In Preaching, Truth Is Not Enough

One of my favorite sources of inspiration is the Fresh Life Church sermon podcast. In addition to the great content itself, Pastor Levi Lusko provides a great example of what the heart of a pastor should look like in his preaching.

One particular example comes to mind. Pastor Levi recently introduced a series on the Holy Spirit and the Holy Spirit's role in the life of the Church and of the believer. Very early in his first sermon on this subject, Pastor Levi paused to acknowledge that the people in his congregation might be having one of a variety of reactions to his message. He said something to the effect of the following:

As I talk about inviting the Holy Spirit into our Church in a more tangible way, I expect that a third of you are probably thinking, 'Alright, it's about time! Yeah! Let's do this Holy Spirit thing!' And maybe for a third of you this is all brand new and you're like, 'Sure, that sounds great.' But then there is a third of you who maybe have had bad experiences in the past with churches that claimed to be operating in the Holy Spirit but were really just doing weird things. If that's you, I ask you not to bolt out of the door just yet. I promise you we won't be getting weird on you all of the sudden, and I don't want you to throw out the baby with the bathwater, because the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit are for every believer.

What I loved about Pastor Levi's approach is that he recognized that not everybody will respond to the same message in the same way. In other words, it was not enough for him to simply be speaking truth, he needed to account for the variety of responses that his message might be provoking.

PREACHING POINTERS FROM POPE FRANCIS

Pastor Levi's approach here is a great example of the advice Pope Francis gave on preaching in Evangelii Gaudium.  He writes, "The Lord and his people speak to one another in a thousand ways directly, without intermediaries. But in the homily they want someone to serve as an instrument and to express their feelings in such a way that afterwards, each one may chose how he or she will continue the conversation" (143).

The emphasis I added here speaks to the point. Effective preaching cannot rely merely on speaking about the truths of our faith. It must take into account the feelings, the interior movements and reactions, of those who hear. One and the same message can be incredibly encouraging to one person and incredibly discouraging to another depending on their background and life experience. It may instill great hope and confidence in God in one person, while evoking an unhealthy fear of God in another because of past wounds or trauma.

But even more than merely "taking into account" their feelings, Pope Francis encourages preachers to "express their feelings" - discuss it out loud, give it a name, identify the feeling and talk about what that means. By doing so...

(1) You establish a connection with your audience. There are few more consoling experiences in life than being able to say, "This person gets me. He/she understands me." Simply being understood by another person can be incredibly healing in and of itself. (To do this, we must develop our capacity for empathy.)

(2) You overcome isolation. I think that a particular obstacle to evangelization in our culture is hyper-individualization. We tend to believe that our own experience is utterly specific and unique, and so nobody else could possibly be feeling what I am feeling. Naming these feelings out loud when speaking to a group immediately breaks down this sense of isolation, because if someone can express what I am feeling I obviously cannot be the only one who has ever felt this way. My experience is something that I now share with others, even if only anonymously.

(3) You can give tailored action items. Every diagnosis requires a specific remedy. Different individual circumstances call for different types of responses. Once we name the circumstance, we can name specific applicable action items that apply to each.

(4) You teach discernment. Spiritual maturity requires being able to identify our own interior movements and interpret them rightly in light of the truth of God's character. By walking through various possible emotional reactions and identifying appropriate responses, you equip people with tools for discernment that they can use throughout their entire life.

POPE FRANCIS IN ACTION

Part of what has made Pope Francis so endearing to many is his more conversational tone in his homilies and addresses. He also embodies this advice of "express their feelings" in his own preaching. An example could be drawn from almost any of his speeches, but I'll leave with this snippet from his Easter Vigil homily as an example of his own advice in action.

In the life of every Christian, after baptism there is also another “Galilee”, a more existential “Galilee”: the experience of a personal encounter with Jesus Christ who called me to follow him and to share in his mission.  In this sense, returning to Galilee means treasuring in my heart the living memory of that call, when Jesus passed my way, gazed at me with mercy and asked me to follow him. To return there means reviving the memory of that moment when his eyes met mine, the moment when he made me realize that he loved me.
Today, tonight, each of us can ask: What is my Galilee?  I need to remind myself, to go back and remember.  Where is my Galilee?  Do I remember it?  Have I forgotten it?  Seek and you will find it! There the Lord is waiting for you.  Have I gone off on roads and paths which made me forget it?  Lord, help me: tell me what my Galilee is; for you know that I want to return there to encounter you and to let myself be embraced by your mercy. Do not be afraid, do not fear, return to Galilee!