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Preaching with Confidence

02 December 2019

David Bowen has been a Reader (Licensed Lay Minister) in the Church of England for 54 years (though he adds, he was very young when he started!). He has spent most of his life in and around the world of education.

<strong>Preaching with Confidence</strong> ISTOCK

In Mark’s version of the Gospel, when Jesus first preached the congregation was astonished, not just by what he said but also by his ‘authority’ (Mark 1:22). Perhaps preachers today need to be more aware that they too speak with ‘authority’? That authority comes from a number of sources. It may be national and result from ordination, authorization or licensing. It may be local, coming from being called out by the leaders of the worshipping community. In either case, the preacher assumes the authority of whoever has approved her or his position before the assembly. Remembering that should, as well as underlining the responsibility placed upon the preacher, give confidence in what is delivered. If the sponsoring leadership has confidence in me, then perhaps I should have confidence in myself.

 

Of course, it is more than that. Confidence in preaching requires knowledge. Training for ministry is important but should not be mistaken for education. The confident preacher has studied both the ancient texts, the Bible, and considered what others have said about them in commentaries and broader theological thought. That cannot be done on Saturday evening! The confident preacher has prepared as far in advance as may be possible, turning over ideas, taking account of the thoughts of others and, most particularly, listening to what the Spirit is saying.

 

Later in Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is challenged by the religious establishment to explain where he got his ‘authority’ (Mark 11:28). He doesn’t tell them, but the story should serve to remind preachers that confidence is a two-way street. Those who listen need to have confidence in those who preach: they need to trust. It is helpful if the preacher knows the congregation to whom the sermon is addressed. What is their previous experience? How much theological knowledge may be assumed? Even basic things like, what is the age range? How many will there be? What sort of sermons have they experienced in the past? Knowledge inspires confidence.

 

A headteacher discussing with a member of staff the lacklustre lesson just observed was told, ‘But I have ten years’ experience’, and replied, ‘No, you have had one year’s experience ten times!’. It is true that confidence often comes with experience, but so does complacency. What went down well in one context may not be so successful in another. It is all part of thorough preparation.

 

Confidence is often associated with courage and a degree of bravery is required to preach. Courage is not the absence of fear or anxiety, that is foolhardiness. Courage is acknowledging those concerns and doing the right thing notwithstanding. Especially, courage in preaching demands being yourself. We all have heard outstanding preachers. We all have sat under the teaching of charismatic speakers. They are not us. I cannot preach your sermon, even though mine may be dealing with the same matters. I can learn from you, but it is always a mistake to pretend to be you. Preachers need to have the confidence to be themselves and to preach from their own experience and understanding. Is there anything more pathetic than a middle-aged preacher trying (and usually failing) to be ‘down with the youth’? Stories in sermons should come from personal experience not pretended comprehension of others.

 

When Jesus preached to crowds or talked to individuals, sharing his Good News, he was trying to effect change. That is what the confident preacher does too. It is easy to let the congregation listen in a warm glow of self-satisfaction, confirming that what they believe and do is correct. Preaching is always about hope; hoping for change. The sermon may be biblical exposition, in which case the change hoped for is in the realms of knowledge, understanding and application. Or it may be concerning a matter of theological thought, aimed at deepening belief, providing enlightenment instead of misunderstanding, and so growing the congregation, not in number, perhaps, but in maturity of their faith.

 

Sometimes it is appropriate to preach on a matter in the news and so to add a theological or ethical dimension to effect some change in understanding of what has happened or is likely to happen; to prompt a Christian response to an event. Often preachers are reluctant to refer to matters considered to be political, seeking to keep private their own party affiliation or avoid controversy. While party involvement is one thing, controversy, challenge to established views and speaking truth to power have all made major contributions to great preaching. They are certainly significant in Jesus’ own preaching as the Gospels record it.

 

Not everything is an easy subject for preaching. It is always tempting to avoid the hard text or the natural disaster. However, the confident preacher will not do so when called upon. Study, prayer and listening to the Spirit’s guidance may help with the hard text. A sound understanding of what theologians call theodicy and the rest of us think of as God’s direct action, or inaction, in the face of evil, may help with the natural disaster. But, when faced with a question to which there is no human answer and to which we do not understand God’s answer, there is nothing wrong with the confident preacher say that he or she does not understand it. After all we too see through a glass darkly and cannot but be human for we are not divine. To join the congregation in their inability to understand the imponderable, is to acknowledge our own weakness, which is like theirs, and that can only be done from confidence.

 

The greatest compliment a preacher ever receives comes from someone who heard last week’s sermon and says on the following Sunday, ‘I’ve been thinking all week about what you said.’ They may not agree, but they have been challenged to consider their position and, if they so conclude, to change.

 

Richard Hooker, in his Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, challenged priests during the ferment of the English Reformation saying, ‘Again what availeth if we be learned and not faithful?’ (V. lxxx 1.2). The same must apply to all preachers today. Note that he does imply that it is sufficient to be one or the other. The two must go hand in hand. So to authority, courage and hope, we may add fidelity to public worship, prayer and Christian principles. Confident preaching arises from a confident Christian life. As we seek to change, challenge, educate and bring hope to the congregation, we must be equally sure that we are changing, challenging and educating ourselves. Perhaps then they will say of our preaching that it is backed by authority – the authority of the whole Church, the authority of God.

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