An effective minister of word and sacrament has to be much more than just a skillful preacher. Some preachers whose sermons lack creativity, passion or structure are wonderful, compassionate and wise pastors. Likewise, some soulful, dynamic, moving preachers fail to meet the deep spiritual needs of their congregants. Still, preaching is perhaps the most public of our duties and can have a tremendous impact.
People often scoff at the Presbyterian faith as a “neck-up” religion characterized by rigid bodies in pews and rigid traditions. For so long we have engaged only the mind in worship.
Our sermons interpret a text, provide historical context and exegetical insights and challenge congregants to new ways of thinking and being. So far, so good. But if we limit our sermons to the intellectual sphere, where interpretation, exegesis and instruction make their homes, why should we expect anyone with anything other than an objective, academic interest in Christianity to fill our pews? What then distinguishes them from theologically based speeches? If our sermons are nothing more than speeches, then why should people have any interest in choosing church over “Meet the Press” or the Sunday Times?
I propose that one reason Pentecostal churches are booming across the globe while the so-called mainline churches experience staggering decline has nothing to do with PowerPoint, projectors or praise music, but rather with Pentecostal preachers’ efforts to reach people on the plane of emotion. Engaging the soul is far more powerful than engaging the mind can ever be. Preaching that speaks to emotion appeals to all God’s children, regardless of their educational level or intellectual abilities.
I am not suggesting that we Presbyterians should all embrace the vocal inflections, rhetorical devices and other stylistic aspects of charismatic preaching. Nor do I suggest that we should “dumb down” our sermons or remove the exegetical, intellectual or historically contextual challenges that our sermon preparation has allowed us to discover in Scripture. A certain level of intellectual sophistication is vital to theologically sound preaching. But until we can also tap into the wealth of human emotional experience, we cannot hope to take advantage of the unmatchable influence that sermons can have. Sermons can deliver healing, hope, inspiration and above all an intimate spiritual encounter with God.
If we want to spread the Gospel and help our church grow, we must fundamentally change our preaching so that it meets people on an emotional plane. Preaching that does that has greater power to convince hearers of the relevance of Scripture, inspire intellectual exploration and apply the balm of healing, transformative grace than any speech can ever achieve.
The field of “celebratory preaching,” as exemplified by such preachers as Henry Mitchell, Frank Thomas, Carol Ann Knight and Jeremiah Wright, offers an alternative to “neck-up” preaching. It presents sermons at once moving and intellectually challenging; sermons that explore the intricacies of the dazzlingly complex field of textual criticism while moving people to tears with the raw emotional power of a true assurance of grace; sermons that challenge our political and social systems while convincing hearers of the glory of God’s forgiveness.
To experiment with preaching of this sort, we don’t need a committee’s approval, a capital campaign or building redevelopment. There is no congregation that is not mature or open-minded enough to hear this kind of preaching, because it speaks to the soul. Every minister can give it a try. At most it might involve the purchase of one or two books and a few hours of study.
It is a shift that may allow us as preachers to sincerely speak to the brokenness and longing that can sap the hope from our communities. Most importantly, it is a shift that may allow us, not just to revitalize, but to truly, genuinely, relevantly and universally spread the Gospel that we vowed to proclaim when we were ordained.
MICHAEL PLANK is pastor at First Church, Hudson Falls, N.Y.