Thanks so much for your letters. Sorry I haven’t been able to write back for a while. I tore a tendon in my right hand and it is only now healing enough that I can type.
My most recent letters to you were about your preaching class, so this new question fits in quite well.
Someone has encouraged you to preach (whether once or regularly, I do not know) at the local Rescue Mission. Should you do it?
I think that it depends on what it is you think you would be doing as a preacher in that particular context. And whether you are up to it — or at least up to doing it well at this phase of your preaching journey.
Preaching at the Rescue Mission
Rescue Missions vary I am sure. But a number of things make preaching at the Rescue Mission extremely challenging.
- Sometimes the attendees are under pressure to attend (with the worst-case scenario being that attendance is a condition of receiving a meal) — unlike the typical congregation where at least the grown ups attend by choice.
- You might find everyone in the pews is an adult male — unlike the typical congregation with its mix of genders and ages.
- Typically most of those listening would be transient — unlike the typical congregation where you can assume most members are there for the long haul.
- The commitments of those in the room are likely to vary widely — unlike the typical congregation where people lean more or less the same direction theologically.
The one thing you can count on is that the members of your congregation at the mission are financially poor, and probably having a very hard time in many aspects of their lives.
One truly excellent preacher I know accepted an invitation to preach at a mission. By her choice of text and illustrations and tone she tried to show compassion for the challenges she saw in the lives of those in that room. And yet she found that the sermon completely missed its mark for many.
- Was it a problem for a middle class highly educated person to imply that she could understand the struggles of homeless men?
- Was she too theological sophisticated?
- Was it simply that she was a woman in ministry?
Hard to say.
The rescue mission is a place that really needs and deserves good preaching. But even for an experienced preacher it is hard to know where to target the sermon. Different preachers will make different assumptions –all fraught with potential problems.
- Some will come in with an evangelistic sermon — but it’s quite possible that the people in the pews are long-established disciples whose lives have simply hit a rough patch.
- Others might come in with a sermon aimed at helping disciples grow — but it’s just as possible that some in the pews have never really considered faith in Jesus Christ.
- Still others might come in with a sermon that reflects the heart of their own tradition, be it Baptist, Catholic, Calvinist, or Lutheran — but it’s quite likely that many of the people in the pews, even those with an active faith, are rooted in very different traditions.
Start with Preaching Where it is Easier
If you are preaching in an ordinary congregation it is frankly a great deal easier.
All those who have joined the church have professed faith in Jesus Christ. You do not have to start from an evangelistic perspective, aiming to win them to faith for the first time. You can focus on helping them take the next step of growth in faith and discipleship.
If you are pastoring a traditional sort of congregation you probably find yourself aiming to do some education over the long term, whether by preaching the lectionary texts to invite people into the wide range of biblical teaching, or whether you choose to preach in topical sermon series.
Learning Moves from Simple to Complex
Personally I always like to start with the simple and move to the complex. If I’m learning a new subject I start with an encyclopedia article and move progressively through other kinds of articles and books until I am ready for a complex discussion.
That’s why, in the case of preaching, I would recommend you start in the safest possible context. That’s probably your preaching class where everyone around you is also preaching their first sermon.
After that learn the ropes by preaching in a congregation you know quite well. That might be the church you grew up in, or a church in which you take a field education position.
If you take the time to hang around a bit, get to know a few people, get a sense of what their concerns are, you are much more likely to be able to communicate about the gospel and any given passage of Scripture in a way that will be understood and helpful.
Hone your skills. Grow in confidence. The mission will still need you after you’ve preached a few dozen ordinary sermons. But all that experience will help you preach more effectively in the mission.
That’s it for today! I need to rest this hand.