Preaching for Special Services by Scott M. Gibson

Scott Gibson sets out to guide ministers in preaching for “special occasions:” funerals, weddings, baptisms, infant “presentations, the Lord’s Supper, and other occasions.  Any given year, many voices vie for attention in a worship service.  Various “holidays” and special interests can take up the majority of our services.  Employing a preaching plan for the year helps to avoid distraction.  As Fred Craddock notes in Preaching, without a sermon plan the smallest ripple of trouble in the community sounds like a “canon in the homiletically empty ear.”  The same can be said for special occasions.  Without adequate preparation and planning, they can become instruments of great harm.

            Gibson quotes D. W. Cleverley Ford, “The preacher’s responsibility… is to try and make the special occasion take on special significance” (18).  The hope is for transformation of lives.  Although I would hope that it is a moment of transformation for the audience, I disagree with his initial statement.  The preacher’s responsibility is not to make it a special occasion.  These tend to be momentous occasions by their very nature; we don’t have to work it up.  That being said, we can undoubtedly cheapen the moment if not adequately prepared through prayer.  Secondly, it is the Spirit’s job to bring about transformation – not ours.  We are a vessel, nothing more.  Thus, we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” 

            Regarding sermon preparation and delivery, Gibson notes that clarity is essential.  Haddon Robinson’s proposed that sermons should communicate the “big idea” in the Biblical passage.  Focused clarity prevents confusion in the pulpit and the congregation.  Gibson also argues that sermons should not be memorized.  By this, he means to highlight that sermons shouldn’t feel canned.  I disagree with Gibson at this point.  While the sermon should be heartfelt and it is best to have a manuscript, that does not mean that one cannot memorize the sermon or that memorization will make it sound canned.  Memorizing a sermon can actually free up a pastor.  The point is the same.  The sermon should feel natural and appropriate for the context.

            Gibson states that nobody remembers the pastor delivering the sermon at these events.  False.  For better or worse, pastors are often remembered because of these moments.  That is especially true if we don’t limit the event to only a day.  The sermon extends beyond that event because, hopefully, it is a Word from the Lord.  Extended care for the family or people involved in those special moments is a way sermons continues to preach.  The impetus for a preacher isn’t being remembered, but these special moments do forge deep bonds.

            Essentially, Gibson makes one point in his book over and over again.  Sermons for special occasions must be Biblically based, Christ centered, listener oriented, focused, brief, and gathered around a central idea.  He applies this to every scenario, unpacking this schema for each special occasion.

            Weddings are a worship service.  As such, the couple is not the center of the service.  God is the center.  In my estimation, Christian marriage is not initiated by us but is a grateful response and testimony to God’s work in this world.  As such, the sermon is an integral part of the service.  It is an opportunity to orient the couple and the community to God way that is most aptly demonstrated in marriage.  Theologically, Gibson states that the marriage relationship is three persons.  Yes, marriage is the one-flesh-reality of two people joined together under God.  But, marriage is also a communal act.  In its proper understanding, the marriage relationship is not outside the community that gives its approval for the marriage.  That’s why we don’t encourage eloping.  Marriage is not merely about the couple.  It’s also about the larger community, which we have all but eliminated in our individualistic, privatized culture.  Given the communal nature of worship and marriage, it is important that we carefully consider the people gathered to witness the marriage.  For this reason, each sermon should take into account the unique sets of relationships represented. 

            Gibson also suggests a five to eight minute sermon for the wedding.  Understandably, brevity can be a virtue in many setting.  But, brevity without depth of message is folly.  It is important that we give adequate weight to the occasion, both in the preaching and liturgy involved in the ceremony.  I worry that our inability to pay attention and be still for very long as a culture is the primary motivation for this suggestion.  Although important to consider culture, it does not mean that content is sacrificed for comfort.

            Six “sources of wedding sermon topics” are listed: theology of marriage, great wedding texts, texts that bisect an aspect of the service, a text that intersects with the couple’s interests or qualities, a text that reflects the personality of the couple, texts that capture the uniqueness of the couple as revealed by the meanings of their names” (40).  These are helpful sources for wedding sermons.

            Funerals, too, are worship services.  This is partly why eulogies have sometimes been deemed inappropriate.  Gibson argues that a “good word” about the deceased does not have to detract from a message about Christ.  Instead, it can be used as a way to talk about Christ.  Gibson points to the Wurtemberg ecclesiastical ordinance as a guideline for wedding sermons.  It should be a “public confession of the Christian hope of the resurrection, a last testimony of love, an earnest reminder of the approaching hour of death” (51).  Thomas G. Long is quoted: “What a Christian funeral does primarily is to provide a suitable structure and language for the worship of God at the time of death” (51).  The sermon gives voice to mourning while still proclaiming praise and hope in God.

