Tuesday, July 23, 2013

A Privilege I Don't Covet

I admire good preaching. For three decades I have had the privilege of planning Christian worship centered on well-crafted, intelligent, thought-provoking, life-changing preaching. I have worked with four senior pastors, good preachers all but not at all like each other in the pulpit. I’m a church musician whose m├ętier is planning a service around the sermon scripture; it’s a partnership I thrive in . . . and currently miss.

Over the years, I have had a number of opportunities to preach. My earliest sermons are embarrassing, my later ones personally unsatisfying. Thankfully, I believe that God blesses sincere preaching that comes from faithful study of God’s Word, and the Holy Spirit graciously sorts out the preached word to accomplish divine purposes in expectant listeners. Otherwise, you know, I’m pretty much hosed as a preacher!

I’ve had good models for preaching all my life. But when I came to College Church seventeen years ago, I was thrust into a hothouse of expositional preaching. First, the examples of two sermons every Sunday, all year round, with duties shared by an amazing pastoral staff led by a world-class preacher. That sort of rubs off on you. But there were also the annual Workshops on Biblical Exposition – a “spring training” event for preachers of all levels of experience and ability. As a member of staff, this was one of those other duties as assigned, and it wasn’t limited to being the music guy who got the workshop singing, then went back to his – you know – job. No, I was politely required to participate fully in the workshop: study certain texts in advance, sort out how to preach them, then in a small group of (actual or wannabe) preachers make my case for preaching a passage in the way I had arrived at.

Intimidating? Well, yes and no. Yes, because I was always the one in the group who wasn’t preaching or aspiring to preach; I was out-gunned. No, because after all I was the “music guy” and no one really expected that much of me. Thankfully, some of the small group leaders over the years didn’t let me off that easily, and encouraged me along the way. Still, this was always going to be a required course, and preaching a sideline at best.

I will say this: those Workshops helped in my personal Bible study, in my occasional role as a Bible teacher, and especially as a worship planner. While I never spent anywhere near the time in a sermon passage as the preacher would, I grew immensely in my ability to work from the preaching text to song selection and service order. And for that reason alone, I have long encouraged other church musicians to find some similar enterprise. (And I still wonder, why aren’t more preaching pastors bringing their worship leaders to such workshops? Actually, I have a cynical answer to that, but that’s for another post.)

Over the years, I will admit, I’ve been pleased with one or two sermons. A 20-minute sermon on Israel’s monarchy (part of a series in the Storyline of the Bible), preached in an Evensong context. In a series on the Women of the Bible, I got to choose and preach on Deborah, the judge of Israel. (They wouldn’t let me preach on the Whore of Babylon.) I rather liked that one. I like to think I can put together a rather nice homily for a funeral or a wedding. In those contexts, I’m your 12-minute preacher. (Time me.) For the most part, though, preaching has always been added to my regular duties, and I have felt that the sermons did not get the time they warranted.

All of which is just some background to the delightful opportunity I had to worship with, and preach for, the Lombard Mennonite Church this past Sunday. My friend Curtis is the chairman of the congregation; he invited me to preach in their summer series on the Fruit of the Spirit. I was handed the “love” card. The church is in a pastoral interim, and the summer series was covered by members of the congregation  and guests like me. It was a privilege, enhanced by the warmth of the fellowship of the congregation, the thoughtful worship leader, and vibrant a cappella singing.

Still, I was reminded why I am not a preacher, and reminded again that preaching is a privilege I don’t covet. There is a certain something that distinguishes preaching – an ethos, a connection to peoples’ lives, a knack for making the scripture come alive and for vividly making application to real life. I know it when I hear it, and I always know when it is missing from my own sermons. I realized that it is not just a matter of having “enough time” to prepare in the midst of other pressing duties: after all, in my current transition, time is a gift I have in abundance. Still, I have this confidence that the God who speaks is not bound by human frailty; that the Holy Spirit always accomplishes more than we can expect or predict. And that, in any case, someone will come along next week to preach again. And as long as I’ve been diligent and faithful, perhaps I will have done no harm.


John Darrow said...

Chuck, I just read through your LMC sermon (they don't have the audio up on the web site). While writing and preaching a sermon may not be your favorite thing to do, nor seem to you to come naturally, what you presented here is well-written and far better than you seem to give yourself credit for. It may not be your primary gift, but it is not something totally withheld from you, either.

Chuck King said...

Thank you, John. I think for me it is a question of seeing the bar set so high. One of my high school friends and neighbors was a pole vaulter; I threw shot put. That's how I feel about preaching.

John Darrow said...

I actually wish that more pastors like you were up front in services. I believe it would lead both to more participation by laity in providing sermons, and more meditations (rather than longer expositions) when the pastors do provide the preaching.

Though I know College Church is, as you said, a hothouse of it, I'm not all that enamored with expositional preaching, for reasons that I'd class as pedagogical, hermeneutical, and ecclesial: Pedagogically, I believe unpacking scripture texts would better served in a smaller, more classroom-like setting, in which the congregation can more easily involve learning styles other than auditory, and can interact with the pastor during the process. This leads into the hermeneutical, as I believe that such interaction might at times involve questioning more closely, and, yes, even sometimes challenging the pastor's particular interpretation, in a way that can happen in a closer setting but is very unlikely in a sermon, in which the pastor's viewpoint, rather than being a possible interpretation to be prayerfully discussed and considered, can come to be seen by many in the congregation as _the_ interpretation of the particular passage, because the preacher is the one up front. Which actually leads into the ecclesial issue - one constant preacher tends toward a top-down leadership structure of the church, pushing pastors into being seen as, and seeing themselves as, authority over the congregation, rather than servants to the congregation and guides to bringing out the congregation's own gifts and callings.

I'm not trying to say that expositional preaching automatically leads to a problem church (there are certainly ways that the pastor can work to mitigate each of the issues I've raised), nor that the skills involved (and taught in the workshops) aren't useful in general - you yourself noted how they've helped you in various areas; I just don't find that, in my experience, the expositional sermon, always (or primarily) given by a particular pastor, is really the best way to serve the church.