Grace Focused Wesleyan Preaching | Mark Schnell

Wesleyans are doers. We always have been, starting with John Wesley himself. The whole of his life’s work staggers the mind. Wesleyans have followed his example through history. In the years since Wesley there have been revivals to preach, churches to plant, missions to open and always more work to be done. Yes, Wesleyans are doers, and that has been a good thing for the Kingdom as untold lives have been impacted for Christ’s sake. Wesleyan preaching has played a large role in this Kingdom work.

As great as it is to have the worker/doer gene built into our Wesleyan DNA, it has sometimes caused us Wesleyan preachers to place too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace. Instead of always making God the subject of our preaching, we sometimes have made it human responsibility. Instead of preaching about God’s amazing grace and the work of the Holy Spirit empowering heart transformation, we sometimes preached about effort and the will to overcome. In the past these ideas sometimes manifested as a focus in preaching that might be seen as legalistic. “If you want to be holy then don’t (insert your sin here)! If you want to be holy then make sure you start (insert religious action here)!” I’ve heard many sermons like this that equate being Godly with things I do or don’t do. With enough willpower I can be the holy person God wants me to be.

Sometimes placing too much emphasis on human effort and too little on God’s grace produces sermons that reduce the biblical narrative to moralistic tales with humanity as the subject. “If you want to be a good Christian, then be more like David.” “If you want to be a soul-winner then just love people like the Apostle Paul did.” In the story of David and Goliath, David is the hero because he stood up to a giant, instead of God being the hero who empowered him to act and who brought about the victory for Israel. In a sermon about soul winning like the Apostle Paul, we might reduce his ministry to action steps, that if simply duplicated will bring duplicate results.

Works Righteousness FistSermons that emphasize human responsibility over God’s grace might have titles like, “Five Ways to be a Soul Winner” or “How to Live a Successful Christian Life” or “Six Ways to be a Leader like Moses.” Don’t get me wrong, these might make excellent sermons and they might be greatly needed in a congregation. Yet if we are not careful, this kind of preaching can be unbalanced in its scope when it reduces holiness and discipleship to action steps and “how-to” guides. We must share the “how” as preachers, but even “how” cannot leave out “why” and “whom” if we want to avoid works-righteousness.

Preaching with imbalance between grace and responsibility instead of empowering people to live in the light of God’s love and leading them towards a Holy Spirit empowered holiness can foster a sense of failure. This failure can lead to a sense of hopelessness, a fear that holiness is not even possible. Consider this: If I preach that people can please God by conducting themselves a certain way, or shunning certain activities, and the people I preach to still struggle and fail after trying to keep those rules, they might be led to the conclusion that true holiness of heart and life is impossible on this side of heaven. I have reduced holiness to human willpower and I might as well tell people who are struggling in their faith to just try harder. Master preaching professor, Paul Scott Wilson, says that “many preachers persist in preaching messages that proclaim our condemnation as humans, for they sentence us to the limitations of our own accomplishments.”[i] If we preach messages that reduce holiness and Christian living to simply doing or not doing things, then we risk becoming what Wilson describes as preachers who “preach as though the resurrection of Christ makes no difference in the world.”[ii]

Mercy LaneBut the resurrection of Christ makes all the difference. Christ is the author and perfecter of our faith, not human will. I am encouraging us as Wesleyan preachers to focus our preaching more on grace and less on human responsibility — to always make the work of God the subject of our sermons.

You might be thinking, “Wait a minute! We are Wesleyan and that means we believe that somehow in the great mystery of salvation God has given humanity freewill. God has given us a part to play in the process.” You are absolutely right! God does give us a role to play, and doesn’t force his will on our lives. The grace of God doesn’t mean that, whether we want it or not, God pours holiness on us. Even though we know that salvation isn’t earned with works, what Christ has done for us and in us will result in action and life change. What’s more, there will often be things that Christians should do, and certain things they probably shouldn’t do. We should keep preaching that.

