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From Pew to Pulpit
A Beginner's Guide to Preaching
By Clifton F. Guthrie
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2005 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
Despite our tendency sometimes to think otherwise, there never was a day when all of God's preachers were imposing men with booming voices and unwavering confidence in their calling to ministry. Rather, both scripture and church history show us that preachers' bodies, natural abilities, and inner convictions vary widely. They come to the task with strength and frailty, certainty and doubt, talent and inadequacy. In other words, they are people like us. Yet the stereotypes continue to limit the power of the gospel in our churches and in ourselves. You new preachers who are blessed (or cursed) with unshaken confidence that God has called you to pulpit ministry need not read this chapter. The rest of us may benefit from a little review of the many and curious ways that God has called very ordinary people like you and me to preach.
The Bible is full of reluctant preachers. In fact, God would seem to specialize so much in speaking through hesitant people that it's almost wise to be downright suspicious of preachers-to-be who are champing at the bit. Moses worried himself sick at the burning bush: "But suppose they do not believe me or listen to me, but say, 'The LORD did not appear to you'" (Exodus 4:1). Samuel was a small boy who heard voices in the night and was afraid to tell the old priest Eli about his dreams (1 Samuel 3:2-18). Isaiah's vision of God's holiness was so overwhelming that he wouldn't speak until his own sinful lips were made clean (Isaiah 6:1-8). Jonah was so reluctant a preacher that he hopped on a boat, tried to get others to drown him, and was swallowed by a fish. Even when his five-word sermon (in the Hebrew text) caused the whole city of Nineveh to repent, he went out and sulked (Jonah 4).
In the throes of sermon preparation you may be hit by a freight train of self-doubt: who am I to stand up and preach? However I got to this place, it must be a mistake. The people who invited me are going to wonder what in the world they were thinking!
It's called the Imposter Syndrome, the feeling of being unworthy of such a high calling, and it can be a wretched thing to experience. Your inner demon whispers that you don't know enough about the Bible, your spiritual life is a mess, your voice is squeaky—the reasons are legion and deeply personal. One student discovered the sermons of Barbara Brown Taylor and then almost refused to preach because she just knew she couldn't do it as well. Martin Luther aptly summed up the dread:
I would rather be stretched upon a wheel or carry stones than preach one sermon. For anyone who is in this office will always be plagued, and therefore I have often said that the damned devil and not a good man should be a preacher. But we're stuck with it now. ("Sermon on the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity, 1531.")
We all have our inner demons and times that we feel unworthy to preach. If you are afraid, at least you are not alone. In fact, my experience is that new preachers who feel as Luther did turn out to be much better preachers than those who can't wait to climb into the pulpit because they grasp the significance of the calling and responsibility of the task. It is a good and biblical thing to be a reluctant prophet. But think carefully about what exactly it is that makes you reluctant. Your inner reluctances are matters you must pray over and work through. For some people, such reluctances turn out to be indications that they really do not belong in the pulpit. For others, they are signs of unrealistic images that they have about preachers, or some burden of self-criticism from which they must be healed. For still others, however, the sense of unworthiness comes from years of being told that the pulpit is a place reserved only for folks who are of a different gender, race, age, physical ability, class, or educational background than theirs. Even if you are never told explicitly that "people like you" should not preach, it may be that you have simply never seen a person like yourself in the pulpit and so have implicitly assumed that your voice was not welcomed. Here we are up against not just our inner demons, but against powers and principalities like racism, ableism, sexism, and homophobia that plague the history of the church. In this small book I cannot deal with all of these prejudices in relation to preaching other than to say that I believe that the Spirit is moving through the church to continue to break down the barriers that keep us from living fully and faithfully.
Yet because this is a book especially for new preachers, there are two groups I wish to address directly, folks who have often been barred from the pulpit: women and laity.
Women in the Pulpit
It is astounding that the birth of the church at Pentecost was marked by the promise that the Spirit would move both sons and daughters to prophesy (Acts 2:17; Joel 2:28-29), and yet the church has resisted the Spirit's gift to women ever since. If you are a woman moving from the pew to the pulpit, you may experience a deep reluctance to preach that men will never know. Because for so many centuries women were forbidden to preach (and still are in many denominations), you may sense that your voice is less expected and welcome or carries less weight than that of men. Despite the fact that women make up 61 percent of all U.S. worshipers and more than one third of the students in seminaries, only about 12 percent of all U.S. clergy are women. In most denominations, we are only one or two generations removed from the pioneering women who were first ordained. In other places women have been only reluctantly received, if at all.
