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Respect Your People

Wrestle with the text and with real questions.
Respect Your People

What do your people want from you as a preacher? What do your people need from you as a preacher? And what difference would it make in answering these questions if your first thought in considering your people involved a deep respect for them? Every time preachers jump to the latest poll, newest trend, or best marketing advice, when they start planning their sermons, they think of their congregations as a collection of consumers. They are at risk not only of missing their fundamental calling to proclaim God's Word, but also of failing to honor the depths of the complex human lives of those seated before them.

Take your hearers lives seriously

On any given Sunday morning, in any ordinary congregation, there will be those in the pews who have been more faithful and trusting of God in overwhelming circumstances than the preacher has been; those more self-sacrificially generous; those shaped by unimaginably difficult histories; those tormented by questions the preacher has been afraid to face; those haunted or tempted by sins darker than some preachers may easily fathom; those afraid even to hope for a preacher not addicted to quick, comfortable answers. Entertainment, good advice, and motivational speeches will not finally help these people—not any of them, really. They need the gospel. They need preaching that is deeply thoughtful about the complexities, ambiguities, griefs, and defeats of human life, including the lives of faithful Christians. A preacher may properly challenge them intellectually or in other ways; but fail to take them and life itself seriously, and they will leave empty.

Your people need honest intellectual engagement with their lives and questions, but they are not just brains on poles; you must touch something of their hearts.

At the same time there will be those sitting in neighboring pews who are terrified at the very idea that the pat answers don't work and that there is no formula for a secure, successful, and suffering-free life, Christian or otherwise. They are terrified, that is, of having to confront the fact that not everything that counts is in their control, and hence they will expect sermon applications to bear some resemblance to a list of the five things they can and should do next week—eased along with some pep talks, pop psychology, and moving anecdotes. They may hold so tightly to an illusion of a safe Christian existence not because they are stupid but because, deep down, they are frightened; and so they may have a powerful impulse to punish the preacher who doesn't support this illusion of an achievable temporal security.

The trouble, of course, is that when preachers comply with such expectations, the approach eventually backfires. Parishioners reared with images of a tidy world pliant to their good behavior have nowhere to turn when their world collapses. As a former student of mine recently wrote to me, "[T]he pastors I grew up with knew all the answers, and consequently I did too. Until I didn't. And then it got hard to maintain relationships with folks at my home church." In the end, he couldn't and didn't maintain his relationship with that congregation; although, unlike many, he has not abandoned his faith altogether.

On the surface, these two groups of people—those very greatly and those too little attuned to the messiness of this world—seem to have needs as different as the demands they would like to make on the preacher. Can the genuine needs of both be met? Not always. There will likely be some too addicted to questions to pursue any constructive way forward, just as there will be some too addicted to answers to tolerate the slightest breach in their cognitive fortress. Insofar, though, as parishioners have confidence in a pastor whose commitment to the Lord and to Scripture is evident to them, both groups may find in that pastor a safe place to turn. They may come to believe that they do not have to identify having all the conventional answers with serious piety. Indeed, they may gradually come to trust that real questions and real doubts are a part of mature faith, not inimical to it.

Treat the Bible honestly

The best way for pastors to help folks get there (after being persons of faith, integrity, and commitment to Scripture themselves) is to treat the Bible honestly in their preaching; instead of tidying it up and sliding over the hard parts. Yes, of course the Bible provides comfort and reassurance and "precious and very great promises" (2 Pet. 1:4). The idea is not to supplant a little pink book of Bible promises with a big black book of Bible curses! Nonetheless, Scripture can be more complex and challenging than it looks even in passages that seem relatively clear; and it is exceedingly important to note that not every passage applies equally to every hearer.

For instance, Job's friends say any number of things that may sound quite orthodox, but these pious remarks are explicitly rejected by God (Job 42:7): they are being addressed to the wrong person, of whose real circumstances they know nothing (Job 1-2). To command slaves to be obedient to masters (Eph. 6:5; Col. 3:22) may be a way of granting full human agency to persons commonly denied such agency; but it may not give any ground whatsoever to masters, who are not being addressed at all. Heroes of the faith, who have clung to God's promises, may die without receiving what was promised (Heb. 11:39-40): some fulfillments come beyond a person's lifetime, or very possibly come only eschatologically.

