On Tuesday night I preached at the annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia. This is a gathering of a thousand or so “messengers” who come from Baptist churches across the Commonwealth to do the business of the Association and to enjoy times of worship and fellowship. It was a huge honor to be asked to preach and I tried to take it seriously. I worked on the sermon for weeks, wrote out a full manuscript, and rehearsed it until I was fairly sure the words were coming out of me and not just off the page. I polished my shoes, put on a suit, knotted my tie, and shoved a silk handkerchief into my breast pocket. I was ready, or at least I thought I was.
I climbed the steps and walked across the stage to the pulpit, opened my Bible, arranged my notes, and then looked out at the crowd. But I couldn’t see the crowd. I could only see the bright lights shining in my eyes. And that’s when I remembered why I don’t like preaching at events like this.
I started in anyway, preaching the sermon as I had rehearsed it, but I couldn’t tell if the congregation was “getting it” or not. I couldn’t see their faces. Every once in a while I would hear a ripple of laughter move across the darkened room and once I heard a loud “Amen!” off to my right, but as I struggled through the sermon I realized how much I usually depend on congregational feedback.
That raised eyebrow in the third pew lets me know that whatever I just said was a little surprising; those crossed arms off to my right may be a sign that things are getting too personal; that warm smile up in the balcony is a clue that whatever I’m saying is going down well; and that look of confusion to my left is a clue that I might need to say that last line again—slowly. I “read” those faces, I depend on that feedback, and when I don’t get it the act of communication becomes uncomfortably one-sided.
It’s a good reminder that preaching—at its simplest—is one person sharing good news with others. There’s an intimacy about it that is hindered by bright lights and a big stage. Some of the best preaching I’ve done has been one-on-one, or in a group of five or six people, or in a tiny country church. The worst preaching I’ve ever done—in my opinion—was when I read a sermon off the teleprompter in a television studio in Chicago. Preaching ceases to be preaching in such circumstances and becomes something else:
I’m glad I had the opportunity to deliver a sermon at the BGAV. As I said, it was a huge honor. But I’m looking forward to being back in my regular pulpit this Sunday, talking to people I love about something I love to talk about.
That’s not performing; that’s preaching.