Elemental Preaching by Mark Labberton

An excellent and challenging article for preachers, Sunday school teachers or anyone who has the opportunity to share the Word.  Originally posted at Leadership Journal.
Elemental Preaching
The irreducible qualities of gravity, light, and air give life to a sermon and to those who hear it.
Mark Labberton | posted 3/20/2010

Preaching provides many things, but chief among them should be gravity, light, and air. Like the gospel itself, these elements are essential but invisible, and their absence in a sermon will be felt. Preachers and their congregations are to live an incarnational faith in an incarnational God in a real world of gravity, light, and air. No Gnostic escape route is available. The gift of preaching is part of God’s way of helping a world desperate for the kind of Good News that grounds, guides, and fills.

Where’s the center of gravity?

By gravity I don’t mean preaching that is grave or ponderous. The gravity I have in mind is not limited to a mood or personality or form. Gravity is the central pull on the preacher’s life. What does the preacher’s life demonstrate to be his true center as he dares to stand and speak in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ?

I first realized how the preacher’s life and words reflect his center of gravity during a very difficult season of my life. I was a Christian, but I was full of questions and uncertainties. I came to worship each week hungry for a word that would ground my life. Adding to my instability, I was church-shopping. As I visited various churches each week, looking for a spiritual home, I longed for simple evidences of a stable hope from beyond myself, beyond those sitting there in the seats, beyond the preacher, beyond what could be seen. Work, relationships, fears, and decisions swarmed within me. Global news brought wider stories of social, political, and military storms into my life.

Week by week, I was hungry for something. Hot, hip, techno worship was not what I wanted. Nor was it a particular kind of music, tradition, liturgy, or church size. I longed for some assurance and evidence of the gravity of God for ordinary life, for encouragement that the gospel was the defining and drawing Center from which all other dimensions of life could be lived. From the welcome to the benediction, I tried to discern each church’s gravitational center. I especially hoped the preacher’s life and words would draw me towards the One who “holds all things together.”

I was not looking for the spectacular or even the dramatic. I did not need some sort of personal connection with the musician or the preacher. I was just trying to discern if the people leading were actually grounded in the basics of a centered life: the evidence of a passionate, honest engagement with Jesus Christ. Sadly it wasn’t as easy to find as I had anticipated.

Every week I did find centers of gravity, just not the sort I was looking for. I encountered preachers whose center of gravity appeared to be their own personality, gifts, hair, coolness, speech, body, education, spouse, or children. Their words pointed beyond themselves at times, but all the subliminal messages—their gestures, their attitude, their examples—seemed to point back to themselves as the center. You could come to God only through encountering and receiving the preacher; the medium became the message. This was truly “their” church. My impressions could have been wrong, of course. But I did not attend these churches very long.

In other churches I visited, the center of gravity seemed to be the preachers’ theological confidence. Not necessarily the doctrines, or whether their beliefs were true, but the passion and conviction with which they believed it. In still other settings, the center of gravity seemed to be the stage—the trappings of size, technology, music, popularity, volume, fame, and power. Yet, there was little evidence of the God who emptied himself and became weak and poor for our sake.

Sometimes the center of gravity seemed like it was the pull of the preacher’s emotions, or the congregation’s. The tissue box on every pew was the first sign. The sweat and tears later in the service brought all the pieces together.

What I sought was someone with theological gravity at the core. After all, the One we are to proclaim is the “Alpha and Omega,” “the firstborn of creation … and the firstborn from the dead.” Jesus’ personal declarations of gravity are reflected in words like, “I am the Bread of Life … I am the Good Shepherd … I am the Light of the world … I am the Resurrection and the Life.” He invites us to ground our lives in relation to himself when he says, “Come to me all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

This is no escapism, no denial of suffering, no spiritual pretense. We are not called to float above ordinary human experience. He says, “Take up your cross and follow me,” as God’s way for us to live right here, where our Center of Gravity calls us to serve and love.

Gravity is part of what Paul offers to the Athenians when he proclaims to them “the unknown God” and commends them to trust the God “in whom they live and move and have their being.” That’s gravity.

Paul says elsewhere that whether we are Greek or Jew, male or female, slave or free, we can put the full weight of our lives down on the Good News because in Jesus Christ, “God was reconciling the world to himself.”

In part, the power of the gospel’s gravitational pull lies in its totality, the sheer scale, the utter range and depth of God’s creation and re-creation. It’s all this in joy and in pain, in beauty and in tragedy, in assurance and in struggle. The attraction of personality, humor, intelligence, form, and style of some preachers can no doubt be attractive, even controlling. But there is no true north in these qualities. Our complex and needy lives, individually and collectively, cannot find hope in the preacher. Hope is only found in the grip of God, whose love and power are sufficient for our story and the whole story.

In my travels to different churches, I did find preachers and congregations among whom I sensed the great pull of the gospel defining and clarifying, healing and renewing the core of their lives. It was not evident because of any particular communication skill. These pastors were varied in age and tradition, but there were some things they had in common: they exuded a life that primarily bore witness to Jesus Christ in character and in attitude even more than in word. They simultaneously conveyed both an honest discipleship and an honest humanity; they seemed to know suffering, their own or others. They were not glib about their role; they had discovered in weakness that Christ was the Center who could and did hold them together.

Light that overcomes the dark

The other two ingredients of preaching—light and air—were conveyed as much in what these preachers didn’t say as in what they did. Light that guides and sustains us is seldom neon. It doesn’t tend to blink and demand recognition. It’s not a cheap, shallow light, but one that emerges like the dawn that finds the darkness within and around, one that overcomes evil with good. What is exposed is not for the sake of shame, but for the sake of healing.

