Alice Shirey, pastor in Des Moines IA, responds to our question today:
I come at Scot?s question from a unique perspective. For much of my adult life I sat in the pew; I didn?t stand in the pulpit. I listened to a lot of brilliant preaching that had not one shred of impact on my daily life. I just thought that?s what a sermon was ? Sunday pontificating that never made a dent on Monday. So, when God tapped me on the shoulder at age 35, convinced me I had the gift of teaching and that my gender did not disqualify me from using it to edify our congregation, I vowed that I would preach on Sunday with an eye toward Monday.
If I were asked by a young pastor “What should I focus on?” I would say … Focus on life; real life. Pay attention to your life, your questions, your struggles, your failures, your dreams and hopes and desires. Refuse to use hurry as an excuse to live the ?unexamined life.? Make time to reflect deeply on your daily experiences, your relationships, your own confusion and struggles, your failures, your growth, your questions, your life with God. Don?t put on airs, or pretend you have some kind of high, holy, lofty, spiritually set-apart life. Live a real, earthy life and don?t be afraid to share it!
Delivering sermons over the last 8 years has allowed me to look lots of folks in the eye as I talk about Christ. God has used that experience to show me this truth: My struggles are theirs. My hurts and failures and wounds, are theirs. My darkness, theirs. My needs, theirs. My questions, theirs. My stories, theirs. In order to create a vibrant intersection between God?s Word and their real lives, I must preach from my real life.
When I try to use the Scriptures to appear scholarly, or holy, or as if I have THE answer to one of life?s most perplexing questions, I see blank stares, tired eyes, and sense a painful disconnect from the folks I am teaching. On the other hand, when I bring Scripture to life through the use of stories, struggles, questions, failure and growth, and an ability to laugh at myself … I find, more often than not, a holy silence falls over the room. A silence that tells me the Spirit is at work; that the honest use of my own life in the sermon allowed windows to open in the souls of the congregation, and the wind of the Spirit blew in.
When I first started preaching I was so concerned that people thought I was “qualified” or that I had some new, incredible insight with which to impress them, that I often taught right over people?s heads. Sunday pontificating that never made a dent on Monday … So, I have learned to leave most of my studious insights on the cutting room floor; they served their purpose in my preparation. And I have learned to not be afraid to be honest about who I am. Of course, there are wise boundaries to this. I don?t want to use the congregation as some kind of cathartic confessional. But, I risk authenticity more and more. And when the holy silence falls … I whisper a prayer, “Speak, God … speak.”
So, what would I focus on? Simply this … Prepare sermons with the Scriptures in one hand, your real life in the other, and a big ol? slice of humble pie on the table. You will rarely find anyone saying or thinking about you, “Well, he/she?s a good preacher, but mainly irrelevant to my life.”