No, I have never been much of a fan of Madonna’s music (although the 1989 tune, “Cherish,” is catchy), but the 1986 song, “Papa Don’t Preach,” does point to one occasion that a person– in this case a father– should not preach. You can websearch the song– you certainly don’t need my help. But the song does hint at something that many of us know, or at least feel… that preaching often is not particularly helpful.
Consider some terms that are considered synonymous with aspects of preaching:
Advise Enlighten Exhort Lecture Orate Pontificate
All of these terms overlap in meanings, but as you move to the right, the shade of meanings get a bit darker– a bit more negative. The ones more to the left are a bit more positive. In fact, in the song “Papa Don’t Preach,” the lyricist is asking her father for good advice… rather than venomous outbursts and blame.
But even the ones to the left, advise and enlighten, are in themselves suggestive of times when one really should not preach. Here are some:
- When we need to listen. The old joke that God gave us two ears and only one mouth because we were meant to listen twice as much as speak, is not so far from the truth. Preaching is unidirectional. But frankly, we don’t know what to say until we know what needs to be said. That typically takes listening.
- When we need to learn. Mystical enlightenment is not very reliable. Most of what we learn is through reading, hearing, and experiencing. Preaching is done when we feel we are in a position of authority and knowledge to those who need to be enlightened, advised, exhorted, and lectured by us. Ultimately, we can ‘t give what we don’t have.
- When we need to discuss. Preaching often drives people in the opposite direction of what we intended. People react against the sense of being verbally coerced. Also, preaching can be interpreted as disrespectful. Discussion demonstrates respect. Besides, in many situations, we know truth in part, and discussion can, hopefully, bring our small truths together.
- When we need to think. The old Wild West advice, “Shoot first, ask questions later,” can become in preaching, “Talk first, think later.” I have heard many well thought out, crafted sermons, but I have also heard many sermons that are full of style and passion, but lacking clear evidence of thought or reflection. We need to think first, speak later.
- When we need to empathize. When someone is suffering, they don’t really need to be preached at. They need to sense compassion. They need to hear your heart more than hear your voice.
- When we need to act. Talk can all to often be cheap. Sometimes, talking is a way to not act. Modeling what is right, true, and good is often a better “sermon” than talking it.
- When we need to be silent. Dead time on radio is a “sin” but silence can indeed be golden. Sometimes we need to quiet our minds and our hearts. It may be in the form of meditation, or preparing ourselves to hear what God is speaking to us. Filling the air with our own voice is not always of value.
That is not to say that there is no place for preaching. Preaching has value. But check the above list first. And if it is the correct time to preach, recognize that the best preaching will incorporate the other items:
- be in response to listening to God and to others
- be in response to what is learned and preparing for what will be learned
- be dialogic, interacting with the hearer, not just talking at.
- be empathetic… speaking that comes from the heart, and listening to the heart of God and the hearts of others.
- be the result of thoughtful (and humble) reflection.
- be linked to action. Preaching should clarify/explain action, rather than inform in a manner that is in opposition to action.
- be unafraid of silence. Filling the air with one’s voice is not not always more effective. A sermon, like a painting, is enhanced by negative space.