Most Sundays I stand in a pulpit. It’s an imposing old thing, central to the internal architecture of its 19th century home. Though I can’t say I relish the sermon, it is a valued part of my tradition. In fact, for Baptists like me, preaching is central to the worship event. Really, I have no choice but to give it my best.
That said, doing so is fraught. There are at least two dangers for the regular preacher – dangers that sit at either end of a spectrum.
At one end, there’s the preacher who chooses ‘professional distance’ from the subjects she speaks on, ensuring nothing of herself is ever a part of what she says. From this perspective, the preacher’s task is to get out of the way and let the Word speak for itself.
At the other end, there’s the preacher who makes his own experience central to every sermon he preaches. At worst, his sermon becomes a weekly act of self-indulgence: ‘Look at me!’ I have long understood these two dangers as equally hazardous.
Frankly, I’m in danger of the second more than the first. Professional distance has never been my thing. At my best, I like to imagine it as a choice for vulnerability. I have always believed that if the preacher is not prepared to be fully present in his preaching, then he has no right to stand in a pulpit. Where there is no honesty, the possibility of truth that transforms is minimal. What’s more, my experience tells me that when a preacher leaves her own experience out of the sermon, it is almost guaranteed that her listeners will do the same. Still, the hazards of this approach are real.
First, we have to be honest enough to say that while personal engagement and self-indulgence are two different things, they lie perilously close to each other. Tread carefully!
Second, it’s a rare preacher whose own life and experience is so interesting as to be a riveting source of weekly inspiration. Think more broadly!
Third, the practice of constantly giving oneself away in the sermon can take an emotional toll on the most resourceful preacher. Go gently!
One of the most important things I have learned in preaching is that bringing oneself to the task, fully and honestly, does not equate with every sermon being confessional. Sometimes it is more about the vulnerability of one’s spirit than it is about what one reveals.
Like so many others in my profession, I face personal experiences of struggle: those of loss, grief and failure. In those moments, honestly, I would rather do anything than stand in a pulpit. What’s more, naming those feelings publically is more than I can do. What I have learned to lean upon at those times is the gentle and gracious invitation of God: ‘Be present to the task, Simon. That’s all of you that I require today.’