Before I started my tour someone asked me, how it was going booking up places for “my preaching tour” interestingly I had preached in Bristol a couple of times and was down to lead couple of seminar/discussions in Derby but not very many “preaches”.
I began to consider “preaching” afresh, something I had been thinking about quite a lot as I visit quite a number of Churches to speak at their Sunday Services, this is something I do really enjoy, and it is good to share with other Christians, Churches and Congregations. I think there is something beautiful to bring as a guest speaker as I often discover that I had been inadvertently prophetic (rather than pathetic!) where being a stranger unaware of the lives of the people I am speaking too something of God’s truth has blessed them, which might not have been heard by them if a preacher-friend said the same message as it would have looked like an intentional act.
I like preaching, sometimes it felt in tough times in the parish that even if the congregation had been unresponsive I felt better because at least I said what I felt God was calling me to say. Yet, I wondered too whether there is a danger in this, where we put all our time and effort into the sermon which makes us feel better, because “at least we have done something” -especially as much of a ministers work can feel quite intangible- and many clergy spend hours sometimes days on their sermons but I often wonder how much is retained? I wonder too as an introvert whether sometimes preparing a sermon is actually escaping real life and real ministry and can be an excuse for not doing other things that God is calling us too.
One of the questions I have found myself asking is: “Does preaching actually ‘work’?”. I ask this because sadly I know of many Christians -or people who would identify as Christians- who have sat in congregations where fantastic speakers have faithfully proclaimed Christ week in week out, and yet when speaking to them they know little of scripture, have limited assurance of salvation and it is hard to see how spiritual truths have been in anyway applied to their lives. The quality of preaching and the spiritual-maturity in discipleship does not always correlate the way we would like it too! I have wondered about other ways in which people can engage with scripture and every-day life, often Churches will tell you that home-groups and Bible studies are the place for this, which is true there is a better level of personal accountability and it often is an easier place to ask questions rather than passively absorbing a monologue of a preached sermon. Yet, as I have journeyed on as a minister for a number of years I have come across a lot of Churches (in fact I would say the majority) where home-groups (or cells, life groups, growth groups or pastorates call them what you like!) have got stuck, people plateau, the group becomes inward looking and people confuse gaining knowledge with becoming more Christ-like. Nearly every parish profile looking for a new vicar will say “we need some help with our home-groups”! Which, when we scratch bellow the surface is really asking “how do we continue to grow as Christians and become more and more Christ-like? How can we become more equipped and empowered in our daily lives to live for Christ? How can we see the Kingdom of God impact our context more fully?”
The problem is I believe two-fold: firstly the lack of authentic, deep, healthy and committed relationships we have with one another within our Church families? Often we reach a level of comfort with one another, we have complicit relationships that are nice but do not have the necessary depth to take us on to a deeper level with our faith, we stop challenging each other and spurring each other on, or we begin to develop ‘selective accountability’ rather than “whole life discipleship”. Alongside this, I do wonder, is our loving care for others sometimes a distraction from sorting our own junk out? As I wonder, in our faith we reach a point where we have got used to being Christians and human nature kicks in and we become comfortable where we are, we know enough to feel like experts and can regurgitate the right answers and are living off yesterdays spiritual bread. Our lives have developed a routine, and our faith neatly slots into various places in our lives (and Church attendance and involvement is not the same as spiritual maturity). How often do we let someone ask us “how goes it with your soul?” -and (probably even more rarely) do we answer that question honestly and authentically?
Sadly when I was in Bristol I regularly prayed with another Church leader, and I thought we had a good and accountable relationship with one another, and then suddenly one day we discovered a whole load of messy sinful stuff he was involved with that destroyed the life of this gifted pastor as he not only lost his job and went on the sex offenders register. I often wonder if he had been brave enough to share with me what he was feeling we might have been able to help him make different choices and so much tragedy might have been avoided. Yet we have to be willing to let a brother or sister shine the light of Christ into the darkness of ourselves, which is costly and painful, and often it feel (at the time) to keep going as we are. Are we brave enough to be real and honest with those around us? -And do we have relationships that are strong enough to cope with the grit and the pain of life.
As I type this, I am reminded of a couple of days ago, when my wife was talking to me about the move back to Poole and some of the people who I feel a bit let down by, and some of the pain from the previous parish, and she said to me “you’ve not forgiven them have you? -In fact I think you hate them!” It was really painful because she was right, she was holding a mirror up to me, and I did not want to recognise my unforgiveness -which was bad enough- but also recognising my vengeful feelings towards them; and knowing both the right answer ‘I need to forgive them’ is not the same as actually forgiving them. Yet, as with all spiritual maturity it is rarely a one off thing, I struggle to maintain my forgiveness of people, it’s not just an ‘in the moment choice’ but an onward process of choosing to forgive them. Discipleship is rarely a one-off choice, but a choice to walk along the narrow path and carry our cross. Without Allana’s challenge I would have probably let my hurt fester (in some cases, one in particular, for years) and if I’m honest I do keep renewing my anger, hurt and pain and have to start the process again. I am an addict to sin, and certain sins (like in my case unforgiveness) I am more prone to than others, which is why we need those uncomfortable challenges, which can really hurt at the time.
The problem with my unforgiveness -or whatever it is for you!- I know the right answers, I could probably do a great sermon on the need to forgive people, but actually doing it is so so much more difficult. Hypothetical Christianity is easy, authentic Christianity is much much harder.
It is easy to respond when we are in Church and the songs are wonderful and we are “really feeling it” but Sunday evening breaks into Monday Morning when its difficult and uncomfortable and “we are not feeling it” and somehow we all need to learn to keep walking towards Christ when the oomph from the band and the sermon has worn off and we are left with just us and God alongside all the noises of the week.
To preach or not to preach, that’s not actually the question, but rather how can we put in place all that we need to grow into Christ-likeness and how can we love and bless those around us in their walk too. I discovered that I need to take responsibility for my own discipleship, and help other people take responsibility for theirs; the preaching and the small group may well help with this, they are tools but not the solution, all of us have to put the work in ourselves with God in that secret place, the place of our own private history with the almighty, the journeying and soul work that no one probably sees where we apply our faith to our lives.