Terry Smith: The Frightening Task of Preaching

by Terry M. Smith

Preaching is a privilege, a frightening task. By frightening, trembling before God is meant, not a fear of speaking in public.

Jesus said we are judged by our words (Matt. 12:36-37). James said people should be wary of being a teacher because they will be judged more strictly (James 3:1). The Lord can, if he chooses, instantly cut me off from preaching, just as he silenced Zechariah (Luke 1:20).

What compels some people, then, to preach? A good reason, perhaps the best one, is the sense of being called. Preaching is a basic act of being a pastor.

About 40 years ago I skimmed a library book that said a sermon was 40-45 minutes, nearby someone had pencilled in 30-35, and by the time I saw the book sermons seemed shorter. Recently, though, I listened to a sermon about 43 minutes long. There seems to be a trend toward longer sermons in some EMC churches.

My wife Mary Ann, who has heard many preachers, says, “If you can’t say it in 20 minutes, stop trying.” When I mentioned that to a preacher, he responded by saying people’s attention to a TV program is often longer. Yes, but I gently suggest that the sermon isn’t the whole program. The service is.

Where is a sermon often placed within the order of service used within EMC churches? Near the end. Why is this? Donald P. Hustad, an evangelical worship leader, said it’s an inheritance from a revival format: the Word is preached and people are to respond. Some churches, including an EMC church or two, move the sermon toward the middle to enlarge the ways we can respond to the Word within a service. This makes sense to me.

By the way, how good is the preaching of your pastor or pastors? A survey found most pastors saw themselves as above-average preachers (Chris Puhach).

Another question: how does the context or setting affect how we receive preaching? Consider the sermon of Bishop Michael Curry during the wedding of HRH Prince Harry and Meghan Markle, now the Duke and Duchess of Sussex. Harry is potentially the future King of England and, thereby, the head of the Church of England.

Bishop Curry is African American, and he, as others have said, preached amid the backdrop of England’s having been a colonial power that endorsed slavery. Harry and Meghan sat in the ornate St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, impressive for both its architecture and wealth at a time when the Church of England faces many challenges: a declining attendance, the stress of owning many underused buildings, and many social needs. Such displays of architecture and wealth within any part of the Christian Church both intrigue and disturb me.

Curry is the first African American to be the bishop of the Episcopal Church, the larger U.S. counterpart to the Anglican Church in Canada. Curry is well-educated, warm, articulate, and lively; it’s a wonder that nearby candles didn’t go out as he preached. He supports same-sex marriage and defends it despite the tensions it creates within the wider Anglican Communion. Must Curry and I agree on all points before we agree on any? No.

His 13-minute sermon saw various responses that partly reflected the backgrounds people brought to it. Likewise, from B.C. to southern Ontario, our backgrounds affect how we respond to sermons.

Terry M. Smith

When we hear a sermon, what do we consider? Content, style, passion, setting, context, length, culture, lifestyle, our reaction?

Reaction? The frightening task of preaching is to continue even where settings are difficult and reactions are mixed: “Go now to your people in exile and speak to them. Say to them, ‘This is what the sovereign Lord says,’ whether they listen or fail to listen” (Ezekiel 3:11 TNIV).

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