During Advent we remember John the Baptist proclaiming the baptism of repentance in preparation for the coming of the Lord. At Christmas, we celebrate the angels proclaiming the birth of Christ to shepherds in the field. After the Epiphany, we often focus on Jesus going forth to proclaim the Kingdom of God.
Does your church lack vision of what Christ desires to and can accomplish through your church? Does your church excuse itself from intentionally reaching new people for Christ because members say ‘we have enough people and we are paying our bills’? Has your church left its passionate ‘first love’ for Jesus Christ? Or is your church’s sole motivation for outreach so that your church can keep paying the bills?
If the above questions fit your church, then the seasons of Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany provide an opportunity to preach Jesus Christ afresh.
First, Remember, You’re Called to Proclaim.
Your God given call to the ministry of preaching was affirmed through either ordination or license. With such authorization comes the mandate to order the life of the church in a spiritually healthy fashion. As pastors, we accomplish this by the due administration of the sacraments, the preaching of the Word of God, and leading the community of faith in ministry to others.
Preaching is one of our most valuable opportunities to enhance the wholeness of the congregation. Sermons that relate the coming of Christ and Jesus’ earthly ministry to the life and ministry of a local church naturally lean toward a narrative style. Such communication not only addresses the heart, mind, and behavior but also relationships and spirituality.
Second, Proclaim the Word.
John Wesley called for building up the body of Christ through living the faith, proclaiming the pure Word of God, and administering the sacraments. Wesley believed that three things were essential to a living church:
First: Living faith; without which, indeed, there can be no Church at all, neither visible nor invisible. Secondly: Preaching, and consequently hearing the pure word of God, else that faith would languish and die. And, thirdly, a due administration of the sacraments, —the ordinary means whereby God increaseth faith. (“Works, Vol. 8” 38)
One can deduce from Wesley’s view that the Church lives by the pure proclamation of the Bible. John Albert Bengel, Wesley’s contemporary, wrote,
Scripture is the foundation of the Church: the Church is the guardian of Scripture. When the Church is in strong health, the light of the Scripture shines bright; when the Church is sick, Scripture is corroded by neglect; and thus it happens, that the outward form of Scripture and that of the Church, usually seem to exhibit simultaneously either health or else sickness; and as a rule the way in which Scripture is being treated is in exact correspondence with the condition of the Church. (1:7)
Third, Preach Christ.
Preaching can rekindle the spark of health within a church. It can help people regain a biblical vision of the gracious coming of Jesus and Christ’s mission in the world. A renewed vision of the nature and mission of the church biblically begins with a renewed focus on God’s free gift of Jesus at Christmas and his earthly ministry in the season following the Epiphany.
God’s love for the whole world was demonstrated in the Word made flesh in Bethlehem. Jesus’ earthly ministry not only demonstrated God’s love. It also illustrated the continuation of Jesus’ ministry through his body—the church. To state this truth theologically, at the heart of a renewed ecclesiology is revived Christology. [Although not part of this article, I've provided a chart below that relates ecclesiology and the various subsystems of the church.]
Fourth, Offer Your Best to God.
Churches need preaching with quality and excellence. Such preaching is far more complicated and difficult to do than the deductive preaching of a previous generation. Today’s unique difficulty in performing a sermon with skill for the sake of ministering to people involves communications style.
Both churched and unchurched people find themselves bombarded by quality communication all week long. Whenever pastors preach sloppy and careless sermons, we lose both personal integrity and much spiritual influence. God calls us who preach to live a life actively pursuing personal spiritual integrity, doctrinal faithfulness, and effective communication.
Preaching today calls for a relational style. As Calvin Miller writes in his book, Market Place Preaching, “A well planned extemporaneous sermon that has done its homework will serve best” (47). Otherwise, a preacher will lose the relational force that is not available to the manuscript preacher. As Miller proposes, “Extemporaneity welds audience and communicator together” (49).
Such a relational style calls for preaching conversationally without either notes or pulpit. Preaching without notes or pulpit strengthens the conversational delivery style of sermons.
When God sent the ultimate communication of his love and grace, he sent his Son in the flesh at Christmas. When God inspired the writing of the New Testament, the Holy Spirit moved people to write in everyday koine instead of academic Greek.
God desires to communicate his truth, grace, and love to every generation in ways they can understand. Those called of God to preach carry a like passion for communication. Those who seek to communicate the truth trust the Holy Spirit to use communication aids in the act of proclamation.
Fifth, Return to The Spiritual Dynamic.
Today’s postmodern culture calls for a return to the spiritual foundation of pastoral ministry through preaching and worship. Our modern culture led many to ignore and others to forget that preaching is a spiritual business. With the post-modern media impact of “Star Trek” and “Star Wars”, people are more open to the ideas of spirituality and spiritual warfare.
Before Jesus ascended back into heaven following his resurrection, he told his disciples to wait until the Holy Spirit empowered them to be his witnesses throughout the world. Those who preach and lead worship in today’s culture need the Holy Spirit’s empowering, indwelling, inspiration, and instruction for effective ministry.