Hold on, you might be asking, “If we should focus our preaching on the grace of God, making God the subject of our preaching, and God somehow has also given us a level of responsibility in our faith, didn’t you just contradict yourself? Do you want us to preach grace or responsibility?” In a word, YES. We should preach both, but the difference is that we should never preach the latter without grounding it in the former. Do not preach responsibility without first preaching the grace of God that makes it possible. Even then, make sure responsibility itself is laced with grace. God is the one who starts our faith and God is the one who perfects it. He empowers it and makes it possible. If I preach about specific ways people can act on the sermon I should first preach about how God’s grace makes that response possible. If I preach on God’s call to holiness I must first preach of how holiness begins with God — we’re only holy because he is first holy and we can only hope to ever be like God through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.

Let’s consider a few ways that we might become preachers who preach grace, making God the subject of the sermon:

  1. Begin looking for God’s grace and action in the biblical text you are preaching. Look deeper than the human actions of biblical characters in narratives: look for ways God empowered that action, asking what God is doing in and behind the text. In other Scriptural genres look deeper than moral lessons. For example, when the Apostle Paul calls for specific actions or life change he always bases that call in the work of God. He doesn’t tell us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling without telling us that it is Christ who is working in us to will and act to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12)
  1. Begin asking deep questions of every sermon before you preach it. The main question is: Is this sermon based on God’s grace and the empowering work that only comes from God? This takes time and effort because, quite frankly, it’s easier to pick out a few moral lessons from a passage, a few dos or don’ts, or a list of how-tos. This may be why “Saturday night special” type sermons tend to focus more on human responsibility than God’s grace. Give your sermons time for a second look, for a God look.
  1. Add to your sermon toolbox specific preaching methods that naturally fosters grace focused preaching. There are several books that can help with this and Paul Scott Wilson’s Four Page of the Sermon is a good choice. Eugene Lowery’s the Homiletical Plot is another example of a method that places an emphasis on grace and the Gospel.[iii] Our own Lenny Luchetti speaks of the importance of making God the subject of the sermon in Preaching Essentials.[iv]

Whether you use one of these or other books like them, or simply take the time to reexamine your preaching and its focus, you’ll find that preaching that concentrates on grace and makes God the subject of the sermon will result in God’s empowerment and encouragement in those you preach to.


[i] Paul Scott Wilson, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999), 21.

[ii] Wilson, 21.

[iii] Eugene L. Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001).

[iv] Lenny Luchetti, Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide (Indianapolis: Wesleyan Publishing House, 2012).

MarkProfilePicMark Schnell has been an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church since 1994 and has served in various roles in churches in Michigan, Indiana and the eastern shore of Maryland. He is currently finishing his doctorate in homiletics and regularly serves as an adjunct professor of homiletics and proclamation at Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary. He’s been married to Sharie for over twenty-four years and is Dad to Kate (12) and CJ (6).

Sermon: The Call | Amber Livermore

Preacher: Amber Livermore
Sermon Title: The Call

Direct-link to sermon video

Pastor Amber LivermoreAmber Livermore is the lead pastor of Grace Fellowship Church in Princeton, Indiana. This sermon, however, was given as a part of Brookhaven Wesleyan’s “On Mission” series, where she spoke about the call of God on our lives.

Below are some of her preaching patterns that caused us to highlight this sermon.

Great vocal inflection is fine-tuned passion.

One of the primary reasons that Pastor Amber has great vocal inflection is because she is passionate about what she is communicating. That does not mean she maintains a consistently loud volume. She varies her tone, conveying truth with tone in a way that fits what she is trying to say in that moment. Good vocal inflection often starts with passion, but must be fine-tuned as we gain experience as preachers. Her vocal inflection used during her introduction plays a major role in engaging her audience well. She hooks them early and this vocal inflection certainly helped grab our attention, which she maintained with continued inflection.

She helps us find our place.

During the sermon, Pastor Amber sets up a list of ways in which the congregation might fit into the puzzle she describes that sweeps each listener up into the sermon. All are asked to respond to the call of God at the end. In doing both of these things she helps us find our place in this message. Throughout this sermon, she compels people to find their place in the story of God and describes how we can do so. If our congregation is unsure where they fit into the story we tell, unsure of how they might respond or unsure if this sermon is relevant to their lives, they will likely forget it. The most unfortunate thing is not that they forget our words (which are just tools used to bring a message) but that they have missed an opportunity to hear from God and respond back to Him.

