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Preaching in Public

By November 14, 2017 10 Comments

Chewed up, spit up, barfed out.   Not a few preachers would tell you this is how it feels sometimes after preaching a sermon (and most particularly after enduring various comments at the church door afterwards).  Not every week.  I hope not.   But now and then . . .    This is something preachers know well, which is why I was immediately bowled over by my Google Image search of “pulpit.”   The image at the top of this post is the one that knocked me between the eyes.    This is actually a Baroque era pulpit from around 1750 in the Church of Saint Hedwig in Dobroszow, Poland.   It is a reference to the biblical story of Jonah, of course, and in this case it refers to Jonah’s being spit out of the whale SO THAT he could finally go preach to Nineveh.  But as I said, preachers today might have that sense of being spit out AFTER preaching now and again too.

If I had to guess, a lot of my colleagues feel like they are preaching from inside the mouth of a beast quite often just now.  And if they are lucky they will only get spit out now and then.   Other times the maw may just snap shut on them.

Earlier this year I had a blog on prayer.  I mentioned how perilous it can be to pray for public figures and events in these divisive and partisan days.  Pray for the President to be wise and some will lob the accusation that the preacher must think Trump is a fool.   Pray for the plight of immigrants and people will hear a defense of DACA.

But honestly, what is a preacher to do?   We preach in our churches but in the larger sense we are always preaching in public.   We cannot bracket out the larger world when we preach.  We ought not preach “timeless” sermons in the worst sense of the word in terms of being disconnected from this historical and cultural moment.  Yes, great caution and tremendous prudence is called for when applying God’s holy Word to any given crisis, event, situation, era.  The wise preacher is the one who will say on a semi-regular basis “I am not sure what God’s Word says about Situation X.”

True enough.  But we are living in a moment when the world could be on the brink of a catastrophic war that could leave the Korean peninsula a smoldering ember.  How can we not lament this in our preaching and plead for peace?  We are living in a moment when an allegation of a 32-year-old man fondling a 14-year-old girl is met by a blasphemous appropriation of no less than the parents of our Lord Jesus Christ.   How can we not call this out?   We are living in a moment–and in politics perhaps there have been few moments when this was not true to some degree–when easily exposed lies are dripping from the lips of officials at the highest level, including on a nearly daily basis by the President himself.  How can we not stand up for truth in front of our children and in our churches?   We are living in a moment when easy access to guns leads to horrific killings even inside the house of the Lord.   How can we not engage this when we gather before the Lord’s face?

Yes, I fear that all of it will land preachers in various places in hot water.   The whale’s mouth will snap closed around them to varying degrees.  And yes, some of my peers will say “Easy for him” as I have not been in a regular pulpit ministry for a dozen years now.  But we either have a prophetic voice in the church today or we allow our proclamation to be squelched by the partisan fix we’re in just now.   If the church fails to be a counter-witness to truth in the face of deception–and if the reason is because we fear those who are choosing partisanship over morality and even over the Gospel–then our public witness comes to a end.   A whimper and not a bang at that.

Again and with all due provisos: this cannot be done too quickly, too thoughtlessly, or itself in some manifestly partisan way from the other side.   Sometimes those of us who preach deserve the push-back we get.   Fair enough.  But as our world and as our society seem imperiled on multiple levels in late 2017, seldom has there been a time when the need for prophetic proclamation in public has been more urgent.

No one likes preaching from the mouth of the beast.  But put in historical perspective, there probably has never actually been any other way to preach.   It’s just that sometimes we notice the beast’s teeth a bit more than at other moments.


Scott Hoezee

Scott Hoezee is Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    Scott, I love you for this.

  • Fred Mueller says:

    Thank you, Scott, for verbalizing the preachers’ struggle. Thanks too for that incredible pulpit! It puts me in mind of the Whalemen’s Chapel in New Bedford in Moby Dick. The pulpit is always the prow – going first in the world. Always was, always will be. We must be careful when our “remarks” in preaching seem partisan. One need only hear a sermon taking a stand opposite our own to experience the pain and bafflement. This is not ducking the issue. In bellicose times we can always preach the Bible’s word on peace. I have said from the pulpit that the church has always believed everyone is entitled to health care. We need only consider how many of our hospitals are establish by churches. Even people vehemently opposed to the ACA agree with that. If we are consistent throughout the years in praying for wisdom and morality and righteousness and selfless service in our leaders, then no one can accuse us of being partisan or misusing the pulpit. Our communion liturgy has an excellent prayer that does this.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    “But honestly, what is a preacher to do?”

    Preach Christ. Keep it simple. Stick to the things of which you have assurance. Because you might be wrong about some of that political stuff.

    There’s a fine line between prophetic witness and Trump Derangement Syndrome. Have some grace for those of us who struggle with discerning the between the two.

  • Daniel James Meeter says:

    Von Allmen somewhere makes the remark that a preacher does not preach to the world, but to the congregation, but yet as the congregation has to deal with the world. Or something like that. As to only preaching Christ, I agree with that, but “Christ” carries lots more than the atonement, and “Lord” carries much more than “personal savior.”

