Once upon a time, preachers could grab attention because everyone believed they had something to say that everyone needed to hear. With sin and Satan abroad in the land, Puritan preachers and their congregants were convinced that only their specialized knowledge of the Bible and theology, or of the supernatural world, or of the twists and turns of the sinful heart could lead from death to life. Not many years ago, preachers spoke with authority as the best-educated men in the parish.
Today’s preaching is often very different. “Self-realization” has displaced redemption from sin, as preachers breathe more deeply than most of the therapeutic Geist. Other preachers enhance and amplify their messages through media technologies. The prominent Seattle pastor Mark Driscoll (no therapist he) takes texted questions at the end of his Sunday services, answers extemporaneously, and webcasts the results on YouTube.
This sounds like the beginning of a wistful lament about the good old days of preaching. It isn’t. For starters, preachers have always had tricks, especially in America. His natural dramatic flair honed by practice, George Whitefield deployed what Harry Stout called his “pulpit arsenal” of passion and tears, conviction and release, in his innovative extemporaneous sermons. Whitefield tailored his preaching to the “emerging language of consumption,” shrewdly marketing himself and his brand. Generations later, Harry Emerson Fosdick turned preaching into “personal counseling on a group scale.”
For another thing, as E. Brooks Holifield points out in his History of Pastoral Care in America, American pastors have always looked to psychology to guide pastoral care and preaching. Colonial intellectuals believed in a faculty psychology, and so did preachers, even though a faculty psychology is not self-evidently Christian. What changed over the centuries was not the American pastor’s fascination with psychology. What changed was the psychological theory that fascinated them.
This is not a lament but a caution against perennial forgetfulness about the point of preaching. The educated clergy of yesteryear were tempted to think that good preaching communicated a weighty and comprehensive theological system. The soothing prophets of success and the multi-media stars of today are tempted to think that they have the technical mastery to get results. Despite the differences, the essence of the temptation in both cases is to forget the essence of preaching. All are tempted to forget that preaching can do what it is supposed to do only if the preacher is a man of God. And they are tempted to forget that being a man of God means being a man of the Word and prayer. A sermon is not entertainment, nor a dump of information about God, nor a theological lecture. It is an encounter with the living God, and a preacher can fulfill his vocation well only if he knows that God.
Classic writers on pastoral theology emphasized this again and again. Alan of Lille compared preparation for preaching to an ascent up the seven steps of Jacob’s ladder. A man is ready for preaching after he confesses and repents of sin, seeks God in prayer, lives a life of thanksgiving, studies the Scripture with care, consults with seasoned interpreters about difficulties, and learns to expound Scripture to others. A preacher must be a “perfect man” who has ascended “from the beginning of faith to full development.”
Luther was more straightforward in making a similar point. He complained that some pastors rely on “good books” for their sermons, but neglect the weightier matters: “They do not pray; they do not study; they do not read; they do not search the Scripture. It is just as if there were no need to read the Bible for their purpose.” Such preachers are “nothing but parrots and jackdaws.” Thomas Oden notes that all pastoral actions are dimensions of the priestly task of “interpreting humanity to God” and bringing God’s word to humanity.
Alan, Luther, and Oden are simply restating the New Testament’s central claim about pastoral ministry. Since the preacher holds an apostolic office, he is called to imitate the apostles, who were determined to “devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word” (Acts 6:4).
The pressures on this ancient discipline are enormous. One of the constant challenges of pastoral ministry arises from the sheer vastness of need that surrounds any pastor. As Eugene Peterson has often observed, pastors can camouflage their vocational failures under a frenzy of busyness—not least because church members notice busyness. A pastor devoted to prayer and the word looks like a withdrawn pastor, a pastor who doesn’t care much for his people, or any people for that matter. Parishioners may be more intrigued by a preacher who can speak in the latest slang, who quotes the hot bands, who jars them with obscenities from the pulpit than by a man who knows God deeply.
Preachers should believe that that God knows what people need better than people do. What builds the church is not a man who has acquired theological information, or a man who can keep the attention of a crowd. Theological information and rhetorical skill are important. But what a congregation finally needs is assurance that the man who speaks to them from the pulpit every week is capable of bringing God’s word because he is acquainted with the Father of Jesus Christ through the filling of their Spirit.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and Senior Fellow of Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective (Wipf & Stock). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.
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