Throughout 2020 I stayed in touch with quite a few pastors, from the days of the initial lockdowns in early spring all the way through tentative attempts later in the year to restart in-person worship in a variety of configurations. When I asked how they were feeling, some common responses emerged. Early in the pandemic preachers from many denominations remarked how lonely preaching had become. The absence of a living congregation was much harder to bear than they might have guessed. It turns out there are a thousand little ways by which people signal that they are listening to the sermon. Even congregations that are about as far away as possible from the call-and-response tradition of African American churches manage to send silent “hallelujahs” and “amens” to their pastors.
Other pastors noted that the lack of people in the pews or chairs forced them into even greater exercises of pastoral imagination. Yes, at all times preachers need to imagine their way into the lived experiences of their people to craft sermons that provide pastoral care from the pulpit. But when in-person contact was limited and people’s needs were multiplying as the fear, the uncertainty, and the economic consequences of the pandemic mounted ever higher, the need for pastoral imagination was magnified. At the very moment when sermons most needed to reach into people’s lives with comfort and assurance, many pastors found that figuring out how to do that well had gotten much more complicated.
Toward the last quarter of 2020, however, I began to hear something I had neither heard before nor expected. Several pastors told me that in the absence of a living congregation sitting in front of them, they felt as if they had become bolder in their proclamation. Particularly when sermons strayed into prophetic territory or commentary on current events, some preachers dared to say more when people weren’t sitting just a few yards away.
I can imagine some semi-obvious reasons why this might be. Perhaps a preacher dared to say a bit more than usual because she could not see anyone’s spine stiffen or brow furrow in response to a difficult word. Perhaps some pastors were emboldened knowing they would not be shaking hands with anyone at the church door, thus putting more distance between the sermon and the responses to it. Or, less obviously, perhaps the social and racial unrest unleashed partly by the pandemic made it seem easier or more natural to join some wider conversations.
Of course, some readers might already be thinking that it does not speak well of us preachers that we become braver when there’s no one around to throw stones at us. At the same time, some of the pastors with whom I spoke noted how lonely they felt without in-person affirmation in the preaching moment and worried that maybe this made them more egotistical than they ever believed themselves to be. Are pastors simply performers on a stage who need adulation from the audience? (I think in most cases that fear was overblown—it’s natural to want to talk to real folks in preaching.)
But does greater pulpit bravery in the absence of people mean that ordinarily we are too timid by half? If so, might that be a sign we are often not quite the faithful proclaimers of the full witness of Scripture that we like to think we are?
Each of us must examine our own conscience on these matters. As we do so, we might be comforted to recall that on a couple of occasions in the New Testament it is clear that no less than the apostle Paul also endured the critique that he came off as bolder in his letters (delivered from a safe distance) than when actually preaching in person. There may or may not have been anything to this criticism, but if it was even somewhat true, we can understand it. A tendency to modulate when faced with real people is a very human trait. This is why email and Facebook and Twitter and other social media platforms often turn so toxic: it’s vastly easier to fire off angry or loudly critical comments to people whom you cannot see (and sometimes whom you barely know).
Still, as we think about the Holy Spirit and the meaning of Pentecost, those of us who have come to realize in recent months that maybe we do hold back in our sermons to make things easier for ourselves have some things to ponder, if not pray about. After all, if there is one thing we can say for sure about the Spirit’s coming at Pentecost, it is that the Spirit infused once-timid disciples with a world-changing level of boldness in proclamation. The same Simon Peter who could not tell the truth to a harmless servant girl on the night of Jesus’ arrest found it possible to tell anyone who would listen—including huge crowds and hostile authorities—the truth of the gospel.
But boldness does not exist in a vacuum. Any fool could mount a pulpit and “boldly” insult a congregation or hurl accusations of faithlessness around. But that might be no more than an insensitive carelessness merely masquerading as bold speech. Sometimes would-be bold speech turns out to be self-indulgent speech. Sometimes angry people dress up their anger as integrity and a desire “to give it to you straight,” but it’s still mean-spirited at its core and nothing laudable.
There are lots of caveats like this that we could list. But in the end we preachers are called to proclaim the gospel boldly and to tell God’s truth whether people want to hear it or not. As a check on our boldness, however—in an effort to make sure we are never being bold only for the sake of boldness—we look to Jesus and to his pitch-perfect balancing of what John 1 calls “grace and truth.” Most of us tend to fall off this balance beam to one side or the other. We are so gracious we cannot ever tell the truth. Or we are plenty truthful but without a hint of grace, so we end up stomping on people’s feelings, leaving no small amount of human wreckage in our wake.
Preachers have bold things to say. They may not always be popular. But we can ask: Am I being bold because both the Bible text and the moment call for it? Am I being bold and yet also exuding so much grace—as Jesus always did—that those who most need to hear this word still find me and my message magnetic? And if I find myself holding back, is it truly God’s grace modulating me so that I do not needlessly offend good people, or am I playing it safe because it will keep my life tidier?
Preaching is never a single balancing act. It is always multiple balancing acts going on simultaneously. That means preaching is never easy. But that is also why the Holy Spirit came at Pentecost to help us. Thanks be to God.
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.