No preacher really wants to admit this, but every Sunday morning we are just working out our own stuff with God in front of the congregation.
That sounds a lot worse than it really is. It isn't necessarily manipulative, self-indulgent, or exhibitionist. It may be the congregation's only hope for hearing God's response to their own sacred yearnings.
The best sermons are constructed not in the head but in the soul of the preacher. These are the messages that arise out of the depths of our own angst, fears, doubts, and struggles with God. When the congregation listens to a sermon they know immediately if the preacher is being spiritually honest, or if they are about to hear another detached exegetical analysis of the text. Clearly, good preaching cannot avoid biblical exegesis. But there is a difference in talking about the Word and proclaiming it. And the preacher can only proclaim the Word he or she knows, all too personally.
This doesn't mean that the preacher should always be explicit about his or her struggles or personal feelings about the text. That gets awfully old, awfully fast. Rather it means that the preacher's own soul is on the line every time a new sermon is written. If the sermon hasn't already beaten the preacher on the head and shoulders all week long, why should we expect it to offer any transformation to those who listen in on Sunday morning?
This assumes that the preacher's issues and questions about God are the same as those of the congregation.
The fundamental struggle many preachers have is not that they are writing bad sermons, but irrelevant ones. That happens when we unconsciously preach to the congregation we used to have, or want to have. It also happens when the preacher doesn't have enough self-knowledge to understand why the same irrelevant themes keep emerging in the sermon.
Our pastoral search committees spend a lot of time trying to make sure their candidate is the right "gift match" for the congregation. I wonder if they don't work too hard on that. What they should really be concerned about is making sure that the pastor is the right neurotic match for the congregation.
So what should happen when the preacher's theological questions are radically different from those of the congregation? Well, it may be time to talk to another search committee, but not necessarily. If the preacher feels called by God to stay, then that is also a calling to be overhauled by the Holy Spirit in order to be a useful instrument of God's work in that church.
A critical moment comes in every pastorate when you have to decide if you will surrender to the congregation you have. Another way of saying this: you choose to love them as they are today. Not for what you hope your ministry will turn them into tomorrow.
The day you give in to this calling is the day you make room in your soul for the concerns of the people in your congregation. That means that out of love you are now bearing their issues with God, even if it makes you crazy. Which it will. ...