Years ago, I had a conversation with an especially gifted preacher. In another life, he would have been a successful stand-up comedian. In fact, he studied comedians in order to learn how to engage with an audience while preaching. He also understood biblical and theological concepts with depth and could explain them with creativity to skeptical crowds. His church had expanded to several locations across the region and even the country by broadcasting his recorded sermons rather than featuring local, in-person preachers. I’ll never forget his rationale. He said it didn’t make sense to give the people a B- preacher when they could have an A preacher like himself. If his goal was to amass a large personal following, I couldn’t argue with him.
But as I reflected later, I realized that his argument proved too much. In the scenario he suggested, he wasn’t competing only against his junior pastors and interns. He was competing against every other preacher, dead or alive. Why not play recordings of an A+ preacher, such as Billy Graham? What if churches across the English-speaking world hired an actor to perform the best of Charles Spurgeon? Maybe we could compile a tournament bracket of the kind used for college basketball playoffs and ask Christians to vote, round by round, on their favorite preacher until we settled on one orator to rule them all. Then no one would be subject to a B- (or worse) preacher ever again. We’d get only the best—if that’s what God thinks is best for us.
But it’s not. The best preacher for you is the preacher who is faithful to God’s Word. Even better if he’s willing to meet you over coffee or visit you in the hospital. There’s a reason we don’t only read Scripture together in each worship service. Preaching brings the authority of God’s Word to bear, through the mediating personality and experience of the teacher, on a contemporary context with particular local and personal demands. The man I just mentioned might in fact be a better preacher than yours, but your preacher knows your church better. And that counts for a lot when it comes to applying the Bible to you and your congregation.
The best preacher for you is the preacher who is faithful to God’s Word.
To be sure, pastors can’t know all the intimate details of every person in their hearing. But there’s a reason so many pastors struggled to preach into a camera during the COVID-19 lockdowns. They pray to sense the Spirit’s moving in our real-time reactions to their preaching. When they see us eye to eye, the Spirit calls to their minds comfort for our woes. There are many reasons a church should not dim the lights over the congregation during worship services, as if emulating a concert or movie theater. And this is one of them: so that pastors can respond with sensitivity to the prompting of the Spirit in the act of preaching.
Time and Space
In the end, preaching isn’t just about transmitting information. If that were the only goal, then it would no longer be the most efficient means to do so. We could move to video, podcasts, or even just books and cut out the worship service altogether. Yet hearing the sermon isn’t just about you and your personal walk with Jesus. It’s also about shaping a heavenly culture and building a heavenly city in your very church. It’s about shaping a life together.
Two things happen with live, in-person teaching that can’t be replicated on a podcast with a pastor you’ll never know personally. First, the congregation and the preacher together experience preaching as a communal event in time and space. Yes, there’s value in applying a sermon alone in our devotional reflections. But there’s even more value in applying it to us together as a people. Together we bring the sermon to life in how we treat one another throughout the week. Also, remember, the preacher isn’t finally “over” us. He’s one of us, and he participates with us in being shaped together by God’s Word as a new city. The sermon casts a vision from God’s Word for a particular people in a particular place, as they have covenanted together to obey God and love one another.
Together we bring the sermon to life in how we treat one another throughout the week.
That said, second, the preacher’s example and personality set a tone for the whole congregation. Preachers understandably get scared when they realize how their churches will take on their own weaknesses as well as strengths. When I was learning in seminary about how to preach, my professor offered sobering words. He told me that over the years my congregation would probably not remember the actual words I said. Rather, God would shape a church through both my words and also my example of godliness and integrity over time. The preacher’s character and message meld together, and, by the power of the Spirit, hearers are changed by those words, even if they don’t always remember them. And that’s common for teaching, not just preaching. We don’t typically remember our best teachers just for their knowledge. We remember their wisdom alongside their gifting to communicate and their love for us personally.
So as you rediscover church, look for preachers who love you enough that they know how to both cut and stitch you up as necessary, like a good surgeon. Look for ones who know they derive their authority from the King of kings, whose good news and counsel they proclaim. They don’t just want a slice of your paycheck. They aim to set an example for you and not merely impress you with their learning and charisma.