Friday, June 5, 2015

The Impossibility of Anticipatory Sermon Preparation

On any given Sunday, you have no idea who may attend any given church.
And even if you do know a given parishioner will be in attendance,
you have no idea what kind of mood they're in, what kind of day they're having, etc.
“Twenty men crossing a bridge,
Into a village,
Are twenty men crossing twenty bridges,
Into twenty villages,
Or one man
Crossing a single bridge into a village.”
from “Metaphors of a Magnifico”
by Wallace Stevens

A friend phoned me one Sunday afternoon. “You’ve got to pray for us, Bill.” Her husband and mother-in-law had gone to the market. She was using the momentary calm to plead for any counsel on how to handle the irate reactions to the morning’s sermon. Her mother-in-law’s assumption was that I had been informed of her impending visit, and that I had tailored the sermon’s topic to specifically address her son and daughter-in-law’s concerns over her involvement with mediums (those who “channel” the spirits of the dead) and spiritists (those who channel other spirits), and especially those popularized by Shirley MacLaine in her book Out on a Limb.

Her reaction was not unwarranted. I had actually quoted MacLaine in the midst of a sermon on I John 4 in which I insisted, “Just because something is real, that doesn’t make it true. There are very real false spirits seeking to influence us any way they can. They are unlikely to decline an open invitation to do so.”

Her assumptions, however, were entirely unfounded. I had no idea she was planning to visit, much less attend services. And if I had, and my friends had warned me ahead of time, I would not have chosen to switch out the sermon for any other. Foremost among the many reasons for that obstinance on my part? Those responsible to hold me accountable to expository preaching (which, in my case, includes plodding along chapter-by-chapter and verse-by-verse through whole books of the Bible) would immediately notice that I had skipped the next passage.

But even among those who preach topically, those who prepare more situationally, or those friends who ascend the pulpit entirely unprepared in expectation of the Holy Spirit’s spontaneous utterance through them, no pastor can anticipate who will be in attendance at any given service. Neither can any of us anticipate the mental, emotional, social, physical, or spiritual conditions each individual may bring with them to that service.

Whatever number may cross the bridge into the sanctuary on a particular Sunday, they each bring unique experiences and expectations. And those experiences and expectations will likely be different from one service to the next. Andrew Blackwood’s Pastoral Leadership includes the admonition to consider that “pastoral visitation is sermon preparation. Knowing one’s congregation is indispensable. But preparing sermons on the basis of who may or may not be in attendance is inadvisable. Trying to imagine what distractions or disappointments, griefs or gratifications, rejoicings or regrets may be on their hearts and minds is, in a word, impossible.

What, then, are we to do, if not to tailor the presentation of our study, structure, and semantics to what we (think that we) know of our congregation’s participants and their perspectives? Pray. We pursue our study, structure, and semantics in the faithful pursuit of presenting the message God seeks to deliver to a congregation of which we know far less than we imagine. I am tempted to guess at and prepare for “the average parishioner,” or “the lowest common denominator,” or any other fictional standard. But ultimately, it is my trust in the Holy Spirit to guide every aspect from the selection of a passage to the final sentences of a conclusion, and everything in between, that keeps me from the mental gridlock that guarantees I will guess wrong.


This also means that when I am congratulated by those who find a particular message especially meaningful, helpful, or convicting, I cannot take credit for anything more than practicing the prayerful craft of faithfully pursuing study, structure, and semantics that convey the truth of God’s word to those He chooses to include in any given gathering. That, too, is a good thing.

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