She preaches from conviction to conviction

Anointing is a word that we should not throw around lightly. It cannot be earned, and is not easily discerned. Young preachers in particular often label the passionate or the powerful personality “anointed” only to be disappointed deeply by the flaws and clay feet of the real preacher over time. Something much easier to sense, to experience, and to name is conviction. This is a sense of conviction that something is true and that the truth bears weight upon the preacher and the listener. The preacher stands under the conviction of the sermon, yet speaks with authority to all in such a way that there are only two choices: respond with conviction, or harden against conviction. Amber presses forward with conviction in a way that does not leave the preacher behind, and refuses to leave a listener behind either.

We can learn much from Amber’s preaching, but here are a few things we can practice this week to hone our preaching effectiveness.

  1. Do you pray for the conviction of God? Conviction is the precursor to anointing. And there is nothing we can do that will match the Holy Spirit’s power moving in our churches. This does not negate our roles or efforts. Rather, we give our best offering to God and trust the Holy Spirit for the results.
  1. Does your conviction reach your voice? When someone tells you a story, you’re far more likely to listen well if they show excitement and some range of emotion. That makes for a good story! Preaching is no different. This week, get online and listen to last week’s sermon, listening specifically for points of good vocal inflection. Where did you do this well, so that it served the purpose of what you were saying? Where did you not do this well, and did it hinder what you were trying to communicate? Then mark your manuscript or outline with points where you plan to add inflection for this week. Perhaps down the road this will come naturally, but for now, script it. There’s nothing disingenous about doing this; hopefully, the passion is already there. It just needs to find the right places to let itself out!
  1. In what ways will you help the congregation find their place in this sermon? In what ways do you encourage people to begin reflecting even while they are listening? Do you ask them to place themselves in the Scripture text? Do you encourage them to use their imagination or engage their intellect? Do they understand why this message matters and how they can respond to it? Consider how you will help people find their place in this message. Over time, if we continually help people find their place in the message, they will grow also in conviction that they have a place in God’s kingdom.

Sermon: Impoverished: Divine Intelligence | Craig Rees

Preacher: Craig Rees
Sermon Title: Divine Intelligence (link to video)

Pastor Craig ReesCraig Rees is the lead pastor at Central Wesleyan Church. In a series called Impoverished (their Lent series), he speaks about Divine Intelligence as the intelligence of God beyond human understanding, and yet given to us by God. Craig is a great communicator. Here are a few things we can learn form him.

When it’s beneficial, talk about the original language.

As preachers, we should look at the original languages with whatever capacity we have been able to acquire. Things can and do (literally) get lost in translation. This does not mean, however, that we need to explicitly talk about it every week. Greek and Hebrew are not the worlds in which our congregations live. However, doing so from time to time can be eye-opening, as it is in this passage. When the rich young ruler asks Jesus, “What do I still lack?,” the word lack implies a certain kind of impoverishment. It can be translated, “to suffer need,” and implies missing out on what is vital. In a word: impoverished. That’s a much stronger word and more loudly calls attention to the reality at hand; this man though rich and religious is empty. That strong disconnect is better realized through the tone of language that Craig discovered in the Greek. Often the tone of the Greek or Hebrew is what is lost in the word-for-word or thought-for-thought translations we have in our versions. For those without strong language capacity, use free sites like to access the alternate meanings, and perhaps most importantly, connotations or feelings connected to the original words.

Use creative audience participation.

In a metaphor about the changing lens that Scripture can give us, Pastor Craig Rees simulates a virtual reality scenario and asks an audience member to come up to participate in this with him. This served to give the audience a visible and engaging example about the worlds we hide ourselves away in, compared with the augmented reality glasses that kept us in the real world but changed how we looked at it. This demonstration would have taken time and careful preparation to make this happen. This metaphor was one that not only served the sermon, but was one the audience could (and likely would) take with them—it was memorable and engaging.

Call them higher.

