Notes from a First Year Preacher
Preacher to Preacher: An Interview with Rev. Dr. Mark Labberton
When I had been a Christian for about two years, my mom's pastor came to visit me because my mom told him I had had a religious experience. Assuming I would be a pastor, he said to me, "I've just finished a Doctor of Ministry that compared the pension plans of all the major denominations and I want to tell you which one has the best pension plan." Silly me, I thought I had begun to know the God of the universe and it turns out it was about pension plans. That felt like the exact thing my father had feared, and yet I was having this experience and encounter with God in Jesus that was so different than the domestication of the gospel I was experiencing from this pastor.
My whole sense of the gospel and preaching has been this tussle: Is it a big gospel or is it a small gospel? Is it a gospel that ultimately gives an account of the universe or is it a gospel that's just about a pension fund? So one way of tracking my journey is following my desire to become a preacher who would preach a big gospel, because that seemed like the gospel I was encountering in the gospels.
That's why preaching must involve justice, because God is realigning power in every form. Having given us freedom, God hopes that our use of that freedom is for the sake of the world, creation, and our neighbor, and if it's not doing that, it is a fundamental problem. One of the most profound struggles in the biblical narrative is the relationship between God's power and our power. God gives deference to our power and yet God calls and makes a way for us to lay down our power and our rights to arms and to live out a discipleship that rightly orders power in the world, which defines worship, my relationship with my neighbor and with creation.
In my life, I stumbled into people who had a big gospel. It was why I was drawn to John Stott because on one hand he was orthodox, English, upper-class, and privileged but his life and vision for the world was so much greater than those categories and I wanted to know how that had happened. This is why I went to Fuller Seminary, which at the time was embroiled in a battle for the Bible. It was the most global seminary in the world and I wanted to be in a place that had big space and was wrestling with big questions. And being a pastor in Berkeley was attractive for that same reason; it is a place with unbelievable oxygen and it was possible to be deeply rooted in Christ and highly responsive and engaged with the neighborhood and the world.
What do you see as the biggest struggle for new preachers?
The biggest part is just getting over themselves. Effective preaching is so clearly not about the preacher. And the beginning preacher is often about the preacher. The tricky part is that you have to get over yourself to be yourself. So when you feel self-consciousness due to either over-confidence or lack of confidence, you need to know that's a growth trajectory everyone has to go through. There's a growth and maturation process that we must go on. Just as Jesus said, when we lay down our selves, we find we have something to say and we are able to say it with greater joy, abandonment, and zeal.
How do you preach for transformation and movement toward justice (without being preachy or moralistic)?
I think the heart of preaching is the heart of God. It's not the tasks of God. Moralism comes when we reduce it to a to-do list. When justice becomes something to do, then preaching becomes moralization. If justice is actually the embodiment of the heart of God in which the expression is the work of justice, then we get there in a different way. I'm not doing an externalized act, I'm embodying what is fundamentally an internal reality. It's an expression of God's character, not something on my to-do list. My agenda is to be just in an unjust world, asking where I'm going to give my time, resources, and energy to address injustice. You do that by inviting people into the heart of God. Whatever portion of scripture you are talking about, it's meant to be inviting people into the love of God for the world. As we understand the full nature of that, it's going to push and realign us. Preaching is having public enthusiasm for that process.
Jenny Warner is the Pastor for Justice, Spirituality, and Community at First Presbyterian Church of Bend, Oregon. She graduated from Biola University with a B.A. in Intercultural Studies and Psychology in 1992, and in 2010, received a Masters of Divinity from San Francisco Theological Seminary. She is a trained spiritual director, certified by Mars Hill Graduate School in Seattle.