A Challenging Journey: Preaching Through Competition, Wariness, and Trauma

Date Published

July 10, 2024

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Published by Scott Hoezee

Director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching

Four years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, it is clear that the world has seen significant changes on an array of fronts—changes that may be permanent. In-person conferences have changed, with many events receiving half the registrations they had pre-pandemic. Attendance at worship services has decreased, and worship styles have been altered. Preaching has seen some changes and adjustments as well. As part of the Compelling Preaching Initiative (sponsored by the Lilly Endowment), Calvin Theological Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching (CEP) has carefully listened to pastors as they reflect on today’s preaching environment, particularly the challenges they face.

Some of what has changed for preachers has not entirely stemmed from the pandemic. Larger socio-political factors had been evolving for some years before 2020. What COVID did, however, was break some of those things out into the open. The fault lines that ran just below the surface of some congregations ruptured in full when partisan disagreements related to COVID and other issues broke out in open conflicts among parishioners and between parishioners and their pastors.


Preachers today are acutely aware of how readily they are compared to others. In the past, this comparison happened with fellow local preachers, particularly ones in the immediate community. With more and more people consuming sermons on YouTube or Facebook Live, there is abundant opportunity to sample the sermons of multiple preachers. Even when a pastor’s congregation watches their sermons online, viewers can see a roster of other sermon video options displayed on the same screen. “Will they click the pause button on me and jump to another sermon?” pastors wonder.

The result is that preachers worry they will pale by comparison. This, in turn, can lead to the temptation to jazz up their sermons, but with the realization that not all such attempts will improve preaching. Efforts to introduce more drama or humor might diminish preaching. Preachers today are aware of the competition out there, even as their own recent experience confirms that loyalty to a given congregation is not what it used to be. People will readily change churches if they think they can hear better preaching elsewhere.


Society is riven. Many people get their information from only one or two select sources and then confirm their opinions within social media echo chambers. In addition to being divided by social media, we are increasingly suspicious. People scrutinize the preacher’s language in public prayers partisan agenda to the right or left. Preachers today are sensitive to the fact that, with a single word, they could be written off as “grinding an axe” if a congregant is triggered. In some places today, some will label the preacher as “woke” if they preach on or pray for “justice,” and that may be the end of the matter for some people where a given preacher is concerned.

Some preachers see the preaching landscape as one littered with landmines they might set off without knowing it. This has led to wariness and hesitancy regarding what they dare include in their public speeches. The temptation to jazz up a sermon to compete with other preachers on social media platforms can have deleterious effects on preaching. So, too, can over-cautiousness and fear of how a sermon will be heard.


Finally, preachers recognize that they are preaching to many people who have experienced trauma in recent years. The trauma may stem from the loneliness of the pandemic. It may stem from multiple losses or the fatigue that inevitably comes from constant partisan bickering. However, it’s not just that pastors are preaching to the traumatized— they themselves have endured a lot of trauma in recent years. Pastors are weary as well. One of the most common words I have heard preachers use to describe how they feel a lot of the time now is “vulnerable.”

Pastors who find appropriate, creative ways to leverage their trauma and hurts to reach the hearts of others can provide significant pastoral care from the pulpit. However, preaching from a place of vulnerability takes a toll on pastors.

I am a preacher, I teach preaching, and I work to provide resources for working preachers, so I have identified with the preachers described in this article. Some will properly point out that sometimes congregations themselves have been stressed or traumatized by preachers who misuse their pulpits. In some congregations, it is not just a perception that the pastor is pushing a more partisan agenda—the pastor actually is. How to address that would require an entire article beyond this one.

For now, Calvin Seminary’s Center for Excellence in Preaching is sponsoring many Peer Learning Groups for preachers across the U.S. and Canada, where these challenges are being discussed and addressed. We plan to hold on-campus seminars for pastors to provide another opportunity to hear best practices and creative ideas for overcoming preaching challenges in the church today. Through these avenues, we hope that the content and resources we offer on the CEP website will also be shaped by the learning we harvest from working preachers so that we can encourage preachers in all these areas.

I close with a plea to pray for our pastors, support them in multiple ways, and be sensitive to the vulnerable place from which they operate now. God is faithful and will not abandon Christ’s church. Even as we take comfort in that fact, we can all do our best to show love for the church and its leaders in the challenging moment we find ourselves in.


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