If you are looking for something new, then you can skip this post. But that leads me into my first point. One thing that was very freeing for me as a preacher was when I realized that I didn’t have to say something new each week. My goal isn’t to tell people something they don’t already know, but to remind them of what most of them know already. In the same spirit, this post offers nothing you don’t already know. But my suspicion is that you probably need to hear it more than anything new anyway.
Over the last seven years of ministry a lot of things have changed at my church. New people, new leadership, new ministries and strategies. We’ve even changed our vision statement and are working to more succinctly craft our current vision. But central things that haven’t changed, and with each passing year I become more and more convinced that these should never change, are our core values. We have three core values. Gospel-Centered, Community-Oriented, and Outwardly-Faced. I doubt you are writing these down. I doubt you are Googling them to find out what they mean. You already know these and might be living them out in your church better than mine is. But, if these are values we take seriously, what is important for us to remember is that they must permeate everything we do—including our preaching. So to put it succinctly—all preaching should be Gospel-Centered, Community-Oriented, and Outwardly-Faced.
To begin with, all preaching should be outwardly-faced or missional. Now, again, this revolutionary is obviously not revolutionary. I’m not blowing any minds with the novelty of this idea. But what has recently blown my own mind is realizing that I’m not nearly as good at it as I thought I was. There is definitely an art to reaching out without dumbing it down (to steal the title from a book I’ve never read) which I suspect more of us think we have mastered than actually have. I used to think that I had cultural sensitivity down. But as I’ve looked more carefully at my preaching I’ve realized I still have a long way to go. For example, a couple of things I’ve noticed are that though my words don’t usually come across as arrogant, sometimes my tone does. Also, sometimes when I think I’m just being funny, I’m also being somewhat condescending. And despite my attempt to do away with Christianease and really explain concepts well, I still find that I fall back on slogans and clichés in ways that end up muddying the message even for the regular church attender. For you it might be other issues altogether. My goal isn’t to try to explain how to preach missionally. As I’ve already said, I now realize I’m less qualified to speak on the matter than I once thought I was. But what I’m more qualified to say is that I’ve come to realize how unqualified I am to speak on the matter!—and I would encourage you to take a hard look at your own preaching and see if you are similarly unqualified, as it is the necessary first step to becoming more qualified.
Secondly, all preaching should be community-oriented. My wife sometimes asks me why I married her. Not because she thinks I married the wrong person, but because she wonders sometimes why I ever got married at all. She thinks I could have been a monk. And she’s probably right. Only the most amazing woman in the world was able to pull me out of singleness . She’s right. I could have been a monk., and I don’t mean Augustinian or Benedictine with the whole communal-living monastery thing. I mean Simon-the-Stylite style. Put me on top of a Roman pillar with an e-reader and wifi connection to my local library; have someone at the bottom tie some food to a rope 3 times a day for me to pull up and I could happily break Simon’s 37-year record. But, what I’ve discovered is that most people aren’t like me. In fact, I’ve discovered that I’m not even like me. I’ve built community around me because as a pastor it is part of my job description. But actually, I’ve come to realize how much better my life is with other people in it. We all know this—and even from a missional standpoint it’s important, since these days people need to “belong before they will believe.“ (Bet you’ve never heard that one before either.) Again—this idea is nothing new. But you may have forgotten, as I frequently do, the importance of regularly using your preaching to drive this concept home. Anytime I can find a way to name-drop my community group I go for it, even if the point I’m making has nothing to do with community. No doubt there’s a chicken-and-the-egg thing going on here. The more the value of community really is embedded in your church and your own life, the more natural it will be to talk about it in your preaching—but being intentional about it will help get the ball rolling.
So all preaching should be outwardly-faced, community-oriented and finally, gospel-centered. I reversed the order because I wanted to save the best for last. I love saving the best for last. Perhaps in a later post I’ll talk about inductive preaching—which is all about saving the best for last. I love saving the Gospel for the end. It doesn’t always work to do it this way with every sermon. Sometimes tying in the Gospel last seems forced. So I don’t put it at the end every time. But when it works out—I always go for it. One of my leaders sits in the front row (not the actual front row because unless your church is packed, which mine isn’t, nobody sits in the front row). But she sits in the first seated row. And she’s very good at following my sermons. And she can tell quite early on when I’m building everything toward the Gospel. She gets this glimmer in her eye and a little smile on her face. Because she knows the best is coming. And the point is, even though she knows what’s coming, she still smiles. In fact, it’s precisely because she knows what’s coming that she smiles. Even more, it’s because she knows the Gospel is coming that she smiles. She smiles, because even though she knows it’s coming, she also knows we all need it more than anything. It almost seems cheap. It seems too easy. Sometimes I feel like more should be expected of me. Sometimes I think to myself “how can it be that I can say the same thing every week and the only time it isn’t a home run is when I don’t actually say the same thing?” Sometimes I feel like I’m living out the sequel to Groundhog Day. How can they possibly be acting like they’ve never heard this before? It’s ridiculous. But it’s true. Of course we always need to be looking for new ways to preach the Gospel. The Gospel is more than a formula that can be recited over and over. We always need to be looking for ways to unpack it with greater depth and apply it more broadly to different aspects of life. But in the end, if you forget to preach it entirely, it’s like Vanilla Ice forgetting to sing “Ice Ice Baby.”
Kevin Hanly is Pastor of River Vale Community Church located in northern New Jersey (35 minutes north of Manhattan). He and his wife Laura are blessed with two kids Grace (age 4) and Caleb (age 2). He holds an MDiv from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary and ThM in Church History from Princeton Seminary. In 1994 he fell one match short of playing Mark in the Wyoming state men’s tennis final where they planned to lead the crowd in gospel-centered devotionals during each changeover.