Jeren Rowell is President of and Professor of Pastoral Ministry at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City, MO. He served as a local church pastor for 25 years, a district superintendent for 12 years, and has a passion for and deep commitment to the life and work of parish ministry.
My current assignment in vocational ministry is to lead a seminary as their president (Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City). I am deeply committed to the work of the seminary which I understand as much greater than delivery of content, but as the holistic formation of those who offer themselves in response to a sense of God’s call. Although I appreciate deeply the work of the academy, I come to this work as a pastor. I am sure this is why the preaching task remains at the center of my own sense of vocational identity and passion. Although I am no longer assigned to a particular congregation for weekly preaching and pastoral care, I am regularly invited to preach in local congregations, for which I am grateful.
I recently preached from the Gospel of John’s telling of the anointing of Jesus in Bethany. As I preached, I was aware once again of that essential ingredient of the help of the Spirit, without Whom, preaching is reduced to an exegetical presentation at best or an entertaining talk at worst. I am reminded again today, as I have been reminded on numberless Monday mornings, that one of the beautiful acts of pastoral ministry is the privilege of going to the Scriptures in loving service to a people who are gathered to worship with an oft unnamed but deeply recognized longing to hear a word from the Lord. Before I had language for it, I knew that the first task of good preaching is to sit under the text in such a way that I come not only to understand something of what the text is saying, but that the Bible text, under the power of the Spirit, has its way with me. This can be discovery or conviction or resolution, but unless I become the “first responder” to the text, the sermon will struggle to connect with the congregation in a way that communicates love. Something that congregations generally seem astute to discern is the authenticity of their pastor’s care and concern for them. This is communicated in many ways, of course, and certainly cannot be limited to the pulpit. Nonetheless, the preaching task is inescapably at the center of pastoral life. The first task of good preaching is to sit under the text in such a way that I come not only to understand something of what the text is saying, but that the Bible text, under the power of the Spirit, has its way with me. Click To Tweet
The Purpose of Preaching
God has chosen and continues to choose preaching as a central component of Christian witness and spiritual formation. We preach because God blesses faithful preaching. We preach because we continue to recognize the presence of the Holy Spirit in the reading, hearing, study, and proclamation of the Scriptures, pointing all in our hearing to God’s reconciling work in Jesus Christ. The Spirit uses strong, biblical preaching to help God’s people “grow up” in Christ (Eph. 4). This is a beautiful thing when it happens and one who is able to discern these things can see quickly when a congregation is well loved through the work of faithful pastoral preaching. Unfortunately, it also becomes painfully evident when this is missing.
Gordon Lathrop, following the work of Yngve Brilioth, draws from the Lukan text of Jesus preaching in the synagogue at Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30) to suggest this as a seminal model of Christian preaching.[1. Lathrop, G. The Pastor, A Spirituality. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), p. 41.] Particularly he notes the sermon takes place within the context of worship (a liturgical event), that is rises from a Scripture text (an exegetical event), and that it speaks into the present (a prophetic event). Lathrop works from here to suggest that all Christian preaching should be liturgical, exegetical, and prophetic.
By liturgical he simply means to say that the location of preaching is not incidental. Christian preaching lives in the midst of the gathered people of God for worship, as the congregation praises, prays, hears the Word, is gathered to the Table, and sent on mission into the world. This location matters deeply in order for preaching to be anything more than a great speech. It must be the Spirit-inspired interpretation of the sacred texts that are read in the assembly, so that the people of God under the authority of their pastor have a chance to respond in faith to the Word of the Lord.
By exegetical Lathrop means that preaching rises not from the capricious selection of text by the preacher, but by coming under the authority of the text that is given to the church and preaching from the text, not using the text to support one’s own agenda. Even Jesus, Lathrop notes, was handed the scroll of Isaiah in the Luke 4 account. While most Christian congregations are accustomed to working with assigned texts (lectionary), others are just learning the power and value of subjugating the will of preacher and congregation to the will of the larger body of Christ in the selection of texts for Christian worship and preaching.
By prophetic, then, Gordon Lathrop is talking about the purpose of preaching as calling out faith. It should be eschatological in that it casts a vision of the in-breaking kingdom of God inaugurated in the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord. The Luke 4 sermon of Jesus culminates in the hope-filled proclamation, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (Luke 4:21). Similarly, faithful biblical preaching must always announce Good News that not only inspires hope but also calls forth obedient life response.
The Challenge of Preaching
The challenge for contemporary pastors is that this work takes a lot of time. I fear that in the relentless press of activity and leadership expectation that is defining so much of pastoral practice these days, guarding sufficient space and time for immersion in text, prayerful study, and skillful homiletical work is a matter of purposeful discipline. As Walter Brueggemann has noted, “Too often pastors are getting to the sermon out of their fatigue.” He goes on to note in that video interview that these disciplines “cause the pastor, to some extent, to live in a different zone. And if we are to bring a word from elsewhere, then we have to live, to some extent, elsewhere.” This is a point at which I believe today’s pastors need to be ruthlessly honest about what actually occupies our time. So much time can be squandered in idle conversation, secondary tasks that feel more comfortable to us, or following the relentless lure of entertainments through various media. “Too often pastors are getting to the sermon out of their fatigue.” -Walter Brueggemann Click To Tweet
My proposal is simply that this task is worth the effort and worth the discipline of ordering my life in such a way that the necessary spaces for these “first works” of listening (prayer) and study find their way to the center of my pastoral life. It is from this place of holistic engagement in the text, in response to and by the help of the Spirit, that pastoral preaching has a chance to deepen from completion of a task to an act of love.
If this sort of vision for the ministry and art of preaching resonates with you, join us this Fall for our Preachers Conference. To learn more about academic programs at NTS, visit www.nts.edu/info.Portions of this material drawn from Rowell, J., Thinking, Listening, Being: A Wesleyan Pastoral Theology, Kansas City, MO: Beacon Hill Press, 2014).