A few weeks back I blogged about what was undoubtedly the worst sermon I have ever heard. Hot on its heels was a sermon I heard by an American woman in a regional city in northern NSW. This however was one sermon that I’d happily sit through again.
It was the early 1990’s and I was a youth pastor. Baptist Youth Ministries had brought a group of American youth pastors to Australia, teamed them up with Aussie counterparts, and sent them into regional areas to run training events for youth leaders. I was paired with two wonderful Americans, Dean and Wendy.
One Sunday night we were on the mid north coast and Wendy, a woman in her mid twenties,was given an opportunity to preach at the local Baptist church. Wendy was confident and full of personality, but in terms of content she gave a truly awful sermon. The way Wendy used the biblical text was creative to say the least! She found things in her chosen passage that I suspect no-one had ever found before and never will again.
But despite this sermon not fitting my idea of good preaching the impact was amazing. The young women of the church were abuzz, declaring it ‘”the best talk we have ever heard”. I was doubly surprised because their pastor was one of the finest preachers I know.
It seems that in this case it didn’t really matter what Wendy said. It was the fact that a vibrant young woman said it. Wendy herself was the message. Her presence communicated that young women matter, have a place in the heart of God and in the heart of the church. My friend who was the pastor there had preached that message over and over, but Wendy was a living demonstration of it.
It makes me realise that it’s not only what we communicate but who we are as we communicate it that matters. My Parkinson’s has reinforced this for me. Since my right arm has been tremoring in a pronounced way I am finding my preaching connects with people in a whole new way. It has made me vulnerable. For a long time my preaching was technically good – carefully researched, well-packaged, good story telling, thoughtful application. People described me as a “great teacher” and God used me to help people grow. But missing from my preaching was weakness and vulnerability. I communicated that I was someone who had mastery and control of both life and the text. Parkinsons has changed that. Now as I present people are engaging with me as someone with struggles and challenges, just like them. The content may be the same but the communicator isn’t and that changes the dynamic.
This makes me think we preachers need to give more attention to who we are as we preach, to expose our fragility without turning it into an episode of Dr Phil. I think it also highlights the great value in having a diverse range of people sharing in the preaching program. What would happen in our churches if we had people with disabilities, single parents, divorcees, children, not just in our congregations but in our pulpits? Maybe sermons could be shared, with the pastors, who do have technical skill in exegesis doing the exegetical stuff but inviting congregation members to do the application – how do these themes work themselves out in my life? Because if there’s one thing Wendy’s sermon taught me it’s this – the medium is as important as the message.