Soon our churches will fill up for at least one evening with Canadians attending church services on Christmas Eve, some of whom might not otherwise regularly attend. They’ll hear one of maybe two sermons that year (the other being Easter, potentially). No pressure, preachers!
I have something to say to preachers, and to those who listen to them. I can only imagine the challenge preachers face week in and week out to get their message across against the backdrop of content on Facebook, YouTube, TikTok and Twitter.
Preachers try to sneak in 15–50 minutes (mileage may vary depending on your ecclesial model) of a talk from an ancient and strange book. Given the disproportionality of it all, it could be enough for a preacher to throw up their hands in surrender to the onslaught of our society’s dominant demands.
As for the rest of us, who week by week listen – as best we can – we might privately, or not so privately, wonder about the point of it all. Sometimes the sermon seems so far removed from our daily lives that it might as well be spoken in Auld Englisc.
Justification, sanctification, holiness, discipleship, obedience, righteousness, salvation – who talks like that? Although most pastors try to use language that connects, sometimes it’s hard to translate ancient concepts into today’s language.
But what if we have been thinking about this all wrong? What if the job of the preacher is not to drown out the cacophony of voices vying for our attention as much as to sound a short but dissonant note?
Most of us have had the experience of being on a deck on a summer evening with birds singing, crickets chirping, children laughing, lawnmowers roaring and music blaring. Then a boom or a screech or even loud laughter breaks through the noise. Maybe that is closer to what preaching is – a dissonant Good News word in our otherwise everyday world of non-Good News words and messages.
There’s an adage that says preaching (and journalism!) is meant to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. Although that’s not a bad philosophy of preaching to consider, that’s not what I’m saying. We don’t preach to entertain, to disturb or even to inform (probably the dominant reason most evangelical preachers still preach today) but to sound a word, a message, different from anything else we hear in the other 167½ hours a week. The sermon is a word out of place from the billions of others we hear.
The dissonance of preaching is unrelated to whether a slumbering congregation needs to be awakened or a troubled congregation needs to be soothed. Preaching is what it is because it claims to be a report to humans about what God says to us in and through His Word. The normal messaging of our week seeks to persuade, entertain, soothe and even condemn one another, while preaching claims (with great fear and trembling on behalf of the preacher), "Thus God says."
God uses the words of preachers and preaching (mysteriously, as fallible as both are) to give us a jarring, out of place, convicting, comforting and compelling word from above. Now that is different.
Preachers: Never forget when you stand up to speak that you do so as a hopeful, humble conduit through which God’s sovereign Spirit still speaks to ears, hearts and minds today. Worry less about the relevancy of your words and consider more what it takes to prepare to stand in the pulpit week by week. Pray, prepare – and then pray some more.
God uses preaching to give us a jarring, out of place, convicting, comforting and compelling word from above.
Listeners: If preaching is a dissonant word, we may well be missing the point of the sermon if we judge it by its relevance, its entertainment value or even its ability to speak in everyday language. If those are our primary criteria for the sermon, we are not coming to the table spiritually prepared, in humility and expectation, to be spoken to by God’s own Spirit.
If preachers have a tremendous responsibility to prepare to preach, we congregants have an equally, if not greater, responsibility to say in the spirit of Samuel, "Speak, Lord, for your servant is listening" (1 Samuel 3:9–10). Let’s not be surprised if we can’t hear God speaking when we haven’t opened our ears and hearts to hear.
With an expectant posture as listeners, we will be less surprised when the words we hear come across as strange and transcendent. We will be less surprised also when, in those precious few minutes on a Sunday morning, the messages we’ve heard all week might seem trivial, irrelevant, untrue, boring and bland in comparison to God’s quiet, strange, profoundly beautiful and true word to us.
David Guretzki of Ottawa is executive publisher of Faith Today and serves The Evangelical Fellowship of Canada as executive vice-president and resident theologian.
Author: David Guretzki