Witness

Shaping Holy People, not Holy Persons

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As pastors, we frequently see how our self-focused, individualistic, and privatized culture is creeping into the church. Some who populate our pews believe in a Christianity that is solely centered on themselves-and-God instead of ourselves-and-God. This may be the outflow of a Christianity that has been shaped and formed by American individualism, creating the belief that one’s faith is personal and private. Within many of our local churches, the pulpit sits at the center of our sanctuaries. Let us not underestimate the power of the preaching moment when it comes to shaping a holy people instead of a group of holy persons.

Let us not underestimate the power of the preaching moment when it comes to shaping a holy people instead of a group of holy persons. Click To Tweet

The Bible’s narrative is the story of a people called to partner with God in the redemption of all of creation. This story culminates in a person, Jesus, and this person is King of a people. Paul calls these people the new humanity (Eph 2) and a new creation (2 Cor 5). While the person of God is part of the people of God, any notion that one’s faith is individual would have left the apostles flummoxed. We are a holy people.

As a pastor and theological practitioner, I am always aware of how my theology ought to shape the homiletical moment. Further, while many pastors bemoan the rise of the overly individualistic faith, I’m worried our very preaching perpetuates this mindset. Sometimes much of the preaching I listen to—while helpful and edifying—can be confused with Christian-self-help or really good Christian motivational speaking. We preach wonderful sermons on one’s personal life, one’s relationships, and one’s personal relationship with God. We preach empowering sermons on how to be a witness in our neighborhoods, workplaces, and spheres of influence. Of course, these sermons have their place, but without overtly placing them within the context of being the people of God, our preaching may be perpetuating the problem of an individual and privatized faith.

While many pastors bemoan the rise of the overly individualistic faith, I’m worried our very preaching perpetuates this mindset. Click To Tweet

As pastors and theological practitioners, we must wrestle with the impact that our preaching has not only on our own local churches, but also beyond. While podcasting and livestreaming have their place, we must consider how a message meant to be missional has devolved for too many of us into preaching decontextualized to the comfortable Christian in the privacy of his or her own home. We must ask ourselves, if our people are just as challenged listening to a sermon from their sofas as they are within the context of a gathered people, then perhaps we are preaching more to individual Christians than a local Christian community.

The Gold Standard of Preaching

In the New Testament, we have dozens of examples of good preaching, beginning with Jesus. Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is the gold standard for preaching. Jesus paints a vision for what the already-but-not-yet kingdom community ought to look like. His vision for a kingdom community of Christ followers addresses the faith of individual Christians, but he never abandons the greatest vision of living beyond oneself. Jesus shows us how to preach in a way that addresses the personal faith of Christians but within the context of a Christian people. The Sermon can only be read, understood, and lived within a particular community. In other words, living out the ideals of the Sermon on the Mount cannot be done in isolation or within the confines of one’s own home alone. To live the Sermon on the Mount is to regularly rub shoulders with God’s people, to love the difficult and hard to love as well as the easy to love, to spur one another on in the faith, and to link arms in the narrow path of faithfulness.

Or consider sermons in the book of Acts, such as Peter’s sermons in Acts 2:14-40, Acts 3:12-26, and Acts 4:5-12, or Paul’s sermons in Acts 13:16-41, Acts 14:3-7, and Acts 22:1-21. The preaching was a proclamation of what God had done in Christ that obliterated boundary markers and dividing walls and created a new holy humanity. Because of the faithfulness of God in Christ, those who were previously not a people were now united as a people, and their lives together were something to be celebrated. This is expanded in every single epistle. The writers of the letters to the early church were pastorally alarmed by divisive behavior in the church and wrote prolifically on how to live in Christian community.

I wonder if the apostles would urge us to focus on living life as a holy people instead of as holy persons. Perhaps they’d centerpiece the dividing wall of hostility that has been torn (Eph 2:14). Preachers are more than a life coach for individuals; we are a shepherds (led by the Good Shepherd), leading our people to bear witness to a good gospel. Preaching with a holy people in mind rather than a group of holy persons may be a shift for some preachers.

Preachers are more than a life coach for individuals; we are a shepherds (led by the Good Shepherd), leading our people to bear witness to a good gospel. Click To Tweet

Bearing Witness as a Holy People to a Radiant Gospel

As a young pastor with still much to learn, I am always prayerfully asking that the Lord would grow me in my preaching. With that said, there are helpful practices that have shaped me as a preacher. First, I always try to remember why I preach. Next to my calling, we are partners and colaborers with the Triune God, and the homiletical moment isn’t just about individuals experiencing transformation, but more about the transformation of the community. I yearn for churches to be known for bearing witness to a radiant gospel by the ways we do life together in community. I try not to write my sermons generically, but locally, contextually, and pastorally. Secondly, I consider local hardships that our community might be navigating. I ask myself, how might this hardship help grow us as a people? How might we together navigate this particular hardship? What do I hope our local church will be and do amid these realities? Finally, I consider where I believe the Lord is leading our local church to be salt and light in our local community. From there, I preach with great fear and trembling with the vision of a holy people in mind.

We are called to live as a holy people on earth as it is in heaven, and our preaching ought to move our congregations in that direction. If we embrace the earth-shattering story of God that culminates in the person of King Jesus who creates communities of friend and foe, sinner and saint, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, and who tears down the dividing walls that separate us from one another, then may God embolden our commitment to faithfully preach to the vision of becoming a holy and radiant people.

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