Editor’s Note: We’re accustomed to thinking of the practices of the Christian faith as something that happens within the church, shaping those who engage in them. But we don’t always think about what it looks like when those same practices translate into and affect public life, informing society beyond the church walls. Comment asked some writers to explore this question in reference to a number of the distinctive practices of the Christian faith—like tithing, prayer, preaching, baptism, and singing.
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For five years, I served as the minister of a small congregation on the Southern California coast. Save for a handful of vacation days, choral cantatas and a six-week maternity leave, I preached every Sunday. I loved everything about it. I loved that holing up in the pastor’s study with a biblical commentary and a cup of tea constituted “work.” I loved that preaching catapulted me into a state of blessed crisis: I absolutely had to find the place where the biblical text and the human context intersected. I had to write a sermon. I loved that the crisis repeated weekly. Sometimes the intensity of it wore me out, but the practical and spiritual implications of being compelled to wrestle with the Word of God were invaluable.
The best part of my week was the moment I stepped into the pulpit, lifted my palms to the sky, closed my eyes, and spoke the psalmist’s prayer for illumination: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our rock and our redeemer. After a brief pause, I lowered my hands and opened my eyes. Invariably, in the split second before I glanced at my sermon manuscript, I took note of the gathered congregation and judged whether or not it was a “good” Sunday for attendance. More often than not, our numbers hovered around forty—in a sanctuary that easily seated two hundred. And so, more often than not, that humble prayer was chased by a flicker of disappointment. I believed in the transforming power of the gospel, and I worked spectacularly hard to be a faithful ambassador of Jesus Christ. While I’m sure my disappointment was tinged with ungainly pride, I also earnestly hoped that the words of my mouth would reach the ears of people who needed to hear the good news of God’s love. I wanted the hours of prayer and preparation and the moments of proclamation to be woven into the tapestry of God’s kingdom. Which is, admittedly, a pretty way of saying I wanted my preaching to make a difference.
Never did I question the impact of my ministry more than on the morning I offered the words of benediction and slipped away from church before coffee hour. I had a rare and brief opportunity to see a visiting friend, and we’d made plans to have brunch at the Redondo Beach pier, a mere two blocks from our sanctuary. I’d never been to the beach on a Sunday morning before, and I was gobsmacked to behold the massive crowds. The sand was dotted with thousands of beach blankets; hundreds of surfers bobbed just past the breaking waves. But what truly astonished me was the row of beachside bars. It wasn’t yet noon and they were packed. I don’t have anything against margaritas, generally speaking, let alone beach volleyball. But the vast disparity between the service of Word and Sacrament in a half-empty sanctuary and the merrymaking at the neighbouring pier rattled me. I had known people weren’t coming to worship; I now knew where they were instead. I suddenly feared that the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts—even if they were indeed acceptable in God’s sight—were irrelevant to a culture that couldn’t care less.
Perhaps it is a sign of a pessimistic countenance that this moment of vocational despair returned to me vividly when I received an invitation from the editors of Comment to write about the ways preaching might shape society beyond the walls of the church.
There are preachers whose words are widely heard. Millions of people heard Billy Graham’s evangelistic sermons through his arena events alone. Since the middle of the twentieth century, television broadcasting has brought the proclamations of celebrity preachers to audiences scattered in living rooms throughout the world. Podcasting technology grants any preacher with access to recording equipment and an Internet connection the potential to go viral. The sheer number of people who have heard the gospel through these extra-ecclesiastical channels is remarkable, though I confess I have a hard time conceiving of the effect of such ministry. Surely, lives have been changed through the megaphone ministry of Joel Osteen: publishing powerhouse, Christian cable darling, and pastor to ten thousand.
There are also a handful of preachers whose proclamation of the Word directly and undeniably changed the trajectory of history. Martin Luther and his namesake top that brief list. Who can imagine the Civil Rights movement igniting in the Deep South without the prophetic preaching ministry of Martin Luther King, Jr.?
Yet I humbly suggest that the impact of famous preachers (or, for that matter, the infamous preachers) is but a drop in the proverbial bucket. More than the preachers who speak before crowds of biblical proportions, more even than the ones whose manuscripts are anthologized in history textbooks, it is the preaching of the countless unknown pastors that is quietly yet radically transformative. For it is in the local church where we—two or three thousand, or two or three hundred, or sometimes merely two or three—gather in the name of Christ, to be the Body of Christ, to receive the revelation of Christ. It is in the local church that deeply flawed human beings sit politely in the pews while other deeply flawed human beings say astounding things like, “This is the Word of the Lord.” The vocabulary of the pulpit is nothing short of revolutionary; routinely, words like mercy and justice and love and sacrifice are spoken without irony or agenda. And the stories of the pulpit are the kind that you could hear a hundred times and still be struck dumb by the sheer grace of them. Even a poorly constructed sermon delivered by an under-prepared preacher shouting to be heard over sound system feedback has a power unmatched by any other craft.
Preaching changes us and our world because Jesus Christ, the Word, changes us and our world, and preaching is a unique event in the life of the congregation in which the people of God encounter the living Word of God through the words of God’s servants. Such a high view of preaching isn’t particularly fashionable these days, particularly around the circles in which I was educated, which were fairly theologically liberal. Yet I find that elevating the pulpit has a paradoxical effect of lowering the preacher. The onus is off me to inspire or entertain. William Willimon, a United Methodist bishop and renowned preacher, reports that when parishioners pay him compliments about his wonderful sermons, he retorts, “That remains to be seen.” The Word has to lodge itself in the hearts of believers. It has to keep speaking through their faith and actions. It has to be repeated again and again—eternally again, actually—in their confession and witness.
And it does. Not always; there are hardened hearts and unrepentant sinners. There are those who say “no” to God’s “yes.” But this is blessedly not the responsibility of the preacher, nor the fault of the gospel.
The church I served in California could be described as declining, irrelevant, unimportant. The ordinary saints and sinners who gathered to hear the Word and receive the Sacrament were not movers and shakers. There were no bank CEOs or Hollywood kingpins in our pews. My preaching in that place could be evaluated as qualitatively impotent, those hours I sacrificed for sermon preparation absorbed by the empty seats in the pews. But I reject that analysis. My favourite quote is from Anglican priest and author, Ernest Southcott. He wrote, “The holiest moment of the church service is the moment when God’s people—strengthened by preaching and sacrament—go out of the church door into the world to be the Church. We don’t go to Church; we are the Church.” My five years of ministry in that California church were rife with such holy moments, and such holy moments are replicated on the doorsteps of churches everywhere.