To be in a well-lit room is one of life’s simplest and greatest joys. This happens best when the light is natural, but it can be effectively produced electrically as well. When the light fits the place, the occasion, and the people present, it can be lifegiving. It sets the mood and enables the greatest range of our thoughts and feelings, our relationships and actions, to be expressed, whether we are aware of it or not.

Preaching should have the effect of a well-lit room. It offers light that is timely and appropriate and clarifying. It’s light that does not serve itself but what it illumines. It’s light that helps people see what matters, and to receive and engage with all that is available. A 10,000-watt search light in the living room would not help someone see and know the truth. A flickering wick is sometimes all that is necessary to allow people to see and name what is most important.

The preacher should shine the light of truth, understanding, empathy, wisdom, justice, compassion, and hope into the ordinary world and lives of the congregation. It is light to see by and to see with. It’s not blinding or violating. It’s the kind of light that reveals God to the people and the people to God.

This kind of preaching is in contrast to the much murkier light of mere cleverness or charisma. It’s not the dazzling light of manipulation by which the congregation is captured by the aura of the preacher more than by the gospel itself. Instead, the preacher gets out of the way in order to let “the light of the knowledge of God’s glory shine in the face of Jesus the Christ.”

Moses was clear that the shine on his face was not his own, and he made sure the people did too. Not all preachers seem to remember this. The light the preacher offers is better and more powerful when the preacher is internally and verbally clear that he is a reflector of the One who alone is the light, and not the source itself.

Our fame-fixated culture sometimes clouds the light of worship. I was at a worship conference not long ago when the producer of the conference announced that that evening we could look forward to a time of “star-studded worship.” Headlining bands and popular preachers can actually get in the way and block the light of the gospel. The spotlight on the pastor must not be the light we trust or seek to extend.

How does a preacher convey Christ’s light? By first living it in his or her own life. If our congregations don’t see the light of Christ in how we live, they will have a harder time hearing about the light of Christ in our preaching.

I can’t present the light unless I am an earnest, growing disciple myself, honestly seeking the light of Jesus in my own places of darkness. I win a hearing for the light of the gospel by humbly and candidly admitting my own need for it. Then by inviting and welcoming others to go with me into places in our lives and in our world where Christ’s light leads us to go as agents of mercy and justice.

I just completed 17 years as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Berkeley, California. I could not be more grateful for the privilege and joy of those years. I was by no means a perfect pastor, and I was aware of many mistakes and failures during those years, some private and some public. In the sweet season of farewells during the final months, what moved me most was the evidence that some saw treasure in the rough and broken clay jar of my life. This was sometime glimpsed in my strength, but more often in my weakness.

Air you can breathe deep

If one of life’s simplest joys is a well-lit room, good air is its perfect match. Breathing fresh air is like breathing grace. It is rejuvenating, motivating, strengthening. Alternatively, polluted air or a shortage of air makes life much harder. When I am listening to or preaching a sermon, I am hoping for some good spiritual oxygen with as little pollution as possible.

When I was in the difficult season I described before, I can’t tell you how much I needed fresh air. Whether it was the pollutants around me or in me, I needed more and better air. Physicians and therapists alike observe that when life is tough or people feel scared or worried, they frequently forget to breathe. Air is meant to be inhaled, fully and deeply. Spiritual asthma is no joke.

Trying to live the lives we have been called to in Christ without sufficient spiritual air might be all right if we were meant to hold our breath and gut out a sprint. But we’re not. We are in a long race, more like a steeplechase, and definitely marked by hazards.

A life of faith demands strenuous endurance and requires good air. When, through the preacher’s message, the Holy Spirit is free to fill our lungs with hope, we can breathe deeply and are set free to live.

Hearing the abundance of God’s forgiving grace proclaimed allows us to take that good air all the way in, and then be released as we let the bad air all the way out. When we hear that God’s grace sets us in a “broad place” and delivers us from the knife edge of the law, we can give up the shallow breaths of our remorse or anxiety, and trust God’s generosity for the next breath too.

“The spotlight on the pastor is not the light we trust or seek to extend.”—Mark Labberton

Hearing our Lord’s call to follow means giving up the thin air of selfishness, of small-heartedness, of a trivial life. We can breathe deeply and love generously.

The good air of the gospel propels us to live differently in relation to our neighbor. Like in an airplane, we need our own oxygen mask, but then we are able to turn and assist others who need it too. If we follow Jesus, we will need oxygen all the more as our heart beats harder and our breath is spent loving those our Lord loves. The church is not meant to set up its own oxygen tent for believers only, but to catalyze a change in the whole environment so everyone might breathe differently.

The oxygen of grace, like manna, is not meant to be hoarded but comes as a gift of dependency that we can only receive day by day. The preacher draws us into this good air and by the wind of the Holy Spirit teaches us to receive this call and commission: breathe.

All this can be put in jeopardy, however, if we preachers are just blowing smoke. That is, we are just talking. Little gravity. Little light. Gestures, maybe. Stories, maybe. But too little oxygen and too much pollution hurt the people of God and God’s mission in the world. This is part of why people say, “Just don’t preach at me.”

Our preaching pollutes people’s lives when it conveys a view of God as a petty godling who serves our self-interest rather than a biblical vision of the Lord who for the joy set before him lived in endless sacrifice for all.

Our preaching fosters shallow breathing when it is filled with merely a Christianized version of the same consumerism as our culture. Our preaching stultifies God’s purposes when we preach a two-dimensional vision of the world based on fear, exclusion, manipulative judgment, or guilt rather than on God’s expansive grace and justice.

Preaching should offer these three gifts: gravity, light, and air. Each is essential. Each makes its own contribution. Each points to Jesus Christ. Each strengthens the individual and the community. Each sets the church on the task of loving the world God has made and is redeeming in Christ.

Mark Labberton is a professor of preaching and director of the Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, California.