People respond to the level to which they are called. Craig Rees does not shy away from calling his congregation to big things. Calling people to greater spiritual responsibility and engagement can result in powerful eternal dividends. Sometimes we hesitate to ask people for a big response, afraid that we’ll scare them away. Perhaps that will be the case with some, but for many others the opposite will occur. They will dig in and take the challenge you give them. Who knows? They might even exceed it, and God may use it beyond what you can imagine. That sounds like God, doesn’t it? One of the things Craig Rees challenged his congregation to a fast, one of the spiritual disciplines we like to often ignore. This, however, could prove to be powerful in the life of his congregation.

To grow in your sermon development, try these few tips:

  1. Press yourself to use what original language material you can. If you don’t know original languages, that’s okay. But don’t run away from that material when you find it in commentaries! It can be still be incredibly useful. You don’t have to be fluent in Greek to learn from the original languages. Word studies can easily be done on Blue Letter Bible or Bible Hub. Find a friend who can refresh your memory on how to do these. If you do have some familiarity with the original languages, invest. Invest a little time this week into a study of just one verse; you may be a little rusty, but some of it may even come back to you. Better yet, find a friend who is also studying the original languages and invest this time together. Do no mention it in every sermon. Let it stand in the background like the studs that support your drywall.
  1. What is the main point you want to convey this week? How might you bring the audience to greater understanding of that point with some participation on their part? As Fred Craddock and Tom Long have written about in their preaching books, the weight of the sermon does not lie only with the preacher; some responsibility lies with the congregation. There are many ways to encourage participation and engagement; you don’t need to call someone to the front every week. You can ask for audience response from their seats. You can give them something to do in their seats. Give them a note sheet to record main ideas. There are a hundred ways to do this— be as creative and out-of-the-box as you can. What will make the point memorable? What will engage your audience effectively?
  1. Finally, carefully consider your response time. What might you ask them to do that would be faithful to the Word the congregation (and you, the preacher) have received? Is this response challenging? Compare this with your prayer life. We pray for things that are in sight, but out of our reach. We know how to pray for it, but it’s going to take God’s intervention to get an answer to that prayer. Ask your audience to see what is just out of their reach, a bit uncomfortable for them. Something they’ll need to ask for God’s help to do. Call them to something higher than themselves that will require our dependence on God. This is how we grow.

Preaching and the Ministry of Remembrance | Mark Schnell

“So I will always remind you of these things, even though you know them and are firmly established in the truth you now have.  I think it is right to refresh your memory as long as I live in the tent of this body, because I know that I will soon put it aside, as our Lord Jesus Christ has made clear to me. And I will make every effort to see that after my departure you will always be able to remember these things.”
2 Peter 1:12-15 (NIV)

Remember ImageAs a preacher and as a teacher of preachers I affirm that preaching has many important functions within the body of Christ. At its best it follows the challenge of the Apostle Paul as he instructs preachers to correct, rebuke and encourage those they preach to. The best kind of preaching also inspires people to realize and embrace their worth and equality as image bearers of God. The best preaching challenges systems of injustice and oppression. And, of course, the most significant function of preaching throughout the history of the church is the message of salvation — to share the truth of the Gospel — a new life that only comes through the sacrifice, resurrection and indwelling of the Savior Jesus Christ. A beautiful reality of preaching is that this latter function (salvation) inspires and empowers the former functions as well (justice, encouragement, teaching, etc.).

Lives can be transformed because of Christ. Because of him there is hope for today and tomorrow. Racism and oppression must end because we all have equal worth and are equal recipients of the love and sacrifice of Christ. And because of Christ and the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we no longer have to remain captive to old ways of thinking and living. The best preaching embodies all of these functions and shares the message of the Gospel boldly.

A function of preaching that isn’t spoken of as often, though, is the ministry of remembrance. Almost all preachers will have the privilege at times to preach the message of Christ to people that do not yet believe in him. We call them the unchurched, non-believers, the unsaved. Some preachers even have the daunting but joyfully important task of preaching almost solely to people like this. The reality, though, is that most local church preachers will do the majority of their preaching to believers. You know, we call them the saints, the saved, the regular attenders.

