Seven Things Congregations Have Taught Me About Preaching
Congregations have long intrigued me.Whether serving as a pastor (as I have done in congregations that range in size from 38 members to 3,800), or as a scholar/teacher (in diverse seminary settings), I have spent a lot of my life thinking and talking about the nature and mystery of congregations.
In my book Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, I argued that we should prepare pastors not only to exegete Biblical texts, but also to “exegete” congregations, so that ministers can preach in ways that are both fitting and transformative for local faith communities. I regularly teach courses in which students are required to undertake an interpretive study of the signs and symbols of a congregation’s corporate life (much as an anthropologist would interpret a new culture), and to share their results with the class.
However, congregations have not only been sub- jects of study for me. They have also been my teach- ers. Indeed, much of what I know about preaching has come from the guidance, correction, and in- sight that people of faith have shared with me as I have sought to live out my calling as a minister of the Gospel.
As we ponder the future of congregational life, it is important that we also look back and honor what congregations have taught us. There are lessons there to assist us as well.
1) It’s about God.
One Sunday morning, while waiting for worship to begin in a large congregation in New York City where I was serving on the pastoral staff, I became overwhelmed by the strong sense that the people had come to church that day because they wanted to be ushered into the presence of God. I was only beginning to know these people – but what I knew floored me. They had hundreds of other interesting places they could be on Sunday morning, but they chose to be in church. They had myriad other things they could be doing with their time, but they chose to spend some of it at church. And the main reason they were there was that they were hoping some- how, some way, through this service of worship, they might be brought into the presence of God.
Congregations remind us – if we will but listen to them – that worship is about God. Sometimes we preachers forget that, and think it’s about us. We make jokes at the holiest moments in the service, because we ourselves are uneasy with mystery. We work hard to find a novel idea in a Biblical text, with- out asking ourselves: “But is there any good news here?” We pride ourselves in a well-crafted turn of phrase or a story well told, without asking the deeper question: “But did this sermon bring people into the presence of God?”
Yet congregations consistently remind us – by their presence, their faithfulness, and their hopeful faces – that ultimately preaching is all about God. That’s not going to change, no matter what shape or form preaching may take in the future.
2) Just a little cud is sufficient.
One Sunday, after preaching a sermon in the small- est of four churches in the parish my husband and I served right out of seminary, one of the dairy farm- ers in my congregation came out after worship and commented, “Well, preacher, you sure gave us the whole bale of hay this morning!” I thanked him for his comment. And it was not until I was halfway home that I realized that what he was saying to me was not a compliment! He was telling me that I had given him the whole bale of hay, when all he wanted for the week was a small bit of cud to chew on.
One of the mistakes pastors, especially beginning pastors, make is trying to give the congregation the whole bale of hay – the extensive results of our exegetical research, the multiple meanings a certain word might have, all three sermon possibilities arising from the text. Congregations are patient. They will sit through such feedings until the hay starts taking up residence between their ears. But what the farmer was telling me was that too much food isn’t good for you. It puts you to sleep and addles your brain. The preacher’s task is to pick and choose which nutritious morsels will get her listeners through the coming week.
The good news is: congregations encourage such choosing simply by showing up, week after week. Over time you realize you don’t have to say it all this week. You’ve got next week. And the week after. And, hopefully, the week after that. Over time, a well-balanced diet of choice morsels can satisfy the hungry soul.
3) We need to preach more about jobs and vocations.
Early in my ministry I read a book in which the author claimed that what many parishioners long for are more sermons related to their lives in the work world. Preachers, he claimed, don’t talk nearly enough about everyday work in their sermons, and consequently parishioners feel a genuine disconnect between the sermons they hear on Sundays and the ways they spend their time the rest of the week.
Though his words rang true to me, I frankly didn’t feel qualified to talk to my parishioners in the early years of my ministry about their jobs. What did I know about dairy farming and shop tending and surveying and being a public school superintendent? I was having a hard enough time figuring out how to be a pastor.
Later in life I got bolder. Much to my amazement, the sermon that fostered the most post-sermon conversation in my last parish was one titled “The Difference Between a Job and a Vocation.” Congregants, I was reminded, consistently struggle with what Christian vocation is and what work is and how the two are related. They long for someone to help them make sense of their work, or lack thereof, in these days of corporate downsizing, unemployment, and recession. Some need to be challenged to consider that their calling to love and serve God and neighbor might find better outlets than in their current work place.
My own observation is that pastors do talk a lot with people about their jobs – mostly in the study behind closed doors. It’s time to expand the conversation and bring it into the pulpit as well. If we do, we will likely find that the requests for conversations in the study will also multiply.
4) Preaching depends on pastoral care for survival.
Early in my ministry I first became aware of how closely related preaching and pastoral care are. If I was not out visiting my people on a regular basis – whether in their homes, places of work, hospitals or nursing homes – I felt disconnected from their lives and the questions and concerns they brought with them to Sunday worship. Pastoral care fed me as a preacher, and also pressed me to wrestle more deeply with the complex challenges my parishioners were facing.
