If a group of ministers were asked who most influenced their preaching, some would certainly say a childhood minister or a seminary professor. Others might refer to courses they took in seminary or even books that were helpful. Many might answer, however, that their congregations taught them.
Various congregations taught me to preach. The first one was the people of Yellowstone Park. In the summer after my first year as a student at Union Theological Seminary, I was employed as a chaplain for the Christian Ministry in National Parks, organized by the National Council of Churches of America. I was assigned to the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone River in Yellowstone Park. I preached twice on Sundays at different locations to tourists and employees. When I was an associate pastor in Rochester, I preached perhaps a dozen times. Of course, when I became the pastor in Lawrenceville, I preached about 45 times a year for the first several years, and then, as we added student interns and an associate pastor, I preached about 38 times a year.
It took all of this and more for me to learn how to preach. I often asked a group of worshipers to meet with me and tell me what they heard. I was often chagrined to discover that what they heard I did not intend to convey, and what I intended they did not hear. My initial sermons sounded like classroom lectures. If the purpose of preaching is to help people "see Jesus" (John 12:21), then I had much to learn. In time, I came to believe that sermons have to answer four questions.
1. Preacher, what were you talking about?
I first hear this question from the people of Canyon Lodge, Yellowstone Park. A group of wranglers—itinerant young men who owned a string of horses that the "dudes" (summer visitors) rode—cornered me after worship and asked what I was talking about. Partly, they were "ragging an Eastern dude," but mainly, they wanted to understand what I was trying to say. One morning following the service, a wrangler said, "Preacher, I didn't understand a word you said. I tried again to explain the Pauline text. My friend didn't know terms like "the law," "grace," and "justification." Nor did the sermon seem to relate to his world. "What were you saying, Preacher?" is a question I put at the top of my list.
2. Preacher, what can you say when we are troubled?
The people gathered for a funeral service of a young boy who had drowned in the Yellowstone River taught that question. He was fishing with his father when he slipped and was swept downstream; his body was found a week later. When I preached the following Sunday, people asked why God allowed this tragedy. With its bumbling words, my sermon had to speak about God's taking our side and conquering death for our sakes. "Preacher, what can you say to us when we are lost?"
3. Preacher, what do you want us to do?
Preachers like William Sloan Coffin let the congregation know what following Jesus means. That is not to say preachers should tell people whom to vote for, how much money to give, or what are the proper feelings religious people should hold. The sermon is a call to follow Christ. How we follow that call is a ministry charged to all of us. In this day of war and torture, racial hatreds, disdain for the poor, and threats by terrorists, Christ is calling us to "Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you" (Luke 6:27-28). How do we turn the call into our mission? Underlying each sermon is the teaching question, "What do you want us to do?"