It was bound to happen, of course. Sooner or later, I was going to preach something which made someone really upset with me. I’ve probably been lucky to have made it so far without being confronted for it.
But recently I was confronted. I had got it wrong. I didn’t understand the parish. I was stirring things up and trying to get a reaction. I obviously had an agenda. And so forth.
Leaving aside for the moment the question of whether or not I understand the parish (I rather suspect I understand it better than I was being given credit for, and had hit a nerve!), the idea that having an agenda was a bad thing gave me pause. Shouldn’t a preacher – and especially a pastor – have an agenda, God’s agenda? Isn’t that the whole point?
Of course, I think what the person upset with me meant, was that I had my own agenda rather than God’s driving what I had preached. That I was speaking from my own personal preferences and biases, rather than a genuine attitude of service to the congregation. That’s a serious accusation, and when I get the chance, I plan to get some outside perspective from people I trust, who know me well and can give me honest feedback, and hold me accountable, if I’ve managed both to get it wrong, and fail to see that fact. I certainly didn’t go into preaching that day, intending to wield a metaphorical wooden spoon with glee.
However. The whole conversation left me pondering the question, what is the standard which we could accept as God’s agenda in preaching? What are we trying to do? I have my own fairly intuitive sense of that, of course, developed over my experience of preaching in different contexts, my formal studies, and listening to and learning from other preachers. There’s a teaching component; drawing meaning out of Scripture, making theology accessible, and helping people to make connections between those things and their own lives. There’s also an element of encouragement; as my homiletics lecturer put it, “For many people, life is tough, and you’ve got to give them something to help them make it through the week.”
I think, importantly, there’s also an element of church discipline. Preaching in a way which promotes disunity, or which is furthering public disagreement with your colleagues, especially those in authority over you, is unhelpful to anyone. Preaching which is not in keeping with the formal standards of doctrine of your denomination is, likewise, a disservice to your congregation. Preaching shouldn’t further the splintering of the church into parties on various issues. The pulpit is no place for that kind of politics. There’s a time and place for working that sort of stuff out, but the public worship of the church is not it.
To further my thinking on these things, I decided to look also at the exhortation in the ordination service, to see what that had to say about the work of ministry, and how that might relate to the agenda of preaching. It is arguable whether the ministry of preaching belongs properly to priests rather than deacons, but in this diocese, deacons (and indeed appropriately licensed lay people) do preach, and since I am closer to being a deacon than a priest, and the experience of being a theological student in a parish is in many ways more diaconal than priestly, I chose the exhortation from the ordination to the diaconate, rather than the priesthood. It reads thus:
“Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ lived and died as the servant of God.
All who follow him are called to serve God in the world, setting forth Christ’s kingdom through the power of the Spirit.
Christ has called you to the office of deacon.
You are to be an ambassador of Christ, serving God as you serve others in Jesus’ name.
Proclaim the good news of God’s love, so that many may be moved to faith and repentance, and hearts be opened to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly in the presence of God.
Let the transforming love of Jesus be known to all among whom you live and work.
Strengthen the faithful, teach the young, search out the careless and the indifferent.
Encourage the members of Christ’s body by word and example, ministering among the sick, the needy and all who are oppressed or in trouble.
Together with your bishop, priest and people, you are to take your place in public worship, assist in the administration of the sacraments, and play your part in the life and councils of the Church.
You are to preach the word of God in the place to which you are licensed,
and to pray and work for peace and justice in the world.
As a deacon, you are to model your life according to the word of God.
Study the Scriptures, reflecting with God’s people upon their meaning,
that all may be equipped to live out God’s truth in the world.
Put away all that does not make for holiness of life.
Be faithful in prayer, that you may have strength to run the race that is set before you.”
The ordination service goes on from there to ask solemn questions of those to be ordained, but the bit I’ve quoted is what is relevant to the question I had in mind. It sets forth quite clearly a number of things which seem to me applicable to the question of an agenda in preaching. Preaching which took this exhortation seriously would
– set forth Christ’s kingdom
– proclaim the good news of God’s love
– teach, equip and encourage the faithful.
Those things are not a bad benchmark for an agenda. I hope I never preach in a way which furthers my own particular bugbears above these.
But what do you think? Is this a good standard for preaching? Should there be another? Have I missed something glaringly obvious? Do comment and discuss with me!