by Bruce G. Epperly
Preaching is the most sustained spiritual and theological practice for senior and solo pastors. Although preaching, along with worship leadership, is the most public act in ministry, excellent preaching that transforms congregation and preacher alike is grounded in the privacy of prayer, meditation, study, and writing. Excellent and inspiring preaching joins contemplation and action and the inner and outer journeys of faith.
A faithful preacher, John Ames, the protagonist of Marilynne Robinson’sGilead, describes the practice of preaching with these words: “When you do this sort of work, it seems to be Sunday all the time, or Saturday night.”1 The life of most pastors is punctuated by Monday morning reflection and Sunday morning preaching. Images from scriptures and homiletical themes follow us throughout the week, often unconsciously shaping our encounters and interpretation of the events of our lives.
I believe that the process of preaching, and in particular the time the preacher spends in preparation, can transform a preacher’s life spiritually, intellectually, and professionally. But, he or she must be intentional about joining spiritual and intellectual preparation with the public act of preaching. The spiritual practices of preaching enable the preacher to “practice what he or she preaches,” grounding her or him solidly in the faith they affirm. Ultimately, preaching is not a performance but a dynamic spiritual conversation between preacher, congregation, and God, deepened by the preacher’s solitary meditation, study, and reflection. While “partners in preaching” clergy and lay reflection groups can be helpful for preachers, they need to be accompanied by the privacy of prayerful study and writing.
Still, many preachers seem bored, alienated, or disinterested in the inner journey of sermon preparation. This phenomenon has led homiletics professor Mike Graves to raise the following question: “If preaching is intended to enliven the church, why is it killing most preachers?”2 I believe that this homiletical deadening of the spirit occurs because many pastors focus on the product, not the process of spiritual and theological preparation, and their sermons show it!
The bar for excellent preaching—and excellence is always contextual—is set low in many congregations. Moreover, in the spirit of Jesus’ parable of the sower and the seed, many preachers have good intentions, but their quest for a spiritually and theologically insightful approach to preaching is choked by the weeds of ministerial busyness. Pulled in many directions and without an overall ministerial vision, many pastors relegate the spirituality of preaching to second place, far behind the daily demands, both important and unimportant, of ministry. Sadly, many pastors fail to integrate their vocation as preachers with the rest of their professional and personal lives. Often uninspired by the process of sermon preparation or the particular lectionary texts, they leave their preparation to the last moment, cribbing from internet lectionary resources and on-line sermons, instead of listening to God’s wisdom in their own encounter with the living words of scriptures. For the sake of full disclosure, I use internet resources myself and write weekly lectionary commentaries, but I always consult my own experience with the text prior to enlisting the wisdom of online homiletical resources.3
I believe excellent preaching that transforms both preacher and congregation emerges from the dynamic interplay of vision, promise, and practice. In other words, our theological understandings and perspectives, the affirmation that we can experience, the faith we affirm, and practices that enable us to experience God’s presence in daily life and the arts of preaching and ministry. In what follows, I will explore a theological vision for life-transforming and spiritually-inspiring preaching and practices that enable the process of preaching to come alive for both the preacher and her or his congregation.
A Dynamic Vision of Preaching
At its best, preaching is theologically-inspired. I see theology primarily in terms of affirmations, positive statements about the nature of God, the world, and humankind that shape our interpretations and responses to the events of our lives, individually and corporately. The following affirmations are at the heart of my vision of the preaching adventure:
- God is constantly inspiring us. We are continuously experiencing God’s Spirit in sighs too deep for words. Practically speaking, our preaching is rooted in God’s graceful inspiration.
- God is continually inspiring both preacher and congregation. We are not alone in the process of preaching, nor do we preach to a spiritual wasteland. Even the most apparently lifeless congregation is touched by God.
- Our preaching shapes people who are already being shaped by God. We don’t need to import God into the process of preaching; God is already there at every step.
- Divine inspiration is always contextual—God speaks to concrete persons in concrete situations, presenting us with concrete possibilities. Preaching is always local in orientation, despite its global scope: accordingly, there are many forms of homiletical excellence.
- In the interplay of call and response, there are as many sermons as there are persons in the congregation; that is, our congregants hear our sermons in light of their experiences and intentionality. A preacher is responsible for her or his faithful excellence: the congregants will interpret her or his sermon individually and uniquely.
- Good preaching invites us to experience new possibilities for ourselves and the world.
- Preachers are called, like the Creator, to be artists—bringing words and images to life, creatively transforming scripture and the congregants’ experiences in novel and provocative ways, as a way of opening to God’s living and growing word.
Spiritual Practices for Preaching
Swiss Theologian Karl Barth, who spent his life joining pulpit and classroom, once asked: “If it were tiresome and dull for ministers to do their Sunday work, how could they expect their congregation and the world to find it refreshing?” The preaching task is always daunting. Often as I hear the scriptures read on Sunday morning, I shiver as I ask myself, “Who am I to speak for God? What qualifies this particular, fallible mortal to speak about the secrets of creation, revelation, grace, salvation, and everlasting life?” But, I also experience confirmation as I repeat the Psalmist’s words, “This is the day that God has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” and affirm “I have been called to this task. Even if what I say is finite and imperfect, my vocation is to bless this congregation and give them words of hope, consolation, affirmation, challenge, and confirmation.”