It is easy to look at regularly attending believers and get caught up wondering what we’re going to tell them each week. What can we possibly say that they haven’t heard before? Some of the folks we preach to have heard hundreds of sermons, some of them have been hearing them for longer than we’ve been alive! How are we going to come up with a new word to speak to these folks? If you’ve found yourself wondering things like this my next sentence ought to make your day. You don’t have to!

Power of Remembrance in Preaching Quote boxOne of the powerful functions of preaching is reminding people what they already know. Finding new ways to express timeless truths can be a very good thing, but fretting about what truth to share is a needless burden. Most people can relate to the practice of hungrily opening a refrigerator door time after time as though between trips it might miraculously fill itself. But carrying the burden of what truth to preach is like opening a fully stocked fridge and then closing the door only to complain about not having anything to eat. The great news for us preachers is that God has provided all the source material we need in his Word. The fridge is full!

A preacher’s ministry of remembrance speaks words of truth to people that may have heard those same words a hundred times before. While that may sound redundant at best and boring at worst, life is not a static thing. We forget what we know when times are tough. A man dying of thirst forgets what it feels like to have cool water sliding down his throat. A person plodding through a Midwestern winter might forget what it feels like to bury their toes into a warm, sandy beach. A person being abused by a family member can be reminded through the preaching ministry of remembrance that they have ultimate worth in God’s eyes. They can be reminded that they are not alone, both spiritually and physically, because of the local church body. When someone is wondering how they will put food on the table or pay the rent, they can be reminded that God sees them and cares for all their needs. Then on the flipside, those in the church can be reminded that they are often the avenue of God’s provision for those around them.

We all know it: sometimes life can seem more than we can bear. Sometimes the things people know, even the things they’ve built their lives on, are forgotten in the fog of loss and adversity. Sometimes they can’t see the forest of God’s love and care for the trees of pain and trouble. So, the ministry of remembrance shares truth that never grows old or stale. It cuts through the fog of pain and discouragement with the light of God’s active presence. It pulls people out of the bog of complacency and empowers them for action. The ministry of remembrance can be one of your most important roles as a preacher of the Gospel.

But there is another benefit to the preaching ministry of remembrance. When my father died suddenly at age 56, I was devastated. My world was completely rocked. In the darkness of those days I needed to be reminded again and again that I was not alone, that God knew my pain and that I would see my father again.  I was the pastor of a local church and had no one else to preach to me. However, as I faithfully preached the Gospel to my church, that same Gospel was uncovering what I already knew but had become hidden in the midst of my grief. My own words were speaking to me week after week. No, check that. God was speaking to me through my own preaching! “I am here. I know your pain. You are not alone. I will bring you through.”

As I was engaging in the ministry of remembrance to my church through the Gospel, God was speaking through that same Gospel and refreshing my memory. The simple fact is this — the truth that you preach that refreshes the memories of your people will often be the very words you need to hear more than anyone else. The line between preacher and listener dissolves in the ministry of remembrance through the power of the Gospel. Through another of God’s great mysteries we can be both speaker and listener at the same time.  There are many functions of preaching, but in the preaching ministry of remembrance you can both practice and receive the Gospel at the same time.

MarkProfilePicMark Schnell has been an ordained minister in the Wesleyan Church since 1994 and has served as a youth pastor, worship leader, associate pastor, and solo pastor in churches ranging from 30 to over 1500. He earned two graduate degrees from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary and is currently working on his doctorate at Emmanuel College in the University of Toronto focusing in homiletics. He’s passionate about preaching and equipping women and men to be faithful and effective preachers of the Word of God, as well as, preaching the transforming message of the Gospel as often as he can. Mark is regular serves as an adjunct professor of homiletics and proclamation at Indiana Wesleyan University and Wesley Seminary.

He’s blessed beyond measure to be husband to Sharie for over twenty-four years and Dad to Kate and CJ. Those three continually teach him more about God’s love and grace and help to sharpen him more into the image of Christ.

Sermon: Every Day Matters | Ken Nash

pastorkennash_websliderPreacher: Ken Nash
Sermon Title: Own Your Story
Original Sermon Link:

#everydaymatters-journeypromo2-1080-screen-01It is difficult to talk about pain well, much less preach about it. Hamburg Wesleyan’s relatively new lead pastor, Ken Nash, navigates this sermon with grace placing it within a larger context of the series “Every Day Matters.” Mixing video, social media, live presentation, and more this series shows a lot of relevant cultural connection points while staying rooted in the deeper wisdom of ancient Christian thought. For this particular sermon, here are a few things Ken does well.

