Preaching is the communal act of proclamation in the worship-life of a body of disciples.
Preaching begins with community. Preaching cannot occur apart from the context of the body of Christ. The very act of proclamation is communal by nature; it implies a speaker (or speakers) and an audience. The community receives the vocal proclamation of the Living Word and its transformative power. It gives shape to the life of the congregation. Without community, preaching is nothing, for the aim of preaching is to inspire disciples.
And the best preaching occurs by listening to the community. A few years ago, I did a project for graduate school. I pulled together a diverse group of 10-12 people and asked them to read through one text each week; after the reading, the group would post their thoughts, questions, and reflections about the text to a blog that I had set up. This “cyber community” afforded me the opportunity to think through a particular text from a variety of vantage points before I attempted to preach it. What a blessing! This act of collaboration reminded me of the many ways the Word speaks to us in life’s many seasons. It was such a treat to hear a college student share her thoughts on a particular passage and then to hear how that contrasted with the reflections of one of our 80-year-old saints. I believe the best preaching occurs when the preacher is attuned to the perceptions, fears, joys, and questions of the community. So, in a way, preaching begins with listening.
Preaching is proclamation over performance. Early on in my preaching, I was severe in my critique of my performance. I would carefully script out each paragraph, sentence by sentence, word by word, seeking to find the perfect marriage of sound and cadence. Then I would practice each part, paying special attention to inflection and diction and rhythm. And when the time came to give birth to the sermon, inevitably the execution would fail: a word spoken in the wrong tone; an inopportune stutter. The slightest disruption to my preparation and I would grade myself harshly. All of these were matters of performance.
But I’ve since repented of this because I’ve discovered that my self-inflicted performance criticism was nothing but pride. I certainly never want the performance to impair the proclamation; that is, I’ll always seek to communicate clearly and effectively. But I’ve learned to trust the sovereignty of God that Christ can still be proclaimed even when my performance might be lacking. I know that sounds silly to say, but I’ve found it to be incredibly liberating, so much that before I speak each week, I say a little prayer: “Lord, help me to proclaim and not perform.” I can’t tell you how much pressure that relieves for me.
Preaching is worship. Preaching has become something of a four-letter word to many in the ministry community. I have colleagues who are literally insulted when someone refers to them as “preacher” instead of “minister”. And I think there are plenty of reasons for this. But I think one reason is the way we’ve often thought and spoken about preaching. We’ve historically approached the sermon as the centerpiece of the worship experience. We sing, we pray, we recite Scripture, we commune…but in our minds, all of this is merely lead up to the sermon. We even allot the greatest amount of time in our assembly for preaching. All of which perhaps leads us to conclude that the church’s worship is in service to the sermon. I completely disagree. In fact, I would argue just the opposite. The church’s worship is not in service to the sermon; the sermon is in service to the worship of the church. The sermon is merely one vehicle by which Christ may be exalted and proclaimed in the worship-life of a body of disciples. I disagree with those who would say there is no room for preaching in the life of a congregation, but I want to argue for a more balanced understanding of how the sermon functions within the worship framework of a group of disciples.
I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer once remarked that there are those moments that occur in preaching when it’s as if you can see the Risen Christ moving among His flock, mending broken hearts, wiping tears from faces, embracing the wounded and the bleeding. I very much like that image of the transformative power that is unleashed when Christ is proclaimed in a community of faith. May the Risen Christ continue to move among us as we worship together.