Congregational leaders use a variety of frameworks, processes, and tools in their work of guiding, shaping, and nurturing churches. Among others, I’ve gratefully used appreciative inquiry, family systems theory, adaptive leadership, and a variety of psychographic/life-cycle theories. There’s another leadership practice, one we use regularly, that is crucial and indispensable: preaching. Preaching is so obviously important and so integral to our leadership that it’s easy for us to discount how much it matters. 

In the language of the New Testament “to preach” means simply “to herald” or “to announce” good news. I heard someone ask the great preacher Gardner Taylor, “How many points should a sermon have?” With a twinkle in his eyes, he answered, “At least one.” I think the one essential point of preaching is the astonishingly wonderful news about what God has done, is doing, and will do in the world, especially through the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. 

Preaching is about God far more than it is about us. We remind people that God is vaster and more beautiful than even our dreams can conjure, that God’s grace and mercy are more pervasive and powerful than shame and brokenness, and that God’s passion for justice and peace will win-out over all marginalization and violence. We tell stories to help people experience the liberating and reconciling love of God. With words, images and metaphors, we bear witness to the glad truth that God is like Jesus, and we invite people to hear him say to them: “Do not be afraid.” “Come to me, weary and burdened one.” “You are forgiven. I do not condemn you.” “I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you.” More than anything else, preaching is about God.

It’s tempting, though, under the relentless pressures of church leadership, for preaching to focus more on us than on God and God’s actions. The technical term for this temptation is moralism. Because leaders need to raise money, recruit volunteers, foster communication, forge consensus, and transform conflict, it’s hard to resist our telling people what they should do, ought to do, and must do to be “good church members.” We turn the good news about God into lists of obligations and duties. 

Moralism is directing, demanding, and, even, cajoling. It can be subtly manipulative and coercive. It uses comparison and competition to get people to take action. It resorts to guilt. Moralism’s core message is: 

“Shoulder your responsibility. Do your part. Fulfill your duty. Follow these principles. Stop doing these things; start doing those. Be more, do more, give more, serve more, love more, repent more, and try more.”

Moralism is tiresome and exhausting, and it certainly isn’t good news. Moralistic preachers who push, prod, and pressure people aren’t really leading them. 

Good news preachers, by contrast, lead out of a deep trust that the good news will create its own responses in people, responses of genuine faithfulness and lasting servanthood. Grace makes us “response-able”—freely and gladly responsible. Mercy creates within us a desire to serve which grows from delight far more than from duty. Love causes us to see opportunities rather than obligations. 

Good news preaching uses indicatives about God rather than imperatives aimed at us:  

“God loves you, frees you, and saves you. God empowers you, encourages you, and believes in you. God enjoys you, wants what is best for you, and delights in you. Because of God, it’s possible for you to change: you can—you get to—become who you are, to be the authentic self whom God dreams you will be, and to be like Jesus. Because of God, you’re no longer bound by the fear that keeps you isolated from community, no longer trapped in the scarcity that keeps you from being generous, and no longer so anxious about status that you can’t kneel to serve.”

Good news preaching opens our eyes to what is possible, widens our embrace of “the other,” and causes joy to flow, even in difficult circumstances. It assures both the congregation and its leaders that the mission is God’s before it is theirs, that God’s commitment to the church exceeds their own, and that God willingly gives the church everything it needs in order to fulfill its unique calling. 

Good news preaching does what moralism never can: it creates a climate of transformation, an environment of expectation, and a culture of hope. 

Announcing what God has done, is doing, and will do unleashes the power of blessing and the energy of gratitude. It’s a way of leading confidently, respectfully, and lovingly. 

Guy Sayles
Guy Sayles is a consultant after a 13-year pastorate at First Baptist, Asheville NC. Along with his other interests of teaching, preaching and writing, Guy will work with CHC to foster congregational health and depth. He is a consultant for CHC.