The resistances are profound. You may encounter folks who will compliment your preaching, but then say offhandedly, "You preach well, but I just can't get used to the sound of a woman preacher." You may be paid less for your efforts than men. You may be bumped off the schedule or given second billing or slighted in an introduction if you share a service with a man. Even if there are no remaining sexist attitudes in your congregation there can be other obstacles: the pulpit may be too tall or the sound system tuned for lower voices, the prayers and hymns still talk about "men" rather than "men and women," or just plain "people." God is addressed as Almighty Father so many times in our prayers that it seems like we believe this is God's official and only name. No wonder some of the women students I encounter confess that they face an inner struggle about whether they have a right to stand in the pulpit! In both subtle and explicit ways, even in liberal churches women are sent the message that they really don't belong.
Women can be ambivalent about preaching even when they are asked to do it precisely because the preaching office too often has been used to perpetuate patterns of authoritarianism. Refusing to stand towering over the gathered community, women will often leave the pulpit entirely and stand on the same level as the congregation, engaging it in a sermon that feels more like a dialogue among equals. This is what happens in the church to which I belong. At the time of the homily our female priest comes right up to the front pew to talk with us. The old oak pulpit stands against the wall on the left, used only by the occasional guest (usually male) preacher. It towers over us like an abandoned monument to an earlier style of preaching, of being church. The congregation beams because the preacher doesn't use it, yet any suggestion that it be removed will be greeted with a gasp of horror. Church furniture is often more sacred than God. (Don't believe me? Try moving the furniture around one week and see what happens.)
The good news is that the increase in women preachers is changing the nature of preaching in our day. Women embody sermons in ways that are often different from men. Many are rejecting universal claims in favor of more personal stories of faith, theological abstractions for testimonies of faith, moral simplicities for a more complex realization of what it means to try to live faithfully in our age. They are exploring biblical storytelling sermons, dialogue sermons, sermons-in-the-round, and other imaginative and inclusive forms of proclamation. Others use familiar patterns of preaching but embody them in new ways. Long story short: the church has suffered too long from hearing from only one-half of the human perspective. We are in continuing need of women who are willing to answer the call to move from pew to pulpit.
Ordination, traditionally, is the way churches have recognized the calling of particular people to ministries of Word, Sacrament, and Order. It is the way that life in the church normally runs. Trouble is, God doesn't always seem to stick to what is normal. The history of the church shows again and again that the revival of lay preaching can bring renewal to the church.
In Jewish synagogues, any layman could speak and give instruction (see Luke 4:16ff, and Acts 13:15). Thus, none of the apostles, nor Jesus himself, was formally ordained, yet they were welcome to speak in the synagogues.
In the Middle Ages, although preaching at a Mass was reserved for priests and authorized monks, an unordained abbess was allowed to address her community.
In the thirteenth century, first Dominic, and then Francis of Assisi, started new orders of monks who, despite being ordained, evangelized Europe with their learning, preaching, and exemplary lives.
In Holland, there were so few preachers during the Reformation that a "school for prophets" was created for the laity, leading to the founding of the University of Leyden.
Lay preaching revived strongly in the English-speaking world with the early Puritans and with the Quakers, who eagerly accepted both female and male lay preachers and sent them all over the world as evangelists and missionaries.
The Methodist revival in Great Britain in the 1700s was almost entirely led by lay preachers, both men and women, who traveled from town to town preaching in fields and organizing class meetings.
The Presbyterians in Scotland saw a revival of lay preaching in the 1800s, which in turn influenced the Anglican Church to establish the office of lay reader, a person authorized to preach and lead services in local parishes.
