Prophetic-Preacher vs. Poetic-Pastor

The minister, like the church, has various duties. But two duties rule absolutely supreme. These two supreme duties serve as the conduits through which all of the other ministerial duties flow. These two job supreme duties are 1.) preaching and 2.) pastoring.

Preaching is based on the model of another P word, the Prophet. The Prophet literally means “God’s voice” or “God’s messenger.” The Prophet in the Hebrew Bible, aka the Old Testament, is a figure who having been given a message from God cannot help but to shout that message to the world around him or her. John the Baptist is also referred to as a Prophet who prepares the way for Jesus.

The Prophet is basically God’s megaphone through which God tells the truth to the masses.

The Preacher is basically the Protestant equivalent of a modern-day prophet. In fact, the traditional, Evangelical teaching I grew up with claims that the need for the Prophet ended with the completion of the Bible, God's "final word." The Preacher served the role of the Prophet in that he preached the Bible and God's direct message to us via the Bible. 

The preacher in the least preaches God’s good news of redemptive love and does so in a public and vocal fashion. Often the preacher in presenting the gospel will point to social issues or worldly failings. This can range from fundamentalist preachers expressing disdain for the "sexual promiscuity" of our culture to liberal preachers expressing disdain for the economic inequity of our age. To these problems, both preachers offer the basic message that God can fix it if we take heed and listen.

We see a dilemma in the difference between the fundamentalist preacher and liberal preacher. Who is the true prophet and who is the false prophet? Who is hearing God’s message correctly or interpreting the message of the Bible correctly and giving it voice correctly? Whose preaching / prophecy is correct?

Often these days, Prophecy is equated with partisan politics. Cornel West, for example, claims the mantle of the Black prophetic tradition. West is famous for being an unapologetic Progressive. And I happen to agree with him on most political matters. However, the Prophetic tradition he claims is clearly informed by Progressive Politics and a Liberation theological reading of the Bible.

Now, juxtaposed to West is the fact that Black preachers who are obviously more politically and more theologically moderate if not conservative are deemed Prophets too. T.D. Jakes comes to mind. A Christian Post article from 2012 says it all: “Bishop TD Jakes Honored as 'Prophetic Voice.’” Cornel West would probably disagree with this. Hence, our dilemma.

Another example is the Pro-Life movement and its own claiming of the mantle of the Prophetic tradition. For example, a recent article on the Catholic online journal Catholic365 has this title: “The Prophetic Voice of Humanae Vitae.” Humanae Vitae is the papal cyclical from 1968 that affirms the Catholic Church’s ardent pro-life stance.

The internal dynamics of the Black Prophetic Tradition itself also points to the dilemma. Malcolm X, based in the Muslim prophetic tradition, argued for a Civil Rights approach that did not rule out violence as a means to the end of full equality. Malcolm X was open to racial separatism, i.e., Pan-Africanism,  as a solution. Martin Luther King, based in the Christian prophetic tradition, was a strong supporter of nonviolence and full integration. 

Whose “brand” of prophecy was right? By what criteria do we judge? Personal experience and expression? The Bible which itself requires personal interpretation?  And we know how easy it is to justify just about anything using biblical interpretation. (The old pro-slavery and anti-slavery shared use of the Bible is illustrative of this.)

Then there is the issue of religious pluralism. Would the Bible's criteria for a true prophet apply to Malcolm X,  a Muslim? 

Whose Prophetic voice is the true one is just as difficult a question to answer as whose politics is the correct one.  The answers given depends on the political-philosophical-theological worldview of the person responding to the question. Without some shared tool, a singular benchmark, an agreed upon criteria to measure those answers, partisanship will keep on ensuing.

The Catholic tradition, the "original" institution of the  Church, made it easier. The Catholic Church realized the dilemma over who was authoritative in measuring Truth. The Church’s answer was the Papacy. The Pope is the criteria-maker, the truth-measurer, the dogma-correcter. The Pope’s interpretation of the biblical text and church tradition to this day, at least theoretically, amounts to the final human word on subjects of essential import.

However, with the Protestant Reformation and the rise of Democracy it soon became clear the pope’s authority rested on the a priori belief in papal power. Take away the idea that the pope is somehow special and authoritative, and gone is the single criterion to measure religious claims. Whether this is a good thing or not is a meaningless question. It is simply a reality that there no longer exists, if there ever existed, a singular measuring stick one can use in answering political and religious questions.

What is a preacher to do? What can a preacher do in this thoroughly diverse – politically, religiously, etc. – age? What can a preacher do when there is no agreed upon criterion or shared biblical exegesis in the pews or elsewhere? What can a preacher do when the Prophetic tradition, by definition based in religious claims, is meaningless to an increasingly irreligious yet increasingly partisan age? Either the preacher, claiming the mantle of the prophetic tradition, is preaching to the choir or to people who simply tune the preacher out because of that preacher’s presumed theological or political persuasion.  

We see the same dynamic in the realm of Christian denominations. It seems, based on the data, the more a denomination assumes the mantle of the Prophetic tradition, the greater its decline. Evidence #1? The United Church of Christ. The UCC has been at the forefront in the struggle for LGBT equality, Racial Justice, and Environmental stewardship. They literally claim the Prophetic tradition. However, the UCC is the fastest dying Mainline denomination in the U.S. 

Next to the UCC, the denomination most fervently claiming the mantle of the Prophetic tradition is the Episcopal Church. It too is steeply declining.

