Preachers are not starving artists, but we often act like them

A rabbi friend of mine once told me, “You know the problem with you Christian preachers?”

Oh, do tell, I thought.

He continued, “You have no imagination with the text. You think it can only say what it says and nothing more. If that’s the case, people can just read it for themselves. What do they need you for?”


That one made me think.

Preaching is an art. I’m not saying that preaching should be artistic, but that the act of preaching is itself an exercise in making art. It is akin to painting and composing music and photography. Preaching is art that finds an audience once a week, and, in that moment, the preacher has a chance to open horizons.

Just like in other forms of art, preaching has its share of hacks (and we all started as one). Similar to the “Starving Artist” sales that permeate hotel ballrooms and exhibit halls, we find artists in pulpits all across the Church who’s work is boring and tired. It is overly pedantic and dry. It relies on what others say, and not on the inner discovery of the one saying the words.

We don’t buy starving artist paintings because they are paintings that we’ve seen before. We’ve seen them in hotels and restaurant chains and postcards. They do nothing new for us. They do not reveal the truth of the world to us. They don’t even inspire us.

These are pieces that have been done before – we’ve seen hundreds just like them. If we do buy a piece, it is on the cheap and for the purpose of decoration only (most likely in the second guest bathroom that no one ever uses).

Because Preaching is Art, it should do (at the least) four things:

It should find it’s vocabulary in an encounter with God, and nothing else. Scripture, friends. Scripture. (NOTE: The Gospel According to Marcus Mumford is non-canonical.)

It should take that private encounter and make it public. As Anna Carter Florence says, we must get into that text, look around until we are amazed, and then come out and testify to what we have seen and heard.

It should reveal something new, even if only a little. We can’t spend a lot of time telling folks what Barth or Luther saw. This isn’t a trial. We’re not being graded. Congregations want to know what we saw in there. This is our art.

It should be reflective of the common experience of us all. You and I are not so different. Start with the particular, but as Rob Bell says (curses be upon him), always go to the “thing behind the thing.”

If we don’t do those things, at a minimum, we’re giving speeches, and most likely policy speeches. Folks don’t need to come to worship for that.

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