Being a church leader is an incredibly multifaceted job. The role consists of all of the responsibilities of running a small nonprofit organization, a fair amount of crisis response, premarital counseling, social work, volunteer recruitment and management, fundraising, ethical and moral community leadership, and one strange bonus job: preaching.
While ministers can pull from business leaders for their organizational management, counselors for their pastoral care, nonprofit executives for fundraising and volunteers, preaching is the place where clergy tend to be out on their own. Depending on your tradition, a sermon is somewhere between motivational speaking, spoken word poetry, English essay, and ethics lecture, or as comedian John Mulaney explains it, “a book report that is also stand-up comedy.”
Preaching is one of the oldest and most fundamental responsibilities of a church leader, but it’s worth taking a moment to consider what it’s actually meant to do.
The Lilly Endowment, a private charitable foundation that has helped set the agenda for research and development in the Christian world for decades, is currently gathering proposals for a new phase of the Compelling Preaching Initiative, meant to help identify and develop practices and models that lead to preaching that makes a real difference.
Discussing the initiative with Bishop Karen Oliveto of the Mountain Sky Conference of the United Methodist Church, I asked her what compelling preaching looked like to her, and her simple answer has been rattling around in my head ever since. She said preaching at its best is preaching that “meets the audience where they are and ensures that they end somewhere else.”
In her conception, preaching is only compelling if it actually compels someone to do something. This may sound obvious, but we can get so caught up in the art form, the medium of preaching, that we lose sight of its actual purpose. The purpose of preaching is not to create and deliver the most beautiful sermons possible, it is to lead the people of God into a life transformed by their faith.
In that understanding, preaching takes on a brand new set of responsibilities, and a brand new metric of what makes someone “good” at it. A preacher can stumble over their words, reuse the same 5 movie metaphors, but if their congregation is moved to acts of love, mercy, and justice, who’s to say they aren’t compelling? If sermons are seen as hermeneutically and and exegetically superb, but don’t actually lead their congregation to action, then is it really excellent preaching, or is it just excellent writing?
As we seek out ways to innovate and engage with our community, truly compelling preaching can be a valuable tool in our arsenals as church leaders in moving people from where they are to somewhere new, inviting the congregation into the work that God is doing in their community.
We at Ministry Incubators will be following the endowment’s initiative and seeking to learn what role compelling preaching can play in shaping the next chapter of the church. We encourage you to learn more about the initiative here, and to continue to follow along to see what we all learn!