Preaching and Walking Humbly

He has told you, O mortal, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice,
and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?

—Micah 6:8 NRSV

Lord, Make Me Humble

The English pastor J. B. Phillips, a kind of Eugene Peterson for his day, became well known back in the 1950s when The New Testament in Modern English, his colloquial paraphrase, was first published. In his autobiography, Phillips admits at the height of his popularity experiencing a degree of success that he never thought imaginable; recognition, applause, and honor met him at every turn. But before long Phillips also began to realize that all the attention and money and power was starting to go to his head, resulting in “a subtle corrosion of character, an unconscious changing of values and the secret monstrous growth of a vastly inflated idea of myself.” Finally, convinced that his “one man kingdom of power and glory” had to stop, one day Phillips prayed: “Lord, make me humble—but not yet.”1

Whether we are successful or famous—and even if we are not—humility is one quality that does not come easily to our celebrity-saturated society today; nor more particularly to American churches; and, I suspect, not even to American preachers. In theory we preachers have every intention of imitating the Apostle Paul who squelched an inflated sense of self, boasted in Christ alone, and unashamedly looked the fool as he proclaimed the gospel not with “eloquent wisdom” or “lofty words,” but in “weakness and in fear and in much trembling.”2 But in practice such an approach and attitude can prove quite elusive in a pressure-cooker, “more, better, bigger, faster,” production-oriented culture. All too often in our daily lives and ministries, whether we have actually “arrived” or remain ever the “wannabe” in search of recognition and notoriety, humility is served an eviction notice, while a subtle yet persistent hubris encroaches and can take up residence.

We preachers may never actually blurt out J. B. Phillips’s prayer, but if actions speak louder than words, the message quite often comes through: “Lord, make me humble . . . but not yet.” Walking humbly with God is not always the preacher’s forte.

John Bertram Phillips-illustration by D.KlitsieJohn Bertram Phillips

John Bertram Phillips (1906–1982) was a Bible translator, writer, and ordained Anglican clergyman in the Church of England.

While serving as a minister at Church of the Good Shepherd in London during WWII, he was disappointed to find that young people in his church did not understand the Bible; therefore, he began to paraphrase the New Testament in colloquial English during the periods he spent in bomb shelters during the blitz. He finished his translation of the New Testament after the war, and it was published in 1958 as The New Testament in Modern English.

Phillips’s work translating the Bible made him one of Britain’s most famous Bible communicators. A masterful apologist and defender of the Christian faith, he claimed that the Scriptures spoke to his condition in an “uncanny way.”

An Occupational Hazard

In my experience, one occupational hazard that can quickly derail humility is the professionalization of the ministry. Tremendous pressure is placed on preachers as the “go to” seasoned professional Christian, if not near-absolute authority on all things biblical and spiritual. Sometimes this pressure can be self-imposed by pastors; we are motivated by a desire to impress others with our intellectual prowess and super-spirituality from the pulpit. Some observers say we preachers are still suffering from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment emphasis on knowledge and expertise. Others suggest the problem started even earlier, in the fourth century, as more Greek-speaking Gentiles became Christians, and biblical interpretation became rooted in a more Hellenistic worldview and technique that treated the text as a source from which only the scholarly could extract and display nuggets of learning. Yet others point to late nineteenth and early twentieth century Western culture and the abdication of the church to the predominant image of the theater, which then allowed their sacred buildings, worship services, and the role of pastor to be shaped by this powerful metaphor. The thing is, preachers can cave in to the pressure to perform. We succumb to the (often self-imposed) cult of the so-called expert—although churches are often complicit in pressuring preachers to perform as well, with a kind of congregational abdication to the professional.

Some years ago the Evangelical scholar and writer Gretchen Gaebelien Hull noted how odd it was that Bible-believing Evangelicals are only too eager to “delegate their critical thinking to others,” allowing the preacher in particular to do their biblical interpretation for them. Hull went on to blame this admittedly “awkward phenomenon” on “Evangelicals [who] miss the pope” and fill “the void with the cult of the ‘expert,’” relying on local pastors or published authors—C. S. Lewis, James Dobson, Charles Colson—to help them avoid error and just tell them what the Scriptures really mean. What some Evangelicals do not realize, Hull concludes, and what preachers seem too quick to forget, is that “in an age of increasing specialization, scholarly knowledge may indeed intimidate the non-specialist, but—no matter how intimidating—specialization does not denote infallibility.”3

It is especially ironic that Evangelicals, who take the Bible so seriously, would relinquish their right and responsibility to engage Scripture, but preachers often seem only too eager to comply, often resulting in what one critic dubs “speaching” (preaching as speech). Indeed, one polemic for re-imagining preaching is fueled by the concern that “there are whole generations of people who have been taught a sermonized version of the faith . . . [and] without the pastor’s interpretation they have a hard time” engaging Scripture or “understanding or entering into [the biblical] Story.”4

For me, the call to walk humbly with God as a preacher means identifying the prevailing emphasis on the professionalization of ministry, and nurturing a more amateur spirit in myself. I use the term deliberately, knowing that it is often used in a disparaging or belittling manner. However, the designation “amateur” (from Latin) is not so much about ability or quality or skill as it is about motivation. One may recall from schooldays long since past the verb used to model conjugation—amo, amas, amat (which still appears in the other Romance languages today, such as Italian, French or Spanish)—as the verb “to love.” An amat-eur is one who does something simply for the sheer love of it.