Jesus also told his disciples that as the Father had sent him, so sent he them into the world. The Bible tells us that the Father sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world, but to save it. It is crucial in this postmodern age that our preaching and worship leadership shares this same compassionate focus on salvation and not the judgmental focus on condemnation.
One day in a synagogue in Nazareth, Jesus read from Isaiah 61:1-3. The same Spirit of the Lord who anointed Jesus for his earthly ministry also anoints us who preach and lead worship.
We need to ask the question, “What can we expect God to do through our preaching and leadership of worship in these postmodern times?” We can expect the Holy Spirit to provide our motivation to proclaim God’s Word in evangelism, worship, in teaching opportunities, in pastoral counseling, in visitation, and in church business meetings.
The poor, captive, blind and bruised of our postmodern world is our market both within and outside of the church. We can expect Jesus to minister through us to bring release, sight and liberation to others.
Postmodern people hunger for authentic spirituality in those who preach, play music, or lead worship. Such a postmodern theology of preaching and worship calls not only for pastors to be spiritual guides of their own souls, but also of those on the entire worship team (Liesch).
Holding together personal spiritual integrity, the faith once delivered, and effective communication techniques is the narrow road that God calls us preachers to walk. Biblical performance means preaching using the techniques of speaking without resting one's trust solely in them. For pastors to powerfully perform sermons with skill that meets people’s needs, we must draw deeply from both our spiritual calling and culture of our society.
Sixth, Well Planned Extemporaneous Narrative Preaching
My own pastoral experience in preaching a series of church health sermons and testing for their impact demonstrated their impact as a wake up call for the congregation. [Although not part of this article, I've provided a chart below of my church health sermons. The chart includes the Scripture, Title and Theme of each sermon)
A greater response on the church health scale with the increase in number of sermons heard demonstrated that individuals mature in faith over time. As the personal wholeness of each person is integral to church health, it also strengthens in maturity over time.
I was not surprised that Positive Emotional Appeal registered the most significant change of the four sermon elements. This scale could also be called the “Gospel-Driven Emotional Process!”
My commitment to present church health in a positive light grew out of an important recognition. The Gospel of God’s free grace in Jesus Christ is central to church health. In addition, the Gospel is God’s good news in a bad news world.
This choice also reflects the commitment to a whole person approach. A negative or bad news approach easily leads into work righteousness, escalated conflict, shame and condemnation and sometimes increases the very pathology in need of healing.
Leading a church toward better health through well planned extemporaneous narrative preaching divides into two parts: the sermons themselves and the impact upon the lives of those who hear them.
My dissertation project stretches one’s view of narrative preaching as more than just an effective communication technique to address the whole person. Biblically speaking, stories, more than lectures, are effective means of gracefully proclaiming biblical truth for a whole-person response in developing a healthy church.
Thomas Oden goes so far in his book, The Transforming Power of Grace, to say that the truth of God’s grace is best communicated through stories (22). My study indicates that sermons on church health have a positive impact when they focus on God’s grace in addressing the whole person through stories.
The narrative sermons over eight weeks demonstrated what I wished to demonstrate, i.e., preaching matters, and it has impact in the lives of the people and the system of a congregation.
Seven, More Than Preaching Alone.
While God works through preaching as a wake up call concerning church health, a more intimate pastoral ministry is called for. Such maturity in grace comes better in small group and one-on-one discipleship than through mass discipleship.
As Wayne Oates’ book, Behind the Masks: Personality Disorder in Religious Behavior, states pointedly:
The mass approaches to religion, as well as the mass approaches to the rest of the education of the individual, lacked the power of personal confrontation, the concern with transformation, or the wisdom needed to discern that anything was really out of the ordinary. (108)
My church health sermon outlines.
Bengel, John A. Gnomon of the New Testament. Ed. Andrew R. Fausset. Edinburgh: Clark, 1857-1858. 5 vols.
Crowe, John M. “Preaching for a Whole-Person Response in Developing a Healthy Church.” Diss. Asbury Theological Seminary, 2001.
Liesch, Barry. The New Worship. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1996.
Lindgren, Alvin, J. Foundations for Purposeful Church Administration. Nashville: Abingdon, 1979.
Miller, Calvin. Marketplace Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995.
Oates, Wayne E. Behind the Masks: Personality Disorders in Religious Behavior. Louisville: Westminster, 1987.
Oden, Thomas C. The Transforming Power of Grace. Nashville: Abingdon, 1993.
Stanger, Frank. God’s Healing Community. 1978. Nappanee, IN: Evangel Publishing House, 2000.
The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2000. Ed. Harriett Jane Olson. Nashville: The UM Publishing House, 2000.
The Holy Bible: The New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1978.
Wesley, John. “Works, Vol. 8.” The Master Christian Library Version 5. CD-ROM, Ages Software, 1997.
Rev. John Marshall Crowe, D.Min.
This is based on my article “Waking Up the Body” that appeared in the Fall 2002 publication of Sharing the Practice: The International Quarterly Journal for Parish Clergy. pg. 3-9