It's difficult for me to believe that it's been now close to 8 years since I left my last congregation as pastor and weekly preacher. I like to think that my ability to draw on nearly 16 years' worth of preaching experience helps me in my job now as someone who encourages preachers in their task and insofar as I have a small hand in training up a new generation of preachers via our students here at Calvin Seminary. And I think my experience does help. But every once in a while I realize that maybe I've been out of the "game" just long enough that I have lost touch a little with the struggles of preachers today.
Take last week: I met with a peer learning group of pastors for a day of conversation about preaching. They had given me ahead of time a list of questions, most of which dealt with preaching to contemporary culture and what forms of the sermon worked best today (as opposed to preaching styles that may seem outmoded to folks in the pews now). So I talked to these preachers about things we teach at the Seminary and some aspects of preaching that I believe to be vital. Among the things I often emphasize is that too much preaching in the last quarter century has morphed from a proclaiming of Good News to a Dr. Phil-like dispensing of Good Advice (how else to account for sermon series about "Six Ways to Raise Successful Kids" and "Five Ways to Grow Your Business" and "Seven Ways to Realize Your Dreams"?). I also talked about why avoiding moralism is so important and thus the need to avoid sermons that forever and again end with "To Do" lists of things people need to do in the week ahead to stay in good with God. Moralism is not only not the Gospel of Grace it rather routinely props up the closet legalism that far too many people schlep with them into church every Sunday as it is.
The pastors in this peer group listened attentively, asked good questions, and helped create a lively conversation. But then a couple of hours in, one pastor had the courage to ask the question that burned on all of their hearts when he said, "I agree with everything you have said but what are we supposed to do given that the very preaching you and the rest of us would deem to be bad is exactly what people seem most to want today? We're all seeing people leave our congregations--sometimes in significant numbers--to join the popular mega-churches in our area where the preacher does nothing but trendy 'good advice' sermons that always end with checklists of ways to be more virtuous. So what are we supposed to do to keep our people in our own congregations?"
The pastoral pain of these people was obvious. Their question was not only a hard one to answer, it was fraught with disappointment and disorientation. I wish I had an answer. The one thing to say is that as a preacher you cannot, of course, compromise yourself or give in to people's "itching ears" without losing integrity and self-respect. And, of course, we talked about ways to liven up preaching and pondered practices that all preachers could nurture in their sermons that would keep those messages inside the bounds of respectability but that might succeed in maintaining listener interest via what I wrote about on The Twelve two weeks ago in terms of letting narratives be vivid and engaging. Will such advice staunch any outflows of members? Maybe and then again, maybe not.
Probably it counts as something of a tired cliche to point out that the more Jesus preached the message of sacrifice and the cross, the smaller his crowds got, too. And, of course, the sum total of Jesus' preaching--including all those parables we now love so much--succeeded in getting him crucified. It's true. Jesus never promised his under-shepherds a life filled with success as the world defines it (and this, too, loops back to recent blog posts here by Steve Mathonet-Vanderwell and yesterday from Jeff Munroe). It's just that in a good bit of North America we've been raised to believe that hard work and faithfulness do always pay off in visible ways, and in the church, that usually means in growing congregations.
Thankfully, of course, many times that happens, too. Many growing churches are doing so under the preaching of very faithful proclaimers of the Gospel. It's also a point to grant that not everybody today yearns for the kind of trendy and moralistic preaching of which I've written here--there are still plenty of people who know true biblical and theological and pastoral substance in preaching when they hear it and they prefer it, too.
Still . . . being a faithful preacher is no guarantee that church members won't leave for what they perceive to be greener pastures. Every pastor winces to see people leave. Preachers today compete with so much else in the culture and from the entertainment industry and from the better-known rock star preachers as well. Those on the front lines of ministry need a lot of prayer from the rest of us. It's not an easy job but when it is done well, it remains God's favorite way of nurturing and sustaining (and generating) the faith of his people.