My own vision of pastoral ministry in the North American context has been profoundly influenced by the person and writings of Eugene H. Peterson. Consider me a Petersonian in my view of the pastor and his or her place in the local church (see, e.g., Jesus Creed archives). I’ve heard Eugene speak, but I’ve never heard him preach. I am glad. We all seem to have an innate desire to imitate someone we admire. I don’t want to preach like Eugene Peterson.
The best metaphor for talking about preaching is a slippery bar of soap. It’s just hard to grab. Good books about preaching abound; good books full of profound sermons abound; good radio preachers are ubiquitous. For all that, a preaching pastor is a particular being, serving in a specific locality with its own history and “feel,” overseeing an assembly of peculiar people that 99.9% of pastors will never know. Where the idea came from that the church can franchise preaching as a general, marketable process baffles me. The cat’s out of the bag: preaching is as unique as the pastor and the congregation she shepherds.
When I consider preaching as sacrament (last post), I am stopped, silenced, and humbled. It is a God thing shot through and through with mystery. On the other hand, when I consider preaching as a form of human communication, I lighten up, even laugh at the sheer creative freedom attendant to such a holy endeavor. Encountering God is ultimately in God’s hands; preparing for that encounter is a pastor and people endeavor. A leisurely conversation, sipping at good wine or delicious coffee, may be filled with the presence of our surprising, conversational God. A sermon, yes, a formal communication event, is also a living nexus of our particulars-loving God, a passionate, know-the-sheep pastor, and an assembly of people urged to expect God’s arrival.
I still remember when I stumbled into this reality. Parishioners, in what Prof. Howard Hendricks used to call “the glorification of the worm” ceremony, shake hands with and speak to the pastor at the end of the worship service. For a time I was accustomed to hearing things like, “Wow. I just didn’t know so much information was packed into those two little verses. You are a good Bible teacher.” As God continued transforming my particular life and preaching, I began to hear people respond with something like, “I really met God today. God spoke right into my life.” Do you hear the profound difference? I’m reticent to write this, yet believe me, I am not bragging. C. S. Lewis wrote that it would be silly for me to brag about having brown eyes. I am not the source of my brown eyes or of God showing up. A pastor is a co-worker with God, but never God.
Human co-working requires some behind the scenes work. Behind the dependency on God to meet us (we do “invoke” God’s presence) and behind the creative joy, dare I say fun, of communicating are hours of diligent study. But not just diligent Book work, that is, all the study that goes into shaping a biblical text into a meaningful sermon. Pastors also intentionally do people-watching. We offer keen, will-behind-the-ear listening. We allot time for leisurely pastoral story-hearing and story-telling. All the while, we celebrate the inestimable privilege of having a vocation that dares to engage two holy realities: the lives of human beings and the Word of God. We’re living a calling; not doing a job. I am troubled that pervasive USAmerican consumerism has turned the pastor into a professional employee for a consumerist group of religious people. A pastor is a vocational servant. Preaching is not about marketing Jesus and/or our church; it is about encountering the Trinitarian God as revealed in the Bible.
It is vexing that pastors get petrified in a theological/denominational stratum of “truth” and cease to keep on learning. I find it inexcusable that many pastors are afraid, yes, afraid of new theological ideas. Many pastors are more afraid of the “slippery slope” than they are of encountering the living, inexhaustible Lord Who is “making all things new,” including many theological ideas. I marvel at pastors, having spent so much time and hard-earned money training for their vocations, who let slip the good habits of wide theological reading; they quit looking for the most current biblical commentaries; they stop exploring excellent theological dictionaries on Old Testament and New Testament words; they lose touch of the pulse of the larger conversations and issues in the evangelical world, and they cocoon in their little worlds with no desire to travel cross-culturally on mission trips. If pastors get bored with ministry, it’s not the ministry’s fault. He or she should take a long look in the mirror. Some say, “If you knew my people and my personal and church struggles, you would understand my ministry disillusionment.” We must be careful that we do not allow our personal disillusionment to define all pastoral ministry. It doesn’t. There’s so much more to focus on. We all need to keep engaging our God and his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, the Supreme Pastor.