One of the most precarious tasks a preacher faces is that of being a prophet. The role of prophet is one that many ministers feel a deep ambivalence toward. All preachers know that relevant preaching must address the great issues of the day and offer a word from the Living Word.
Biblically speaking, prophetic preaching is accurately assessing the current human condition and offering insights into God’s response to the world we find ourselves in. Since we often assume that prophetic activity is closely tied to judgment, we tend to either become very nervous about preaching prophetically, or we assume unlimited freedom to aggressively address the shortcomings we see in others.
On the one hand, the idea of speaking out against excess or sin or social dysfunction is thoroughly intimidating. “Who am I to tell people how to live, think, play? I know what happened to the biblical prophets. Do I really want to pronounce judgment on others for their actions? If I do that, how will they respond to my inevitable personal and professional shortcomings? Didn’t Jesus teach us not to judge others but to leave that task to him?”
Such thinking often leads to preaching that studiously avoids confrontation or any semblance of prophetic declaration. It also means we seldom are provocative in the pulpit, that we stick to safe, predictable topics and offer bland, irrelevant sermons. People wonder if we know the first thing about the real world they live in.
The other extreme is no more helpful. Some preachers treat their pulpit time as license to unleash their fury about all that is wrong with culture, the congregation, the local school board, politicians or the latest denominational misstep.
Members of the congregation endure such sermons with resignation, and with a suspicion that the preacher is working out his or her own agenda under the guise of biblical imperative. Eventually, a steady diet of judgmental sermons parading as prophetic utterances produces listeners who develop calloused ears that enable them to ignore the diatribes.
While being prophetic is part of a healthy sermon diet, it cannot be the only item on the menu. Pastors who look to Scripture for their pulpit roles will find an invitation to not only be a prophet, but to also be a teacher, leader, comforter, interpreter, encourager, parent and so forth.
Most pastors would be well served to analyze their annual preaching schedule and classify the essential themes and tones of their sermons. Balance among these roles is what is called for if one is to have a significant impact and tenure as a pastor.
I always felt that I had to earn the right to be prophetic by being pastoral and supportive in times of need. People can abide a discomforting sermon if they know their pastor loves them and genuinely cares about their pain and their struggles. Simply making pronouncements on God’s behalf without bothering to know and love the people is a quick path toward resistance and discord.
My father told me a story about Dr. Claude Bowen, who was the legendary pastor of First Baptist Church of Greensboro, N.C., for many years. It illustrates what goes into earning the right to be heard.
Every Sunday, in the minutes leading up to worship, Bowen would slip into the organ chamber at the front of the sanctuary that housed the pipes of the organ. He would sit in a small chair in that dark room, hidden high above the sanctuary, where he could see everyone coming into the room.
As the congregation gathered for worship, Bowen would prayerfully look out over each member and family and remind himself of the pain, the joys, the hidden and the obvious issues they brought with them into that sanctuary. That was his preparation for the preaching event. No rehearsing of rhetorical tricks or straining for the perfect word or illustration back in the study. Reminding himself of those he would be preaching to enabled him to stay grounded and deliver a prophetic word appropriately.
When Jesus called for laborers for the harvest in Matthew 9, he spoke from a broken heart filled with compassion for the crowds of people who were “harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” That call still rings true.
We need prophetic preachers who courageously stand for God while compassionately standing with the people. It is a precarious place, but it is holy ground, indeed.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Congregational Health in Winston-Salem, N.C.
Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches (CHC) housed at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee.