I was in over my head, and I knew it.
During my senior year of college, I was called to pastor a rural congregation fifteen minutes off campus. My senior class friends were making the most of their weekends while my Saturdays were devoted to prepping for Sunday sermons. I had taken a preaching course earlier in college, but barely paid attention, figuring, "I don't have to be ready to preach yet; there's plenty of time." If only I had taken that course seriously! I was overwhelmed. Most of the people in that small congregation were three times my age. What could I possibly tell them that they didn't already know? Simply put, preaching petrified me.
But there was a significant silver lining. My lack of skill and experience prompted deep dependence upon God throughout the process of developing and delivering my sermons. In the earliest days of my ministry, preaching was a spiritual discipline that heightened my connection to Christ.
But then, I lost my preaching mojo. I'm not sure that anyone really noticed this, but I did. As my congregation and young family grew, corner-cutting became my modus operandi for sermon prep. Basic exegetical and rhetorical work had to be done, so I cut the most inefficient corners I could eradicate—praying, fasting, and reflecting on my text. In time, preaching became a rhetorical chore instead of a devotional journey deeper into Christ. Preaching was no longer the adventurous devotional tightrope walk from Monday to Sunday that flung me toward divine dependence. I became more intoxicated with the craft of preaching than with the Christ I was called to preach. Preaching had gone from nourishing my soul to killing it.
Today, after many conversations with other preachers, I have come to realize that my story is more universal than unique. But what can be done to prevent us from practicing preaching just as an efficient rhetorical technique instead of what it can be—a formative spiritual discipline? First, let's explore the problem.
Let's get historical here. Christological heresies in the pre-modern Church resulted from downplaying either the divinity or the humanity of Christ. Similarly, "homiletic heresies" happen today when our process of developing and delivering sermons diminishes the role of either divinity or humanity. Don't stretch the comparison too far, but like the incarnation of Christ resulted from divinity bursting through the womb of humanity, a truly "incarnational" sermon is birthed through a homiletic process that is open to and dependent upon both divinity and humanity, both God and the preacher.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in The Preaching Life: "Watching the preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tightrope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins …. If they reach the other side without falling, it is skill but it is also grace … " It is impossible for the preacher to walk the fine line over the sermonic chasm from one side to the other without both divine "grace" and human "skill." Preachers fall when they ignore either one.
Some fall off the tightrope on the side of what I call homiletic Docetism by minimizing the need for human skill in preaching. Early Church Docetics emphasized the divinity of Christ, but devalued his humanity—by denying it altogether. Jesus only appeared to be human matter, they said, but was actually entirely divine spirit.