November 17, 2009
Preaching for the Nod
It's easy it is to “speak prophetically” when you know it's what people want to hear.
Every once in a while I find myself preaching for the nod. That’s when we try to hard wire a bit of ego-stroke into a Sunday morning message. We do it a lot, and it’s so easy—insert that small comment, that little aside, or even that main point that we know will appeal to the sensibilities of certain listeners. You know, the left-leaning (or right leaning) political comment. The doctrinal aside that scratches the itch of that person so prone to give up the "Amen" or the vigorous head nod.
Preaching for the nod has less to do with what we see in the biblical text and more to do with what we want people to see in us. And there lies the danger.
The most God-centered, John Piper-esque sermon or community-centered dialogical discussion can be completely me-centered if my intention is to get certain people to tell me, “Good words today, Pastor!” If my intention is to get certain people to see me as sufficiently hip and relevant (or standing against the tide of culture), or progressive (or appropriately conservative), or doctrinally adventurous (or steadfastly orthodox), then I have traded the proclamation of God's Word for the proclamation of myself, regardless of how I dress it up.
And all for that little nod.
Man, it's like a drug—the rush of agreement, of assent, of affirmation. Many of us would sell our souls for it. And some of us do.
And the problem is not only how easy it is, but how right it feels.
When I pastored in the Netherlands in the late 1990s, one of the big issues in our church was that the senior pastor didn't give a “gospel invitation” every week, as some of the old hands in the church wanted him to. I totally agreed with the pastor that good, text-based and God-centered proclamation was preaching the Gospel, even if there wasn't an invitation shoe-horned into and behind every message.
But it was easy for me to include that little gospel invite on those weeks, every couple of months, when I was preaching. It was a total win-win. I told myself I was preaching the gospel (a good thing, right?), some of the people got to hear what they wanted, and I got affirmation from a notoriously hard-to-please group within our church. Hey, "whether from good motives or bad," right?
The problem was, sermon prep began to be less and less about hearing from God and more about crafting statements of appeasement. It's not like I didn't mean those invitations, but...insert a slippery slope metaphor here.
In fact, I still feel myself slipping at times.
I pastor a church that holds its Sunday gathering in a pub. So, we see a different kind of folk than your average First Baptist or Second Methodist. Burned by “church,” usually more politically and socially liberal, they often come—just like everyone else—evaluating all the words spoken and sung, looking for reasons why they might or might not "fit" with our community.
And it's so easy to slip from speaking in a way that is accessible to those we are trying to love into our community and instead speak in a way that is attractive to them. You know, making sure they understand that, yes, it's church, but we're not like those churches.
We have a broad spectrum of political and religious views in our community—Republicans and Democrats and socialists and libertarians, people who come from evangelical and mainline backgrounds or no church background at all. It's something I love about Evergreen. But I have found myself, in our short history, throwing in the occasional anti-Bush comment. Or taking a poke at Joel Osteen. And if I am honest (and I'm trying to be), my motives are usually more about being seen as progressive—a Christian but not like those Christians. But more and more I'm recognizing just how misguided that is. How cheap and easy it is to “speak prophetically” when you know it's what people love and want to hear.
And if there's anything I don't want to be as a pastor, it's cheap or easy.