I preached a lot of sermons over the past almost four decades. It was a learning process. At first, I was scared to speak in front of a crowd (fortunately most of my crowds were small) so I turned down or made excuses why I could not fill the pulpit. Then, I took a job on a church staff working with youth and Christian education. I was safe I thought. Not for long, I was asked to preach at night (small crowd) and when the senior minister was away. I had a funeral of an elderly, beloved church member (big crowd). Surprising myself, it went well. Maybe I can do this. I went on to become the solo pastor of a couple churches (small crowds). I learned how to preach in fits and starts. This was before the word processing era so I wrote out and re-wrote my sermons. I preached them over and over to my long-suffering wife (small crowd). It would be safe to say that I agonized over these messages. I hope it was mostly because I wanted to get God's word right but I know part of it was my own anxiety about speaking. In time the preaching task became easier. I was more comfortable with the crowd big or small. My wife did not have to listen to the same sermon over and over and word processors were invented so I didn't have to use up so many trees to get the Word out.
Now I am on the other side of my preaching life. I hope not the end of it because I am enjoying it more. The other night I preached at the church we are attending now (small crowd). I remembered those times the guy in my seminary office would call and say, Hey, I've got a church for you that needs a pulpit filled this Sunday. There won't even be a dozen people there. No, thanks, I said, because I could - maybe the next time knowing there wasn't a chance. So here I was years later doing what I did not want to do and having a blast.
It was a small crowd. I have learned a lot. I am not the pastor of this church so there was no pressure. Some people were not there because that's what happens when the real pastor is away. I was not getting any financial compensation for it. It was all good!
Here is what I think I know about preaching now. First, it is overrated. It is still a big deal in most Protestant churches, the biggest deal. And it still is important. But, there are lots of ways to come at the task. There is the ARTS: video, graphic arts, music, drama. These ways of communicating are more effective than having a person standing in front of a bunch people lined up in pews and speaking to them. People who have spent the week watching tv, streaming video,and constantly attending to stimuli on their devices. Preaching is a two way process so what is happening on the other end. Engage the listener with questions, discussions, and media. Most people don't think they want to sit for a half hour and listen to a lecture. While they sit there they are tuning out unless they are engaged.
Even if the preacher preaches a genius sermon, it will fall on deaf ears. So, what is the point. The point, I think, is to help the listeners engage with God's Word to them. Do whatever it takes.
Second, the worship service is the point. In many Protestant worship services it seems like it is all a buildup to the big moment when the sermon is preached. Then, we sing a hymn, and go out for coffee or dinner. God is in our worship and engages us there. There is not just one worship service that needs to be repeated over and over. We simply fill in the blanks each week. There are other ways to worship;we need to think about those forms and use them. Sometimes, we need to have a service where we do just that, serve. Since, the Eucharist preaches the best sermon we will ever see or hear it needs to be celebrated every week.
The Body at worship is the point. In most Protestant churches the preaching pastor is the big deal. He, and it is usually a he, is the focus. People evaluate the worship service by the effect of the sermon. The preacher evaluates his performance by the assumed effect or lack thereof - in the sermon. An ineffective sermon cast a pall over the next week for me a number of times. Other people can share a word. In fact, it is helpful to hear from the congregation several times a month about where they are seeing God in their lives, their worlds. In the church we are attending our pastor is a woman. How remarkable are the insights she brings to God's Word that I would never think of.
It is God's Word. He is in charge. He speaks as He wills. There is no pressure. Let God do what He will. It is not up to us to perform. The effectiveness of the message or the music cannot be evaluated by us. We cannot know what God is up to and our evaluating is not the point. The point is we gather and Christ is there and we enjoy Him and what He is doing in our lives and He is pleased with our worship.
In the Christian Century this month John Buchanan observed that nine US churches close their doors for good every day. Then, he quotes Frederick Buechner, "maybe the best thing for the church would be for some great tidal wave of history to wash it all away - the buildings, the money, the bulletins, the differences between preachers and congregations all lost too. Then all we would have left would be each other and Christ, which is all there was in the first place."