            Gibson states, “Preaching by its very nature is evangelistic” (51).  He employs a narrow definition of evangelism, “missionary preaching,” which rests upon conversion as the function of preaching.  However, “evangelism” is more than “missionary preaching.”  It is “good news!”  And, in that greater sense, evangelism is embedded in preaching… even when it is to a community that follows Christ!  Preaching must be tactful and not emotionally manipulative.  A broader definition of evangelism helps prevent understanding preaching as solely about “getting people saved.”  It’s about pointing people to Christ, wherever their walk with God is. 

The funeral sermon must be personal and warm.  Notes from pastoral visits, visiting the family after the death, and observing photographs for personal details can be helpful for connecting the sermon with the family.  Don’t use complicated texts that require lengthy explanation.  Earl Daniel’s classification of funeral sermons is a useful tool: biographical occasional, and doctrinal.  Each of these areas can be a way to form the sermon.

Both baptism (any age) and infant dedication are significant moments in the life of the believing community.  Sermons help us orient to what is really happening in these moments.  Gibson makes the argument that the person(s) being dedicated or baptized are the focal point of the service.  This, again, is an unfortunate misnomer.  God is the focal point of the service.  Those receiving baptism or dedication are participants in what God is doing, but they are not the focus.  Again, I think Gibson is too enamored with our culture’s emphasis on individualism.  

            This book has few references and is predominantly Baptist in orientation.  Overall, the book was theologically impoverished and was redundant.  Out of the 109 pages of text, 108 of those pages could be scrapped and still maintain the “big idea.”  The method of preaching held up is deductive and does not seem to offer much space for inductive preaching.  I do not recommend reading this book.  There are others out there that would be far more beneficial on which to spend time and money.

On the Other Side of the Pulpit

Up until recently, I had served as a pastor in local church settings for the past seven years.  However, due to finances in the church I was recently serving, I found myself on the other side of the pulpit – no longer serving as a pastor in the “traditional” sense.  This new situation has presented a number of conundrums (say that five times fast).

Over night, my place changed from “insider” to outsider looking in.  It begs the question: “Without a place, what is my contribution?”  The things I feel called to do don’t seem to be much of an option at this point in time.  Preaching, pastoral prayers, and leading the liturgy are no longer in my realm of responsibilities.  It gives a new meaning to “desert wanderings.”  Foreigners in a foreign place.  

I sat this morning in worship as a parishioner.  It’s been about a month since losing my position as an associate pastor.  I had imagined with time it would be less painful.  To my surprise, I feel more unsettled and hungry to be back in the kind of ministry to which God has called me.  But, for the time being, it is important that I wrestle with the pastoral call in a context where those duties are not charged to me.  How do I preach when I have no pulpit in the formal sense?  How do I provide pastoral prayer when I am not leading anybody but following instead?  And, what does this season in my life represent?  Chastisement?  Testing?  Preparation?  Rest?  All of the  above?

The other side of the pulpit has taught me one thing.  It is difficult to enter into a new community… even a community of believers.  It is hard knowing how to be involved, how our gifts might be utilized for the community.  It is discouraging explaining to others that I’m a pastor… and, no, I didn’t lose my job because I did something wrong or have lost faith.  And, it is saddening to know that other pastors are aware of what has happened but have offered little or no encouragement or comfort.  Going from a full-fledged member of the assembly to something secondary (at least that’s the feeling), makes the transition all that more difficult.  It’s like a no-man’s-land area – something between clergy and laity.  Not quite one or the other.  Where do I fit?  Again, what is a pastor on the other side of the pulpit to do? 

For various reasons, David comes to mind.  King Saul rules Israel.  Interestingly enough, Saul never does have a throne (kisse).  This seat is only mentioned when Eli falls over backwards and breaks his neck and when David is enthroned as king.  But, between those two moments, all David has to go on is his call from God to be king.  He is a king without a throne, often wandering in the desert places avoiding Saul.  But, it is in those wanderings where David is equipped to be a great leader.  It is unlikely.  It is largely unavoidable.  There would have been quicker ways to power and to the throne, but David waited patiently for the Lord to open up the right moment.  But, it was a long time in the waiting.

