What a challenging year 2020 has been. This year will undoubtedly be one we look back on with sadness and frustration, yet hopefully full of lessons learned and some strength and resiliency built. While our problems will not magically be solved at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, many people are looking forward to a new and better year in a way they have not in the past, and that means lots of new year resolutions are on the horizon.
I generally find the concept of resolutions to be futile and artificial. Those who truly want to improve their bodies through diet and exercise will do so without waiting for a particular date on the calendar. Those who aim to be more organized or begin a new hobby will work on those skills year-round until they become habits, rather than publicly declaring their intentions on January 1. When we are unhappy with an aspect of our lives, it takes constant attention, effort, and adjustment to improve those qualities. Yet, the dawn of a new year is a natural break in our lives, and it is a good time to pause and reflect on the past year, and which adjustments need to be made moving forward.
The church as well should take a moment to reflect on the past year, the challenges we have faced, and whether adaptations are required in the future. In most places, churches were forced to adapt how and where they worshiped, jumping between in-person and livestreamed sermons, outdoor and indoor services. We have struggled with limited capacities, adding additional services, restrictions on singing and receiving the Lord’s Supper, increased home visits, and the inability to call on those in the hospital or nursing homes. Yet, through all these challenges, we still had a job to do, a message to proclaim. A pastor’s sermon tends to take on increased importance in such times of adversity, and the importance of crafting a good sermon is what the Ringside preachers discussed this week.
“The temptation to be fancy [in your sermon] is to do something unique and memorable, but sometimes that backfires, and what is remembered isn’t the point of the sermon, but the cool story,” says Rev. Ross Engel, as the preachers discussed the balance between clear, direct language, and the artistry they attempt to bring into their sermons, that ever-present line between enjoyment and effectiveness. “The default should be a simple and clear sermon. Of course, that has to be the foundation of what you’re doing. From that though, in the life of a preacher and in the preaching ministry in a particular place, you’re going to have fluctuations,” according to Rev. Paul Koch, “you have to be dynamic and change things up.” Whether you have a preacher standing in front of you, or streaming on a screen miles away, if you are not engaged in what he is saying, you’re not benefiting from his words. But the temptation to prioritize entertaining people, particularly at a time where they are handed every excuse in the book to not go to church, needs to be curbed as well. Balance is the goal, but pointing to our sin and forgiveness in Christ is the necessity.
Our audiences are also important to keep in mind. When we tell people that Jesus died “for you,” it’s not just about saying the words, it’s about saying them in a way that affects the people you’re talking to. Congregations across the country did not have uniform responses to the challenges of 2020. Just as pastors and church leaders had to deduce the best steps to take for their individual congregations, so our messages also need to be tailored to our specific listeners and settings. Paul makes a concerted effort to contextualize his message each week, “When I prep a sermon, it is very focused on my members, on the people who called me to preach to them…I think of the struggles they’re having, the victories, the triumphs, the pains, and those sorts of things will get worked into the sermon.” Ross also recounts how he has shifted the goal of his sermons from bringing back the visitors to speaking to his members, “my sermons have actually gotten shorter and more focused over the last couple years, because I’m giving the gifts to my people rather than focusing on the spectators in the audience.”
While the conversation on Ringside centered specifically around preaching, the idea that we need to be clear and direct, yet engaging and contextual, should apply anytime any of us are sharing the Gospel with others. So, how did we do in 2020? Did we get our message across clearly? Did we bring God’s gifts to our people, or did we get lost in our inventiveness or distracted by the “hows” of worship we were pushed into? Do we need to make some adjustments? Of course we do. We always have room to improve and failures to face. The great news is that God’s effectiveness is not limited by our failures. Whether you are in the pulpit or in the pew, you have failed and you are forgiven. As we step into 2021, let’s skip the grand resolutions, and continue to focus on our primary message and duty as the church, constantly reflecting and refining as needed.
This article is a brief examination of the “metaphorical and theological rugby match” that was this week’s episode of Ringside with the Preacher Men. Listen to Rev. Joel Hess, Rev. Paul Koch, Rev. Ross Engel, and Tyler the Intern, as they duke it out over whether Tombstone or Love Actually is the best Christmas movie, why Christmas is the end of the world, whether the Christmas Star was actually an alignment of planets, and more on the full Ringside with the Preacher Men episode, “Merry Christmas! The World is Ending.”
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