I also observed that if I was a faithful pastor to my people, their trust in me as a preacher would grow so that they would sometimes give my sermon the benefit of the doubt – even if I was preaching something they radically disagreed with. Philip Wogaman puts it well: “Let me state the principle in an academic way. A C-plus sermon will be perceived as B-plus or A-minus if the preacher is viewed as a friend; an A-plus sermon will be demoted to a B or lower if the preacher comes across as uncaring.”1
Preaching depends on pastoral care for its very survival. And though the modes of such care may increase in the future – via email, text messages, and blog sites – I also suspect that the longing for face-to-face and voice-to-voice human contact and interaction will only increase in a world where so many isolated individuals are spending much of their days before computer screens.
5) The sermon is the beginning of the conversation, not the end of it.
Coming from Presbyterian and Reformed theological roots, I have always had a high opinion of preaching as “Word of God.” Preaching is not just mere mortals talking about what we think about God. Preaching, through the Spirit’s stirrings, can become God’s own words to God’s people.
On the plus side, such a high view of preaching reminds us preachers never to treat our task lightly or carelessly. We are about God’s work here, and we need to give it the very best we have to offer of our intellect, our creativity, and our craft. We are on holy ground when we preach, and the mystery and wonder about this task should cause even the most seasoned pastor to quake a bit as she makes her way to the pulpit.
But there is a negative side to this theological viewpoint, too: if we are not careful, we preachers will come to think that our words and God’s words are identical, and that therefore our word in the pulpit is the last word.
Congregations remind us that sermons should initiate conversations, not close them off. Whether it is through the anger a parishioner expresses when we have preached on a social issue and proclaimed our point of view as if it is the only legitimate one, or through the honest questioning at coffee hour or during a “sermon talk back” session after worship, congregations often signal that they, too, want to be a part of the conversation.
What I hear in the new ways of envisioning congregations in the future – whether through “emergent” churches, house churches, or the recovery of testimony in worship – is a plea for a more dialogical approach to preaching. After all, the task of pro- claiming the Gospel and interpreting the Scriptures has been entrusted to the whole community of faith, not just to the pastor.
6) One of the best gifts a congregation can give its pastor is to pray him or her into the pulpit.
Throughout my ministerial career, I have been asked to be the guest preacher in a diversity of congregations. One thing I have noticed over the years is the difference it makes when I preach at a church where members of the congregation take the time to pray the preacher into the pulpit.
In the early years of my ministry, it was primarily African American congregations that did so best. A lay leader would greet me before the service began and would pray for me as I prepared to preach. During the worship service another lay leader would pray for my anointing by the Holy Spirit before the sermon began. And during the preaching moment itself, I had a strong sense that the entire congregation was praying for me, even as they also let me know how I was doing through their “call and response” feedback.
I have to confess to a different experience in some other congregations, where I occasionally felt that parishioners were crossing their arms as I approached the pulpit, with looks on their faces that said, “So – you teach preaching, do you? Let’s see if you can do it!”
The last congregation I served (Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City) was great at praying its ministers into the pulpit. Before worship each Sunday morning, the lay leaders would gather with the pastors in a room adjacent to the sanctuary and would join hands as people went around the circle praying. The prayers incorporated concerns for people in the congregation who were sick or who had recently suffered loss, for the homeless who
slept on our steps and in our shelter each night, for critical events happening in the life of our city, nation, or world, and always, always for the service of worship and the preacher of the day.
Whatever the future holds for congregational trends, I hope churches will surround their worship leaders with prayer. Paradoxically, nothing better grounds a preacher in the preaching moment than to be borne into the pulpit on the wings of prayer.
7) Preaching changes lives – and is here to stay.
Thirty-five years ago, I took a church youth group to a conference where the preacher for the weekend presented a series of sermons on “living the Christian life with freedom.” At the time I was facing a major life decision that (I am convinced to this day) would have meant the difference between living my life in freedom or living in a far less fulfilling way. Because of that preacher’s challenge, I chose the freedom road, and (as Robert Frost would say) “that has made all the difference.”
A few years ago, I told that story at a dinner party where, unbeknown to me, the person who had actually preached those sermons was present! Once we made the connection, I thanked him profusely for his sermons, and we both marveled at the mysterious workings of God through them.
Through the years that I have served in congregations, people have told me similar stories about sermons that changed their lives. It still happens today. Despite the warnings of the 1960s – when authority on all levels was being questioned and when preaching was predicted soon to go the way of dinosaurs – preaching has survived. Why? Be- cause when you come right down to it, there is no substitute for one person talking to another about the goodness of God.
Whatever the shape of congregations in the future, and whatever the shape preaching takes, God is in the midst of us. And with God, amazing things are possible.
Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Clement-Muehl Professor of Homiletics at Yale Divinity School, is the author or editor of eight books. They include Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art (Augsburg Fortress, 1997), Making Room at the Table: An Invitation to Multicultural Worship (Westminster John Knox, 2001), and Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice (Westminster John Knox, 2008). Her latest book, Preaching Prophetically in a Pastoral Way, is forthcoming from Westminster John Knox.
1 J. Philip Wogaman, Speaking Truth in Love: Prophetic Preaching to a Broken World (Westminster John Knox Press, 1998), p.20.