Wednesday, June 3, 2009

What Does It Mean to Preach Pastorally?


Christoph Schwöbel has written an excellent introduction to British theologian Colin Gunton’s collection of sermons, “Theology Through Preaching: Sermons for Brentwood.”  (Schwöbel was co-founder, with Gunton, of the Research Institute for Systematic Theology.)

The Introduction is entitled “The Preacher’s Art: Preaching Theologically.” He lays out what I think is a fairly good description of what it means to preach theologically. Too many of us confuse doctrinal preaching with theological preaching.  Schwöbel says that doctrinal preaching is a subset of theological preaching, but the two are not coterminous.  (I will probably say more about that later)

But what got my attention was his section on preaching pastorally.  Pastoral preaching is sometimes put in contrast to theological preaching, when, like doctrinal preaching, it is a subset of it.  Schwöbel reiterates what most of us heard in Bible College/Seminary:

the proclamation of the gospel of Christ must always occur in the context of pastoral care. Indeed, preaching which remains true to the content of the gospel is a form of pastoral care….  Through preaching, the gospel is communicated to us personally, so that the personal relationship of preacher and listener is an indispensable part of the communication of the gospel, and one for which both preacher and listener are constitutive. (p. 9)

And yet Schwöbel goes farther than that.  He says that Pastoral Preaching deals with three major crises in the lives of all humans:

  • The Crises of Faith
  • The Crises of Love
  • The Crises of Hope


The Crises of Faith

A crisis of faith consists not only of doubting certain articles of Christian belief, of being unable to assent to the truth claims of the Christian message. More profoundly, it is the situation in which our basic trust in life has become uncertain. (p. 10)

This comes, normally, because of disappointment or heartache or tragedy in our lives.  Suddenly the things on/in which we put our faith are questioned.  Is God there?  On whom can we rely?  Was Peggy Lee right when she asked, “Is that all there is…to life?”  Will life itself prove to be (in her words) “that final disappointment?” 

Pastoral preaching in the face of crises of faith, Schwöbel states, is reminding people that…

The promise of the gospel is not about small comforts that might alleviate our situation, it is about God offering himself to us in Christ through the Spirit as the anchor for our faith. God offers himself to us as the object of our trust, and if the promise of gospel reaches us we discover that God is by no means an inert object but a dynamic subject who restores our faith by reasserting himself as the one in whom we can trust.

Preaching pastorally is the style of preaching which brings our crises of faith before God in the expectation that God will renew his promise to us in such a way that our faith is thereby-restored, that because we can trust in God, we can also trust in life again. (p. 11)

My perspective is that as we continue further and further into the twenty-first century, the preaching along these lines will be a major source of productive evangelism.  Post-moderns (if we may still use that term) have given up on the church because the church has offered up too many platitudes that have proven to be inadequate. They have asked people to put faith in the church and its leadership instead of in God. 

And young adults are smart enough and have experienced enough to know that these things will always prove to be a shifting foundation upon which to build. And yet young people also know that they themselves are not the foundation upon which their faith can be built (as much as many may protest to the contrary).

Unlike much preaching today:

Our shattered self-confidence is not restored by-rhetorical repair works on our battered self-esteem, it is restored by finding its ground not in ourselves, but in God. (p. 11)

Preaching pastorally in the face of crises of faith means pointing to the one who ultimately is worthy of our trust.  That does NOT mean that God will live up to every expectation that we have of him. 

We are currently in Kansas City with my wife’s parents.  Last Friday, my father in law was taken into emergency surgery and then given the diagnosis of having inoperable and terminal brain cancer. He has been given between 2-18 months to live, based on the choice of treatment (if any) and his responsiveness to the treatment.   We, of course, are praying for a miracle of healing from God.  And we firmly believe that God can and does do such miracles.  (Otherwise, why pray for it?)  But will my faith in God be shattered if he does not perform this miracle?  No. My faith is not in a God who caters to every desire and want that I have.  If he did that for everyone, we would not live in a world of order, but in a world of utter chaos.  My trust is in the God who is worthy of my trust and will prove himself to be faithful and our strength no matter what the outcome of this specific prayer. 

But I do not say any of that glibly.  I want fervently for my father-in-law to be well.   But true pastoral preaching only happens when we teach people the proper basis for faith; the proper object of faith.  And that takes hard work to preach sermons that do that in an honest and thorough way.   May our pastoral preaching reflect that.

I think I will deal with the crises of love and hope tomorrow (or the next).

Please, if you will, be in prayer for my father-in-law, Henry, and all of my wife’s family. 

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