Tuesday, November 5, 2013

On Comfort Zones in Preaching...And Stepping Outside of Them

Subtitle: "I'm Gonna Saddle Up and Give Expository Preaching a Try in 2014"

Being a creature of habit in the church is often tempting...to return to my sermon from Sunday, I think it is another form of temptation: we seek the cause of familiarity and ease, and we forget why we really ought to come to church: to grow and be challenged, not to be a part of a social club (as the rapidly-gaining-popularity Lutheran pastor Nadia Bolz-Webber put it, church "isn't supposed to be the Elks Club with Eucharist").

It is easier, though, to let yourself atrophy in church, and to be honest, I think that trend starts at the proverbial top: with our pastors, and solo pastors especially.  Myself included.

Yes, I answer to multiple levels of evaluation: my congregation's board of directors (and the congregation at large) maintains supervisory and firing prerogatives over me.  My regional minister can move to have my ordained standing revoked by the denomination.  But on a day-to-day level, my inner thoughts and reflections may be the only pastoral voice I come into contact with.

And I don't say that to make a point about loneliness--that's the topic for another post (trust me: a lot of pastors out there *do* feel lonely.  My introverted side thrives on alone time, but I am not always the rule on this one).

No, I say this to make a point about accountability: and that is that pastors are often given an incredible amount of latitude and trust to ensure that they continue to grow and are challenged within their vocations.

If I'm honest, I don't think we have always lived up to that, and our churches are paying the price for those habits now.  We do what we know and we stick to what we are familiar with, and we become less like ourselves and more like a stereotype or a caricature of ourselves, and neither of those things are appealing to outsiders.  But because we pastors are as far on the inside as an insider can be, we are sometimes the people most susceptible to missing the forest for the trees.

One of the ways I try to keep myself accountable for my teaching (and I share this not to pat myself on the back, but to offer a piece of experience I have found to be helpful in my work) is in keeping detailed records of my sermons.  Of course, I post all my sermons on my blog, but I also keep a running Word document filled with information about my sermons: how many sermons have I preached from the Old Testament this year?  The New Testament?  The Gospels?  The Epistles?  How many series have been centered on books by contemporary authors, and how many series have been centered around themes purely of my own design?

I can run through this sermon-journal of sorts and take note of any trends that may have been unconscious at the time of the sermons themselves.  For instance, I noticed in 2012 that I only preached on Paul's letters twice--once on Romans 16, and once on 2 Timothy 3.  So when I prayed and discerned and planned out my 2013 sermon series calendar, I deliberately included more of Paul: three weeks on Philemon as a part of one sermon series; passages from Romans 6, 1 Corinthians 13, and Galatians 1 as part of another series; and now two weeks back-to-back on Philippians 1 and 2 in my current sermon series on C.S. Lewis.

This sort of thing is important for a preacher like me, who preaches largely on themes, but who also is really only good for interpreting one text per sermon (any more than that, and my sermons rapidly approach trainwreck proportions).  It is how I can ensure that I am offering a balanced Scriptural diet to my congregation, who has put so, so much faith in me by asking me to be their primary preacher and teacher.

There is, however, one other area in which I realized I needed to stretch myself in my preaching: and it's something that honestly I dread doing for any longer than a few weeks at a time: expository preaching (aka preaching "verse-by-verse").  The only time I have done it was in early 2012, when I did four weeks going verse-by-verse through the Moses-at-the-burning-bush story in Exodus 3-4 (I'm not counting the previously mentioned three weeks on Philemon because I was approaching it with a particular thematic bent: namely, social media).

Anyways, I dread expository preaching.  I dread it because I could be going merrily about my way through a particular story or passage, then come across one verse that I don't like or that shocks me, and I go, "WTF is this?!"  And if I preach verse-by-verse...well, I have to preach on *those* verses that make me do a "WTF" double-take.

But I have been preaching long enough now that maybe I need to get over that.  So, in 2014, I'll be preaching two expository sermon series: one will be for Lent, where I'll be preaching verse-by-verse through the book of Jonah (I figure if I *must* insist on pushing myself, I can at least do it while preaching on one of the coolest stories in the Bible), and the other will be for the summer, where I'll spend eight weeks on what I call the "post-Jesus, pre-Paul" church in Acts (ie, Acts 2-5, before Paul arrives on the scene at Stephen's martyrdom).

Man, that was an awful lot of words to say that shoving yourself outside your comfort zones is a damn good thing, even if you aren't sure about it.  But hey, I'm a preacher.  We never say in a sentence what we could instead say in a paragraph.

Yours in Christ,

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