When it comes to preaching, I am learning to corral the cult of the expert, to see myself less as a learned specialist in the business of dissecting the biblical text, amassing technical data, or even displaying spiritual expertise, and more simply as an amateur, nurturing a deep love for the Scripture, living in ever-deepening devotion to the Lord, and pursuing a way of preaching that is shaped by this relationship, that comes from the inside out.

Learning to Walk More Humbly as a Preacher

Related to the practice of maintaining an amateur spirit, what has helped me more than anything else to walk more humbly with God as a preacher is entering into what I call a “conversational homiletic,” a method or practice of sermon preparation that seeks to welcome the role of others (clergy colleagues, staff members, and the congregational members) as partners in preaching.

Perhaps the term “homiletic” is more well-known among Catholics for whom the “homily” indicates the message preached at Mass, or what one priest describes tongue-in-cheek as a kind of “spiritual hors d’ouevres” before the Eucharist, though it is more often characterized as an impersonal and uninspiring monologue. However, “homiletic” (from the Greek homiletikos) more accurately means “of conversation,” or even “affable” (warm, friendly, easy to talk with)—thereby evoking the conversational and communal nature of preaching. Even the Latin word for “sermon” means “dialogue.”

Eugene-Peterson-illustration-by-D.KlitsieEugene Peterson

Eugene H. Peterson (1932–) is a pastor, scholar, poet, and author of over thirty books, including most recently his autobiography, The Pastor: A Memoir (HarperCollins, 2011). Peterson was founding pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Bel Air, MD, and was professor of spiritual theology at Regent College in Vancouver, B.C. until retiring in 2006. He is best known for The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language, an idiomatic translation he wrote when he realized that his students, “weren’t feeling the vitality and directness that I sensed as I read and studied the New Testament in its original Greek.” He translated in a way that would be received the way the letters were received by their original recipients: “I just typed out a page the way I thought it would have sounded to the Galatians,” he says.

When asked recently to define humility, Fuller’s President Richard Mouw answered, “It’s a hermeneutic of suspicion toward yourself and charity toward people you disagree with.” This applies to preaching as well. A conversational homiletic, then, is a fundamental attitude and approach to preaching marked by a humility that deliberately seeks to welcome others, even different others with whom one might disagree, as partners together in preaching, entering into the spiritual practice of engaging the biblical text in community to discern the meaning of God’s Word together. The preacher assumes a posture of submission to Scripture, and as co-listener in the context of community learns to pay attention to the text.

For me, at times this has meant gathering with various groups during the week prior to preaching to listen to the sermon text together. Occasionally, it has meant more interaction with the congregation around the text during the worship service, or sometimes in reflection and conversation after the sermon. More often than not, when I do these things something happens—something almost spiritually electric, and lifegiving! As the Word is lifted up in conversation with the community of faith, we all lean in a bit more. We connect as a body. We feel the presence of the Holy Spirit. In us. Through us. Despite us. I am embarrassed to say I am almost always surprised (like I wasn’t really expecting God to show up!). But I am utterly grateful as well.

Typically, when asked what makes for dynamic preaching, we often explore the efficacy of various techniques or rhetorical strategies: Manuscript versus outline, or notes versus no notes; the use of personal stories versus strict verse by verse exposition; raised pulpit versus pew level; black robes versus blue jeans. One student preacher was told that for her preaching to be more effective she needed to grow her plucked eyebrows back.

But such concerns, while not entirely meaningless (except maybe for the eyebrows), often miss the point that the preacher does not function primarily as an skilled performer, but more as a skilled reader, whose role in the body is as an “interpretive servant-leader,” adept coach, or host. Rather than lording it over others (however subtly), we can learn to facilitate a way of preaching that is grounded in a communal dialogue that encourages the whole body to engage the text and listen to one another share in the Word together. No doubt Fred Craddock’s groundbreaking book on preaching took us in the right direction: We Preach as One Without Authority. But I imagine a follow-up volume, an invitation to a conversational homiletic: We Preach as Those Together With Humility.

A deep sense of humility must pervade all that we do as preachers, for though God uses us, we have this treasure in earthen vessels. And in the last analysis it is not our dynamic preaching—not the depth of our Scriptural insight, nor our creative energy or rhetorical flourishes—that accomplishes the renewal of the Church or the work of the Kingdom. For these things happen only by God’s grace.

When asked about his role in the sixteenth-century Reformation, Martin Luther is reported to have said: “I simply taught, preached, wrote God’s Word: otherwise, I did nothing. And when, while I slept, or drank Wittenberg beer with my Philip and my Amsdorf, the Word so greatly weakened the papacy that never a Prince or Emperor inflicted such damage upon it. I did nothing. The Word did it all.”5

The Word did it all then—and still does. To that ever Living Word, I am learning to say, bit by bit, “Lord, make me humble . . . now.”

1. J. B. Phillips, The Price of Success (Wheaton: Howard Shaw, 1984), 9.
2. 1 Corinthians 1:17; 2:1, 3.
3. Gretchen Gaebelein Hull, “Missing the Pope?” Perspectives, October 1993.
4. Doug Pagitt, Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 191.
5. Ernest Gordon Rupp, Luther’s Progress to the Diet of Worms 1521 (S.C.M., 1951), 96–99; quoted in John R. W. Stott, Between Two Worlds: The Art of Preaching in the Twentieth Century (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 25.

This article was published in Theology, News & Notes, Spring 2011, “Empowering Wise Preachers: For a Vigorous Church in a Volatile World.”