Proclamation is a central component of our picture of churches. Together, our congregations read and interpret Scripture, commit deeply to one another and share vulnerably in our celebrations and sorrow — all through proclamation. As part of a denominational family, we believe the proclamations we make should be intentional. Our words and lives can harmonize to be thoughtful, carefully considered utterances of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Rev. Dr. Todd Crofford, senior pastor at Real Life Wesleyan Church in Mechanicsville, Maryland, sees thoughtful proclamation as intricately tied to an eloquent life. Funeral homilies, Sunday sermons, pastoral visitations and our interactions with loved ones are all different expressions of the same integral commitment: to thoughtfully represent the good news in our time and place.
“There is an awful lot to proclamation that has to be incarnational,” reflected Dr. Crofford. “Preaching of the gospel is more than transmission and reception of information. … you can transfer and receive information digitally … you can get things across … but there are things that happen in relationship to the gospel in what you and I do when we breathe in the same air space.”
Preaching preparation often conjures an image of a pastor in her study, surrounded by books, newspapers and notes. And this is a component of the sermon process: exploring the world of the text, understanding the characters and key motivations, comprehending the original meaning. To leave our picture of preaching preparation here would be a mistake, however.
The sermon is not merely an exploration of history. It’s a bridge between the world of the text and the world of the hearer. That requires pastors to be diligent readers — not only of the text but also of the community in which they serve.
“You really have to stay in a context for long enough to unpack it,” said Dr. Crofford. Having been at Real Life since founding the church in 2008, the Crofford family’s presence in southern Maryland has allowed them to see the congregation’s work in light of the lives, longings and losses of the community they serve. That approach to the community shapes Dr. Crofford’s sermons and has been a continual pursuit over time.
“I’ve gotten better at (or am trying harder at) not speaking unapplied truths,” Dr. Crofford said. “I write and prepare, thinking, ‘How will this apply when you’re on the base, where you’re up the road at DC?’”
As Dr. Crofford has engaged in over 25 years of weekly sermon preparation, his preparation time has increased — both because of his diligence in preparing for the sermon moment, and because of his church culture’s emphasis on the laity joining in the work of proclamation.
Emphasis on laity serving as co-translators of the gospel is a key tenet of Real Life’s church culture. In the foyer, a banner reminds congregants, “We are all the ministers at Real Life,” and pastors — from the platform and in regular intervals — ask, “Who are the ministers at Real Life?” as the congregation responds, “We are!”
Measuring the metrics of lay participation in this work can be hard to measure, but Dr. Crofford says his lay leadership is seeing both the fruit and the struggle. “People in our life groups are reaching out regularly with questions about specific issues. They’ll call, text or email and say, ‘This came up in our group the other day; did I answer that right?’ or ‘Hey, our group is splintering on this one thing — how do I administer grace?’” Those questions demonstrate the real work of commitment to the body, and to thoughtfulness about how the gospel takes shape on a street level.
Reflecting on practices he has found central to his own preaching, Dr. Crofford offers the following:
- Focus on integrity: “Through the years I have become more convinced than ever that the proclamation of the good news is hindered if it is obvious that the pastor cannot live it out in his/her own home,” offered Dr. Crofford. “While pastor’s kids should not be expected to be perfect, it becomes clear to a church whether or not children see parents who stick by the stuff.”
- Build interest: Citing Jesus’ application of concrete concepts (planks in the eye, for example), Dr. Crofford has identified an initial “interest-builder” as an especially helpful tool for preaching that connects.
- Let it simmer: Crofford completes an initial draft of sermons three to four weeks prior to preaching them; this allows the truths of Scripture to simmer over time, giving him the ability to “fix” the initial draft in the week leading up to preaching.
The hoped-for outcome of these practices is not just good sermons; it’s a posture of integrity in pastoral life. After all, a faithful sermon (at its core) is a way of faithfully articulating the longings and losses of the congregation, while also believing the gospel is truly good news.
Rev. Ethan Linder is the pastor of collegians and young adults at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana, and contributing editor at The Wesleyan Church’s Education and Clergy Development Division.