on Sunday morning and connect with our congregations. Prophets and preachers join together in delivering God's word.
However, biblical prophets lived in a time when the Bible was still being formed. Although some prophets refer to other parts of Scripture, most received their message through visions and God's word coming to them in ways we don't fully understand today. The prophets delivered these messages directly to their audience. Preaching today, on the other hand, relies on reading and interpreting long-established Scriptures. We relate an ancient message to our modern listeners.
Another important similarity is that God calls both prophets and preachers. At times, we preachers receive a call from God that's just as incredible as biblical prophets. For some of us, God shows up, knocks our socks off, and tells us to share the holy word—much like Isaiah (Isaiah 6). For many of us, however, we sense God's call to preach through everyday means. We discern inwardly that God wants us to proclaim good news, and other Christians offer outward confirmation.
Both prophets and preachers can also feel very alone. The prophet Elijah felt so bad that he wished God would kill him—even though he had just scored a major victory over the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 19). Preachers, because of their unique role in local churches, often feel lonely as well. While others spend their Saturday nights relaxing or with friends, we often polish our sermons or head to bed early.
However, preachers aren't quite as alone as prophets. In fact, an important task of preachers is raising up others to serve alongside themselves. Sometimes, preachers are less responsible for bringing a prophetic word and more responsible for equipping others to do so.
For me, the most interesting similarity between prophets and preachers is that both engage in "emotional labor." That's a term used by sociologists to talk about jobs where people need to act a particular way emotionally. The classic example is flight attendants: no matter how stressful the situation or how bitter the passengers, flight attendants are trained to respond calmly and kindly.
Prophets and preachers similarly engage in emotional labor. The prophet Hosea is commanded to marry Gomer, though it leaves him heartbroken. The prophet Ezekiel is commanded to refrain from weeping when his wife dies (Ezek. 24:15-23). We preachers are called to share good news when our hearts are aching inside. We're called to preach at funerals to those who grieve, though everything might be going great for us personally. We rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Both prophets and preachers have moments when they're called to put their own emotions on hold, empathizing with others for the sake of God's message.
Preachers vs. prophets—key differences
Beyond these similarities, the metaphor of preacher-as-prophet frequently crumbles. The two relate differently to their audiences. Amos, for example, preached mostly to strangers. He was from Judah in the south. He traveled to the neighboring country of Israel in the north. There, he delivered a scathing message. Next, he returned home. While preachers sometimes give sermons to strangers, we most often preach to our flocks, to people who have been entrusted into our care, to those we're called to love.
Unlike prophets, preachers are usually pastors. We do things like provide pastoral care. We stand beside gravesides while families mourn. We meet with couples who want to save their marriages, but don't know how. We are with people when they are most vulnerable. As a result, there's a different set of dynamics at play than prophets out to shock people from their sins.
The religious situation today is also quite different from ancient Israel. People today have countless religious options. Want a more traditional service with liturgy and communion? Check out the Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, or Anglicans. Do you prefer a more contemporary style? Non-denominational churches may cater to your needs. Want to worship someplace that emphasizes God's sovereignty and election? Try the Presbyterians or Reformed churches. Want some place with more of an emphasis on free will? You might like the Methodists. Sick of them all? Stay at home. I mention these choices not because I agree with this contemporary mindset of "choice." I'm simply stating the reality that if people today don't like what a preacher says, they can try someplace else.
In ancient Israel, things were different. There was one central place where people worshipped the Lord: the temple in Jerusalem. If a prophet showed up there and delivered a message, people had to listen. Sometimes, the temple-goers were so upset by what prophets said that they wanted the prophet killed rather than put up with such words. That happened not only with Jeremiah, but also with Jesus (Jer. 26:1-24). Most of us today don't need to fear death threats from our congregations. If the relationship between preacher and congregation sours, the preacher typically leaves long before things get that bad.
That brings up another key difference: prophets like Amos didn't depend on their paycheck coming from their audience. Our congregations, on the other hand, willingly give their hard earned dollars to support our salaries and our ministries. There's a level of trust there that we are called to honor. That doesn't mean we should only preach comforting words, of course. We shouldn't be like the false prophets Jeremiah cries out against who say, "Peace, peace" when there is no peace (Jer. 6:14).