Ken’s gestures add to the sermon.

When preaching, you might find it easy to move your hands around more than a little, especially in moments of excitement. You should ask, are your gestures purposeful? Or do they simply give your hands something to do? Have your gestures become more of a distraction for people than a helpful preaching tool? Ken Nash, for significant words or phrases uses his hand gestures as a tool to of emphasis or clarification and keeps the audience engaged without overly distracting unnecessary movement.

He tells one story that isn’t his own, as well as one personal story.

In general, we know that it is good to try to use as many stories as we possibly can that are not our own. We look for related stories from history, film, literature. These stories remind us (and our congregation) that the Gospel is not all wrapped up in us, and certainly not focused primarily on the preacher. It is worth noting, however, that on a Sunday on which he preached specifically about pain, he told two stories. One was not his own, and one was a personal story.

Before you went into ministry, did you ever imagine that your preacher surely had his/her life all put together? That surely they did not deal with the same things you did, and if they did then they certainly went about it in a way that was much more holy and unattainable? It’s not hard to place preachers on unhealthy pedestals. Pastor Ken displayed healthy vulnerability by sharing a piece of his own story, reminding us that he’s a real person who has seen real suffering. Moments like this show what could be a great harvest.

He allows them time to sit.

While much of this sermon is for those who have already walked through fire and come out on the other side (and he asks them to minister to others as they own their story), Pastor Ken Nash acknowledges that there is another group in the audience. There are those who still walk through deep hurt. He doesn’t demand that they move immediately forward, telling them that they should do as the rest of the congregation ought to. He asks them to take time to sit and be comforted by God. This is absolutely essential for those in the congregation who are still suffering. In doing so, he shows his pastoral heart in preaching. When preaching about pain, make it clear that the next step isn’t always “do,” but sometimes simply, “rest.”

Here are three things we can do (one in general, and two related to preaching specifically about suffering) to follow Pastor Ken’s preaching example.

Mark your movements.

“Stopping.” “Ever-changing laws.” “Oppressed.” You can probably imagine in your mind what gestures Pastor Ken might have used to make these words and phrases come to life. Before you print off your sermon outline/manuscript this week, ask yourself this: What are 5 key words from your sermon this Sunday that you could place gestures with to help you make your point and make it more engaging for your audience? Perhaps when you have begun to do this well, you can begin to mark other body movements— movement across the stage, kneeling down. What gestures can you add that will best help make your point? If you’re unsure, practice in front of a mirror and look for any sign of inauthenticity, overly dramatic flair, or awkward uncertainty.

Tell Two Stories

Of course you will not fully understand every circumstance that the people in your congregation are dealing with. You may not yet know what it is like to lose a parent, or to have a wayward child, but you have faced other struggles that God has brought you through. The next time you preach on pain or suffering, allow yourself to share a moment of healthy vulnerability. Let your congregation know that you have experienced pain and tell them how God brought you through it. This is a golden opportunity that can swing wide the door for further opportunities to have meaningful conversations with people about their own struggles. When people know you have been through suffering, they will be more likely to trust you with their own. Be careful that you do not share a minor suffering and imply that you therefore understand major sufferings. This can back fire in very hurtful ways. Also be careful not to share things that would make those closest to you uncomfortable in appropriately. There are some things we experience that we might be willing to share, but that those who experienced them with us are not.

Don’t skip ahead.

When preaching on pain, do not skip to the end of their story. Ken Nash acknowledges that while this is a passage talking about comforting others from the comfort we have received, that some people aren’t ready for that stage yet; the wound might still be present. He suggests to his congregation that if they are still in a place of deep hurt, that they seek comfort. He talks about what to do when they do receive healing, and how they use their struggles in the Kingdom. But Pastor Ken is sensitive to the struggle. His entire time of response is not for those who have received comfort and are now able to minister. Instead, that time is for those who are still suffering, and he asks them to come forward and receive comfort. You can’t skip to the end of the story. When preaching on pain, implore people to walk through it and receive comfort from God.

