Thursday, December 13, 2007

A Letter to Southern Baptist Preachers

To my beloved Southern Baptist preachers:

Although it has become somewhat en vogue among contemporary thinkers to champion the demise of preaching in future manifestations of church life, I am not among those who do so. The proclaimed message has been an important tool of God in the Kingdom of God for some 2,000 years of church history and I doubt very much that a short period of philosophical and cultural upheaval in the Western world is going to change that. For those of you set apart to devote your vocational life to the proclamation of the Word of God, even in times when it is undervalued and often denigrated, I salute you and thank you.

As a product of Southern Baptist schools, a member of several Southern Baptist churches, and a spouse of a Southern Baptist pastor, I have heard a lot of Southern Baptist preaching. I have been in attendance at many preachers’ conferences, state and national conventions, as well as innumerable Bible conferences and chapel services. I have always been edified by the preaching of the Word, but I confess that I never thought very deeply about the craft of preaching until my time in seminary. And, even more than that, I had never thought about the way in which preaching is heard by many different kinds of people until I began serving among and with marginalized women in a Southern Baptist church.

Out of my recent awakenings to such matters and my reflection upon the preaching I have been privy to in the past few years, I humbly offer the following exhortations to any Southern Baptist preacher who will listen. I share these things with the utmost respect and love for those who serve our churches week in and week out with the proclamation of the Word of God.

Please, stop pandering to the establishment. While I understand that references to abortion, gay marriage, prayer in schools, and evolution garner you some hearty “Amen’s” from the congregation, you know as well as I do that they do little to spur on the members of your congregation to genuine growth in Christian living. I agree with the person who has said that preaching the Gospel is about "comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable."

Instead of focusing on those things that allow your people a “pass” on conviction of sin, how about addressing some very real and very prevalent problems in American Christianity? Really, you could take your pick, but I'll name just a few: self-righteousness, anti-Christian loveless-ness, stagnant spirituality, and idolatrous materialism. Remember that harping on how very dark the darkness is does nothing to make the light any lighter.

Please, remember the afflicted. I encourage you to give attention to the way in which your sermon will communicate to those who are seriously downtrodden and desperate. I’m not talking about the businessman who’s stock market woes are forcing him to take a one-week skiing trip instead of a two-week cruise to Italy. Whether you know it or not, in your pews sit many who are truly downtrodden: battered women, survivors of childhood sexual abuse, men addicted to painkillers and pornography, and those struggling with physical and mental disabilities.

For people in these types of difficult situations, the truth is, some of the things you say are oversimplified, insensitive, and just plain misleading. Rather than drawing them closer to Jesus, some of your harsh, unmeasured words can drive them away. For example: “If you are depressed, it is because you are being disobedient to rise above your feelings and believe the Truth, no matter what,” or, “I don’t care how bad your husband is, submit to him as unto the Lord and leave the rest up to God.” Do I really have to explain how damaging these unqualified, insensitive statements can be to people in harsh and troubling circumstances?

As you prepare your sermon and thoughtfully consider what you will say, please imagine people like these I’ve described hearing your words. What will they hear? What can you do to include them? How can you address their despair in a meaningful way? No, not every sermon must be focused upon the marginalized. But, giving a thought to their plight is the least one can do as we serve in a Kingdom that proclaims the poor, blessed, the captive, liberated, and the oppressed, free.

Please, preach to and for women. This may seem like a needless plea, but I assure you it is not. I can count on one hand the number of preachers I have heard in the past few years who made a point to speak to women in their sermons. I remember them precisely because they are so rare. If your church is like most Southern Baptist churches, roughly 55-65% of your church is made up of women. Yet, if you think about it, most of your illustrations, applications, and even basic choices in language, are geared toward men and the male experience. If women are more than half the church and certainly an equal part of the humanity God is saving, then surely women deserve to be addressed and considered in our preachers’ sermons.

This can be done a number of ways. Make use of reasonable, gender inclusive language when it is possible. Is it really going to kill you to say “humanity” instead of “mankind,” or “people” instead of “man”? Really? If Paul said that he became “all things to all people” so that by "all means" he might “save some,” surely you can make an effort to be sensitive to changing views about the English language for the sake of reaching some women with the Gospel and including believing women in your church.

Also, choose to address issues that are unique or particularly important to women’s experience, like wife battering, childbirth, and aging. And, finally, make an effort to integrate illustrations and applications into your sermons that draw upon the experiences of women. When you choose not to do so, you are unwittingly communicating that the female experience is unimportant and does not adequately illustrate the things of God. I know that this is not your intention. Besides, cars, sports, and military illustrations can only carry your sermons so far.

Please, believe in your calling. Despite the griping you regularly receive from unhappy church folks, preaching is very important to the Kingdom of God. While I do not believe that the sermon will be replaced in American Christianity any time soon, it is at least possible that some changes await us. Therefore, as long as preaching is being heard in our culture and being used by God in our churches, I urge you with every cell in my body to preach well. Please, preach well.

The people of God need a word from God and they are looking to you to give it. You have a heavy responsibility, one worthy of all that your mental and emotional capacity can provide. With God to aid you, you cannot fail. So, don’t pander, don’t hem and haw, and don’t back off. Preach the Word. And, do so with thoughtfulness, conviction, intentionality, and, most of all, grace.

Thank you again for your service.

