Jesus Creed Preaching
If I may pull an image from the Bible and use it, I think many pastors try to preach in Saul’s armor. Saul believed that young David needed some kingly protection and David wisely refused it. David had unknown skills, shaped in the very vocation of shepherding, that prepared him more than sufficiently to duke it out with Goliath. Too much these days is foisted upon eager young preachers to make them better “equipped” for the task: preaching books galore, the latest video series from “big hitter” preachers, pastors’ conferences with “improve-your-preaching” workshops ad nauseum.
It’s a Saul’s armor mega-market. David knew the times of tedium in watching over his flock. Maybe in those down times he reflected, played with words, wrote a Psalm or two. David knew the times when he had to give his life for the sheep as the bear and lion encroached. David was no stranger to adrenaline-driven energies. While shepherding with no one watching, David honed his skill of sling-shot accuracy. David was comfortable in his own skin. If I have one last thing to say to young preacher-pastors (in this final post on preaching), it’s this: get very comfortable in your own skin when it comes to communicating God’s Word. Cryptic thought: one smooth stone hitting the target is a great metaphor for preaching.
Were the sling and stone David’s weapons? No, of course not. David shouted to Goliath, “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the LORD Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.” The battle belongs to the LORD. Enter the divine/human cooperative in the heat of battle (ministry). David had been a faithful shepherd and all he was and all he could do was strongly aligned with the name of Yahweh. Schools don’t produce pastors; pastoring produces pastors. Jesus the Pastor creates pastors. David shepherded in the name of the LORD and out of that reality we still read, for example, Psalm 23.
A young married couple merely reading a book on human reproduction does not make a baby. Reading Richard Baxter’s The Reformed Pastor does not make a good pastor. Beneath the necessary academic training in the use of the tools for ministry, beneath the wise assessment of adequate communication ability, beneath whatever “model” (what a reductionist word) of church one adopts, there must be one pulsating reality: passion. You cannot read one Bible story about David or one Psalm of David without getting electrocuted by his passion. The nanosecond a pastor chooses, for whatever reason, to see his or her calling as a profession, even worse, as a job, then that pastor becomes dangerous to the church. Passion is just a synonym for love. Yes, I finally said it: love drives pastoral ministry. Not skills, experience, IQ, personality, salary, perks, affirmation—none of these have the staying power of love. I cringe when I hear pastors tell one another, “Well, we had a good crowd last week.” Crowd? Crowd! Jesus-like pastoring cannot and does not take place in anonymous relationships. When will we learn?
I remember years ago hearing a well-known “big hitter” pastor telling a gathering of pastors that he loves his people best by being away from them, spending many hours in study and sermon preparation. He shows up on Sunday and does his communication thing to the multiple thousands of attendees in his church building. His fine expositional sermon defined the axis on which his church rotated. None of it is bad in itself, but it is as far away from pastoral ministry as a surgeon telling me about what he is going to do to me “under the knife” and then the surgeon actually doing it.
Unfortunately there are pastors who love the Word, but don’t love people. Many crisp, creative Bible communicators would flop around like fish out of water if they were thrown into a jail cell filled with drug addicts. There are pastors who can exquisitely exposit a text and not shed a tear at the deep human suffering within their own congregations. There are pastors who brag with their peers more about their wardrobes and automobiles than about the young teen girl who decides to keep, not abort, her unexpected baby. Nothing is uglier in Christian ministry than pastors with misplaced passion.
Young pastors, my sisters and brothers, get your training, develop the essential skills, discern and accept your call. In your particular place with your particular people, get about knowing and loving your people by name, story by story. Let not only the Word of God excite you; let not only preaching week in and week out challenge you. Let eye contact with the ones for whom Christ died excite you; let hearing their broken voices and sometimes boring stories excite you; let their wobbly grasp on basic theological realities excite you. For, as C. S. Lewis reminded us, should one of the people in your church appear before you in their transformed, glorified state, you would be tempted to fall down and worship them. Preaching is an expression of love to people that you know. Love never fails.