Preaching Good Grief

wide emotional rangePreaching is powerful. It reaches into our souls and speaks to every human emotion when it is going well. Though this will not be true of every preaching ministry some preachers avoid touching on grief and despair except for in funeral sermons. Perhaps this is because the preacher faces enough grief and despair week to week that they want to uplift and encourage instead. Compassion fatigue can so wear down a preacher that even discussing grief is too much for them to bear again. For other preachers a level of fear of getting it wrong or a lack of comfort in talking about these topics drives the dodging of lament. Others simply want to lead their congregations in optimistic faith, in triumphant hope, and make church an experience of celebration first and foremost. Whatever the reason may be, avoiding the breadth of human emotions can create a gulf between the preacher and the congregation.

The problem is partly one of approach. Preachers often offer sermons focused on future hope, which address a deep spiritual need, but is not holistic. There is a serious need for hope that is focused in the present. The world we live in creates an environment of despair, and preachers must offer hope of God’s present hope and love, in addition to future oriented hope. Preaching focused on hope centered on God’s presence in the midst of suffering addresses the immediate need of individuals’ suffering.

A second common mistake for preachers is inadequately addressing the normality of human emotions and their roots. Hope-centered preaching should not rush to optimism without adequately addressing pain. Preaching that ignores or merely mentions suffering inadequately is unfaithful to the biblical witness and can even be harmful if it is the pattern week after week.  If preachers refuse to process grief and despair from the pulpit, then hope is robbed of its fullest expression. Hope without lament after all is in danger of being labeled naïve or out of touch. Of course, no preacher should ever drive his or her church to hopelessness, but frequently congregants are already in the valley. The loss of a job, the death of a loved one, PTSD, or a child addicted to drugs are all common situations that need to be addressed. Preaching must meet people where they are. Congregants need to be more than just heard and understood from the pulpit, they need to have their experiences and struggles expressed. Preaching is effective when congregants feel that they and their problems are understood because being heard and understood by someone who also gives voice to their struggles meets spiritual and psychological needs that can provide hope in the present.

suffering is personalLament, anger, and despair are all natural emotions. Some traditions of preaching tend to imply that we should not feel them even if it is not said explicitly. This creates a stark double standard of emotional expectations and a false dichotomy of faith. Rarely addressing these human emotions from the pulpit subconsciously invalidates their existence and creates an existential conflict between the body and soul. Moreover, it ignores the holistic biblical witness. Jesus wept at the loss of a loved one (John 11:35). He became angry with the money-changers (Matt 21:12). Jesus fell into despair on the cross when he felt forsaken by God (Matt 27:46). He lamented over the fate of Jerusalem (Matt 23:37). The life of Christ validates our feelings and reveals the need to address them. The powerful emotions of grief, anger, loss, discouragement, frustration, and even disillusionment can be seen as normal experience for faithful humans. Instead of seeking control over them or treating them as problems, what if we validated and guided these emotions? It takes more faith to remain steadfast in the midst of enduring pain than ignoring or denying that pain exists. In order for preaching to reach people, it must practically address what they are feeling. Christ, as fully God and fully human, understands our emotions and connects with us on a personal level, as preaching should.

Often preachers rely on the arch of God’s redemptive plan to offer hope. Comments like “this too will pass,” “it will all be worked out when we get to heaven,” and “God has a plan” are helpful for reflecting on suffering in the long run, but they do little to address immediate needs. All of these comments are solution-oriented. They imagine a time in which the problem and pain no longer exist, but in the meantime, the problem still exists. Surely preaching can offer something more than the imperative to wait to those in pain? In order to address the immediate needs, preaching should be problem oriented too. Problem oriented preaching seriously admits the reality of pain and authentically processes emotions. If the pulpit abdicates its role in addressing pain, preachers cannot expect to meet the congregation’s needs. I am not advocating for less hope but for hope that balances the redemption to come with God’s presence now. God is present with us within suffering, not just at the end of suffering. God has something for us in the middle of pain and loss, not just “someday.”

