What should preaching be for?
I think it boils down to three things, writes Colin Sedgwick
I received a very kind email recently from someone in a church where I had preached. He thanked me for my visit and added, “It was a very enjoyable service”.
Picture: Jason Smith/Creation Swap
Well, we all like a bit of praise, me as much as anyone; so my first reaction was, I confess, a little preening. But on reflection I found myself stubbing my toe, so to speak, against that word “enjoyable”. Are services supposed to be “enjoyable”? Are sermons supposed to be “enjoyable”? I decided the answer was No with a capital N.
I don’t want to seem critical of that man. Very likely he hadn’t thought much about his choice of words, and “enjoyable” sprang to mind as a way of expressing general appreciation. But still it struck a jarring note. It made worship and preaching seem like a song or a comedy turn.
It’s hard to imagine Jeremiah denouncing the waywardness of the people of Jerusalem, or John the Baptist dramatically calling people to repentance, or Peter, on the Day of Pentecost, accusing his hearers of killing Jesus - hard to imagine scenes like this, and people then turning to one another, smiling, and saying “That was an enjoyable message.”
(I heard of an Anglican bishop who, reflecting on his ministry, asked ruefully why it was that “everywhere Paul went they had a riot; everywhere I go they make cups of tea.” Well, there are times when cups of teas are what is needed, so I hope he wasn’t too hard on himself. But I think he had his finger on a point that all of us, Anglican or otherwise, might take to heart.)
What word might be appropriate to express appreciation of preaching? Here are a few candidates: inspiring; challenging; uplifting; comforting; thought-provoking. I think I’d be more than happy with any of those. But enjoyable...?
Somebody said that the aim of preaching is “to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.” Neat! And not bad, I reckon. But it’s worth probing a little more deeply to try and tease out exactly what we think preaching is for - or, at least, what it should be for.
Boiling it right down, I suggest three things.
1 - Preaching aims to instruct our minds
Preaching, even with the various forms of visual aids we are increasingly used to, is essentially words, and words are primarily addressed to our minds. We are being given a message of some sort, and the way we process it is with our minds. A sermon which doesn’t tell me something I didn’t know before or (perhaps more likely) remind me of something I have forgotten, is a waste of time.
I mentioned earlier Peter’s Pentecost Day sermon (Acts 2), and it is striking how much of it consists of factual information. Of course, to suggest that the gospel in particular and God’s word in general are nothing more than mere information would be well wide of the mark. But they certainly aren’t less.
This reminds us that we need teaching. Truth isn’t automatically acquired; it has to be listened to and digested. And this applies above all to the truth about God and so-called “spiritual” things.
2 - Preaching aims to stir our hearts
We are called to love God. True, love is more, a whole lot more, than simply emotion; but again, it isn’t less. The Bible encompasses a wide range of feelings - love, hate, hope, fear, doubt, compassion, yearning, anger, joy.
Even if our preaching is not especially emotional (think of the Welsh preacher’s sing-song hwl, or the African-Caribbean’s soaring rhetoric), something is missing if it doesn’t move us. This, I sometimes think, is an area where those of us preachers who are college-trained and book-learned can be lacking. God’s truth is heart-stirring truth, and our preaching should reflect that.
3 - Preaching aims to shape our wills
Yet again, Christianity is certainly not just about right and wrong, but it is very lacking if morality and ethics don’t figure prominently. Loving our enemies, being strictly honest, maintaining moral purity, returning good for evil, working day by day for God’s glory - all these commands call for the exercise of our wills, and in this sense preaching should be challenging.
Our wills take time to be reshaped in the likeness of Christ, and the process can only be effective by the power of the Holy Spirit. But that is our ultimate vision. And so preaching that leaves us just as we were has to that extent failed.
In a nutshell, preaching is intended as a God-given agent of change. The change may be of that tiny incremental kind that we barely notice, but which is real nonetheless; or it may be of that great kind that we call “conversion”; or it may be anywhere in between. Paul says that we who follow Jesus are “being changed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory” (2 Corinthians 3:18). God wants us, ultimately, to be like him, and preaching is an important part of the means whereby this happens.
As I said, I didn’t feel easy about being told my sermon was enjoyable. But I must confess that I took real pleasure (I hope not seriously sinful!) in a remark made by one of the “yoof” after a service one Sunday. This was at a time when (don’t ask me why or how) the word “wicked” had become a term of high praise. I went away glowing after being told, “Wicked sermon, Col.”
What he really meant, of course, was “Thank you, dear pastor, for a sermon which I have found edifying, challenging, uplifting, comforting and thoroughly helpful. It has truly instructed my mind, moved my heart and challenged my will.”
That’s my story, anyway, and I’m sticking to it...
Colin Sedgwick is a Baptist minister living in north-west London, with many years’ experience in the ministry.
He is also a freelance journalist, and has written for The Independent, The Guardian, The Times, and various Christian publications. He blogs at sedgonline.wordpress.com