Grace and peace,


P.S. To my non-Southern Baptist sisters and brothers, please forgive my exclusiveness in this post. But, since God has situated me in a Southern Baptist context for now, I feel compelled to speak into the situation with which I am familiar instead of one I am not.


Steve said...

This is what I so enjoy about the pastor at my current church in Ky. He illustrates things using his kids and wife as often as as not, and speaks to youth as much as any group. This man is in his seventh year here.
The podium-bruisers and occasional others at my old church were generally replaced every two or three years. Hmm....

jeff w. said...

I haven't commented on your blog before, though I do read it regularly. I believe that we have too many people who fill pulpits trying to be Bible teachers. My belief is that we need more prophets. It is so much more comfortable to read a passage and "exegete it", than to spend time with God for His word for His people. I've heard a lot of poor sermons lately!

It is interesting to read the prophets (including John the Baptist) and see where their attention was directed. Much more of their attention was directed at God's people and how they needed to change than on those outside of a covenant relationship with God. Also, the prophets clearly argue that our relationship with God is evidenced by how we treat the most helpless members of society.

Thanks for the post.

Tim said...

I heartily agree with the majority of what you say. I would question your 55-60% statistic of the number of women in the congregations. I think you might be a little to low on that. It seems that women outnumber men more along the lines of 60-70%...

That being said, I would like to point out a book for your readers:

"Why Men Hate Going to Church," by David Murrow.

Those illustrations may just be the only thing in the whole church service that are actually geared toward men.

Just a thought.

Tim Dahl

UnderMidnight said...

You're my hero.

Is graduation on Friday?

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


I hear you and I'll pick up the book. Surely there's a way to include women and men in our gatherings for worship--particularly in our preaching. Surely there's a way!

Emily Hunter McGowin said...


Yes, graduation is tomorrow at 6 PM. My family will be there, including my mentor from Criswell, and I'm picking up my honey today. Yay!

I hope you are well,


Boyd Luter said...


Great post! Very convicting!

If I am "your mentor from Criswell," I am deeply honored to be considered part of your (extended) family. As I hope Ron and you know, I consider you to both be my adopted kids.

Love, Doc

Anonymous said...

As usual, you hit the nail on the head! I still don't know how we are going to fill the big gap you are leaving us with. How much does closed circuit TV cost? LOL

I love you, sister!


UnderMidnight said...

Where is it? In the chapel?

I want to come so you and Holly can meet each other and I can meet your honey!

allhokie said...

Can I sign your letter too?

Overall, my pastor is a good preacher. Sometimes though I'm certain that he thinks the entire congregation is white, male doctors, lawyers, and businessmen. He is always addressing doctors, lawyers and businessmen. Occasionally he mentions teachers. Sometimes he catches himself repeating "your wife" and will add a "your husband" or "your spouse." It's like he wants a church full of my dad and his demographic. He's better about refraining from talk about abortion, gay marriage, etc. I do wish he would acknowledge, consider and/or mention women and other jobs. He seems pretty unaware of the poor too.

Congratulations on your seminary graduation!


Joseph said...

I would add, "Preach the Good News." Even when we find that we must be critical of sin or analytical of human behavior, I think it is always important to proclaim redemption, good news, and hope.

Emily Hunter McGowin said...

Amen, Joseph. I couldn't agree more.

Susy Flory said...

To Tim's book recommendation, I would add a new book by Denise George called "What Women Wish Pastors Knew," which reports the dreams, hopes, hurts, and needs of hundreds of American church women. George observes that women are often labeled as either "problem" or "resource," rather than co-inheritor or co-image bearer. A good resource for pastors who want to encourage and build up the women in their church!

Alycelee said...

Right on and yes we need that kind of preaching.
And you just did.
I love reading you Emily, I really do.

Lory said...

Wow. How I love your heart! I have found myself on both sides of the pulpit (or Sunday school stool...)

I would caution you not to sell your words short in thinking they only apply to Southern Baptist preachers....anyone who preaches the Word of God (as in Jesus, see John SS focus right now!) needs to hear these pleas.

For too long, church leaders have been quick to exclude the majority of their congregations by simple word choice. May we be voices for those whom had voices Jesus heard.

Love you.

Debbie Kaufman said...

*Warning: Off Topic

Since you have not posted yet, and I think it's due to your graduation victory celebrations, I just wanted to be the first to congratulate you. I think it is wonderful and all your hard work has just now begun to pay off. Lives will be changed because of your letting God use you Emily. I just know that to be true.

Rex Ray said...

“He reached for a towel instead of rising to a throne.”

I’m afraid a lot of pastors desire it to be the other way around by wanting to be a CEO.

Since our 39 year-old pastor doesn’t read your blog, this 75 year-old keeps trying to ‘teach’ him to stop thinking of servants of the church as HIS.

He keeps saying, “My deacons, my ushers etc.” Last week he said, “I have two converts to be baptized.”

Every Sunday he says “When we have prayer, you will be free to go.” And after prayer, he says, “You are dismissed.”

Every time I get on him, he agrees with me, but for some reason, he can’t stop. Any suggestions?

He and I are writing up our first by-laws (to be voted on) our 60 year old church has ever had. That is a real struggle. For starters, he wants only a male to be pastor.

BTW, congratulations on your masters.

Paul said...

I really like a statement Chris Erdman writes in his book on preaching, Countdown To Sunday. He tells us to "open a vein and bleed for God."

Regarding your suggestions, I'm happy I can say that I do much better than I used to but am reminded that I can still do better.

Thanks, Emily.