In short, it is easy to seize upon the wrong stuff, or to seize it in the wrong way, and then to be dismayed and disillusioned when it plays out badly. Wise preachers will not be afraid to address their hearers' intelligence and discernment in sorting these matters out, and they will be honored rather than dismayed if parishioners say they spent lunch arguing about the sermon.

Then there are all the familiar passages that contain a verse or two that puzzles or dismays us. Could a person really be born blind in order that God's works might be made known in him (John 9:3)? What can it mean that God's people were chosen in Christ before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4)? What about the really terrible conclusions to some of Jesus' parables, so conveniently omitted by many lectionaries? What do we do with the conclusion to Ps. 137, which most of us would be ashamed to pray? Can we really be confident that if the elders of the church pray over him or her with faith, a sick person will be healed (James 5:14-15)? One could go on almost forever with examples, but the point is that people in the pews stick at the same place preachers do when confronted with such passages.

When these difficult matters are merely avoided, silent doubts start to grow in the dark. What if preachers were to recognize that their own uneasiness with aspects of a text is an opportunity for exploration rather than a call to reach for the whisk broom to make the offending verses disappear under the rug? All sorts of riches might reveal themselves for the preacher as well as for the congregation, and sermons might become far fresher and considerably less predictable. The idea here is not the fool's errand of looking for trouble in obscure places, but simply being honest about what appears in familiar and beloved places.

Answer theological questions

Parishioners who are at all serious about their faith accumulate a lot of non-trivial theological questions, too, that preachers would do well not to flee—and if they are not competent to speak of them meaningfully, they would do well to study until they can. In fact, long ago when I was on the staff of a large church, a colleague and I asked our huge board of deacons if there were things they would like us to take up in opening devotionals. All of the large initial set of questions involved deep theological questions. People are desperately grateful to discover that the church has from its inception been concerned about the same things that trouble or puzzle them, and that these difficulties have not led to the dissolution of the faith. Passing off such questions with some such remark as, "Oh, don't worry about it; it's too complicated," is profoundly disrespectful, and possibly lazy.

Naturally those from different traditions will handle some of these matters quite differently. The purpose, though, is not somehow to "solve" what honest people see as difficulties, but to bring them out into the light and think openly and constructively about them. Frank, open questions are less destructive to people's faith, including preachers' faith, than are hidden and seemingly forbidden questions. And if preachers are not afraid to take on real questions, they are likely to find themselves addressing matters hearers are actually interested in, which is no small asset. But don't make these matters easier than they are; don't give pat answers that will not hold up under pressure; and above all, as priest Michael Heher once movingly wrote, don't make promises God doesn't keep. There will be those in front of you who already know better; and they can do little but turn away in grief, embarrassment, or anger.

Seriously strong

Always remember: your people need honest intellectual engagement with their lives and questions, but they are not just brains on poles; you must touch something of their hearts. On the other side, that their hearts bleed, or have bled so long that now they feel dry and empty, doesn't mean that they have no heads. Rich and valuable preaching will speak to whole people who are more faithful, more frightened, more guilty, more sinful, more full of doubts and questions and moments of triumph and of despair, than you can know or even altogether care to imagine.

These people don't need a church that feels like a flight into realms of sentimentality or good housekeeping, where everything is warmer, fuzzier, and tidier than real life. They don't need an entertaining escape. They need strong stuff, which the Bible is—often rawer and messier than they were ever quite permitted to admit. They don't need it forced down their throats. They don't need to be manipulated into moral, spiritual, or emotional binds. They don't need overdoses of heady abstractions. But they do need serious stuff, strong stuff. And they need it from preachers who, they have come to believe, love both them and God, in spite of everything.

Dr. Marguerite Shuster is Senior Professor of Preaching and Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary and the Harold John Ockenga Professor Emerita of Preaching and Theology.

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