When we must preach like prophets
So, what do we do when our Scripture reading is a prophetic word that's not only challenging, but also harsh? How do we preach when the prophets talk about an angry God? It can be tempting to say, "The God of the Old Testament was angry, but the God of the New Testament isn't." However, Jesus himself could grow quite angry. Like many a prophet, he challenged the religious establishment of his day, saying they were like whitewashed tombs: beautiful on the outside, but filled with rotting flesh on the inside (Matt. 23:13-36).
Sometimes, preachers talk about an angry God by telling their congregations that God is very mad at people different than themselves. Televangelists have done this for years. Unfortunately, this approach often gives Christians reasons to hate (rather than love) people who are different. Furthermore, this approach isn't prophetic. When the prophets spoke of an angry God, they almost always included the basic message that God was angry at their audience.
So, how can we be faithful to the biblical text, which sometimes expresses God's anger at people doing the same things as people in our congregations?
First, we need to explain the goodness of God's anger. We need to explain that a God who never grew angry over evil would be a very distant God. Such a God would no longer be good. If God truly opposes the real evil in this world, then there are times when God will grow upset.
Second, we need to ensure that our parishioners don't go off the deep end with God's anger. Most people have had awful experiences feeling the brunt of someone else's anger. When our listeners hear of God's anger, they can easily assume that God is just as bad as someone who's been manipulative, unfair, reckless, passive-aggressive, or lacking compassion to them. We need to tell our people that God is different. As the Bible says repeatedly, God is slow to anger, and God is fair. God grows upset at horrendous evils, not honest mistakes.
Third, we need to recognize that there is often more than one perspective. Our preaching will truly shine if we treat our congregations with respect and give them the benefit of the doubt.
How to challenge your people
Not long after I preached my failed American dream sermon, I went on a vacation to the mountains of North Carolina where I heard a seminary buddy preach during the weekend of July 4, 2004. His name is Jeremy.
He preached to a packed house at a time when the Iraq War dominated news headlines. I knew my friend well, and I knew that he opposed any type of violence. He believed war was senseless. For him, war killed perfectly good people and shattered the dreams they and their loved ones had for them.
However, my friend didn't start by preaching about the horrors of war. Instead, he talked about all the good reasons that people supported that war. He talked about the goodness of opposing evils, like weapons of mass destruction. He talked about the sacrifice soldiers were willing to make. He talked about the love soldiers had for their country and for their families. He talked about the sacrificial love of Jesus.
Only after he said those words did Jeremy change gears. With a voice of concern that was closer to tears than anger, he spoke honestly about the tragedy of war. He talked about killing. He talked about the scars it would leave on soldiers for the rest of their lives. He talked about God's children in Iraq who would die. And he said that the Prince of Peace opposes all violence.
After the service, we grabbed some pizza. As we enjoyed melted cheese smothered over tomato sauce and warm crust, Jeremy shared an insight that has helped me enormously in thinking about the difference between prophets and preachers.
Reflecting on my own recent mistakes, I said to him, "You really preached an incredible sermon. You challenged your congregation, but you did so in a way that affirmed all the good in their hearts." "I had to, Matt," he replied. "Or, I wouldn't have been faithful to my relationship with them."
Jeremy had caught sight of something that I had lost in my desire to be prophetic. I was so determined to act just like Amos that I wrote my sermon without imagining the faces of people in my congregation. I didn't step into their shoes. I didn't think about how they gave a portion of their paycheck so I could have my paycheck. I didn't think about how they came to my office when life's events frightened them. In trying to take up my idea of the prophetic mantle, I had lost sight of my calling to love my flock.
There definitely are times when preachers need to challenge their congregations. But when we do so faithfully, it might look more like Jeremy than Amos.
Matthew Schlimm is Associate Professor of Old Testament at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary. He is also the author of This Strange and Sacred Scripture: Wrestling with the Old Testament and Its Oddities.