One of the biggest draw backs of being a pastor is that in many ways we retreat from the shared frontline of the very congregation we are to equip for ministry. Instead of being in the office, building site, classroom, warehouse or shop floor we find ourselves in the church building or spending most of our time meeting with believers in their, or our, homes. There’s a subtle creeping danger with that.
It is that we prepare sermons that equip people to live out their faith in our working week, not theirs. We answer the theological questions that we are aware of in our reading, not the issues they face of hostility and opposition, stress and pressure. We preach about the problems other pastors share with us in their churches rather than being aware of the factors pushing against discipleship on our congregations frontlines. So many of our congregations are facing outright hostility because of their biblical beliefs, not because they’ve expressed them badly but because our society sets up a false dichotomy and conflict with Christians. They face conflict at home. Resentment because their faith pulls them away from their families and their expectations. They are under pressure at work to adopt a public persona, to leave their faith in the glove compartment when they park the car. They are expected to teach what they are told to teach regardless of their conscience, the millstone of professional standards weighs heavy on many in professional jobs. And then there is all the pressure everyone is under and the added anxiety of navigating society, work, family in a pandemic that seems to just rumble on.
As we preach we need to be aware of those very issues. Don’t assume you’re aware of them because you spoke to someone for 5 minutes over coffee after the service, that will just have scratched the surface of the presentable problems and pressures. We need to dig deeper to discover the pressures and fractures, the things that are pulling against their faith, that make discipleship hard. And those issues need to be addressed, or our congregations will gradually assume the Bible has nothing to say to them, that it is about your week not theirs. They need to see that the very issues they face are the issues the Bible so often addresses for the Israelites and the early church. But are we as pastors aware of those issues? Could you honestly tell me where those pressure points are for your church family? Who is particularly feeling which pressures at the moment? How they are manifesting themselves and how people are responding?
I’m increasingly challenged that I need to get out of the Christian rabbit warren and into the real world. It’s why I still serve as a governor in the local Primary School, so I face some of those same pressures, not daily but I’m at least aware of some of them in that specific context. It’s why time to meet and walk and talk with those in our church families is so key. It’s why elders that are investing in and aware of families in church and supporting them where they are under pressure – who can in love feed that into elders meetings for prayer and wider support are worth their weight in gold.
What if the thing that would improve your sermon most wasn’t another hour or two in the office, or with the commentaries, or listening to whoever your go to preacher is on that passage. but a deeper awareness of the connection points between the Bible and the life of your congregation that resulted in prayed through application to those in our flock? That doesn’t magically happen, it doesn’t come through reading about social trends, or scanning social media, it comes from shepherding – spending time living life alongside those in our care.