Keith explains the conundrums of being a preacher.
December 2007 Newsletter
As a Lay Minister, one of my functions is to 'preach'. It is an awesome responsibility, in fact; although it is possible to become blase about it - as about other dangerous or highly responsible activities. I cannot imagine being blase about being Prime Minister or President of the USA, but several years behind a particular desk or in front of a particular piece of equipment does tend to make one casual some, if not all, of the time.
I am as subject to such temptation as any one else, but most of the time I take my 'preaching' seriously. We have words so that when we communicate, we can be as precise as possible - communication by gesture and emotional grunts and squeals can be very effective, but not as effective as with words (although words alone are often inadequate). But having a word like 'preach' makes me uncomfortable, as it seems to have too many underlying harmonies in it - too many unintended meanings.
A 'preacher' is someone who seems to be claiming some sort of moral superiority, which I really do not want to do, as I am not qualified to do so. To 'preach at' someone is awful - and we all do it from time to time, without any need for a pulpit. Even to 'preach to' someone can be off-putting, if that is how they see what you are doing.
I want to tell you a couple of stories about sorts of preaching that put the preacher in his place, in one case down and in the other case up!
The first story is about me and I was not preaching at all. Jenny and I were both nominal Christians, until, when we were living in France about 25 years ago, we were drawn into a community of Christian people (not a commune - but people who went to Church on Sunday and who cared about each other) and into a fuller relationship with Jesus Christ. We worshipped regularly at St Marks, Versailles for two or three years, until we were transferred to Japan, where we worshipped at St Albans Church in Tokyo.
About a year after leaving Paris, I was back there over a weekend and went to St Marks on Sunday, meeting many old friends but finding that about three quarters of the Church were strangers to me (typical of a mobile expatriate community). I was NOT a public speaker and I was very reserved and shy with strangers. In the middle of the service, the Chaplain suddenly called me to the front and asked me to tell the Church about my Christian life and about Japan. I was very confused and embarrassed and mumbled and jumbled away about finding Jesus in the St Marks community and how we did things in Tokyo for five minutes or so before sitting down in an embarrassed silence. It was several months, maybe a year, later that I was back there again and went to St Marks, where I was approached by a woman I did not know who explained that she had been so moved by what I had said a year ago that she had re-found her own faith and started to come to Church again (her visit a year ago had been a one off for some reason which I have now forgotten). She wanted to thank me. The lesson to me - the put down, if you like - was that what you say has unforeseeable consequences. This applies whether you are a Christian or not, whether you are advising/preaching or not. I have come to believe that when I 'preach' I am speaking to God, not to people. He will translate what I say into their ears depending on his relationship with them and their receptivity or sensitivity on the day. I can talk rot (as I did in Versailles that day) and he will turn it to good account where he wants OR I can deliver a marvelous bit of moving oratory and it fall on totally deaf ears.
So be aware that what you say IS often effective, but in ways that you may not be able to imagine. It is like the careless driver who leaves a train of destruction behind him as he goes off blissfully unaware. Not always destruction though, it may be delight.
The other story is similar, but perhaps in a mirror. There was a famous evangelical preacher who drew thousands to his conventions. He traveled the world earning huge sums with his preaching. He made it a regular practice to speak to people after his events to find out behind them. He noted that wherever he was he would occasionally hear that the visitor to hear him had first been drawn to faith by the words of a street preacher in Sydney in Australia. The time came when he was invited to speak in Sydney. When he had a few hours to spare he tried to find this street preacher, but he was nowhere to be found. Eventually he was told that he was in hospital dying, worn out and old. He went to the hospital and visited the preacher and asked him what he had been doing all his life. He answered that he had done his best to spread the Gospel in the streets of Sydney. He had worked hard at it and done his very best, but so far as he was aware, he had been wasting his time - no one had ever come to him to thank him or to say that they had been moved to change as a result of hearing him. He died before the famous evangelist was able to tell him that he had reached many hearts and to thank him.
Preaching then is strange thing. We all achieve what preachers want to achieve, when we are not preaching. Preachers often achieve what they want to achieve but can be totally unaware of that fact. So what is the rule of thumb to guide us? How do we know what to do when we communicate? Firstly, we do not need to be in an enormous pulpit talking done to (or onto) people - I personally am awfully guilty of pontificating! Secondly, we only need to be honest and true to our inner selves. If we cannot determine in advance how listeners will hear us, then we should discount the consequences of what we say and simply speak as we truly see it. Those who need to will see through our unfortunate choice of phrase, our non-PC comment, out lack of appropriate vocabulary, our grammatical inadequacies and get to the heart of what we are saying. If what we are saying has no heart of course, then they will hear that also.
As I said at the beginning words alone are inadequate. St Francis of Assisi told his disciples to go out and preach the love of God. He told them to preach love, and, IF NECESSARY, to use words. Our words have to come out of an appropriate context of who we are and how we live, if we really want to influence others.
Licensed Lay Minister