Now, I don’t imagine myself to be a “man after God’s own heart” in the way David was.  Nor do I imagine a pastor to be a king of a congregation (although some have thought this way).  But, great admiration for the way that David prayerfully relied on God until it was time for him to take his place as the anointed leader of Israel.  Secondly, along the way, David learned faithfulness in following God even when others tempted him to take shortcuts.  Serving in Saul’s house and surviving in the wilderness were times of testing and preparation for David’s call.  I pray that my time on the other side of the pulpit serves the same function.  It is best to remember that when in God’s hands no time is wasted time.  Instead, we can look forward to a future God is preparing us to live into.


Joshua, Jericho, and Pastoral Ministry and Leadership

This past week I have been reflecting a lot on pastoral ministry and the Church.  It has been a hectic year and this is my first time to seriously stop and consider everything that has happened.  This was my seventh full year of ministry as a pastor on staff at a church.  Unfortunately, due to financial circumstances, my position at a local church ceased to exist.  As such, for the first time in those seven years, I’m not a pastor in the typical sense of the word (on staff at a church).  I’m still ordained and in good standing, I’m looking to be involved in a local church, and I still deeply care about being pastoral to those I interact with daily.  The call to be a pastor is not easily revoked.  Yet, this break (let’s call it a “forced sabbatical of undetermined length”) has given me welcome space to reflect again on my call, what it means to be a pastor, and what a good church looks like.

There is something deep, like fire shut up in your bones, that burns when you are called.  Granted, there are a lot of misguided zealots that burn brightly for a time.  Plenty of people that consider themselves to be “called” are quite insistent on being inflammatory.  But, none of those are quite what I mean.  Perhaps it’s akin to a hunger.  Not a hunger that yearns for the call itself or even personal fulfillment – both of those will be short lived, especially in ministry.  It’s rarely that glamorous.  It’s quite messy typically, it looks like a cross… by the world’s standards, anything but glorious.  It’s actually a hunger for something much bigger – it’s a hunger rooted in the presence of the Living God that calls us into being.  

I was speaking yesterday at the first church I had the opportunity to serve as a pastor.  It was a spur of the moment opportunity – one I was excited to have.  The passage was out of Joshua 5:13-6:27.  It’s a well-known story: the destruction of Jericho.  Previous to marching around the city, Joshua has a divine encounter.  Much like Moses, he is told to remove his sandals for the ground he is standing on is holy.  What kind of God can make worthless dirt holy?  Joshua’s call is intimately tied to this idea of holiness – being made to reflect the very character and nature of God back into a broken world.  But, his personal experience is not separated from the community’s call.  God doesn’t call just one person without also calling a community.  Pastoral ministry thrives when it is integrally connected to the Holy God and embodied in a living community of obedience.  

Joshua is called to lead God’s people into the Promised Land, the completion of Moses’ call to lead Israel out of Egypt.  Pastoral ministry is not isolated from history but builds upon it.  That doesn’t always mean it is a positive history, but it is part of the DNA of that community that must be remembered and dealt with carefully.  And, in fact, God often uses that history (we call this “redemption”).  God had intended for the Hebrews to enter the Promised Land before Joshua’s time.  Joshua had been one of the original spies and one of only two to give a positive report.  The others were skeptical and it ended up keeping them from entering the land.  Fortunately, the generation under Joshua’s leadership has learned from their past mistakes and decide to move forward in obedience to God’s command to enter the land.

Pastoral ministry often casts vision.  It is, and must be, interwoven with the call that God has given both the leadership and the community.  Many visions fizzle out because they are cast from ego rather than divine prompting.  Other visions fail because it is not compelling to a community – it lacks significance.  Still others fail when the leadership’s passions are not stoked hot by what is voiced by the community.  And, sometimes visions fail because people lose hope in the face of opposition.

Jericho stands looming on the horizon before Joshua and his army of… priests, nomads, and untrained soldiers?  It’s a band unfit for war on any scale that Jericho is accustomed to enduring.  Formidable walls, towering structures, and well-trained warriors.  The Hebrews have an ice cube’s chance in the Sahara desert of surviving, much less winning, any battle here.  It would be quite easy here to say that God or Joshua or the community was mistaken.  Perhaps they misheard or misunderstood.  Or, maybe with a little more time and training they would be ready to wage war, to fight Jericho on its own terms.  The problem is too big, the barriers too great… unless God is the one fighting the battle.  

