by Marv Knox
Effective pastors must embrace a persistent paradox—to both comfort and afflict their flocks, educator/author Tony Campolo told participants in the annual Wilshire Preaching Practicum in Dallas.
“Your pastoral and prophetic roles are in conflict,” said Campolo, retired professor of sociology at Eastern University and a founding leader of the Red-Letter Christians movement, which emphasizes the specific teachings of Jesus.
“Prophets are always controversial. When you do the prophetic thing, you lose people,” he reported. “You’re asked to do both”—serve as pastor and prophet.
Many pastors feel the strong pull to please their parishioners, to preach sermons so that church members will like them. But that’s not the pastor’s job, Campolo said, adding: “Your primary responsibility is to lead people to be impressed by Jesus, not by you. Do they leave church thinking Jesus is wonderful or you’re wonderful? The only applause that matters is the applause that comes from a pair of nail-pierced hands.”
Campolo noted pastoral care—the love pastors bestow upon their congregants—“will earn you the right to preach prophetically.”
Host Pastor George Mason of Wilshire Baptist Church urged participants to lean into experience when they preach.
“I grew up being warned about paying too much attention to experience,” Mason recalled, noting he was told, “Just trust the Bible and fit your experience into what the Bible says. And yet having a personal experience with Jesus is central to our faith, as Baptists have always preached.”
“We work out of experience,” he insisted. “It’s how we know the world. And there is no other way.”
Mason cited occasions throughout the Bible to illustrate how experience shaped God’s activity, Jesus’ ministry and the early church’s activity. He also pointed to Protestant history to demonstrate how the church draws upon four factors—Scripture, tradition, reason/science, and experience—as it engages the world. “Listening to and honoring people’s experiences, including our own, can draw us deeper into the life of the Spirit.”
Pastors who seek to build relationships across racial boundaries must “refuse to settle for kumbaya, feel-good moments,” advised Frederick Haynes, pastor of Friendship-West Baptist Church in Dallas.
“Why have a feel-good moment on Sunday when the structures of racism are still present on Monday?” he asked.
Friendship-West and Wilshire, which have developed a sister-church relationship through New Baptist Covenant, do not exchange pulpits, he said. “But we agree to work on dismantling structures of injustice.” He challenged everyone to “walk in each other’s shoes and feel how those shoes hurt.”
As Haynes and Mason discussed prophetic preaching in their city, where a white police officer recently shot and killed a black man in his own home, Mason observed: “People often think prophetic preaching is speaking about what’s wrong. But justice is about making things right, saying, ‘Here are some solutions.’”
Heather Mustain, Wilshire’s associate pastor for missions and advocacy, spoke to participants about addressing public policy from the pulpit.
“Preaching needs to be both/and—leading to loving service as well as acts of justice,” she said. “Our churches have been good at charity, but we have to learn to address the things that make charity necessary.”
Although church members often tell their pastors they don’t want to hear about politics from the pulpit, Mustain said sermons can be political, which is proper, without being partisan, which is not.
“‘Political’ means ‘relating to the way power is used in a country or a society,’” which can and should be constructive, she said. The difference between political and partisan depends upon “where your allegiance lies; strive to work across the aisle, and always remember that a Christian’s ultimate allegiance is to the way of Christ.”