By Bob Hiller –
Greetings, Dear Jagged Readers! It has been far too long since I’ve last blogged. I do hope, being the grace-addicted folks that you are, that you will forgive my absence as you have been forgiven. (I also hope you remember me!) Though, if I might offer some self-justification here, I do have a decent excuse for my absence. I have been spending a good deal of time working with my dear brother Paul on developing a new website for preachers we call The Craft of Preaching. If I may plug it for a moment, we are offering incredible guidance on preaching from some of the most thoughtful voices in the church today. If you are in a church where you use the three-year lectionary, we have insights into the weekly texts that are second-to-none. We also have weekly videos of pastors sitting and discussing preaching over drinks. And we are just getting started! If you haven’t already looked at it or if your pastor is not yet aware of it, please send them over to the site.
OK, my commercial is over. But seriously, check it out.
As I’ve been working on this site, I’ve been struck by some of the responses we’ve received. To be sure, they are largely positive. However, I’ve been surprised to see the negative response to our site simply based on the name. Apparently, there are some negative reactions to the idea that preaching is a craft. Just check out our Facebook page and see how upset people are when we say that we are helping preachers with their “craft.” The arguments go something like this: “Preaching is a gift from God, a work of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, it is not a human endeavor. It is the Spirit who moves us to speak, not our own ‘crafting.’” Or, some say, “Paul did not use clever rhetoric but preached nothing but Christ crucified for sinners.” Or, my favorite Facebook argument against us helping brothers in their craft said, and I quote, “This sounds demonic.”
The last two arguments (which are typical of the responses I’ve seen) are easily dismissed. To the argument that Paul did not use clever rhetoric (“lofty speech or wisdom” is his language in I Corinthians 2:1), it should be noted how his rhetoric is quite clever in I Corinthians (along with all his other letters). Paul’s point is not to say we shouldn’t preach with rhetoric or forms of speech that help the people hear better (if that were the case, what would we do with Jesus’ parables?), but rather, that he didn’t preach in a way to impress the Corinthians and draw attention to his own person. Paul preached Christ faithfully. And, if his letters are any indication, he used plenty of rhetoric to do so.
To the argument that this sounds demonic: Well…um…good news: It isn’t. Pushing pastors to study the Scriptures more deeply, to know their congregations more fully, to invest more prayerfully and thoughtfully in how they proclaim the Word seems to be the very thing God has called and sent them to do. If you think prayerful engagement with the people of your church so you know what they need to hear and how they will best hear it, and a careful study of Scripture so you know what God says to them is from the devil, well…how do I put this gently…you’re wrong.
And this gets me to the first argument that needs addressing: “Preaching is a gift, not a craft. It is a work of God, not of man.” This one betrays a bigger problem in our theological thinking. The argument smacks of gnosticism. That is to say, this argument seems to hold that the Holy Spirit has some special insight to give to the congregation that is divinely and immediately placed into the preacher’s mouth. Sermons are nothing more than immediate impressions from God. The pastor simply moves into the pulpit and the Holy Spirit, who has apparently been waiting of this opportunity, zaps the preacher with inspired words and he just rolls with it? This hardly sounds like what we see taking place in Scripture!
God always works through means for his people. The Holy Spirit doesn’t float around and zap people with inspiration once they enter the pulpit. Rather, He works through His written Word to inform the preacher of what needs to be said to the church He has created by that Word. The pastor gets what he is to preach, not by some immediate direction from heaven, but by the Word the Spirit wrote down via the apostles and prophets. Those Scriptures require the pastor to study, to dig into the text, to have the text dissect and rebuild him so he is prepared to do the same to the congregation. That last part is crucial. The preacher doesn’t stand up to give a lecture on biblical history or geography. He is preaching the Word of God into the lives of the people. He’s preaching for them! In order to do that faithfully, he must know them. He must be around them. He must be invested in their lives, suffering their burdens, celebrating their joys, confronting their sins, and forgiving them for Christ’s sake. He brings that Scripture to bear in their lives. And, in order to do that effectively, he must work at it. He must recognize his own sinful and self-serving tendencies, lest he preach whatever comes to mind. He must be formed by the Scripture and the lives of the congregation so he knows how to craft a faithful sermon.
As St. Paul wrote to the preacher Timothy:
Until I come, devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching. Do not neglect the gift you have, which was given you by prophecy when the council of elders laid their hands on you. Practice these things, immerse yourself in them, so that all may see your progress. Keep a close watch on yourself and on the teaching. Persist in this, for by so doing you will save both yourself and your hearers” (I Timothy 4: 13-16).
In other words, the Spirit is crafting faithful preachers through the gift of His Word. This is the gift given to the preacher, the Holy Spirit’s calling to preach, exhort, and teach. This calling is a craft one practices and is immersed in. That’s how the Holy Spirit is at work in, for, and through the preacher. The prayerful, daily use of this Word is what the Spirit uses to inform the preacher’s craft. God save us from the preacher who does not see his need to improve his sermons, who does not strive to deliver a more faithful and clear exposition of what God has for His beloved church.