As of the time of the writing of this article, I have been a preacher of the gospel for 19 years.
That’s half my life, since I started at 19. I’ve preached as a lead pastor for the past 4 years, but a notable shift has taken place in me in the past year. This shift has also been recognized by some in my congregation.
On a recent Sunday, after one of our worship services, someone noted that my preaching had changed in some way (in his opinion for the better), but he couldn’t put his finger on it. After giving some thought to his comment, I sense I know what he was getting at.
I think I’m starting to learn to preach not as a preacher but to preach as a pastor. There’s a world of difference between the two.
The Journey Toward Shepherding
Over the course of the past year, I have been overwhelmed with the confusion and hostility that has filled many of our churches.
The political noise, rapid cultural shifts and the general struggle that many endure has come to the surface in a visceral way. As a pastor, I’ve been asking myself a fundamental question, namely, “What does it mean to preach for the spiritual formation of the people I lead?”
It’s a question I’ve asked in one way or another over the years, but in the past year, something qualitative has changed. The question has deepened me. The only way I can put my finger on it is to say, I have shifted from being overly preoccupied with giving good sermons, and have moved to being preoccupied with the lives—the struggles, questions, fears—of those I lead.
Consequently, my heart as well as my delivery of sermons has adjusted to this new reality.
More than anything, the shift I’ve undergone has been one of how I see myself. I have moved (in my mind at least) from someone who gives engaging messages, to someone who needs to be a spiritual parent to the people I lead. This is not small adjustment. As a younger pastor in a multigenerational church, I have often thought I needed to be in my fifties to lead this congregation as a spiritual father. More than ever, I see how I need to start “parenting” right now.
As I’ve reflected on this shift of preaching as a preacher to preaching as a pastor, I’ve noted at least 3 signs that a shift has taken place. I’m not suggesting that preaching “as a preacher” is fraught with emotional immaturity and self-centeredness, but noting this shift is important to identify the inner workings of our lives as we proclaim God’s truth to those God entrusts to us.
I. Don’t be preoccupied with your “performance” but with connecting the truth of scripture to the very real lives of people
This might sound obvious to many, but therein lies one of the insidious temptations of preaching.
It’s quite easy to approach preaching from the perspective of one performing, that is, being overly focused on what we did right or wrong. This kind of approach makes the beginning and end of a sermon about the individual improvements one needs to make for the sake of delivering a better message the next time.
To preach as a pastor, however, is about connecting to those we lead on a heart level. In a given week, people come in to church with addictions, shame, fears, doubts, confusion and despair. What’s really important is not the perfect execution of the point, but the quality of connection we endeavor to have during this speech-act. Preaching as a pastor is not to be transactional or strategic time for content dumping. Rather, it is a time of encounter.
Now, anyone who knows me would not see this point as an opportunity to be mediocre in our preparation. I see preaching as a beautiful craft that needs to be patiently and prudently worked on. There is no room in the church for lazy preachers who fail to do the work of study, life-integration and prayer. However, there comes a point when we spend too much time on the content without truly taking the time to prepare for a “live encounter” with the people we are offering God’s word to.
II. Don’t look for validation from those you lead
I, just like anyone, deeply appreciate words of encouragement from those I preach to.
I love hearing about the ways God uses the words I speak, and the stories I tell to help someone in their formation journey. But there’s a line that I’ve crossed.
I’ve noticed how the words of encouragement (or lack thereof) have slowly lost their grip on my life. I’m learning to preach out of an identity rooted in the love of God. Ultimately, I know I’m preaching out of a projected sense of self when my sense of identity is built or torn down by the validation or criticism of those I preach to.
As a father of two children, I don’t walk around the house with a clipboard anxiously fielding questions on how I’m doing and why they don’t appreciate my work as a father. I’m to lead my children, offering them validation, love and affirmation. In a similar way, as a “preaching pastor” the focus is not to communicate to get something from the congregation, but to offer something to them. Something of God’s love, grace, truth and care.
III. You preach from a place of pastoring
The life of a pastor must be deeply incarnational.
We speak, not just from good exegesis and individual prayer, but from a place of “on the ground” presence with people. I’ve spent time with preachers of small churches and mega churches and have found in both contexts, that it’s easy to preach from our own isolated bubbles.
Reading a few good books and giving clever illustrations will not provide the power our preaching needs to make a difference in the lives of those in our communities. We must tend to the presence of people, as we discern the presence of Christ. I like how David Fitch captures this in his book, Faithful Presence. He writes,
As we sit around a table and share our lives with each other, expose our sufferings and our joys, a moment comes that begs for the proclaiming of the gospel into our lives.
The proclaiming that Fitch is referring to in this quote is in the context of everyday life apart from the gathered, worshipping community. But the principle remains. To preach as a pastor is proclaim the gospel out of the very ordinary and quotidian spaces.
Our churches are desperately looking for mothers and fathers who will lead and shepherd the flock of God through faithful preaching. Surely, we need more than a weekly sermon to grow into Christlikeness, but without the intentional, slow, and steady work of preaching as a pastor, our churches will not grow in depth and in strength.
As Paul wrote, “Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ, you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel.”
May God multiply the fathers and mothers who preach as pastors, not just as preachers.
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