How the laity can encourage good preaching, including on abortion

By The Rev. Paul T. Stallsworth, President, Taskforce of United Methodists on Abortion and Sexuality

Editor’s note. This is a presentation made by Rev. Stallsworth at a workshop titled “Providing Support and Leadership in Churches” held June 29 at the 2018 National Right to Life Convention which took place in Overland Park, Kansas. The workshop is put on annually by the National Religious Pro-Life Council. Fr. Frank Pavone is, in addition to being National Director of Priests for Life, also the President of the National Religious Pro-Life Council.

Father Pavone, you probably assigned the various topics to the various presenters in this workshop. So, you asked me to provide “examples of how to encourage good preaching.” Me? Giving a how-to speech? On encouraging good preaching? You gotta be kidding!

Well, it is too late to request a change of topic. So here goes. (In the interest of brevity, in what follows, I will refer to all preachers as if they are men. There are, of course, many exceptions.)

Begin with this stipulation: there is a lot of bad preaching going on out there in the churches. Bad preaching lacks truth, love, and/or courage.

Bad preaching has a truth deficit. It turns away from the Triune God of the Bible, the Church’s creeds, and the churches’ doctrine. If bad preaching does speak about God, it speaks about “a God without wrath [who] brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” (H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America [Harper Torchbooks, 1959], p. 193).

This is the promiscuous god who accepts everything in human experience — including abortion — in the name of “grace.” This seems to be the god of people who take their cues from The Today Show and Oprah.com.

Also, bad preaching avoids God altogether. Then it speaks only about humanity, humanity’s capabilities, and humanity’s responsibilities — not about humanity’s sins.

Bad preaching has a problem not only with truth but also with love. Bad preaching can arise out of discontent or anger. Then the one in the pulpit behaves like he is dissatisfied with, or mad at, his congregation. Bad preaching does not demonstrate love to its hearers, and it seldom uses the word love.

Other bad preaching demonstrates a problem with love by debasing the meaning of love. It assumes love is nothing more than sentimentality or good feelings. It avoids like the plague the Biblical notion that true agape love sacrifices for the good of the other.

Bad preaching can be short on truth, on love, and on courage. It does not require courage within the preacher. Its sermons are so vanilla, so bland, that courage is not required to write them or to preach them.

Bad preaching. No truth! No love! No courage!

So how can you, followers of Christ and members of Christ’s churches, discourage bad preaching and encourage good preaching? Answer: by working for an increase in truth, love, and courage in the preaching of your pastor. Here are some suggestions for doing that.

First, do not see yourself as a critic standing outside your congregation and over against your pastor. Picture yourself, as a member of the Body of Christ, in the congregation and with the pastor. Understanding yourself as part of the local church, and with the pastor, affects all the suggestions that follow.

Second, regularly attend the Services of Worship at your local church. Do not attend only when you feel like it. Be extraordinarily faithful in worship attendance.

Third, during the sermon, listen to the preaching and look at the preacher. Do not sit in the sanctuary and look down at your darned smart phone. Make affirming eye contact with the preacher.

Fourth, when the preacher proposes the truth, in love and with courage, offer the preacher your heartfelt thanks. You can do this at the conclusion of the worship service or during that week.

Fifth, if your pastor never mentions abortion and the life issues, you should suggest to him, in love, that he return to the sources — that is, investigate the teaching of his own denomination and the Church catholic. Also, you could give him a copy of “An Ecumenical Confession for Life” by the National Pro-life Religious Council (NPRC). In these resources, he will find that what the Church has to say about abortion always includes both God’s forgiveness of our sins and God’s command to protect innocent human lives — that is, both Gospel and Law.

Sixth, remind your pastor that his calling from God is to propose the truth of the Gospel to his congregation. (Note: his calling is not to be liked by the church he serves.) His responsibility is not to impose Gospel truth on anybody. What his church members do with what is proposed to them — affirm, reject, or remain undecided — is on them.

Seventh, communicate occasionally with your pastor. Use these opportunities to thank him for faithfulness in his preaching and to build him up where there is weakness in his preaching. Take him to lunch. Give him a telephone call. Send him a note or an email. Do not overwhelm him, and never become isolated from him.

Eighth, bring to your pastor’s attention the words of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which were often paraphrased by the late Father Richard John Neuhaus: Those whom you would change you must first love, and they must know that you love them. Your preacher, with God’s help and in God’s time, can and will preach the truth in love with courage.

Ninth, discuss with your pastor those from the Church’s Great Tradition who stood up and preached Gospel truth in difficult times and places. Moses. The prophets. Our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. St. Peter. St. Paul. The apostles. Augustine. Martin Luther. John Calvin. John Wesley. Karl Barth. Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Martin Luther King, Jr. Richard John Neuhaus. God gave them courage. God can give your preacher courage.

Tenth, offer to help your pastor prepare a sermon on life and abortion. Or perhaps you could volunteer to preach a sermon on the same topic, and set a good example.

In some congregations, the preacher’s sermons are greeted with shouts of “Amen!” and “Preach it, brother!” What is going on there? Congregations are encouraging good preaching from their preachers. You can, and should, do the same — in many different ways.