Preach — but Pastorally, Please

Screen Shot 2015-01-07 at 3.35.58 PMBy John Frye

Last time I mentioned that good biblical communicators cannot be mass-produced just as Michelin Star chefs cannot be run off an assembly line. The art of pastoral preaching, in particular, is like a fingerprint in that no two pastors (must) preach the same. Why is that?

The art of pastoral preaching is highly contextual. Three levels of context must be carefully kept in mind by the communicator. Level one: Assuming that the communicator has some ability in theological, exegetical, and homiletical skills, the pastor must know her congregation. The pastor’s study must also include the matrix of living, breathing, going-about-their-lives people who have been assembled by the Spirit to be the local church. The Old and New Testaments are not just lists of member/attender/visitor (guest) rolls. We are immersed in stories of human beings with their dreams and tragedies lived out under and in relationship to God. Take for example, Ray M. He is a 92 year old Dutch man who came to the USA around 1950 and became a bricklayer. He had fought in the Dutch underground against the Nazis and after the liberation of the Netherlands helped free allies from Japanese POW camps in New Guinea. He built the huge stone fireplace in the lobby of Calvin College’s library. When Ray read Scripture in the worship service, there was the touch of eternity in his words. Consider Millie B. Since her husband died years ago, she still buys a birthday gift for herself from him, and the same with a Christmas gift. She jokes, “I still get a gift from him and it’s always something I really want.” Jesus said, “I call my sheep by name.” He’s modeling what it means to be “the good Shepherd.” Pastors, listen, listen, listen to the stories of your congregation members. Beyond that, seek to discern the collective story of believing community. Jesus knew that story of the Philadelphia Christians was different from the Sardis and Ephesus ones.

The second level of context is the communicator’s personality, giftedness, style (if you will), and knowledge of his or her congregation (level 1). You, pastor-preacher, are not like any other person on the planet (until cloning happens). You want to be an irritant to your church? Then pretend to be or imitate your homiletical heroes. Can you imagine a white boy like me trying to pull off preaching like Pastor E. V. Hill or Dr. Tony Evans? It’s just as ludicrous to try to be like John Ortberg or John MacArthur or John-the-pastor-of the big-church-across-town. Let me be frank. When I was an instructor at Moody Bible Institute, I heard stories from the music department about young men and women coming out of local churches aspiring to be great vocal artists. No one in their journey had the courage to give honest criticism, until they got to MBI. “You just can’t sing, friend,” they were told. I think many young leaders with great hearts and good intentions want to “preach the Word,” but there’s no effective ability. Imitating other preachers does not make one a preacher. So, level one is a known congregation and level two is a competent pastoral preacher.

The third level is what I call the “particular direction” of the biblical text at hand. No one lives by generalities. We all live particulars. The Pharisees were living by generalities—“We are Abraham’s children!” The particulars of their lives, however, gave lie to the generality. You have a congregation, pastor friend, composed of a particular group of people with very particular stories who live in particular locales in your city, state, and country. No one on the planet has your church or knows your church like you do (assuming context level one is a priority for you). The art of preaching is creating the sermons that celebrate, affirm, and shape the particulars so that people are called to own the priorities of Jesus as their own in their place.

Let me address the push-back. “John, I could never do this. I have a church of 2000 people.” Too bad for you. You are a preacher, but not a pastoral one. I’m not saying that’s wrong. In my view, it’s woefully incomplete. One of my heroes in the faith is Eugene H. Peterson. He wrote that he’d never shepherd a congregation in which he did not or could not get acquainted with all the individual stories of the people. Julie and I will occasionally shop at the big box stores, but when it comes to cuts of meat and locally ground vegetables, we have our little mom and pop store. Are big box churches wrong? Of course not. I think they are not the best, especially for developing the art of pastoral preaching.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.