A certain brother came, once, to Abbot Theodore of Pherme, and spent three days begging him to let him hear a [prophetic] word. The Abbot however did not answer him, and he went off sad. So a disciple said to Abbot Theodore: Father, why did you not speak to him? Now he has gone off sad! The elder replied: Believe me, I spoke no word to him because he is a trader in words and seeks to glory in the words of another.
Quoted by Thomas Merton in “The Wisdom of the Desert” (p34-35)
I was catching up with my friend Tom (not his real name) as we prepared to go into a local school to lead an assembly. We hadn’t seen each other for a while, so there was a fair bit of catching up to do!
Tom is a popular preacher, often in demand by churches all over the place, and is pioneering a sort of ‘fresh expression of church’ locally.
The ‘fresh expression’ is growing in several ways and doing quite well. A lot of it has to do with low key events, small groups and building close relationships.
“You know,” said Tom, “like you I enjoy preaching and I think I’m quite good at it. I just got back from leading a church weekend for a church further south, and although I enjoyed the sessions that I led I wonder if all that preaching really had any effect. I often feel it’s not really the way to do things anymore.”
He was right. I do enjoy preaching and I hope I do it well, but I too have been worrying about doing it. I think that only too often preaching, my preaching, sinks to the level of personal egos, ‘tickling intellects’ and hearing not doing.
I have little doubt that there is still a place for preaching, with right motives to people who are open to hearing from God and want to put into practise what they hear, but preaching is, by nature, ‘at a distance’, easy to appreciate for the wrong reasons, easy to ignore and go away stimulated but unchanged. It is possible that many churchgoers unwittingly see preaching as a kind of Godly entertainment, rehearsing truths that are warm and familiar, or in some cases feel it is a penance to be endured.
Conversation, with people with whom relationships are being built, answering real questions that are being asked about faith, one-to-one or in small groups, and not necessarily in church, seems to contribute more to the life changing challenge of the Gospel. In that setting the life of the speaker is also under closer scrutiny…there can be no inconsistencies between the message and the lifestyle of the messenger.
Some of us in more traditional churches have become lazy and have just not been prepared to put in the effort to overcome the problems presented by largish buildings and numbers of people, to introduce ways of teaching in the context of the worship service that are more personal and more suited to the way people learn, take things on board and change. This is not about content, presentation (lots of media) or length (“the sermon was a bit long today”). There is work to be done!
Much as I enjoy preaching, and trust God to make it helpful, I don’t want to simply become a trader in holy words, providing people with a sort of commodity that fails to touch the deep parts of their lives and behaviour, making them think they know more about God while keeping him relationally at arm’s length. Preaching for me is about changing lives…if it’s not doing that then it’s time for a rethink…