I am fascinated by preachers. It’s not a delusional, put-them-on-a pedestal kind of thing but more like a burning curiosity to understand what makes them tick.
I’ve been thinking about preachers a lot lately. My brothers and my dad are preachers of one sort or another, and their recent transitions have been on my mind. Last Sunday my church celebrated the 10th anniversary of our beloved pastor and his family. As I crafted a tribute and worked up a script for serving as master of ceremonies, I thought a lot about how the role and perception of preachers has changed through the years.
It’s no secret that the South is what is known as the “Bible Belt.” Religious expression has been a part of the Southern landscape from the beginning, and as Protestant Evangelicalism spread across the region in the mid-1700s the preacher began to emerge as an influential member of the community. So much so that the Southern preacher has become an archetype bordering on cliché.
The portrayals of Southern preachers in pop culture range from “The Apostle’s” Eulis ‘Sonny’ Dewey, played by Robert Duvall to Flannery O’Connor’s atheist evangelist, Hazel Motes, in “Wise Blood.” They tend to be Protestant, evangelical and high strung with a penchant for podium pounding and pulpiteering. (To explore these literary characters further, check out G. Lee Ramsey’s “Preachers and Misfits, Prophets and Thieves: The Minister in Southern Fiction.”)
I believe the concept of the preacher is changing. As the church’s influence wanes, even in the South, preachers are not looked upon with the same sense of awe and admiration. Not to be too general, but the reputation of preachers as a profession took several high-profile hits in the ‘80s and ‘90s as they took to the airwaves to build media empires only to have it all crumble under the weight of greed, lust and betrayal.
Just as trust in the American president declined after Richard Nixon, people began to look at their own pastors differently after Jimmy Swaggert and Jim Bakker fell from their lofty televised pulpits, and every Ted Haggard or Eddie Long reinforces the collective cynicism we have towards our clergy.
I have no such cynicism. I grew up in a pastor’s home. I am, in church parlance, a “PK” or “Preacher’s Kid.” I have always known my father as my dad first, pastor second. While I hold him in great esteem, his humanity is not hidden from me. Maybe that’s why I am drawn more to the quieter, less public side of pastoral ministry.
What a professional minister does is so much more than stand up and preach. Perhaps that’s why I find myself using the word “minister” more frequently than “preacher” as I age. Certainly I enjoy and am inspired by a good sermon, but what I see as the bedrock of pastors’ ministries is their presence.
This has been said by more theologically astute scholars than me, but I have come to believe preachers earn the right to tell people things because they are with people in their times of crises. Ministerial credibility comes from sitting with the sick and dying in their hospital room, standing close with families at the funeral home or listening intently as parishioners pour out their struggles.
Pastors can have a pulpit persona that is detached and inauthentic. I treasure real, honest conversations with members of the clergy. I learn as much or more from those interactions than from 100 sermons.
In a day when preachers are holographic or televised images beamed to multiple locations, I think the world needs more flesh-and-blood humans walking alongside them in their day-to-day life. Preachers need to be real with people, but not in an air-your-dirty-laundry way.
My hope is that the role of the preacher in the New South isn’t reduced to Sunday sermons. My hope is that the preacher will be more welcomed into people’s lives as a person who genuinely cares for people, demonstrating God’s love in a way that can then be imitated and shared with others.
You can keep your techno-preachers and their holograms and big productions. I want a fellow pilgrim on the journey, someone to, as hymn writer Richard Gillard puts it, “help each other, walk the mile and bear the load.”
What does “preacher” mean to you? What do you like about your preacher? Do you think the role of the minister is changing in our post-modern world? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below, but don’t get too … well … preachy.