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Context

A while ago a friend of mine (who is not a preacher) made a good observation. She noted that when she began attending a certain congregation, she found the pastor’s sermons to be mostly just OK. There was nothing wrong with the sermons. They were solid, fairly interesting most of the time, and very biblical. Perhaps no one should talk about grading sermons once people leave seminary—and some might wish we did not have to talk about grading even in seminary!—but because my friend was also a teacher, she observed that by most objective standards this pastor’s sermons would mostly be a solid B.

Yet as she began to get to know some people in the congregation, it was clear that many (if not most) of those folks would consistently give this pastor an A- if it were up to them—some weeks maybe even a straight A. What accounted for this? Well, my friend got to know people even more and started to hear lots of testimonies. It was clear that this preacher was also a wonderful pastor. He had stood at the bedsides of many sick people in the hospital or in people’s own homes. His had been the shoulder on which members had cried tears of grief. There was a history of baptisms, funerals, weddings, and counseling sessions.

In short, if Woody Allen was right when he said that 90 percent of life is just showing up, this pastor consistently showed up. He showed up with love, with words of healing balm, with shared joy and shared sorrow where either was appropriate. This, then, was the context in which the congregation received his sermons. Those sermons were filtered through this prism of past experiences, which colored how the sermons were heard, understood, and quietly evaluated. Had any of these people heard a sermon from this pastor as a one-off message delivered as a guest preacher one week, they too might have thought, “That sermon was OK—I’d give it a B.” But when they listened to such a sermon in the context of this person’s wider pastoral care and love for his people, it was, just maybe, an A sermon.

Perhaps this is not at all surprising. Of course, we also know that if a given pastor’s sermons are consistently and verifiably weak or just plain confusing or dull, this phenomenon might not occur. If people are not being fed much at all on Sunday mornings, sooner or later they will hanker—and perhaps agitate—for better preaching no matter how nice a person the pastor generally is. (Probably it is also true that if a pastor is consistently stunning in her sermons, she might get away with less-than-optimal performances in other areas such as administration or even pastoral care.) In any event, it may be the case that a person’s sermons need to be simply “pretty good” most of the time for the elevation of evaluation to happen.

Still, preaching is not a stand-alone category in any congregation. Sermons always take place inside a wider context and as part of a larger web of relationships. But of all the outside things that factor into how preaching is received, pastoral care is almost certainly the key. People need to know they are loved. They need to have that backlog of experience in being spiritually cared for at crucial moments in their lives—moments of great happiness and moments of great grief alike. If this is done well, it can make up for a great many other things, including the occasional misfire of a sermon or fairly consistently just-OK sermons.

But as I reflect on how such good pastoral care colors people’s perceptions of sermon quality, it is clear that something else is going on. It’s not just that the background of good pastoral care enhances how sermons are heard, but rather that such pastoral care is seen as continuing in the preaching life of the church. Sermons are not only built on a foundation of good pastoral care, they are themselves an extension of pastoral care. It’s not simply that people hear the preacher say something in a sermon and then think, “Oh yes, that reminds me of that time three years ago when the pastor was there for me.” Rather, it is more likely that people subconsciously realize during the sermon, “I am being cared for right now as well!”

When I was a pastor in a congregation for a dozen years, my primary duties were preaching and administration. I had a wonderful full-time colleague whose primary duty was pastoral care: visits to the homebound, conducting classes on grief, etc. He and I did split some pastoral care duties up. If someone was in the hospital more than a couple of days, we would alternate who would visit: I would go Monday; he would swing by on Tuesday. And although he was tapped to conduct and preach at more funerals than I was, we very often shared the leading of funerals too even as we would both visit with the family before. Still, at one point some years into that ministry, I noted to a confidant of mine from the congregation that I sometimes thought I should do more pastoral care. But immediately he said, “Never underestimate how much pastoral care you do right from the pulpit and in your pastoral prayers!”

He then went on to illustrate his contention that thoughtfulness in preaching and in the construction of pastoral prayers was a real part of my ministry and that I should not discount how this too helped people and ministered to them. His point is valid for all of us who preach. Not only are our pulpit words filtered through people’s past pastoral experiences with us, but they can be actively cared for in the very moment of the sermon too.

For many of us preachers this may happen as a matter of course. But it never hurts to be intentional about such things. Good preaching should never just seem like extended Bible commentary or the piling on of information. Neither should preaching come across as the dispensing of good advice (as too many sermons these days seem to do). Preaching is about proclaiming good news, giving people with lots of struggles in their lives reasons to leave church with a noticeable uptick in the hope and joy department.

So often I have heard or read sermons that are quite solid and tell a lot of important truths but stop just short of the indispensable next step of bringing it all down to the street level of pastoral care. But if we set it as a priority in our hearts and minds to reach out to people in love through the sermon every bit as much as we would do were we to proffer an embrace at a funeral home, then maybe we won’t omit that all-important homiletical move of a pastoral word of love, joy, comfort, and peace.

It’s not just because people might evaluate our sermons more generously if we do this. It is rather because Jesus himself once reminded us, “Feed my sheep; take care of my lambs.”

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit cep.calvinseminary.edu.