Many people in public ministry find that preaching is one of the most demanding things they are involved in. To put yourself and your theology on the line, to seek to offer an illuminating and life-transforming insight, week in, week out, is very tough! Why exactly does it feel so hard?
There are some obvious reasons. For one thing, there is an inescapable ‘performance’ element—you are on show in front of those are leading, and open to evaluation. (This is true whether or not people give you feedback; just because people are not talking to you, it does not mean they are not talking about you!) And given that public ministry (at least in the Church of England) still attracts a higher proportion of introverts than the general population, this is always going to feel costly.
Added to that, many of us are aware that we could be doing better, and that it often takes many years to develop a confident and effective style of preaching. This means that many in public ministry are living with a significant, weekly task which is demanding and which they feel they could be doing better. This can become a toxic combination.
Are there deeper reasons why this is such a challenge? When teaching preaching, I often ask groups to identify what they think is a good sermon, and most of the time there is fairly consistent agreement, even across personality types and theological outlooks. If we can identify what ‘good’ looks like relatively easily, how come it is so hard to deliver this?
My reflection is that, practical and personal reasons aside, biblically-based preaching demands two sets of very different skills from the preacher. (I do believe that all preaching should, in the end, be biblically-based in one way or another).
1. On the one hand, engaging with biblical texts, reading carefully, drawing out meaning, and understanding historical, social and literary contexts of a text demands quite high level analytical skills.
2. On the other hand, delivering a sermon which connects with our listeners requires skills of empathy and understanding, and ability to share experience, tell stories and connect with the lives and situations of others.
These two sets of skills explain why some say ‘It is study which builds preaching’ and others say ‘It is visiting which builds preaching’. In fact, it is both. This is where the challenge lies.
Most people naturally are stronger in one area than another, and so preachers will often focus on one end of the task rather than the other. At the extreme, some preachers with gives lots of information and analysis, but fail to connect. Others will tell great stories and connect, but lack the depth that comes from serious engagement with and analysis of the Scriptural text. (At the risk of being lynched, I might venture to suggest that frequently men are better at the first and woman are often better at the second…)
How can we live with this demand, and grow more effective?
In terms of the shape of our ministry, we need to attend to both poles of the tasks—we need to continue to study and develop exegetical skills, and continue to visit and develop our pastoral and empathetic skills. The goal for ministry should be to develop an integrated personality, to be ‘one’ as God is ‘one.’ That, of course, is a long-term goal! But it should perhaps guard us from becoming too narrow and specialist in our ministry interests.
More practically, this issue suggests that we should have mixed preaching teams in churches, and that we should be learning from one another—and perhaps even working together in sermon preparation. It is no accident that in Acts, Paul always works with others, and in his letters almost always writes with others, and not alone. I wonder what conversations went on as the letters were written!
Thirdly, this suggests that those in the early years of public ministry need particular support in the development of their preaching, since the skills needed here are ones that are foundational for so many other areas of ministry. Those responsible for training (in local churches, teams or areas) could do with making this a priority.