Most of us in the church want to assume that the preachers among us do so from Christian motives and by Christian methods. What we find instead is “it ain’t necessarily so!”
Most of us in the church want to assume that the preachers among us do so from Christian motives and by Christian methods. What we find instead is “it ain’t necessarily so!” Raymond Bailey and Gaylord Noyce, among others, have tried to help by setting forth a basic ethics of preaching. And while we can’t compel preachers to go by these standards, we can say that the pulpit and the church would be better off if they did.
First, do your own work. Both Bailey and Noyce emphasize this. Authentic preaching is the result of a conversation among preacher, Scripture, scholars and the spirit of God. Shortcutting that process in any way produces a less than authentic result.
These days, of course, the proliferation of source books and Internet sermon sites tempts the busy preacher perhaps more than ever before. And there’s nothing at all wrong with using every possible tool for your research. Nor is there anything wrong with using someone else’s idea—with proper credit. But honest preaching requires an honest preacher. Nothing less is worthy of the gospel of Jesus.
Second, treat Scripture faithfully. I once had one of the most famous preachers in Baptist life fill the pulpit for me. As he was reading his text, I discovered he had changed the words of Scripture to fit the outline he planned to preach! Ethical preaching seeks to discover the authentic meaning of a text and represents that text faithfully, even when its meaning is inconvenient, uncomfortable or does not lend itself to alliteration.
Third, never manipulate a congregation. Every preacher is tempted to do this. We’re tempted to make our point with a heartrending story or to shape our delivery to play on people’s emotions. But I vividly recall my then 6-year-old son turning pale as a visiting missionary told graphic stories of child abuse in Eastern Europe. Preaching should never seek to produce any result that is other than the freely considered choice of those listening in response to the Holy Spirit.
Fourth, be intellectually honest. Preachers fail this test in at least two ways. One is the intentional “dumbing down” of biblical interpretation to fit a congregation’s prejudices. The preacher who believes Genesis 1 and 2 are poetic depictions of creation should preach as such, rather than talking to the congregation as though he or she believes in a literal six-day creation. The other common failure is the use of the pulpit to undergird one’s own political beliefs. Right and left both fail here. The pulpit is not the place for partisan posturing.
Fifth, maintain a balanced content. The pastor of a congregation should seek to give the church the whole gospel message over time. Evangelism, pastoral care, discipleship, social ministry, current events and congregational life all need to be addressed in due season. Focusing on a single emphasis or issue gives people a truncated view of the gospel.
Finally, let your preaching reflect your own spiritual journey. Homileticians argue about how much we should tell our own story from the pulpit. Too much confession can degenerate into group therapy or an exercise in narcissism. This calls for discernment. Still, one of the most authentic things we have to offer is a window into our own doubts, struggles and affirmations about the life of faith.
If you struggle with an issue or doctrine, and you believe it would help to tell them, tell them. Let your own pilgrimage inform the truth you offer. People will respect your honesty. And, in this world, respecting the preacher’s honesty has become an essential first step toward listening to the gospel we preachers proclaim.
Ron Sisk is professor of homiletics and Christian ministry at North American Baptist Seminary in Sioux Falls, S.D.
Elements of this article are adapted from:
Gaylord Noyce, Pastoral Ethics
Ronald D. Sisk, Surviving Ministry
Raymond H. Bailey, “Ethics in Preaching,” Review and Expositor (Fall, 1989)