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.