I believe that pastors can deepen their preaching by embodying a number of transformative practices.4 Practices enable us to experience the faith we affirm and the scriptures we preach. Preachers will find their own best spiritual practices, but the following practices are guideposts to zest-filled and spirit-centered preaching that will enliven and enlighten both pastor and congregation. They have shaped and continue to shape my weekly encounter with God’s wisdom as revealed in the words of scripture and the world around us.
The Forrest Gump Principle. Do you recall the nugget of wisdom from the film Forrest Gump? “Momma always said. ‘Life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re gonna get.’” I have always found that this is a good starting point for lectionary preachers. Even if you have preached the lectionary cycles many times, encounter the scriptures with a sense of openness, excitement, expectancy, and novelty, or as the Buddhists say, “the beginner’s mind.” If you see preaching as an adventure, you will always be surprised and intrigued by each week’s readings. Some will seem like favorite chocolates (in my case, dark chocolate, mocha, mint, and vanilla crème); others will have a bitterness and you would just as soon put them back in the box (again, in my case, lemon-filled). In either case, expect the unexpected and be open to new light on familiar scriptures. See yourself as a homiletical adventurer, describing God’s landscapes of revelation to your congregation, and you will come to each week’s readings with anticipation.
Praying for Guidance. “Pray without ceasing” as you encounter the text. “Ask, seek, and knock” in your quest for inspiration for yourself and your community. Ask for God’s inspiration to speak a transformative word: remember people have found wholeness and grace from just a few words from the voice of their pastor.
Praying Your Study. Even if you don’t have time for extended study, treat your study time as a form of prayer. Ask for insights in your reading and invite God to give you new perspectives through your encounter with commentaries, on-line resources, and other texts.
Listening to Your Life. I like the interplay of Frederick Buechner’s “listen to your life” and Parker Palmer’s “let your life speak.” In your encounter with the weekly scriptures, let their words illumine your life. This is why leisure is so important in preaching. An inspired preacher takes time early in the week to bathe her or himself in the words of the texts and then lets them soak in. Take some time simply to let thoughts bubble and to experience the scripture calling you forward to new possibilities or giving insights into your own spiritual and professional path.
Lectio Divina. We can listen to our lives through the Benedictine practice of lectio divina or holy reading, which invites the reader to hear for God’s words in the words of scripture. In lectio divina, we read the words of scripture and take a generous time for silence, listening for the words, phrases, and images that emerge from our experience, letting these words address us personally and call us to prayer. The practice of lectio divina awakens us to new possibilities for proclamation and prayer.5
Taking Your Sermon Out for a Walk. When the body moves, so do our thoughts. When I begin my sermon research, the first thing I do after initially reading the texts is go out for a long walk, bathing my senses in beauty and imagination in possibility. Virtually every time I go out for my “preacher’s walk,” I receive a variety of images and examples, more than enough to get me started on Sunday’s message.
Imaginative Prayer. Ignatius of Loyola pioneered an imaginative approach to scripture in which the reader becomes part of the biblical narrative through the use of holy imagination. Holy imagination invites the pastor to “pause awhile” (Psalm 46:10) and place herself or himself in the biblical story. You might experience yourself as the prodigal son or the older brother, Jacob wrestling with a nocturnal visitor, Mary of Magdala in the Garden, or Jesus at prayer. If the Bible is a story of spiritual adventures, then living with scripture invites preacher and congregation to join a holy adventure, traveling to unexpected places, with God as our guide and companion.6
Blessing the congregation. Perhaps the most essential practice for preachers is the act of blessing. Throughout my process of preaching, I remember the community to whom I am preaching. I pray for their well-being and spiritual growth. I pray that I might speak a word of grace, healing, and inspiration to them. I see them as God’s beloved and ask that God fill them with joy and grace. I continue this practice as I walk to the podium, take a few cleansing and centering breaths, and then, as I gaze upon the congregants, take one more deep breath and symbolically and prayerfully breathe God’s blessing upon them.
Preaching can transform the life of preachers and congregations. Each week can deepen your faith and contribute to the spiritual growth of your congregation.
1. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead (New York: Farrar, Strauss, and Giroux, 2004), 232.
2. Mike Graves, The Fully Alive Preacher (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox, 2006), 3.
3. I regularly write lectionary commentaries for Patheos.com and processandfaith.org
4. I have written at greater length on spiritual practices for preachers inTending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry(Herndon, VA: Alban Institute), 28-46.
5. For more on lectio divina and the Benedictine way of spiritual formation, see Kathleen Norris, Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead, 1997) and Norvene Vest, Preferring Christ: A Devotional Commentary on the Rule of St. Benedict (Morehouse Publishing, 2004).
6. David Fleming, The Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius: A Literal Translation and Contemporary Reading (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1978).
Congregations magazine, 2013-07-10
2013 Issue 2, Number 2