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Preaching, Parenting & Putting

March 30, 2016
By Tom Ehrich
 
When I preach at my church on April 10, I will have an opportunity to attempt the virtually impossible, namely, to proclaim in 12 to 15 minutes the Good News of God in an impactful way.
 
Preaching, you see, is like parenting and putting. Everyone does it differently, no one does it perfectly, and everyone has an opinion about the craft.
 
Preaching and parenting are alike in that they seem best when they are just happening without drama, where the proclamation flows naturally from the relationship between pastor and people, just as good parenting flows naturally without anxious over-compensating. Effective preachers, like effective parents, radiate confidence, even when they are churning inside. Ineffective preachers, like helicopter parents, radiate anxiety, fear of failure, a need for control, and a need for applause.
 
Preaching and putting are alike in that results count. The scoring in golf is based on taking no more than two putts on the green. Three-putting kills a round, and more than three putts is a disaster. Tournaments are won, on the other hand, by taking only one putt.
 
Preaching has results, too, sometimes immediately apparent, sometimes measured over many sermons. The immediate result is impact: a glimmer of recognition, a tug on the heart-strings, a feeling of joy at being among God’s people; or conversely, the irritation of boredom and frustration at wasted time, as in, “What was that all about?” A bad sermon can kill a worship experience. A one-putt sermon, if you will, can cause the angels to sing.
 
Golfers are endlessly fascinated with the gear side of putting: new putters, new stances, new ways of lining up the stroke. Preachers share that fascination: preach from the pulpit, preach from the center aisle, tell stories, read learned manuscripts, deploy slides, videos and music, and try out some voice and mannerism tools common among actors.
 
In my opinion, if the preacher has something important to say, technique doesn’t matter. Neither does location, length or gear. In golf, the secret is practice, practice, practice. Same in preaching. Learn to write well, learn to deliver well, and learn to listen to feedback – and work at it every time.
 
Long-term impact matters, too. The aim of faith is transformation of life, not entertainment or belonging or comfort. Transformation plays out in decisions made differently, values held differently, desired outcomes viewed differently, and resources deployed differently. If a person comes to church with a settled world-view and leaves with that world-view intact, the church has failed them. The journey of faith is called “repentance,” coming to a new mind. Simply being confirmed in what you already know and believe is a sign of shallow religion.
 
The sermon isn’t the only place where, as the saying goes, “God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” But it needs to happen there. Too many preachers stroke their folks, rather than take the risk of leading them to a new place. They take the negative comment or furrowed brow as a bad report card, rather than as a sign they were doing their job. They seek to please, to avoid conflict and criticism, and to see smiles all around. That isn’t at all what people need.
 
Sermons need to deal with the real issues of life, including ethics, politics, economics, cultural values, and wealth and power. That’s what Jesus did. He had nothing to say about institutional religion, hierarchies of power, facilities, and doctrines. He told people not to be afraid, and to be ready to heal and proclaim and change the world.
 
To do that work effectively, the preacher needs to know the people. Yes, Bible knowledge matters, too. But more than anything, know the flock’s aches and pains, their worries, the injustices and oppression besetting them, the grieving and suffering, the bad decisions they are making. Speak to the darkness they know, the yearnings they feel, the questions they ask. Stand in the middle, between God and seeker, and say a word that will draw the two together.
 
More than anything, “preach with power.” Preach a powerful word, preach it as powerfully as you can without sounding shrill or melodramatic, and preach to the power of darkness and to the power of God’s light and love. Kissing off the moment might keep you safe. But it wounds the body of Christ.
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