What nine years of pulpitless existence has taught ex-pastor (and prof of pastoral theology) Mark Buchanan about preaching
I am a pulpitless man. There is no piece of furniture – no oaken rampart, no plexiglass lectern, no bistro table, no wobbly metal music stand – that I call my own. Almost a decade ago I stepped down from pastoral ministry after more than two decades. Most of those years I carried the bulk of the church’s preaching load. Sunday after Sunday I stood before roughly the same gathering of people – people I knew by name, often more deeply – and said, in effect, Thus saith the Lord.
The voice of a preaching pastor with a long tenure inflects the voice of God for their people. It’s the reverse of the Eli and Samuel story – whereas Samuel heard the voice of God and mistook it for the voice of the priest, sometimes parishioners hear the voice of their pastor or priest and mistake it for the voice of God.
For the one speaking it’s a heady and precarious thing. It must be handled with wisdom and humility, else the preacher might come to think he or she is God’s mouthpiece, not God’s servant.
I have not been in a pulpit for nine years and counting – at least not one I can call my own. And yet I have never thought about preaching as much as I do now.
I stepped away and joined the faculty of Ambrose Seminary in Calgary. I now teach homiletics – the art and craft of preaching. Though I still preach several times a year, it’s mostly to people I don’t know and who don’t know me.
But this combination – hearing more sermons than I preach, teaching others how to preach, preaching sermons in a pastorless, pulpitless way – carries its own crucial lessons. I share my top four here.
Many of my sermons were too long
I used to routinely preach for 45 minutes. I truly believed I had that much to say. I would have gone longer were it not for threats of mutiny from the children’s ministry, and mounting looks of boredom or malice from those in the pews.
Looking back I realize most of my sermons would have gone deeper had they been shorter. Ted Talks are 18 minutes for a reason – it’s the Platonic ideal. It only takes 20 minutes, or less, to say one unforgettable and potentially life-changing thing.
In the past nine years I’ve seen this in two ways. The first is my students’ sermons. I set a strict time limit on these, a maximum of 16 minutes each. Yet these sermons are often dazzling – pointed, poignant, subversive, transformative, impossible to forget. Only a handful would have been improved by being longer – and then, only by a few minutes.
The second is the pandemic. As churches went online, people wanted shorter sermons. Those watching and listening had less patience for the anecdotes, banter, digressions that typically make up a good portion of live preaching. People just wanted the meat. Perhaps this will be one of the enduring lessons of the pandemic.
I’ve learned to preach shorter sermons.
Many of my sermons were too preachy
Last year in a preaching class, I showed a clip of a preacher who was swashbuckling – really strutting his stuff. I asked the students to respond. One said, "It’s too preachy." When I asked what he meant, he said the sermon’s authority rested in the preacher, not in the message. That was an ouch for me.
There is a place in preaching for speechcraft, for saying a thing with wit, panache, eloquence. We used to call this rhetoric, though that word now has a dark spin. But the real power of a sermon is always in its source – the Scriptures, the God of the Scriptures, the Spirit who illumines the Scriptures, the Christ to whom the Scriptures point. Mere preachiness obscures this. It is often an attempt to manufacture by oratory what is lacking in substance.
I’ve learned to be less preachy.
Many of my sermons were too didactic
I often taught many things few in the congregation really needed to know – the etymology of Greek or Hebrew words, historical tidbits about ancient Corinth or Abyssinia, details about the cultural practices of the Amalekites or Moabites. Looking back this was more about showcasing my learnedness (or disguising its lack) than about serving the congregation.
I see this often in academia. Didacticism might be the chief vocational hazard of seminary students. They know so much and are bursting to tell. They think their listeners are begging to learn the various kinds of treaties ancient societies forged, or the metallurgy of Canaanite culture or the nature of the various musical instruments the psalms mention.
Such matters are not always beside the point. But most such information should inform the sermon, not be featured in it. Or as I tell my students (and remind myself): You should know this stuff, but only put it in your sermon if it helps your listeners.
There is a deeper flaw in didactic preaching – it rarely creates that which it attempts to illumine. A sermon on grace, for instance, should not merely explain the idea of grace, it should create an experience of grace – amazing grace, abounding grace, transforming grace. People should walk away from that sermon not just smarter, but fuller – soaked to the bones in grace, spilling it everywhere.
I have learned I serve people better when I’m less didactic.
Many of my sermons were about too many things
Despite the pile of preaching books I have read that insist a sermon should only ever be about one thing, many of my sermons were about a multitude of things. But such sermons usually only confuse people. They can’t discern from a jumble of insights which one to respond to.
A biblical text does not want simply to say something, it wants to do something – to heal, reveal, rebuke, subvert, comfort, call forth, remake. The text – well, the Lord of the text – wants to mess with us. But when a sermon is about too many things, the majority of listeners walk away baffled. I used to chalk this up to people’s waywardness or stubbornness. But it was really mostly due to my fuzziness.
I have learned to make my sermons about one thing.
Preach Christ Jesus as Lord
In Paul’s first letter to Corinth, he writes that his own preaching lacked eloquence and persuasiveness (by which he means rhetorical flair). Instead, it rested on God’s power (1 Corinthians 2:1–5).
In his second letter to Corinth, he writes: "For what we preach is not ourselves, but Christ Jesus as Lord" (2 Corinthians 4:5).
That’s the rub. When I preach too long, say too much, am too preachy, get too didactic – when I try too hard to be persuasive and eloquent – I usually only end up preaching myself rather than Christ Jesus as Lord.
But for nine years now I’ve been pulpitless. When I preach no one hears me and thinks it’s God speaking. But I’ve noticed the more I preach Christ Jesus as Lord – simple, direct, uncluttered – the more God actually does speak.
Mark Buchanan is associate professor of pastoral theology at Ambrose Seminary in Calgary. His latest nonfiction book is God Walk: Moving at the Speed of Your Soul (Zondervan, 2020) and he’s now in the middle of publishing a trilogy of novels about King David. Opening illustration and issue cover by Jarred Briggs.
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- What is the most memorable sermon you have ever heard?
- What is your "ideal" sermon length?
- What advice would you give to a preacher just beginning their preaching career?