By Paul Koch –
I remember when I first arrived at the seminary in St. Louis, our new class gathered for a reception at the president’s home. We stood out on the lawn drinking a few beers and sampling a variety of finger foods while getting to know each other. I heard a classmate behind me talking to a couple of fellows about how he couldn’t wait until he could preach. He knew that the task of preaching was what he wanted to do and he was eager to get on with it. As I listened to him, I was struck with a deep and lingering fear. I began to panic as I realized that I was in over my head.
See, I didn’t go to the seminary to preach. I went because I loved theology. I love the discussions and arguments. I was just beginning to dig into the joys of reading Luther, Melanchthon, and Chemnitz. I longed to know more, to engage in the arguments myself, to have my presuppositions challenged and conclusions questions and the seminary seemed like the best place to do just that. After all, the seminary was full of theologians. There were historians and systematicians and exegetes in great abundance. I could walk into offices and talk to the experts. I could sit at the feet of the masters and continue my pursuit of a greater understanding.
Preaching was a distant thought. I mean I suppose it would come to that sooner or later, but there were other degrees that I could pursue. There were other areas of expertise that I could search out, and thereby put off the task of preaching. To preach meant that I would be responsible for someone else. To preach meant there would be consequences to my leaning, and I wasn’t ready for that. It was the theology that I wanted. It was the safe confines of smoke filled studies and musty libraries that I romanticized about. Pulpits and altars were on the fringe of my goals, not at the center.
But the pulpit came. The move toward it was steady and slow, but it came as an inevitable conclusion to my education. At some point the study of theology without proclamation became a frustrating task. Preaching just made sense; it was what all that study was about and it was what I was supposed to do. The theology was to make me a better preacher. But this move was, and continues to be, scary as hell. The people I am called to preach to don’t fit the neat and clean distinctions of my theology.
The answers to their struggles weren’t found in my theology but in the proclamation of Christ alone.
To proclaim Christ is a fearful thing. It means standing in the stead and by the command of my Lord. It means to be profoundly aware of my own faults and failures. It means that progress and growth, as the world sees them, are not marks of faithfulness. It means taking the risk to do what you’ve been studying. It means moving from theory to practice.
The great travesty is that pastors who have been called to make this move to proclamation find it difficult to stay there. There is an endless barrage of church consultants and missional experts and stewardship programs that pull us away from where our theology has led us. We are encouraged to turn to these experts to find the success that proclamation alone has not been able to yield. My e-mail inbox is filled with offers from various groups that promise to increase my congregation’s missional impact, or their total giving, or community engagement. There is always a new and better program to replace the last one.
The result is to second guess the practice of proclamation, to focus again on just the theory. But here, it isn’t even the theories of church doctrine theologically worked through. Rather, the theories of the best business practices and models for success take the focus. Just as I was lead slowly to the pulpit, so these experts lead me slowly away from it.