Preaching for Today and Tomorrow

Mark Ramsey From Guest Writer: Mark Ramsey
Pastor of Westlake Hills Presbyterian Church in Austin, TX.

When I became a parent several years ago, I was amazed at the unsolicited advice about everything from sleep schedules to food ideas to nap routines to socialization regimes. In the much smaller world of preachers, it seems that the same yearning to offer advice is in play—it can cascade around us in seemingly contradictory choruses: preach without notes, preach with notes but nothing more, it’s fine to use a manuscript, you must plan all your words in advance; use visuals in every sermon, some sermons, don’t you dare do that; the best kind of sermon in today’s world is expository…narrative…social justice; don’t ever preach longer than 8 minutes…12 minutes…go at least 20 or you aren’t doing justice to the text. You’ve got to use the lectionary…only preach series.

To try to refresh this round robin of preaching advice, I asked a handful of preachers I know and respect—younger and older, less experienced and more experienced, women and men—three questions:

  1. What’s the best advice you’ve ever received about preaching?
  2. What are you thinking about in your own preaching right now?
  3. How has preaching (or your approach to preaching) changed since you started?

Best advice?

  • Give room for listeners to come to their own conclusions – don’t wrap things up in a bow.
  • Always be thinking: what is at stake? why does this matter?
  • Preach to “faces” in the congregation—to real people in their real situations.
  • Have faith in the congregation. Trust them.
  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Use a collaborative group as the sermon develops – don’t try to develop sermons alone.
  • Preach like this is the last sermon some will ever hear.
  • There is always someone who came to church who is facing trauma, death, cancer, something horrible. They need to hear the gospel.

What are you thinking right now about your preaching?

  • I don’t want to be predictable and use the same format every sermon.
  • I’m trying to develop a flexible style – one that incorporates teaching in proclamation.
  • Trying to deepen and expand beyond just my favorite themes to keep preaching fresh.
  • Two things—experimenting with different forms, and how I can engage as a life-long learner as a preacher.
  • It’s hard (as an associate pastor) not to preach regularly – I’m trying to develop a rhythm.
  • I’m struggling how to preach about what’s happening in current events without either minimizing or maximizing what’s happening—how to locate God in the midst of all this and in my preaching.

How as your preaching changed?

  • My exegetical work informs my sermons more while it comes out “in paragraphs” less.
  • Only a year out of seminary, I’m trying to learn how to preach “research papers” less and sermons more (who knew…they are decidedly not the same thing!).
  • I’m avoiding the temptation to explain everything in every sermon. There is less explanation and more proclamation. Every time I explain something, I am not trusting God to proclaim life.
  • Less lectionary, more sermon series.
  • Less stories about myself, more stories that connect the text with the congregation and world that do not put me in the center of it all.
  • I used mostly online resources and conversations with colleagues. Much less “preacher alone in the study with her commentary and Bible.”

There are seven or eight colleagues’ candor of what preaching is for them right now. I hear my own discoveries and wrestling in their words—I suspect you might as well. For my own experience, I would underscore these:

  • Speak into the counter-narrative that our world is presenting every single day and never fail to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ (not the gospel of our own best opinions).
  • Never condescend to a congregation in preaching – trust them, and trust God.
  • Collaborate in thinking about preaching, collaborate in outlining them, collaborate in writing sermon, and collaborate in thinking about what is at stake in every sermon.
  • Leave room in preaching for the Holy Spirit to do its work.
  • And, perhaps most important for me, understand preaching as a proclamation of God’s imagination. We are proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ into a world of fear, anxiety, consumerism, individualism, and disappointment. God is offering us imagination for a dramatically different way of living and hoping. Every week, folks are showing up in worship hungry for that, and unwilling to settle for anything less.
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