For several years, I had the wonderful privilege of co-pastoring a congregation alongside a gifted preacher to whom I happen to be married. On the way home from Sunday services, our conversation would often turn to the sermon, and together we would enter into a kind of ‘studio space’ where we both discussed the creative aspects of the sermon, how we could have engaged the text more artfully, or the most faithful aspects of the sermon. It was incredibly challenging and life-giving as a preacher to have an artistic partner who was willing to engage in that kind of conversation for the sake of both our preaching getting better. We wanted to model The Sermon Studio after that kind of experience, and open it up to preachers who may not have that kind of conversation partner nearby.
CPL: Why do you think the art of preaching is still important in this technological age?
Our technological age has done something to the imagination of both pastors and congregations. We often tend to see the pastor as a technician who is charged with making the machinery of a local church run smoothly, and whose preaching is measured by their use of r a finely tuned technique. Pastoral identity, I think, has been shaped by technological expectations: the preacher is to have acquired just the right technique to make the machine run well - to be a good ecclesiastical technician. Rarely do we consider the preacher as an artist, mainly because there is something novel to art. An artist’s calling is not to make the machine run smoothly, but to give us a different view of the machine entirely. There is a lot of the gospel in an artist’s calling. As preachers, are we not called to help our people see things differently, to view the world through the cross-shaped and upside-down way of Jesus? Artists can do that, but technicians will only oil the machine that’s already in place. I sense that many pastors and preachers would thrive in an artistic role - a role that is singularly capable of offering a gospel vision to a church which has had its expectations shaped by a technological age.
(See Timothy R. Gaines, “The Art of Ministry in a Technological Age” in Grace and Peace Magazine, Spring 2012. http://www.graceandpeacemagazine.org/articles/16-issue-spring-2012/282-the-art-of-ministry-in-a-technological-age)
CPL: What were some of the biggest lessons you learned about preaching during your pastoral tenure?
I learned that preaching is a delightful challenge, and it takes work. I became convicted early on in my preaching ministry that the work I did in sermon preparation was one of the ways I was loving my people. The study, discipline, and practice that I put into sermon preparation was one of the ways I gave myself to my congregation. That meant that I had to discipline myself to carve out time dedicated to sermon preparation, and that was difficult for someone with my personality type, who would rather be around people and accomplish tasks rather than sitting down alone to read or preach through a sermon in my office. Ultimately, I knew I wasn’t loving my people well when I wasn’t disciplined enough to start in early enough in the week to be able to preach a faithful and truthful sermon on Sunday.
I also learned that the gospel undoes us for the sake of resurrection, and when that wasn’t reflected in my preaching, I wasn’t preaching the gospel. The gospel is hard, but it’s saving our lives, and that’s what I learned I needed to preach. I found that when I would try to dress the gospel up in catchy slogans or anecdotes, those were primarily the things my people saw and remembered, and I knew I didn’t want that to be what they received from my ministry. That also meant that I had to do the work of proclaiming the gospel in intentional and disciplined ways - to discipline my own life and time to preach as truthfully as I could.
CPL: What might you say to discouraged pastors who feel like no one is listening (much less being changed) by their preaching?
I’ve heard stories from preachers who have been at this a lot longer than me that it would often take years for someone to come to them to let them know that their preaching of the gospel was used in transformational ways. I’m only now starting to hear from some who I thought were never listening.
At the same time, I would also say that we preachers need to be aware of the ways an instant feedback culture may be malforming our own love for the art of preaching. It was awfully tempting week after week to check social media as soon as the service ended to see who said what about the sermon, and to measure the goodness of the sermon according to that kind of instant feedback. I had to develop a love for the art of proclaiming the good news that kills and resurrects us, and let my love for that kind of art slowly develop in the hearts of my people. I had a lot of people coming for a little theological entertainment, a nice story, or a 4-point motivational speech, who eventually came to desire another kind of preaching because in some way, they saw how deeply I loved preaching - and that love didn’t depend on the instant feedback of the congregation.