The responses to my first few sermons were enthusiastic encouragement, but I noticed as the year of my internship wore on, the comments came less and less. I think my preaching actually improved, but it became a more common occurrence and people didn't feel the need to comment anymore. Trying my best to be generous and strong, I was still a little bewildered. After all, I had spent most of my week or longer giving birth to my sermon. Brainstorming had flowed in the moments between putting my head to the pillow and sleep, driving in the car, in the shower. I poured myself into those 15 minutes of spoken word. And people would just shake my hand and leave.
What I suspect is that most congregants assume this is just what we do: pastors preach. Whether it is good or bad, it happens every week and it is not any different than the news being reported on the evening news every night. Sometimes it takes their breath away and sometimes . . . well . . . it does not. And often, it does not occur to them to even comment.
Quite honestly, preaching can be lonely. It is less lonely for those who surround themselves with a weekly discussion group or partners. It is less lonely in communities where there is interaction expected between the congregation and the preacher. But it is lonely. You pull from all of your resources and look for a fresh word from the Spirit for that week. And then you take that best-I-had-this-week, stand before 30, 100, 500, 1000+ people, and speak it out. Some people inevitably fall asleep, others look away distracted, some are on the edge of their seat, and most stare blankly.
At the end of the day, I find it important to practice several things. First, I remember that whatever the sermon was or wasn't, it is what it is. It is the best I had in that moment and I have to leave it in God's gracious hands. Second, I deeply value those who will give me honest feedback. I seek out those who I can ask, "Honestly, what did you think?" "Was I loud enough?" "Did you understand that point?" "What did you think of my interpretation?" This keeps me both humble and encouraged. And lastly, I try to never let another preacher's sermon go by without making an encouraging remark if I have the chance. It's tough to be up there. Preachers, just like anyone, need to know you heard them.
On Sunday evenings, I lead a worship service at a local retirement home. It is not an easy crowd to preach to. The average age is over 80 and the service is after dinner. However, one of the weekly attenders is a great saint of 20th-century Christianity. He has held the highest position in his denomination and has been through tremendous personal struggle. Every single Sunday, he comes through the line to greet our guest preacher, looks them in the eye, and with a light of childlike joy, he thanks them for their message and tells them what he is taking into his week from what they preached. It is the greatest gift he could give to the preacher.
For me, there is something of God in this saint's eyes and maybe we preachers need to seek it after a particularly rough Sunday.It is the look of the one who knows the loneliness of the preached word and who looks at us with shining joy on our good weeks and our not-so-good weeks.