Anglicans love liturgy. This has always been true, but in the past couple of decades, I’ve seen more and more young clergy who are especially enamored with the formational impact of rightly ordered worship.
I would imagine this phenomenon is due mostly to a generation of young priests drawn to the Anglican way from a low church evangelical tradition. Finding such a diverse and intentional form of worship comes as a breath of fresh air to those raised in only ‘songs-and-sermons’ services. These enthusiastic ministers have become ‘liturgical evangelists’ who simultaneously translate our worship to the unfamiliar and also remind us ‘old-timers’ of the beauty and power we sometimes take for granted.
Still, this shift in focus sometimes diminishes the vital role of a strong and creative pulpit. The exhaustion many feel with evangelical preaching that is driven by ego or didacticism can lead to a pessimism about the power of faithful gospel preaching. When this sentiment is combined with the creative constraints placed on small church rectors, it can lead to destructive stagnation in the preaching life.
In an attempt to provide a counterbalance, I’ve compiled this list of five reasons to give more attention to your preaching:
1. Your People Need the Bible
Our tradition presumes that people are reading through a common lectionary, spending time in the Bible daily either corporately or individually. But in our times, such devotional habits are the exception, not the rule. Also, many smaller churches don’t have the time or resources to host in-depth Bible studies as part of their Sunday or mid-week programming. The bottom line: for many (if not most) of the people who come to your church, the Sunday sermon will be the only scriptural teaching they experience. This is no time for fluffy reflections about contemporary life—we need to hear the riches of God’s Word read and interpreted.
2. Pulling with One Oar
Ironically, it’s small churches that have the most trouble with a unified vision. Smaller churches have lots of lay leaders and lots of opportunities to dive in and get to work. That’s a blessing, of course, but it also means you will have lots of ideas about ‘who we are’ and ‘why we are here’ floating around. Sunday morning is pretty much the one time when everyone is sitting in the same room hearing straight from the rector. [ctt template=”8″ link=”ft7Be” via=”no” ]No, a sermon isn’t a shareholders meeting, but it is your opportunity to provide a unified, clear sense of the church’s mission and identity[/ctt] If you are consistent in your language and teaching from the pulpit, your invaluable lay leaders will begin to catch the vision and everyone will be pulling in the same direction.
3. The Evangelical Moment
Much as many now cringe at the word evangelical, we must transcend the tarnished label and reclaim the literal identity—we are ones who announce the good news of the victory of Jesus over sin and death. The Eucharist service embodies the Gospel beautifully, inviting people to work out the story of salvation through the movement of the service. But there’s a subtlety to that which—like the tannins of a fine wine—are lost on the uninitiated. Preaching is the most accessible and understandable moment in a worship service to those who’ve never been to church. It’s the most tangible, personal introduction visitors will receive and is likely a deciding factor in whether or not they will return. It’s vital for their sake that the sermon is well-prepared, clearly delivered, and leads people to Jesus.
4. Perfect Practice Makes Perfect
Preaching is a craft in the same way that shooting a free throw or painting a still life is a craft. To improve a craft, repetition certainly matters, but only if the repetition includes reflection and refinement. I have seen many preachers who lacked skill and polish in the beginning of their ministry slowly learn from their mistakes and eventually become masterful, powerful communicators. However, I’ve also watched as clergy fell into bad habits and soon became locked into a pattern of preaching that was unhealthy for their congregations and themselves. Invest time and energy in your sermon prep and you will see steady growth in your abilities over time.
5. A Matter of Faithfulness
What I’m about to say isn’t fair, but it’s the truth. Your sermon needs to be good for the sake of your job. Most of the people in the pews don’t understand the role of the rector. They don’t know about all the meetings and hospital visits, managing a staff and balancing a budget, and the thousand other hats you wear every week. Most people figure that you spend your forty hours carefully, prayerfully preparing your sermon. You can try to fight against that perception, but it will end up sounding like an excuse. Since most people think of preaching as ‘the thing you do’, you need to do that thing well. Even the strongest rectors will see their roles diminished by a weak pulpit.
Preaching matters. No one demands perfection, and everyone understands human limitations, but that must not stop us from offering our very best every week from the pulpit. Consider what new habits or commitments might help nudge you to a more faithful, effective preaching life in the coming months.