Monday, April 20, 2009

Successful Preaching

In a post called "Things I Wonder" MDiv student Jenny Smith ponders what makes for successful preaching. Her "gut" says "transformation."

I have to admit, that's when I feel most successful; when I hear or see the stories of transformation that have flowed from the sermons. I don't feel all that successful when all I get are lackluster "nice sermon, pastor" responses from the congregation.

Transformation is indeed one of our goals; we recognize our mission as a United Methodist Church is making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. If the things we do aren't transformative, then we're missing the boat. If we don't offer people the opportunity to meet Jesus or to hear from the Holy Spirit, then we might as well close up shop.

The difficulty with basing success on transformation, however, is the fickleness of human nature. If I am obedient to God and preach the Word of God in a relevant and well-prepared way and nobody responds, am I unsuccessful? I'm not talking about shooting up a Saturday Night Special Sermon and hoping that it strikes the mark or pulling an "oldie" out of the sermon barrel and hoping it hits home.

Here's the deal: in the Old Testament, we read from many prophets. Were they successful? It seems that maybe only Jonah was; he was the only prophet who saw instantaneous life change and transformation following his proclamation of the Word of God. Yet he became depressed (to the point of becoming suicidal) on the "success" of his message.

Other prophets faithfully proclaimed the Word of the LORD to hardened hearts and unlistening ears. Were they successful?

I hold that they were successful; they were obedient. Success is not based on us transforming the world, because plain and simply, we cannot do it. Transformation is the Holy Spirit's job, and when we base our success on how well we do the Holy Spirit's job, then we are in trouble.

One of the difficulties is that we don't preach in a vacuum. We preach to humans, who have the freedom to accept or reject the Word. We preach to humans who are at all stages on the journey, and it's all but impossible to judge "transformation" based on one little slice. Sure, there are the remarkable transformations, when we see someone delivered from bondage right here and now, but often that deliverance comes through obedience for a long time (12 step groups, as one example).

If we base our preaching success on the immediate stories of transformation, we also risk a shallow transformation. I know I have been convicted by sermons and then have gone and done absolutely nothing about that conviction. That I wasn't transformed (in the long run) should not be blamed on the preacher. I should shoulder that blame myself for being stubborn and hard-hearted.

So I base my preaching success on my obedience. Did I preach the Word of God? Did I bathe the whole process in prayer? Did I listen to the Holy Spirit as I was studying? Preparing the message? Developing the Power Point? Choosing hymns? Was I willing to change what I wanted to say in favor of what God might want to say? Am I dealing with personal preferences, or am I dealing with God's Truth? Do I get the two confused? When I say "thus says the LORD" (I don't really ever say those words) is it really something God is saying?

What do you think? Upon what criteria would you base preaching success?


jenny said...

"when we base our success on how well we do the Holy Spirit's job, then we are in trouble."

That sums up what I've been thinking about. I know this to be true, but its helpful to acknowledge it often. We humans tend to forget. :) Thanks for your post!

M said...

It is in what we define as success. Doing His will should be our goal. The cool thing is that His will is different for each of us.

I think a key is obedience. In the garden, Adam was asked to obey by not eating from the tree. Samuel told Saul that it is better to obey than sacrifice. Jesus said if you love me, then you will keep His commandments.

My experience is that as long as I do what I am ask by God, then He gets the glory, and I be satisified. I am to sow, another waters, and another prunes, and another waters, etc, but God reaps the glory and harvest. We may never know (till we arrive in heaven) what our sowing has reaped. So as we labor, we labor as unto the Lord.

Rudy said...

I must be honest and say I have not really developed a grade or method of evaluating my sermons. I guess I have just left it to the Lord each time. When people compliment it I feel good, but like you I know how many great convicting sermons I have heard that have not led to my own personal transformation. Being obedient seems the best course to grade your deliverance. The only thing about comparing Preachers to Prophets is the content of their message. Prophets typically only had bad news to deliver. Our message about a Triune God's desperate sacrificial love and human nature heart surgery is a little different. Prophets usually delivered- He's gonna get cha! Your repentance won't matter! (At least not until the Messiah comes.) This wouldn't change whether or not obedience is a good scale to use (I think it may be the only one really...), but would certainly change the method for delivering an obedience filled message. Your messages, especially of late, have been filled with grace, truth, conviction, inspiration, and a call to action. I'd say those were good ear marks for an obedient servant saying what was on his heart, wouldn't you?