Speak to "Your" People
I'm learning that preaching excellence can't be separated from geography—namely, all the faces in my local church.
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Editor's Note: For this series of skills articles, we've asked ten different preachers a simple question: How are you growing as a preacher? In other words, how is God teaching you to hone your craft? Each week we will feature one personal vignette from one of your fellow-preachers about refining the craft of preaching.
In his nearly perfect memoir, The Pastor, Eugene Peterson writes about a time in every preacher's life where they preach "their sermon." This sermon does not include any revolutionary content, nor is it particularly prophetic or even better than a preacher down the road. Rather, this is the sermon the preacher preaches when he or she has found their voice. It is a sermon that perhaps explains the other sermons, and one that will provide landscapes for the rest of the sermons this preacher will preach—this is "their sermon."
I've been waiting for my sermon; it hasn't come yet.
I am a writer and a preacher and I don't really see a difference between the two—one must write to preach and preach to write—they go hand in hand. Like writing, I actually hate the process of forming a sermon because it is completely exhausting and frustrating. However, there's nothing like having written or having preached. The past tense is so much better than the present. And what keeps me growing as a preacher is what has always grown me as a writer: deadlines.
About seven years ago I started a Bible study and since then I have had to prepare at least one teaching every week (in my pastoral duties now, it can get up to four or five). As I grow in my ability to preach, I continually thank God for the deadline looming over me each week. The beauty of preaching is in the crowd you have waiting for you to say something important (transcendent, even) each week. They keep showing up. You're not sure why, but they're always there. Each Sunday, God bless them. And each week, it's you and me who sits and looks at their tired faces. No matter what, they will be there, and I will have to say something.
This anxiety of deadline turns to joy when I prayerfully consider this obvious fact, which must be mentioned: these people are not in church to hear from me, nor are they there to learn from me. People come to church to hear from God. So now the pressure is on him, not me. To have a weekly, disciplined moment where I ask the question, "What do you, God, want to tell your people in this text?" is really the question I want to start with as a preacher. I like to think it's actually God's deadline, now, and not totally mine.
Can we talk about the faces, though? The faces we speak to each week? The faces are really everything. They are the people of God and they are more important to him than my insights and even, in my opinion, my attempt at a perfect hermeneutic. This is the flock and I'm speaking to them, not other pastors who might listen to my messages, not my Twitter followers, and not anyone who would invite me to speak on a larger stage at some conference filled with Christian fan-fare and a video screen which may or may not project my face on it. I am preaching to my people. Every week. The same ones, mostly.
I would love for people to listen to my messages online and not totally get them. After all, if I am speaking to my local body of believers, I would expect some of the applicable, prophetic points would be directed to our church family. I'm learning how the goal of preaching is not to form a super-sweet sermon which stands on its own anywhere it may be preached. I think there is a geography for preaching and its center point is the local church. I'm being reminded constantly that my "audience" is actually a congregation, and our preaching helps form it. I would like some people to listen to our messages at my church online and think, "Hm, it wasn't that great." Why? Well, it won't be that great unless you're a part of our body, our community that is being formed by the Spirit of God and headed somewhere in faith.
I may not have preached "my sermon" yet, the sermon Peterson writes about which will define my future as a preacher. But the more I know these faces, the more closely I pay attention to their growth in Jesus and their obedience to him, the more prophetic, clear, and courageous I am becoming.
Chris Nye is a writer and the pastor Willamette Christian Church in Portland, Oregon.