The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, Executive Director
She preached a sermon she thought HAD to be preached. So much was going on in the world around her with the presidential election, the Black Lives Matter movement, and the pandemic that she couldn’t stay silent.
Several weeks later we talked about the congregation’s response: “I don’t get it. I really didn’t expect the backlash I got. A few emails told me how brave I was, but man… the nasty ones were nasty! One member just left a note on the church door that said, ‘I don’t come to church to hear that stuff. I’ll be looking for a new church.’”
I asked her a question I’ve been asking a lot of pastors who’ve had similar experiences: “Was that a prophetic sermon?” “Yep,” they all reply. Then I follow up: “So why are you then so surprised to suffer a prophet’s fate? I mean, there’s a reason they usually lived in or ran to the desert. Why is it surprising to be treated like a prophet after preaching prophetically?”
They always push back: “Aren’t we supposed to preach prophetically?” “No,” I answer. “I think we’re called to preach apostolically.”
What’s the difference? Ever since Walter Breuggemann published his great book, The Prophetic Imagination, forty years ago, pastors have been trying to preach prophetically. I completely believe there are times when prophetic preaching is necessary, but even in the Bible it was a mostly an ineffective form of preaching. The sermons are remembered fondly but were received harshly. Jesus and the apostles offered a different kind of preaching that was more effective and transformational than the prophets’ preaching.
Apostolic preaching is the kind of preaching you find the Book of Acts. It’s not radically different from prophetic preaching. There’s definitely a “truth-telling” aspect of apostolic preaching, but there are also significant differences. Apostolic preaching is grounded first in trusting relationships so that the truth is said among those who feel like friends and family, rather than being like truth bombs dropped amidst a congress of foes. The apostles built up community and compassion first, and then encouraged change and transformation. They shared together, ate together, sacrificed together, prayed together, discerned together, and were healed together. Their preaching reflected those relationships.
Second, apostolic preaching is grounded in shared stories and shared experiences. Peter, for example, shares his message about Jesus after the amazing experience of Pentecost. He grounds his sermon in their shared history, showing them how it is a natural outgrowth of the Jewish story. Phillip preaches to the Ethiopian eunuch by sitting beside him and talking as a friend, showing how faith in Christ is rooted in the Hebrew story.
A third aspect of apostolic preaching is that it is tailored to the community. Paul talks about this specifically when he says, “To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law) so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I might by any means save some” (1 Corinthians 9:20-22). In other words, Paul preached in a way that reduced resistance and nurtured connection. Paul had no problem dropping truth bombs, but he tried to do so in a way that brought people together.
Fourth, apostolic preaching is grounded in prayerful experience that leads to personal and communal transformation. Philip is told by an angel to preach to the eunuch. Peter preaches about what to eat after a spiritual experience, and he preaches to Cornelius after seeing an angel in a vision. Paul is invited in a vision to go to Macedonia and preach. I’m not suggesting that we can’t preach until we experience the Holy Spirit or speak with angels, nor that the prophets didn’t preach what God told them to preach. I am suggesting that apostolic preaching is grounded in our prayerfulness rather than our busyness. It means making and taking time for a prayerful seeking of what and how God is calling us to preach. My simple way of doing this is reading passages spiritually and prayerfully early in the week, and then waiting for God to guide me in building the sermon. I’ve found that when I’ve done that, it’s unleashed a creativity that wasn’t there when I tried to craft rational, logical sermons on my own.
As a final example of the difference between apostolic and prophetic preaching, I’ll remind you that the only one who preached prophetically, Stephen, ended up suffering a prophet’s fate.
I’m in the process of writing about this kind of preaching in more detail for a book to be published in 2021, with a working title of Preaching to Those Walking Away. Until then, I’m inviting you to start thinking and reflecting on how to be more apostolic in your preaching—how to preach in a way that engages people in a relationship that makes them more available to being transformed.
The Rev. Dr. N. Graham Standish, is executive director of Samaritan Counseling, Guidance, Consulting in Sewickley, PA, and directs their Caring for Clergy and Congregations program, including their weekly worship services for pastors at www.congregationforclergy.org. He is the author of eight books on spirituality and congregational transformation, including his latest one, …And the Church Actually Changed.