Relationships are messy. Let’s face it, were it not for the stuff of relationships preaching, teaching, and leading a church would be easy. Pews never balk at the truthfulness of a sermon. Stained glass radiates its beauty regardless of the proper preparedness of any lesson. If a church leader desires to move a beam or board in the church he needs only to pry it up with a crowbar or bang at it with a hammer. That doesn’t work so well with people.
Relationships are messy, but that’s where the Christian life happens. I often spend time preparing sermons surrounded by open books written by men who have been dead for centuries. From them I gain great insight as to the content and meaning of the Bible. While that is time well spent, it is the hours I spend in relationship with the people to whom I preach that I gain great insight into the content and meaning of the application of those truths in people’s lives. For preaching to matter it has to be relationally messy.
In Galatians 6:2 the Apostle writes that we are to “Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (NIV84) While this passage is seldom used in the common literature on preaching, it should be. Preaching is a kind of Christian relationship. While a visiting preacher may preach an eloquent message, as the day in day out pastor of a local church I have the distinction of preaching from the foundation of doing life with the people to whom I preach.
We can only go as far as our relationships will take us. Preaching is a way of sharing burdens. More specifically, when I preach to people with whom I share burdens I am more inclined toward a sense of urgency and diligence in searching the Scripture to find solace, power, and hope. While a good sermon from a visiting pastor or a preacher on television or radio may stir a member of the church I serve, my week in week out preaching coupled with personal conversations in the hallway at church, time spent at a child’s birthday party,visiting the hospital, or some other thing I do in relationship with my people allows an intimacy that the other guy can never have with them. How that intimacy is wasted when we don’t allow that to influence our preaching.
In his book The Ministry of the Word, written a century and a half ago, William Taylor writes, “The pulpit is your throne, no doubt, but then a throne is stable as it rests on the affections of the people, and to get their affections you must visit them in their dwellings.” I often study books on preaching and the pastoral life written from that era; those men knew and openly discussed the importance of authentic personal relationship in the task of preaching. They knew the value of long pastorates, regular visitation of people in their homes, and genuine life in community.
Culture has changed, but too many preachers today craft sermons without cultivating relationships with the people to whom they preach. It is true that we foster relationships in a sort of one-sided fashion as we use personal stories as illustrations, share our own struggles, and are open with the spiritual seasons in our lives. God does use our lives as a tool to shape our people’s lives.
However, that one-sided relationship does little to allow God to use their lives to shape us. Even a preacher on television has people who love them but the truth is that people love the idea of him or, more specifically, the image of him that has been presented through a camera. More deeply connective and personal is the pulpit communication that proceeds from intimacy in personal relationship.
It’s a funny thing that every small church I have served struggled to get bigger and every large church I have been a part of struggled just as hard to get smaller. The little church wants more people and the big church wants more small groups. Life happens in community and the best preaching is a part of that. Jump into the muck of messy preaching, but be thoughtful because:
1. This is messier.
Preaching at a crowd is easy. You just say true things and pray for the best. Preaching to your friend about his or her sin requires that you do so without guile or hypocrisy. It demands that any sermon you preach to them has already been applied to you. Great care must be given to preach about gossip without preaching at the gossip you know gossips. Every small church pastor knows the delicacy of leading a church through change without changing the sermon to avoid an individual.
2. This is harder.
When I preach to my friend I care about his feelings. I don’t mind using my advanced rhetoric to crush a sinner, but doing so may wound my friend. Preachers who preach to their friends must do so with the precision of a surgeon operating on his own mother. Every cut is done with care and concern and consideration for how it will heal and help. The cost of discipleship is high and the cost of making disciples is even higher. A disciple-maker is like a player-coach. He doesn’t yell from the sidelines. He leads from within the game.
It is a lot easier to buy bacon than to raise pigs. Bacon is neatly wrapped, easy to cook, and tastes great on everything from a sandwich to ice cream. But preachers aren’t consumers of end products of discipleship. We are cultivators, farmers, of discipleship. We are front line ambassadors of Jesus. If we are His ambassadors, under shepherds, then surely we should imitate Him if we ever hope to ask others to do the same.
I almost always address communication to my congregation “Friends.” Jesus time and again calls His disciples friends. In John 15:15 He even says “I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master's business. Instead, I have called you friends, for everything that I learned from my Father I have made known to you” (NIV84). Relationships are messy, but even Jesus led His friends, taught His friends, and gave His life for His friends.
Preaching that grows out of the muck of relationships has the potential to reach a level of impact far beyond prose striking into the heart of a friend from the heart of a friend.