Sunday, May 17, 2009

Preaching the Long Game

Preaching is a passion of mine. Could be I just like the sound of my own voice. Could be that it combines my interest in drama with ethics, storytelling, teaching, and philology. Could be that I genuinely want to share the Gospel to the best of my ability. Could be all three or something else entirely. You decide.

I was fortunate to get plenty of experience preaching before taking my first call. I was preaching at my home church regularly before going to seminary. At seminary I took every homiletics class I could get into, while volunteering to fill pulpits around the Bay Area. In my internship I preached about twice a month for the first half, until my supervisor resigned. For the second half of the internship I preached every Sunday.

All of this experience was great, but it had in common one flaw - it was always temporary. Usually I was "guest preaching" just one time in each of those places. Even at the internship I was filling in for someone and I knew I wasn't there for the long term. I think this gave a kind of unnecessary urgency to my sermons. I was rushed. I hurried to get to the punch line, knowing that I wouldn't get many other chances.

What's become more and more apparent to me as I preach week in and week out in my current call, is that I have time. It is not that the message is less vital or that I have lowered my sights or backed off of my goals. It is, rather, that I see how I can move from week to week along an intentional path with my congregation. I can have the destination in sight from farther out and work steadily to get there without having to sprint each time I climb into the pulpit.

This is important for a number of reasons.

When I sprint, I tend to leave people behind. If they weren't ready to run with me they just stand there looking bewildered at this precocious kid who has suddenly darted away from them. It isn't that I am bright and other people are slow it is that...

You can only sprint down a well-trod path. The first time someone walks a path they have to hack their way through the underbrush. I tend to forget that the first time I traveled this way I went step by step. I have to be patient enough to help them clear the underbrush and pack down the earth before the road is ready for running.

Also, when I move faster than people are ready for it looks like I'm jumping to conclusions. Unless the landmarks along the road are familiar, a hasty journey has the effect of seeming like a commercial flight at 40,000ft. You come in one airport and out another and you are just "magically" in a new place. You fail to see how the two places are connected. This makes it hard for people to accept my conclusions - they seem harsh and alien and unrelated to their own starting points. They can't see how I got from point A to point Q.

Finally, it is important to think long-term in preaching, because it saves me stress on a weekly basis. I don't have to figure out how I'm going to get my congregation to move from "love your enemies" to "nuclear disarmament" in a single sermon. I can take time and really explore love of enemies over weeks and weeks. I can help them extrapolate step by step over a variety of situations the implications of loving our enemies. I may even be so fortunate as to have people in the congregation come to important conclusions on their own.

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