The impact of 1,000 sermons from my pastor still shapes the way I interpret and live the Bible.
“Making a hospital visit to a suffering family makes more of an impact than the three points you made in your message on Sunday.”
Occasionally, I hear statements like this at pastors’ conferences and preaching seminars. The idea? Pastoral presence is more important than a pastor’s preaching. The implication? It’s better to spend less time worrying about your preaching and more time engaging people at a personal level.
Sounds good. But it’s shortsighted. And ultimately unhelpful.
Sure, there are pastors who spend all day in the study and never among the people. Those kinds of pastors need to be prodded out the door so they can better serve the flock. (Not to mention that being with the flock greatly enhances your preaching.)
It’s also true that most of your congregation already forgot the main points from your sermon last week. And yes, church members will long remember your presence during their time of crisis. But the point of your preaching isn’t that everyone will remember all the information you present anyway. Neither should preaching preparation be forgotten in the attempt to increase one’s pastoral presence.
No, instead we need to consider the relationship between preaching and presence in a way that measures impact beyond what is immediate, powerful and memorable. That’s why I say: Do not downplay the long-term, cumulative effect of your preaching.
Preaching is formative in ways that go beyond mere information retention. Every time a pastor opens up the Word and preaches the gospel, he is showing his church how to approach the Bible. Pastors who elevate the Scriptures week after week, sermon after sermon, lead their people to approach the Bible in the same way.
A Personal Example
From the time I was nine years old until I left for Romania at the age of 19, I belonged to a church where the pastor (Ken Polk) preached expository sermons every week. I remember the first (and second) time he took us through the Gospel of John. I still remember his 1 Corinthians series or his sermons from Judges.
Of course, this pastor was also by our side when we had our first child. He has comforted us amidst trial and loss. He is a pastor, after all, not just a preacher. But I dare say—his Word-centeredness as a preacher is what made his pastoral presence so powerful during our time of trial. His presence was enhanced by his preaching.
I cannot calculate the formative influence that this pastor’s preaching has had on my life. For ten years, I listened to Ken preach. Ten years. Fifty weeks a year. Two times a week. That’s 1,000 sermons.
No, I don’t remember the information contained in the vast majority of those sermons. I don’t remember all the titles or the points. But I have no doubt that his preaching has greatly impacted my life.
• I approach the text the way he does, looking to discover what’s there, not invent what’s not.
• I see Christ in the Scriptures because he saw Christ there.
• I respect the Bible because of the way he always made the purpose of the text more prominent than the personality of the messenger.
• We are on the same page theologically because he consistently preached a theology that came from the page.
An Exhortation to Pastors
Pastors, don’t underestimate the cumulative effect of your preaching. You are not dumping information into brains. You are forming the habits of your people, teaching them how to read and understand and apply the Bible for themselves. How you preach week after week matters just as much as what you preach.
Weekly confrontation with the Word of God slowly changes how we look at the world. We see God more clearly, our human state and the future of the world within the Bible’s framework, even if we don’t remember all the information in an individual message. Sermons gradually change the way we think and feel and believe and hope.
Yes, your presence at the funeral home and the hospital bed is vital. It matters greatly. But there’s a reason why your presence during suffering is so powerful: The Word. A pastor’s visit is unique because the pastor is the one who speaks authoritatively from God’s Word week in and week out. That’s why Christians want their pastor to be by their side, and not just a fellow church member.
So let’s not pit pastoral presence against sermon preparation. Your preaching influences your presence, and vice versa. May the Lord open our eyes to see the quiet, subtle influence that 1,000 sermons have on the people God has entrusted to our care.