Moreover, while certainly most of the other denominations are less progressive and prophetic collectively, individual mainline ministers are usually more progressive than their denomination’s mission and most certainly their congregants. A big percentage of Mainline ministers would, I imagine, say they at least aim to be Prophetic from the pulpit.

Regardless, both denominations and denominational preachers share one big thing in common – they are message-giving entities. Denominations and preachers have something to say and to share and they focus on how to best do this. Denominations and preachers are necessarily active, proactive, intentional about preaching the gospel as they understand it. But is this working for most denominations or denominational preachers?

I don’t think it is, at least not alone.

Here I come to the other main duty of the minister – pastoral care. If preaching is all about speaking, pastoral care is all about listening.  If preaching is all about getting us to think deeply and consider a religious truth, pastoral care is all about getting us to share deeply and experience the presence of God.

The minister needs both. Good preaching and good pastoral care equals good ministry. However, it is my sense that for far too long there has been far too much emphasis placed on good preaching. Preaching became the foundation upon which everything else, including Pastoral Care, was built. The Prophetic preaching focus too often displaces Pastoral Presence as the most important, meaningful, and lasting thing a minister does.

The old adage is true – people don’t care about how much you know until they know that you care. Pastoral Care is the foundation of all a minister does, including Prophetic preaching. If a Prophetic voice is to be heard and heeded, that voice must come from a pastor first wholly present with those hurting, grieving, trying to find their way. We cannot divorce Prophetic voice from Pastoral Presence. If we do, no one will listen.

What’s more, good pastoral care is the best tool we have to bridge the political divide within our churches and within our country. Good pastoral care transcends politics and partisanship. Good pastoral care sets the stage for good listening to happen, and eventually bridges to be built and walked across. 

We are past presuming people listen to authority figures, minister or otherwise. People are more adept than ever at tuning out things they disagree with or that make them feel uncomfortable. Yes, congregants may be entertained or educated by our good preaching. It might fill the pews even. But this doesn’t necessarily translate to transforming our culture which is of utmost importance at this point. Just looks at megachurches filled with wonderful preaching yet fostering little social transformation and in fact merely affirming our individualistic culture.

It has been affirmed again and again that when it comes to truly changing hearts, discursive activities such as preaching or listening to a minister preach, or for that matter hearing a politician use the bully-pulpit, are less helpful than forging human relationships. Walking aside someone for a little part of their sojourn is far more important a task than preaching to someone every Sunday morning.

And for those who are not part of the Choir ministers perennially preach to, it will be exceedingly rare that good preaching will draw them in, change their hearts, or move them to new ways of being, at least not long term. Establishing a rapport and nurturing a friendship with strangers, with the Other, with those we too easily demonize – this is what truly cultivates transformed individuals, groups, and cultures.

The gift of presence, of real, quiet, consistent presence is a lost art form in this day and age. People are flitting from screen to screen. Real and meaningful connection and community, both are a precious commodity despite our interconnected age. Experiencing a caring and compassionate institution is also very rare; and the minister sets the stage for this kind of institution.

All of this is to say, Pastoral Presence, beginning with the pastor and filtering to all living in community, this is the new Prophetic voice, the Prophetic call of our time.

This is why the Mindfulness Revolution is genuine. Mindfulness amounts to building the capacity in us to be present. Mindfulness, the practice of being present to and with ourselves, gives way to the ability to be present with others.

If we lessen the importance of preaching and increase the importance of pastoral care, what are we left with on Sunday morning? Worship service still has as its centerpiece “the sermon.” We cannot simply let our sermons become mediocre because they are more secondary.

Granted that we cannot make the sermon disappear, here are a couple recommendations:

1.) With each sermon being written, ask what about it expresses pastoral care?
2.) Use the memorial and the eulogy, which is basically a spiritual biography, as a template for Sunday mornings. Pastoral care is built into the memorial and the eulogy.
3.) Practice writing poetry and try using poetry in the place of the sermon once in awhile.

Yes, that’s right – poetry. Why? Because poetry, if done right (and it can be learned), is perfect at merging head and heart. Poetry is perfect at moving us to contemplate meaning and experience the intangible. Listening to, experiencing poetry, and writing it, helps us to be more still and more present. In turn, being more present opens in us a clearer way forward.

The art form known as Hip-Hop also tells us that performance is important too.

What if instead of hermeneutics and the art of the homily, seminaries taught the poetry and the art of writing a poem? I for one think it would revolutionize the way we do church and return Her to the Parable-Poet named Jesus who as the Word taught with stylized stories (aka Poetry).

The Pastoral-Poetic Voice is now more essential than the Preachers-Prophetic Voice. In an ugly and loud world, beauty and quiet are better able to break through it all.  In a time of information overload and overthinking, brush strokes of expression and experience, passion and compassion, more naturally make their way through the madness. In an era where everyone is a Prophet preaching their own absolute truth, it is the Poet who thaws the ice-walls dividing us and warms the cold days of winter’s discontent.

It is interesting how we have deified the Prophetic tradition as if it is the only format God has ever used to point us to Truth. The Hebrew Bible indeed has the Prophetic books, but it also has the Writing, namely the Psalms. Jesus indeed was prophetic but used Parables (narrative poetry) as his preferred means to declare The Real. 

We are now living in the Psalmic-Parabolic Age. Preachers, churches, denominations – adjust.  


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