Pastoral ministry can easily slip into survival mode.  Demands mount, deadlines press, and durability wanes.  Add to the mix that you’re dealing with broken people and situations frequently, including yourself and your family.  Your vocation, affirmed by God’s call, will often come up against Jericho-like situations.  Great opposition to our call should not be surprised – Jesus warned us as much.  The world hated Jesus; it will hate his disciples, too.  Trials should not come as a shock.  The problem in pastoral ministry is that sometimes the trials blindside you because they come from the least expected places.  It comes from the congregation, from brothers and sisters, from within the Body.  And, pastors are not guiltless in this either.  Sometimes they are the stumbling block.  We are adept are hurting people while placing a “spiritual” spin on it.  

Jericho looms large in our imaginations.  They fight for blood, they use power to get what they want, they violently protect their way of life – never mind who gets hurt or used up.  It’s a dog-eat-dog-world… and only the most ruthless survive.  Fortified walls hold at bay the outsiders, protect from changing the way of life, and promote uniformity without challenge.  Jericho has fortified itself not only from outsiders; it has also closed itself off from God.  And, surprisingly, it seems to work.  Who would challenge such strength?  Who would entertain such thoughts?  It’s the way it’s always been, the way it’s always going to be… or so the logic goes.

Life often presents barriers to God’s call upon our lives, from living into God’s promised future now,  And, it is tempting to live like Jericho in those moments.  After all, on the surface, it seems to work and continue to work – at least for Jericho and those like them.  Their position seems so firm and sure.  Our position seems tentative and weak.  From a pastoral perspective, we are no less vulnerable to this than our parishioners.  In some form or another, we all want control over the variables of life.  We want the sure bet.  

Let’s be honest, Joshua’s plan looks like the worst battle plan in the history of military warfare.  Really?  March around the city once every day and seven times on the seventh day… then shout!?  I’m no tactician… but even I would be saying, “Joshua, you’ve been out in this desert sun too much.”  

But, isn’t a life of prayer much like that?  We hear God speak, calling us out… and then?  Silence.  We march around and around that barrier.  Nothing.  Not even a crack in the wall.  Marching and marching, not fighting Jericho on its own terms.  Marching and praying… day after day after day.  It is in the silent obedience of daily marching, daily prayer, that something subtle and almost hidden begins to happen.  Jericho might not be changed… but we are.  The Hebrews marched and marched, never speaking a word.  Like a liturgy that slowly seeps into the bones and into our very character, prayer shapes us by opening us up to God’s presence… to the One who is able to make dirt holy.  We find that we are being changed and transformed into something more than we are alone.  

Persevering prayer causes the steadfast walls of Jericho to become little more than rubble littering the landscape.  But, in every victory there is cause for caution.  Joshua tells the people to “devote everything to destruction.”  The temptation, with this victory, is to take up the resources received and to become another Jericho.  Many churches that have experienced “success” by the world’s standards soon begin to covet many of the same things that the world covets.  Hello, Jericho!  Instead, Joshua calls for the people to take everything and dedicate it back to the Lord.  

Honestly, as a pastor, one in leadership, it is a temptation too readily available for us.  Given the pressures of various institutions, our cultures, our congregations, ourselves… we often settle for an established Jericho rather than risk walking into the unsettled Promised Land.  Having coveted the world of Jericho, we find ourselves building new walls to firm up our positions of power or prestige.  We create new walls for insiders and outsiders.  We construct fortresses that ensure stability rather than risk following a God that is not controllable.  We trade the language of relationship to a language that deals with God at a distance, describing God but not engaging God.  Jericho stands again.

And, yet, honest, persistent prayer will not allow such walls to stand in our own lives or in the lives of the community.  Ultimately, we find, there is only one sure foundation: God.  

In our economic environment, it is not unusual to be concerned about finances.  There are few who are not working on budgets to make sure that bills are paid and ministry is funded.  We want to be good stewards of the gifts God gives us.  Nothing wrong with that.  Yet, I know of churches where the “bottom line” revolves far more around money than it does people.  When it becomes more important for us to keep our doors open, even at the expense of people going into personal debt, there is another stone in the wall for Jericho.  

This is only one instance where we have coveted Jericho and haven’t earnestly marched in prayer around the problem, waiting upon God.  It is merely one example of trying to control our circumstances rather than praying for God to provide victory over situations that are too big for us to handle alone.  Joshua wasn’t trying to build another Jericho.  He sought to follow God whole-heartedly.  Joshua stands as testimony that God never fails to follow through on His promises.  Pastors and churches can rest in that kind of sure foundation.