An old farmer approached his pastor one spring day and said, “The Lord wants me to preach the sermon this next Sunday,” and so the pastor agreed.
The next Sunday, after the farmer had finished, everyone in the church grumbled that it was the worst sermon any of them had ever heard. So the pastor pulled the old farmer aside and asked, “Whatever made you think the Lord wanted you to preach?”
“Well, I had a dream the other night. The clouds in the sky had formed the letters, PC, Preach Christ.”
“Well…” said the pastor, “Maybe the Lord meant for you to Plant Corn.”
I finally stopped preaching about three months ago, after 49 years of continuous sermons: Sunday mornings, afternoons, and evenings, retirement centers, funerals, weddings, guest appearances, revivals, church camps, protest marches, prayer meetings, Christmas Eves, COVID broadcasts, radio sermons, Chinese gatherings… Regarding some of those sermons: we all might have been more edified had I planted corn instead. One does not preach 6200 times without delivering plenty of clunkers.
The only time I preached the same material twice was if I preached several places on the same day. That meant I prepared about 3000 different sermons in my career. Those prepared talks averaged 2500 words apiece, meaning I wrote (or dictated) the equivalent of a 240 page non-fiction book every six months—98 books in 49 years. None of it exactly publishable. (Although some of it perhaps punishable!)
A few years back I began to sense the clouds forming the letters SP: Stop Preaching. Part of that was God’s mercy, for my fatigue and for my congregations. My sermons were getting longer as I was getting older… more and more to say, but too much for a sermon. It was time to take what was in my mind and work it into different venues: novels, non-fiction books, articles, board games, conversations over lunch with my friends… Ideas that grew in the solitude of the pastor’s study needed enriched by more dialogue with others: about the Bible, politics, things we fear, things we desire, the future of the institutional church, the future of democracy, international complexities…
It was also time for me to stop preaching so I could devote myself more fully to those younger colleagues still in the trenches. I think I can be useful.
The fact is, preaching has developed a bad reputation. Churches all over the country want better preachers, and can’t find them. Denominational officials constantly whine about the dearth of even average preachers to deploy. It’s the chicken and egg debate all over again: What came first, the decline of good preaching or the decline of market-demand for sermons? We’re in a downward spiral, and a quarter of a million preachers in this country are trapped in it.
Ironically, even the humblest pastor gets egotistical about preaching. When we hear that preaching in in decline, we always think we are the exception. And the people we trust most seem never to disabuse us of that illusion.
To preach is to alert people: hopefully about something relevant, hopefully about something good, hopefully about not having to do all the heavy lifting alone, hopefully about God, sort of.
Lofty words about preaching, however, do nothing to spare the preacher the gritty chores of the looming sermon, week after week. It gets to you. You remember last Sunday’s congregation and recall the vast apathy in their eyes, come alert only when they sensed you pivoting into your conclusion. You notice too many empty pews and know the names of those who have left the church since your arrival. You feel a deep tiredness when it's time to start work on the next sermon. You fumble to find your next text or topic, or get aggravated at the assigned texts in the lectionary. You get overwhelmed with the Bible itself, an intellectual swamp… except for those occasional passages where you can get a foothold. (And then what can you say about them, since everyone else understands them as readily as you do?) You have no idea what to do about the criticisms that leak your way: “I’m not being fed.” “You don’t preach The Bible.” “You tell the same stories over and over.” “Your sermons are above our heads.” “I go to church to feel good about myself but all you do is leave me feeling guilty.” “Too much politics in your sermons.” “Not enough about social issues in them.” “You’re too liberal.” "Too conservative.” “I have no idea what the sermon was about.” “Your sermons are disorganized… have no substance… have too many points… too long… boring”…
The complaints might have some truth to them. Yet they often baffle you… and in truth are frequently self-serving, merely parroted, or not at all what is really bothering people.
The critiques of researchers and supervisors can be harder to dismiss. We are told of a sharp decline in the quality of preaching, nationwide. “Poor preaching” is the number one complaint of parishioners. We are told that preachers are often clueless about the real lives and needs of their listeners. Many folks believe the “preaching voice” is dishonest, presumptuous, and judgmental… sensing the preacher lacks personal transparency and authenticity… that preachers presume they know more about God and real life than the people in the pews… that preachers are judgmental about their own pet “sins” but hypocritical about even more serious matters.
It’s tough out there in those pulpits. Every one of them is floating in shark infested waters, and some of the sharks are swimming around inside our own heads. Thus, I think I’ve been called to Stop Preaching! …and lend my colleagues a hand, an ear... lend them my imagination and my voice and my empathy.
I didn’t retire to stop doing ministry. I retired so people wouldn’t boss me around so much. I retired so I could be get on with being a Christian, because if you have to be a working pastor, there’s no way you can get away with being a Christian half the time!
And so, this month I began one of my retirement dreams, working on The Local Preacher Project. (my working title) I feel a bit like a clown, trying to conjure this. But I’ve got some pretty solid ideas, even if they do sound off-beat at first. I just need a few teammates at this point: to look over what I’ve got, to argue with me, to nurture my thinking, to partner with me in turning this into something that might be valuable to folks still preaching.
If this “altar call” resonates with you, click here and let me know. Meanwhile, I’ve got four garden beds out back just in case the Lord actually meant for me to plant Sweet Potatoes.