Let’s be honest, sometimes the preaching sucks.
As a pastor, I am fully aware of the terrors and struggles associated with the preaching task. I will never forget those first months: showing up way too early on a Sunday morning, fretting over every word in the manuscript, wondering about the emotional and spiritual and physical baggage that my congregation would carry into the sanctuary that morning. I wasn’t afraid of public speaking or even that I would somehow lead the flock into heresy. Rather, my fears rested in prideful arrogance that my sermon would simply suck, that it would miss the mark completely and be of little to no consequence to those who gathered around Word and Sacrament.
Almost 15 years later, those same fears still plague me. Sure, I don’t show up quite as early on a Sunday morning, and I do sleep a little better the night before, but there is still this deep concern that my preaching will fall short. I am fully aware that I remain the weak link in this exchange between the Word and the hearers gathered in church. Of course, I know that God isn’t dependent upon me. He can certainly accomplish his work without me. Still, he has called me and sent me to do this task. So, what happens if the preaching sucks? What happens if I fail to provide a faithful meeting between God’s Word and his people?
I’m not speaking about preaching that is boring or lacks rhetorical creativity. I’m not worried so much about the monotone drone who comes across as wanting to do almost anything but be in a pulpit. No, I’m talking about a sermon that isn’t proclamation, a word spoken by a preacher that doesn’t kill and bring forth life. God has proven over and again that he can and does work through the most unlikely of means. He tends to excel at working through the weak and foolish of the world, but what happens when the weak and foolish vessels no longer cry out “repent and believe”? What if we settle for Bible stories and history lessons and even moral instruction without deafening blow of the Law or the life-giving proclamation of our Lord’s absolution?
This is when preaching truly sucks—when it has failed to do what it is called to do.
The thing is, we tend to offer critique and constructive criticism for just about every sort of fault in preaching but this one. In other words, we correct every type of public speaking issue and even doctrinal clarity aberrations but not what to do when a preacher is no longer handing over the goods. And this is the most dangerous situation for those gathered to hear. As Walther says,
“Wherever this doctrine is not proclaimed, the is no Christ, no Gospel, no salvation; there men perish, and for such people it has been in vain that the Son of God has come into the world” (Proper Distinction, Fourth Evening Lecture).
There is too much at stake to allow only routine and comfort to shape the preaching of the Word. I fear it is our complacency that usually opens the door to terribly preaching, not lack of creativity or eloquence, but simple laziness.
Let us then rouse ourselves from the status quo and strive for a preaching that never sucks, a preaching that is nothing short of the present tense doing the Word of God today. As C.F.W. Walther both warns and encourages us,
“How pitiful is the young pastor who enters this office thinking: ‘Hooray, the time of hard work and drudgery is over. Now I have come to the haven of rest and peace! I will enjoy that! I am my own boss and need not take orders from any person in the world!’ This is just as pitiful as the pastor who looks upon his office as his craft, or trade, and thinks: ‘Now all I have to do is to set up for myself a nice, comfortable parish! I will be really careful not to make enemies and do everything to make everyone my friend.’ Oh, what a pitiful man! These pastors plan to use their spiritual assets for worldly gain. They are not true ministers of Christ, and on the Last Day He will say to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matt 7:23).
“But blessed is the pastor who starts his official work on the very first day, determined to do everything that the grace of God will enable him to do, so that not one soul in his congregation would be lost on account of him. A pastor like this would resolve that by the grace of God he would do all he can, so that, when the day comes for him to lay down his shepherd’s staff, he may be able to say what Christ said to His Father, ‘Here I am. Of those You gave me, not one is lost’” (Proper Distinction, Twentieth Evening Lecture).