‘Yes,’ came the reply. ‘Remember that when you preach, you will be preaching to ordinary people.’
Smedes remembered thinking, ‘Thanks a lot! For this kind of wisdom you get to be a professor in a theological seminary?’
Many years later, he realised that his professor was right. ‘I was ripe with scholarly insights; I was tuned in to theology and the craft of sermonising – but I was not tuned in to the ordinariness of the people who listened to my idealistic preaching.’
I spend a lot of my life preaching and listening to preachers, leading Bible study groups and being a participant, writing books and reading them. And as I considered that theology professor’s advice, I realised that those of us who attempt to teach others – whether in a pulpit, a living room, youth group or junior church – can easily forget that most people’s deepest need is not for information but for help and hope.
As you preach, the mind of a woman listening is wandering to her appointment with the consultant next week and the results of tests that may change her life. As you bring wonderful alliteration and illustration to your pulpit, a man in your congregation thinks about how he will cope with redundancy, a mother wonders who she could confide in about her 15-year-old daughter’s pregnancy, and a teenager considers ending it all rather than having to face the bullies again on Monday morning.
What was it about Jesus’ teaching that caused the gospel writer to say, ‘the common people heard Him gladly’ (Mark 12:37, NKJV). Why were the stories he told so compelling?
I think the answer is, at least in part, down to the fact that he had a special compassion for those who were not on the religious ‘inside track’ – those who Smede’s professor called ‘ordinary people’. He knew that the good news he brought needed to touch those who struggled to pray, those whose kids were breaking their hearts, those who thought they were rubbish at ‘spiritual’ things, and those who had been written off as losers by the religious establishment.
Just this week I spoke to a group of prisoners. It wasn’t a religious meeting, but one man asked me about my faith. I decided to simply tell one of the stories that Jesus told. It was the story of two brothers ? one a compliant son, the other a hell-raiser ? and a father who just couldn’t stop loving. As I was in the middle of it, I realised something very spiritual was happening in the room. One man said to me later, ‘I felt a shiver go down my spine.’
I have come to believe that most people are not as far from the kingdom of heaven as we think. And when they get a glimpse of that kingdom, they are attracted to it like flowers to the sun. Our job as teachers and preachers is to show that this kingdom is not just for us but for them. And if we fail in this, then it doesn’t matter how many people turn up to hear us preach, how many DVDs we sell, how many conferences we get invited to speak at or whether we are regarded as being more theologically astute than other house-group leaders. If we fail the test of touching the lives of ordinary people…then we fail completely.
Illustration: Lizzie Kevan