The debate on how one goes about preaching has heated up just a little recently. There is really no reason for a debate. The man called to be the pastor, the seelsorger, of the congregation should be quite clear on the task. He is to think of what he does, what he has been called to do, as a seelsorger (a curate of souls) and a shepherd (for that is what the word “pastor” means).
When one begins to think that their job is to simply proclaim the naked law and the naked Gospel, they have ceased being a pastor and taken on the role of an evangelist, and that only in the modern sense of the word. A shepherd does not create sheep, and one who is the “curate of souls” does not go about creating patients, but taking care of the ones who are his assigned lot. His lot, of course, is assigned by the Lord, which Lutherans believe is accomplished by the call. The Lord, then, adds to or subtracts from the “cure” (an old word meaning the district or persons assigned to the spiritual care of a clergyman) by calling individuals into His family by conversion, and calling them home to Himself in eternity by what is known as death of the body.
Between those two events - the call into faith and the call to eternity - the pastor has the care of such souls as His responsibility. He is equipped with three tasks and two sets of tools with which to accomplish this care. The tasks are preaching, teaching, and administering the Sacraments. Note that these three tasks are intertwined, not individual and self-standing tasks. The tools with which these tasks, and the entire cure (or care) of the soul, is to be accomplished are The Word of God and the Holy Sacraments, namely Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, and, whether you count it as Word or sacrament, Absolution. I left the word “holy” out of the names in order to avoid the modern offense of seeming to be too “catholic” and because there is little point in redundancy. If it is the Word of God, or worked by His Word, it is holy, and simply saying or not saying the word does not alter that condition.
When one considers the task of the pastor in the light of the call to be curate of souls, the issue of whether one preaches to teach or preaches to convert disappears. No proper sermon ignores the Gospel, and yet there is more to caring for the flock than simply announcing forgiveness. The flock of God needs to be armed against the devil, the world, and their own sinful flesh. That armor is applied by the Word, by knowing God’s good and gracious disposition toward man, and how far one may trust in God and for what one may count on Him - in short, the more that a believer knows of what God has revealed for his edification, the more he or she can believe and trust in the Lord, and understand their lives and circumstances as in the presence and care of God.
The preacher who is teaching his flock, and nurturing them in the Word with both Law and Gospel is also preaching that which converts. If He is not preaching the Gospel, he is not serving as shepherd or seelsorger for his flock. If he is preaching without teaching and warning his flock, he is not serving the shepherd duties either. Any individual who believes that they can do one without the other is not competent for the office.
Modern seminarians are taught to preach short sermons. Such a practice is often aimed at the short attention span of the modern listener. The problem with that approach is twofold: first, it short-changes the congregation, and second, it misunderstands the attention span of the average listener. First, the congregation comes to worship to receive God’s gifts. The Word proclaimed and taught is one of those gifts. The Sunday service is the chief contact time for the pastor with the congregation. More of his flock is present at that one time (even if it involves multiple services on a Sunday) than any other time. He must teach the dickens out of the time He has been given in the service.
Second, the congregation’s attention span, as a product of modern American culture, is significantly shorter than ten minutes. Some are able to discipline themselves and focus on the sermon for the ten minutes, or twenty, or thirty, depending on how long one preaches, and the discipline of the individual. On the other hand, some cannot actually focus as long as the reading of the text. There are a variety of reasons for their distraction; children, their health, the comfort of the seating, the temperature of the air, ambient noises, and how well they slept the night before, and the attire, behavior, or personal grooming of the people seated around them, including their perfumes, among other reasons. People tend to fade in and out of the sermon, despite their best intentions and efforts. The short sermon doesn’t give them time to fade in and out and still hear the message. It rudely demands that they be as capable and clear-headed as the preacher was when he wrote his sermon – and sometimes the sermon demonstrates that the preacher wasn’t all that capable or clear-headed.
There is no ideal length for a sermon. Each sermon should be as long as it takes to proclaim the Word of God, both Law and Gospel, and teach what the Word for the day teaches. Some sermons are shorter, and some will be longer. I have preached as short as fifteen minutes (rarely), and as long as forty-five (a couple of times). The shorter sermon was greeted with complaints that the congregation felt cheated, and were just settling down to listen when I finished, and the longer sermons have been met by several in the congregation noting that they were totally unaware that such an amount of time had passed. I imagine that the important thing is to say something worth listening to, however long or short your sermon may be.
The sermon might well be viewed as a public speech, with the purposes of informing, persuading, and moving to action, to use the categories I learned when studying public speaking as a youth. While the power of the sermon rests in the Word of God, the preacher does well to keep in mind that he is part of the process God has chosen to deliver that Word to his specific group of people. If the Word alone were sufficient, without regard to the deliverance of the Word, one could simply read the original language to the people and be done with it. Of course, that is silly.
The preacher must consider the message, and the audience, and his own abilities, and structure his sermon to inform the congregation of the meaning of the text, and to persuade them that it is true and applies also to their lives and faith, and that they might live in the light of the truth they have just heard. For some preachers, “Goal - Malady - Means” works just fine. For others, the old, ‘Tell them what you are going to say, then say it, and then tell them what you said’ is effective. For some a didactic style works and for others a more conversational approach is better. The style isn’t as important as the Word of God, nor as important as the preacher remembering who he is and why he is standing before a congregation on a Sunday morning.
He is the messenger of God, sent to proclaim the glories of salvation, the goodness of the grace of God, and to feed, nurture, comfort, strengthen, and encourage the people of God in faith and by means of the Word of God. He is not standing before them as a showman. He is not a great adviser. He is not the programmatic “vision-caster”. He is not here to win their respect or to be popular. He is there as the mouthpiece of God, like a radio-station repeater, speaking what God has given Him to speak in the text for the day.
If you can do that, the questions about where your focus is supposed to be in the sermon will fade away. The focus is on the Word of God being delivered, proclaimed, and taught to the people of God for their blessing, comfort, encouragement, and faith. If you cannot preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments, then you don’t belong in the pulpit to begin with. Seelsorger. “Curate of souls”, Pastor, Shepherd, all mean the same thing. If the pastor forgets what he is there for, his presence serves someone other that Christ.