Preachers and their sermons must be “non-anxious.” A non-anxious presence is the ability to explore, process, and empathize without becoming anxious.[i] Being a non-anxious presence requires self-awareness and reliance on God. It has the faith to maintain calm in the midst of storms and to guide others through the storm without waving the existence of the storm away. Christ can say “Peace be still” and the storm ceases. Preachers do not have this power. In many ways we preach to those who, like it or not, will have to ride out a storm, sometimes to the bitter end.

What is it about the 23rd Psalm that speaks to us in times of distress? The psalm does not promise that we will never face difficult times; the psalm does not even promise that difficult times will end. So, how is it that in the valley of the shadow of death someone could find comfort? The answer is simply “I will fear no evil for you are with me” (Ps 23:4 emphasis added). The most comforting passage of scripture offers solace because it promises God’s presence, even in the midst of suffering and despair. Pain and suffering are real, are a normal part of the human experience, and their effects are potent. The psalm promises that in the midst of despair and darkness we are not alone; it is hope for the present that acknowledges pain. God’s presence is hope that can always be offered.

The seriousness and depth of the traumas we face cannot be fully explored in a sermon. A sermon cannot replace pastoral counseling even when the primary focus is appropriately pastoral care. I remember two specific times when the sermon’s main focus was pastoral care—the Sunday after 9/11 and the chapel following the suicide of a college classmate. The collective needs of the community were so great in each of these situations that doing anything but address the trauma would have been harmful. In these times, the homiletical task is not to solve or fix trauma. The task is to address the pain and offer hope, hope that is here now and hope that is to come. If congregants feel that the preacher understands them and is able to address their spiritual needs, they are more likely to seek pastoral counseling.[ii] The light of hope is brightest when it shines despite the darkness of despair, not merely at the end of the proverbial tunnel.

Until preaching addresses the present need for hope rooted in God’s presence and grapples with the breadth of human emotions, a congregation’s needs will not be met. People have the need to be heard and understood. Preaching can address that need by exploring and validating negative emotions explicitly and in depth before hastening to hope. Sally Brown and Luke Powery say that “preachers are those who dare to dance on the graves of despair.”[iii] Dancing prematurely is offensive. Suggesting others dance without grieving or lamenting is counter productive. We dare to dance because we know the faithfulness of God’s presence in the present. Preachers can better understand their role by becoming more comfortable with emotions, especially their own as it comes to death, loss, meaninglessness, and other forms of despair. When a person has been heard and understood, they are more receptive to hope and aware of God’s love. Articulating that hearing and understanding takes practice and careful forethought. At times what not to say in relation to grief and loss is as important as what to say.

Preaching is always contextual, and our hope-centered preaching needs to attend to that context. Each congregation is unique with distinctive needs. Leonora Tisdale convincingly argues that preachers have the task of exegeting scripture and their congregations. This means that preachers need to study their congregations. She reminds her readers that the central message of the Gospel always remains the same, but the identity and needs of the congregation should impact the message. Preachers need to consider how race, ethnicity, gender, age,[iv] and the emotional needs of the congregation impact the sermons receptiveness, timeliness, and appropriateness.

Preachers can choose to speak of life in ideals, of the life as it ought to be or will be one day. Sometimes that is exactly what needs to be said; on the other hand, we must speak of life as it is. With all its struggles and adversities, rooted in the reality of the world we live in. The Bible offers a holistic message to body, mind, and soul; thus, preaching should do the same. When death and suffering are ignored or understated, our people are ill-equipped when they come.

By Scott Donahue-Martens

Questions for you to ponder:

  • When in the next three months does a sermon topic or text emerge that addresses loss, grief, pain, despair, suffering, or other sources of human lament?
  • How can you listen well to those going through these storms between now and then?
  • What are your own anxieties related to exploring those topics and how can you work towards a “non-anxious” internal world?

[i] Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family process in Church and Synagogue, (New York: Guilford Press, 2011).

[ii] Preachers must be careful not to break confidentiality or make a public display of another’s pain.

[iii] Brown, Sally A., and Luke A. Powery, Ways of the Word: Learning to Preach for your Time and Place, (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2016), x.

[iv] Leonora T. Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 1997.