Centrality of the Wordsmith

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As someone who has been part of many different denominations over the course of my life, I’ve noticed that each denomination has a particular emphasis or focus. The Disciples of Christ (Christian Church) puts an emphasis on the unity of believers despite great theological diversity, and on the Lord’s Supper.  Some more charismatic traditions build worship around gifts of the Spirit, speaking in tongues, and other public displays of spiritual gifts. Some Baptist traditions focus heavily on conversion and baptism by immersion. Still other traditions center on prayer, or on silence and waiting upon God.

The Reformed tradition builds each worship service around Word (Scripture) and Sacrament (baptism and communion). Because not every service contains baptism or communion, many services center on the Word, and maybe an allusion or two to baptism or communion.  When I was newly introduced to Reformed theology, I loved the emphasis on the reading of Scripture, even though I dearly missed celebrating around the Lord’s table each week. I am a lifelong learner, and have always enjoyed reading and studying.  A theological tradition that values studying God’s Word and engaging faith with intellect is a great fit for someone like me.

And then something happened. God called me to seminary, and then to be a pastor.

As I began interviewing with churches and talking to my friends as they began ministering in their first churches, I noticed that an astounding number of churches seemed only to care about my preaching ability. They didn’t ask many questions about how I would care for families going through times of distress. Almost no one seemed concerned about whether or not my theology was sound. And certainly no one asked me about my beliefs about the Sacraments (baptism or communion), unless they wanted to make sure that I wasn’t going to ask them to celebrate communion more than once every three or four months.

Behind it all was the belief that if I was a dynamic preacher, young people would come back to church.

At the time I was in my mid-20s, and the idea that all young people cared about was a dynamic preacher was offensive to me. I wanted more from a church than that. I didn’t want to be part of a church to be entertained, or to be blown away by the newest and most persuasive preacher. I wanted to be immersed in a community of faith that accomplished more than gathering for worship one hour each Sunday morning. I wanted to belong to something that changed the world in some way for the better. And I couldn’t help but believe that a lot of other young people wanted the same things I did.

I took my first call, and am now entering my seventh year of ministry here. And, I’m so thankful and humbled to be serving in a church that cares about more than the charisma of the preacher. Because, while I know preaching is an important part of what a pastor does, I know that preaching is only one of many spiritual gifts, and there are many fantastically gifted and called pastors who do not have preaching as their number one spiritual gift. I have also been thrilled as young families become part of the life of the church where I serve, and I have seen that they all have a desire for something more in their lives and for the church. They want to reach all those kids in our community who have nowhere to go, and who wander the streets after school. They want to do something about poverty and suffering. They want their church to change the community, and even the world.

I do think that many young people want a church that changes the world, that has an impact on the way people live their lives. But, I also think a lot of people – and not just young people – will not attend a church unless the preacher is dynamic and charismatic. Up pop these megachurches with amazingly gifted preachers, and the average preacher in a local congregation simply cannot compete, nor should he or she even try.

I got myself into a conversation on Facebook a few weeks ago about one of those “why millennials are leaving the church” posts that has circulated the interwebs. In the midst of that conversation, someone said, “I wouldn’t keep coming back to church if so-and-so wasn’t preaching there. He feeds me every week.” That stopped me in my tracks. In the Reformed tradition we can get so caught up in the centrality of the Word that we over-focus on the sermon. We elevate it higher than anything, higher than the Word itself. But, while I think sermons are intended to be an opportunity for the pastor to share with a congregation the message he or she believes God has for the church, the sermon is not the Word of God. Sermons are human attempts to convey the divine, and wherever humans are involved, imperfection is assured.

When our focus is on the preacher, we make ourselves intentionally uncommitted to the congregation. The pastor will leave someday. There could very possibly be a lengthy interim between pastors where all kinds of guest preachers will be invited in week after week. Some of those guest preachers may not be all that interesting to listen to. If someone comes to church only to hear a dynamic preacher, when the gifted speaker leaves, so will the person who was only continuing to come for that preacher. The church isn’t the building. It isn’t the liturgical steps we take as we move through the church year. It isn’t the songs, the worship style, the Bible translation we read from, or even the persuasiveness of the preacher.

It is a community of believers who engage the world because they believe in the risen Jesus.

The centrality of Word and Sacrament simply means that this community of believers knows the importance of continually being reminded of God’s amazing plan for the world. It means that the community of believers hungers for the opportunity to taste what God has done, and to welcome with joy new believers into the fold. The centrality of Word and Sacrament means that we don’t want to shut off our brains or our senses when we enter the sanctuary. We know that the Word is inspired by God, and we know that the Holy Spirit uses that Word to challenge and shape us. We know that the bread and the cup we share unites us in some amazing way with worshipers around the world and through the ages, and it enables us to hope with anticipation for the full coming of the Kingdom of God.

We gather around the Word, not the one who reads from it. We gather around the Word to hear about Jesus We gather because we want to be changed. We gather because we are hungry to hear from God.

