Preaching at big conferences

Following my post prior to the Baptist Assembly Steve posted
some insightful thoughts about festival preaching which got me thinking.

 

All preaching arises from the interrelationship of God,
Scripture, preacher and congregation. Though the interweaving of these
relationships isn’t entirely straightforward as can be seen by the way the
Spirit inspired and guided the writing of Scripture; continues to work
inspiring the preacher in reading, interpreting and preaching and is then active
in the congregation as they listen and respond.

 


Whatever the size of congregation or type of Christian
gathering preaching deserves prayerful diligence, humility and preparation by
the preacher. In coming to a message and a sense of what God might be saying the
preacher ought to have grappled with the text and with some of the questions it
poses.  

But there are significant differences. Preaching regularly
in a local church is like being a theologian in residence, serving the
community through preaching in the hope all will grow in holiness. Church congregations
usually include people with a range of backgrounds, ages and so on whose
current life situations vary enormously. In contrast big Christian conferences
are a particular section of church folk who like that sort of thing (preferring
corporate emotional intensification to silent Ignatian retreat). Often people
have taken holiday to be there. It is a form of modern pilgrimage, an intentional
journey with God where outward actions mirror an internal spiritual journey.
People anticipate the speakers will be good and expect God to speak to them.
Away from the realities of normal life they are more relaxed, open and
attentive.  

In a local church preaching is part of an ongoing programme,
building block by block so that the corporate church community grows. In a
large conference the only progression is through the development of a
conference theme, talks are one-offs and relate to the theme by power of
alignment not sequential thought.  

Congregation size makes a big difference. When I moved
church it took a while for my preaching style to adjust to preaching to a
couple of hundred people; I’ve not preached to thousands (I’ve never preached
to more than 400 people at once) but it would require a different preaching
style. Larger gatherings require greater presentational clarity and more effort
to foster connection between preacher and congregation. When few in the
congregation have any personal relationship with you, nor any history of
listening to you, all they have is what you are like on stage. Under lights you
have no eye contact with people, in a large arena you have to work to
communicate with the people at the back and to the sides. People need to feel
your message matters to you and the only way they know that is through your
voice and through your gestures.

 

The issue is what we value. The cynic (see previous post ) might
say that conferences value enthusiasm over faithfulness in the Christian life,
passion in the preacher over engagement with Scripture, emotional response over
transformation and individualism over corporate church life. More positively we
might note that being away from the daily routine offers a chance to stand back
and see a bigger picture, to consider overarching themes which enable people to
orientate their lives and encouragement to take stock before returning to live
for Christ with renewed vigour.  High-quality
conference preaching recognises the context and uses the opportunity but
couples humour with hermeneutics, anecdote with application, enthusiasm with
engagement and a good time with good theology.

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