  • Anne Weirich says:

    I have been preaching for a few years now in a rather red area of a red state (an intentional move on my part – as I bleed, quite liberally, very blue.) And I find that in a small red town, the pulpit is not the place for proclaiming the obvious (to me obvious) disconnect between the gospel and the news – except in general and strong terms supported by Scripture. Sometimes I’m accused by colleagues of being soft on the egregious and troubling stumblings of our nations and leaders and prejudices, I find that the pulpit is too much of a one way conversation for such topics. Where we really work on these things are in Sunday school class, Bible study, around the Thursday morning breakfast table at Dennys and the coffee shop and, of course, with the leadership. There are ways to preach directly and strongly – and those who do, deserve to be supported and affirmed. But a wise pastor I once served with always ended such sermons with words to this effect… “Now I may have upset some of you this morning with (fill in the blank.) And that deserves a conversation. So I’m going to be at the coffee hour – in the SE corner of the room – and anyone who wants to talk more, get some coffee and come see me right after church. Or stop by another time if that’s not good for you. Please, don’t be mad at your church. Be mad at me. I’m the one who is accountable for the content of my preaching. Let’s see if we can talk it through.” I have found that using a softer voice has been well recieved. And once trust was built up, we have moved quite a bit together into some new ways of understanding and openness to awareness and the need for transformation. It’s slow, true. But it’s sure. And as long as the prophetic is talked about elsewhere, I’ve felt quite good about this approach.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      These are good points, Anne, and well taken by me. The wider conversations are so important. Of course, they still begin with how we bring Scripture to bear on our lives in the pulpit. But you are right: we place too much of a burden on the sermon if we expect it to do all of the heavy lifting in the life of the congregation. As I wrote in reply to another commentator here, I mainly do not want it to be true of me or of others that just because we preachers are heard through some (at times) seriously partisan filters today is no reason to skirt around whole topics that the Bible itself addresses. The temptation is there, for instance, to say “Because praying for the President in this way or that way will get interpreted as my grinding an ax on one side or the other, I think I will opt not to pray for him at all as that feels safer.” And one can imagine avoiding certain biblical-theological topics these days for the same reason. But precisely so that the conversations can happen in the Fellowship Hall or at Denny’s, we can at least raise up in our preaching Christian lenses through which to try to view our world and our lives in it and then see where the Spirit takes it from there. Anyway, thanks for the comment.

  • Eric Van Dyken says:

    “We are living in a moment when an allegation of a 32-year-old man fondling a 14-year-old girl is met by a blasphemous appropriation of no less than the parents of our Lord Jesus Christ. How can we not call this out?”

    Rev. Hoezee,

    By all means, “call it out”, but keep in mind the following:

    1) If you intend to “call out” every public moral/ethical atrocity from the pulpit, you will quickly run out of time. Leading to —->

    2) Whether or not you chose to overtly politicize any particular moral issue, the issues you chose to “call out” or ignore will also send quite a political message. Whose immorality will you decry, and how vociferously? What will you judge to be so immoral so as to be worthy of your public denunciation?

    Such is also evident here in your blogging, not that this is wrong, just that it is quite evident. Wisdom would dictate that one should proceed with caution before regularly turning the pulpit into a soapbox from which to eternally flog the world outside the church being preached to for behaving badly. It is certainly unavoidable that some public/current events topics will arise in the course of normal preaching, but regular haranguing will serve little purpose other than to take the eyes of people off of Christ.

    • Scott Hoezee says:

      Dear Eric: I really appreciate your comments and agree with them mostly too. I don’t want any pulpits turned into soap boxes, either, and did not think I was suggesting this. And I don’t imagine it would be wise for any preacher to drag long lists of affronts into the pulpit on a regular basis (if ever). But one conviction I have is that over the long haul of a given pastor’s preaching, people’s moral and theological sensibilities get built up sermon by sermon. No one sermon is ever remembered long but the arc of preaching makes an impact. So it is less a full frontal assault on Person X’s behavior or Issue Y but rather an engagement week after week with core virtues, with classic ways of Christian thinking. I guess to be honest, when I see at least some in our wider evangelical circles who seem unable to bring the Gospel to bear on how to parse public figures and events or policies–or at least it’s not clear they are trying to be Christian first and then a Republican or Democrat or American second or third or fourth–I wonder how the church’s preaching has perhaps failed to help people think Christian. I guess my only other point in writing this blog is that these days, even the cautious preacher will be heard through (at times) fiercely partisan filters and get accused of preaching on truth-telling because there is some anti-Trump bias or something. When I was a preacher in the 1990s, people did not bat an eye at lots of things I might mention in a prayer or a sermon. But something changed after about the year 2000 and after 9/11. The acoustics changed. The same phrases that were regarded as innocent in the first 10 years of my preaching now got pounced on by some in my congregation as being all partisan. I just don’t want it to be true of me or of my colleagues that the fear of such accusations makes us hold back on engaging certain areas of Scripture and theology even when we take pains not to politicize it, mention public figures by name, etc. Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comments.

      • Eric Van Dyken says:

        I track you with you on all of that, and agree. My first reaction to *any* offense that I take from the pulpit should be to examine my own biases, loyalties, blind spots, and heart. It has often been said that I must come prepared for the Word to judge me, not the other way around.

        It is possible that some of the change that you notice since 2000 may be due to changes with yourself in how you view things, respond to things, and frame things, and phrase things. Preachers are not immune to the tribalism phenomenon.

        So long as we are each able to give and receive encouragement and exhortation from each other without retreating to foxholes and launching grenades, we will grow together as a body. Thanks for your response.

  • Tony Diekema says:

    Amen, Scott…………and Amen! Please keep teaching us all (especially laymen) how to “preach”.

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