Today, lay preachers across the world and across traditions serve small churches, supplement the preaching ministry of larger congregations, lead retreats and youth groups, and act as evangelists in some of the fastest growing congregations and church movements in the world. Informally, laity are invited to give testimonies, preach during special prayer services and revivals, fill in on Sundays when pastors are away, or simply preach whenever they are deemed to have something important to say in the life of the church. In our local congregation, for example, our pastor has asked one lay member to speak about how his faith sustains his work as an environmental activist; another to represent to the congregation the aspirations of the Native American people who live in the community. Most pastors are thrilled to get a break from the cycle of sermon preparation, and most congregations glad to hear from someone else for a change.
More formally, laypersons in various denominations are called, trained, and sent out specifically to take on the ministry of preaching in the local congregation and beyond. Unordained college and seminary students are given the responsibility of pastoral care and preaching in local churches overseen by more experienced, ordained persons. Many of the local churches in rural areas across America would simply close if all the unordained students who served them were barred from the pulpit. Most of my students leave seminary with two or three years of preaching experience under their belts, all of it gained before ordination.
Speaking about the good news of Jesus Christ is a task to which we are all called through our baptism. Scripture affirms: "Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom" (Colossians 3:16). Martin Luther thought that nothing mattered more than preaching because it led people to Christ. So important, in fact, that it could not be owned by the ordained: "The only true, genuine office of preaching, like priesthood and sacrifice, is common to all Christians." But, he added, for the sake of good order, "Not many of you are to preach at the same time, although all have the power to do it." This dual sense of both the need for lay preaching and the preservation of the good order of the church is present in most of our denominations. Most try to be faithful to scripture by both encouraging it and making sure that those who do it are adequately trained. For information about how different denominations name and train lay preachers, check out this book's Web site: www.pewtopulpit.com.CHAPTER 2
Preaching with Others
Miguel was trained to preach at seminary and among Anglo congregations. When he became the pastor in a small urban church of Cuban émigrés, things changed:
"When I preached in Anglo congregations I wrote out my whole sermon, I took the manuscript, and then my world changed with this other congregation. Preaching is a more familiar, community-oriented event in the Latino congregation. I have to be closer to them, there needs to be more eye contact. The people I serve are mostly older immigrants with health problems. The first thing I did as a literate middle-class educated person was to tell them to open their Bibles and read. But I learned it has to be like my grandmother used to do, with storytelling. I began to be like Grandma, just telling stories from the Gospels that I would relate to our own stories. For example, every time something comes up like a mustard seed, or good seed versus weeds, they know the old agricultural images as children who grew up in Cuba. Since changing my preaching they have become more receptive and more active. What I have learned from that is the power of the spoken word."
The old paradigm of preaching viewed the preacher as a lone ranger, a solitary figure hunched over desk preparing a sermon. Like Tolkien's character, Gollum, who came to fixate on the ring as "my precious," the preacher considered the sermon something to protect until the time on Sunday that it was revealed to all. But there are many reasons today for the preacher to think of herself or himself as a member of a fellowship, a group of faithful persons on a long and sacred journey, and the sermon as a lens by which that fellowship can view the world that week as a God-soaked world.
You preach within a local community of faith. Sermons are shared experiences within the context of worship. Congregations are increasingly resisting the idea that Sunday morning ministry is something that is delivered to them. Thriving churches involve people in ministries within and beyond the local church, and these ministries become celebrated during Sunday worship. Active church members have a plethora of study resources available to them through Christian bookstores and the Internet and are looking for ways to share what they know. They have visited other congregations where they have seen worship that involves more people and they bring those expectations back to their home churches. The better pastors, for their part, are learning that their sermons remain fresher and are better heard if they involve others in the congregation as they prepare for and deliver their sermons.
You preach with a community of fellow preachers. Two recent developments, in particular, have encouraged preachers to work together as members of a community of preachers: the common lectionary and the growth of the Internet. Today church visitors to a small town with a United Methodist church on one corner, a Presbyterian one across the street, and a Congregationalist one on the other side of the intersection may find that they are all using the exact same scripture readings in worship on a Sunday morning. Pretty soon the preachers figure out that they might well benefit from trading ideas and resources rather than doing a solo act, or they may even do an occasional pulpit exchange or a community-wide worship service. With the Internet, these working groups lose their limitations of distance. Communities of preachers from all over the world now meet easily over the Internet to share sermons and tips about Bible lectionary texts.
Excerpted from From Pew to Pulpit by Clifton F. Guthrie. Copyright © 2005 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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