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12 thoughts on “Centrality of the Wordsmith

  1. Having come and gone from several churches, mostly of the same denomination, there was always a focus on the community of the church;,, the people are the church, not the pastor or her or his preaching. But a good well formed, well informed and informing sermon is also something that I have found binds the congregation too. I have watched and been a part of pastoral nominating committees as churches I have attended over the last 40 years have pastors come, only to move on to a bigger or more fitting church for them. Then the PNC is left with the task of finding a new pastor. Members begin to leave because they are tied to the pastor, not the congregation, and members stay because they are tied to the congregation. I think a pastor’s biggest job should be developing community that lasts, and that is ready to move on when the pastor takes another call. Both times I have been on a PNC, I have also found a paucity of really good, skilled preaching and growing congregation pastor types, in fact I was down right frightened by the national list of those who put their name out there. Made me wonder what schools are really focusing on in their teaching. I think it is important to know the bible, not just as the word, but as a way of growing faith. Not as dogma, but as lessons about how God works in peoples lives today. BUt they also should be taught how to develop community. If your gifts are there, you will succeed. Sounds like you are.

    • Thanks so much for your comment, and I do agree! One of the biggest challenges a pastor faces is finding a way to balance giving sound and helpful teaching while also taking the focus off of him/herself so that lasting community can be formed. Tough stuff, but so important. I’m glad to hear that the churches you’ve been part of have been mostly able to focus on community and not get caught up in preacher wars! 🙂

  2. Great article!

    I remember a poem I heard growing up.

    A church is not a building.
    A church is not a steeple.
    A church is not a resting place.
    A church is the people.

    The only church I really felt at home in the pastor copied sermons off the internet. It was the welcoming including people that kept me coming back.

    For me (and I imagine a lot of people) preaching doesn’t do much because we aren’t at a high enough level where it would do us much good.

    I know a lot of people who go to church just for the preaching. I want to ask, why not just go to the church’s website and listen to their sermons online? I would even go as far to say that if people aren’t going to be hospitable and welcoming the church is better off having them stay home and listen to the sermon on MP3.

    • Thanks for reading and commenting, Matt! And, thanks for sharing that poem!

      I’ve wondered that same thing. If all someone is after is a sermon, there are plenty of places to hear them: tv, radio, podcasts, online, etc. That said, I do think that’s at least some of why church attendance is dwindling. Many people are able to get whatever teaching or study they want elsewhere, and they don’t feel a need to be part of a community of faith.

  3. Yes, very well said, April. And that “poem” is a stanza from “We Are the Church” by Richard Avery and Donald Marsh–the protestaant answer to Ray Repp in the 1970s.

  4. Excellent post, April. The breakdown of community in church probably breaks my heart more than any other problem the church confronts, because so many other things the church is called to hinge on community. How can you be welcoming if you’re not a community? How can you hunger for new believers if you’re not a community? And how can you reach out to those around you if you’re not a community? And the list goes on.

    Forming community though, is so, so, so, hard. It is, as some say, an adaptive issue, not a systemic one. A systemic issue only makes sequential changes to the system. The underlying root never changes. Whereas an adaptive change gets at the root of the problem in order to solve the problem. Do you have any ideas about how to move forward into uncharted territory when a congregation is confronted with a needed adaptive issue/change? Or identifying adaptive issues vs. systemic ones? Because even I find all this scary, and I’m going to be leading people in this someday!…I hope.

    I also, though, feel sad when I read your post because of the fact that I agree with it. I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE preaching. And I’m pretty good at it. But I’ve wondered myself if it [preaching in general; mine specifically] is really all that effective. It almost feels like a talent that has no purpose.

    • Jill, try to be encouraged. If you are called to preach, then preach. Your success is not measured in results, it’s measured in doing what God has called you to do to the best of your ability as opposed to something less.

      As for Community… it is the visual, here, and now evidence of the Communion of the Saints. “By this, all men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another…” If the evidence isn’t there, you have to wonder… but remember… you preach (or whatever else it is that you have been gifted to do…) but God gives the increase.

      • Thank you for the reminder that the results aren’t up to me. It’s so easy to fall into that trap with so many things.

      • The Holy Spirit makes our words effective, praise be to God. 🙂 I will keep praying for you Jill! It’s a tough day and age to be a pastor right now. Not enough church ministry positions for all those who are seeking calls. I am certain God is using you where you are, but I long for you to find the fulfillment of using your gifts in a broader way!

      • Thanks for the encouragement, April. See the RCA Clergy Women FB page for more about what I’m saying. I’m still curious about community as an adaptive issue. Your experience with building community would be invaluable.

  5. I realize I’m late chiming in on this discussion, but your post hit home recently, April. The church where I served the majority of my internship is closing. This particular congregation hired a Commissioned Pastor three years ago, largely because he was a dynamic preacher.

    He was definitely a good preacher. Unfortunately, he was NOT good at building community, loving the church members, listening, or working with the consistory or the Classis. In the three years he was there, the congregation became fragmented, angry, disillusioned, hurt, and eventually they scattered. There is a remnant of about 15 that want to remain in the RCA, but the rest are gone.

    At any rate, there is SO much more to being a pastor than being a compelling speaker. St. Paul wrote to the church at Corinth something along the lines of, “If I speak with the tongues of angels, but don’t have love, I’m no better than a clanging gong.” (my own paraphrase) Seems to me that there is nothing new under the sun. [sigh] Thanks for the reminder.

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