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Preaching - the Art

By Fred Craddock.

As a preacher, dealing with the things of God, you have to live within an understanding distance of God. Clement of Alexandria said years and years ago that the hard won truths of God are not easily available to every causal passer by. You have to give yourself to it, and many people don't. With that in mind, I'm going to lay out these points from my reflections, from what I am doing, and what I should be doing as a Preacher. They are things I find to be true, demanded of me far beyond my own practice, but they nevertheless represent my goals.

Preaching is not simply about Christian subjects, it is itself a Christian act, in other words the preacher should be a Christian. This means every listener must be respected as a centre of purpose, meaning, value and decision. The Christian preacher doesn't paint people into a corner or use the advantage of the pulpit to shoot darts, intimidate, or get revenge. If a person isn't given the room to say `No', their saying `Yes' means nothing.

Even amongst the grossest sinners, even among the most severe critics of our work, we never, never have an excuse for cruelty. Search your mind for an occasion when it is justified to be cruel towards people and you will not find one.

The most careful attention to the sins of others is no substitute for giving attention to our own souls, to our spiritual lives. Some people, out of sincere zeal, purchase a lot of devotional books. Do get books that are substantive enough to provide something for you, with a few calories in them to nourish you. Some devotional books are just mush, and there's nothing there. If you don't have any good devotional books, this is one to recommend: the Scripture. You can pick a place to start, but it is tough, it makes you grow and you have to wrestle with it. There are books about the devotional life which tend to weaken rather than strengthen you, and you need to be discerning.

What I want to do and what I have to do very often coincide, but it is also true that quite often they stand at some distance from each other. That's the test of my call as a preacher, and a test of my commitment. This is very important because we are surrounded by good, fine folk who merely follow what they want to do according to their feelings.

Not everything we do is confirmed by our pulse. How one feels about a matter is not an accurate gauge of its merit. And this is a time when intuition and feeling have become so important. You think some sermons were awful, and went over the pulpit like a wingless dove and made you think, "Oh my, I wish I had not come today"; then someone recently widowed says, "You ministered to me, you must have had me in mind today". We cannot let the way we feel about our preaching be the measure of its truth or importance.

There are few, if any clues to one's effectiveness as a preacher. Is it popularity? No! Is it unpopularity? Some people think that the way to do it is to make everybody mad and alienate them, but that's no proof of faithfulness or effectiveness. Where is the proof or the evidence then? We can't really say, because when there are changes in people's lives, it may be that we're reaping the harvest of a predecessor, and when we're tossing out the seed it looks as if it all falls on the path and the birds take it away. It may be that 20 years from now someone's life will be given to God by the sudden recollection of something you said. So how do we know? We don't.

Seriousness of purpose does not always require heaviness of manner. That's a statement from Soren Kirkegaard. That is to say, we can be light on our feet and have a good sense of humour and still be serious about what we are doing. We don't have to look like lonesome half dead dorks, or as if we're going to break out into tears all the time, simply because what we're dealing with is extremely important. In fact it takes something extremely important to launch a sense of humour. It is inevitable then if you are serious about preaching there are some things that are going to be funny. Laughter is not a denial of, but a celebration of what we are doing.

Whoever does not study has already broken the first and greatest commandment; "you shall love the Lord your God with all your ... mind". Paul took the accusation that he preached other people's sermons very seriously when the churches of Galatia said "He gets his sermons from down in Jerusalem from the apostles". He was enraged. He said, "You can say anything about me, you can say I'm dull, not interesting, poorly groomed, have a bad voice, poor organisationally, no public presence at all, but don't say that I did not prepare my own sermon". "I", he said, "have seen the Lord". Our experience of Jesus Christ is the authorisation of our sermons, and if we have been called to preach, God will give us help in knowing what and how to speak. And if a church has asked us to preach do they not expect us to give them something designed and shaped for them?

Unless the Holy Spirit is in our preaching our preaching is powerless. We know this to be true. It is not wise, however, to spend a lot of time trying to figure out what part the preacher did and what part the Holy Spirit did. We work as though everything depended on our effort, we pray as though it all depended on God, but I don't know any formulae by which to say I did this and the Holy Spirit did that. Just give it all to the Holy Spirit.

Praying and preaching are twins. It is speaking with God that authorises what we say about God. If we do not speak with God, people can tell. How easily and glibly can we share the Gospel, without sweat, agony or tears. We can just be witty and clever and dash it off. And people can tell, because the one thing people want most is that our preaching be an act of worship. Thus they have some sense of the presence of God in a way that is achieved not by lighting another candle or changing the accoutrements or lowering the lights, but through praying. Praying authorises preaching.

Fred Craddock is Emeritus Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology at the University of Atlanta. He is author of a number of Bible commentaries including on The Gospel of Luke, Philippians and Hebrews.

This article is reproduced here by kind permission of Cliff College, Calver, Sheffield.

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You are reading Preaching - the Art by Fred Craddock, part of Issue 13 of Ministry Today, published in May 1998.

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