For many years I have practiced a discipline that seems strange to some of my pastoral colleagues. Most Monday mornings I walk into the sanctuary, sit down, and listen to the sermon from the previous Sunday. I’m not really sure why I do it, although it does have some benefits: hearing the message from the perspective of those who sat in the pew or listened on the podcast, rather than what I heard in my head, and being reminded that with a little more work that sloppy transition or fumbled point can be done better next time, are two of the obvious benefits. However, I think the best reason for this sometimes painful exercise is the reminder that no sermon stands alone. I am building something. And while it is quite possible that many of the folks who will be present next Sunday were not present last Sunday, and that some of those who heard the sermon did not remember a single moment of it by the time Sunday lunch was served, I cannot treat it that way. Every sermon is part of the larger web of conversations and interactions that make up the spoken practical theology of our faith community. And it is my task to purposefully frame that conversation. Thus, my sermon for next Sunday must build upon all those that have come before, reinforcing and reiterating that which is most important.
One reason this perspective is essential – that we are building something of significance through our preaching ministry – is because our theology matters. And while we as pastors often decry the weakening of the church’s influence in the life of those we serve, we still have an influence – and we cannot afford to waste any of it. Everything we say, at every occasion, must be purposeful. We must be like the parent of the teen who recognizes they cannot control everything their child eats when out of the house, thus increasing the importance of maximizing the nutritional value of the food consumed at home.
A few years ago I wrote a brief article for a denominational magazine and received some response from other pastors. The topic was the role of pastor as theologian-in-residence. One colleague was quite succinct in his critique: “I don’t have time for obsessing over every little word spoken about God in my church. I don’t have time to police every Sunday school conversation or youth group talk.” Well, I don’t think I was suggesting that – and “obsessing” and “police” do sound a bit over the top. But I do think we need to take those conversations seriously, challenge folks to think well, and communicate our theology with clarity. And we begin from the pulpit.
Of course, it doesn’t end there.
While it is easy for us to maintain our Wesleyan theological perspective when the words are coming out of our mouth, we have no way of knowing if folks really get it – nor do we have a way of listening in on the various conversations that contribute to our faith life together – except we do, at least more than we think. For example, our use of social media - making sure that what we post, and what comes out under the banner of our church, must reflect our best thoughts about God, grace and peace, and the role of our church in the community and world. People are making judgments about our ministry based upon what we post on Facebook and Twitter. I have had families come to our church based upon my posts. I have also had families leave. I'm glad I took the time to make sure what was posted there was not sloppy or inconsequential, but legitimately reflected our theology and mission.
We should take the time to consider the importance of curriculum in framing the congregational conversation. The books our adult classes read, the studies in youth group, even our children’s curriculum, are worthy of our theological reflection. Pastoral staffs must take into consideration the theological perspective and biases of the authors and publishers, be conversant in our doctrines, and be willing to reject or edit if necessary. Even VBS curriculum deserves this attention.
You may be thinking, “Mike, I don’t have time for this. That’s why we only use our denominational materials.” I’m glad you do, and we support our publishing house whenever we can. But even then, I have on one occasion made significant changes to a denominationally-supplied VBS curriculum because of too positive a glow on our consumer culture. (Admittedly, I was in the minority, based on what I heard from others who used the curriculum. I guess presenting it as appropriate to lust after expensive sports cars pushed a button with me it didn’t push for others.)
On another occasion, based upon the recommendation of several colleagues, we decided to use an entire-church curriculum for a major emphasis that would take most of the year. It was well written and produced, and the material was of a high quality. However, once we got into it I found myself rewriting major portions of the Bible studies and group discussions. I went back to my colleagues and asked them how they did it. For the most part, they thought it was fine, and used it as written. Some even preached the weekly sermons provided by the celebrity pastor, even though there were statements each week that were at odds with Wesleyan theology. They were willing to live with it. I wasn’t, because theology matters.
When we stand in the pulpit each Sunday, we look out on those who are hearing the words of the church for the first time. They may hear little of what we say, and less of what we really mean. It will take time for the truth to take hold. For others, they have heard hundreds of sermons, over decades. Some of what they heard may include gems of the faith – the heart of the Christian message. But they also may have heard quite a bit of spiritual junk food. And everyone who walks into our worship service are also hearing many of the other voices of our culture, telling them many things. Do they have the filters, the discernment to know the good from the bad from the ugly – the true from the convenient or comfortable or the downright purposeful lies. Every survey says most Christians do not. They know a lot more about how to think like a consumer, how to think like an American, how to think like a nice person, than how to think like a follower of Jesus.
When we stand in the pulpit, we must communicate the truth clearly, and place it on a shelf where those in the room can reach it. There is no room for sloppiness, no room for theological junk food.
And that’s why, every Monday morning, I listen to the previous week’s message, and try to do better next time.