ON THE whole, Jesus did not preach sermons. He talked to people. His earliest recorded formal sermon was preached in his home town, in the synagogue, on an ordinary sabbath morning (Luke 4.14-29). It would have been a small- to medium- sized, semi-rural congregation. Many of the people knew him personally, and wished him well — until he took liberties with the text. This they did not like.
For one thing, his sermon did not explain or expound within the familiar parameters set for expository preaching at that time. Instead, Jesus crossed a line by saying things that some of his listeners would rather not hear, by touching on a truth and confronting them with a new reality that they would have found challenging and even frightening.
This is, perhaps, why they were so angry with him. As a young preacher, he had the temerity to tell them the things that they needed to hear concerning God’s dealings with a humanity that he loves. Jesus also knew the people well.
PREACHERS in rural areas must know their people. Rural parishes are often thinly spread, and require that the incumbent and anyone else who preaches on a Sunday do a certain amount of travelling, if they are to get to know the people and win their trust. Only with the trust and affection that come with knowing and being known by the people we serve as preachers can we learn something new together.
At the same time, being known in this way by their listeners requires that preachers be more true to themselves and to others, with regard to the public persona they may present at other times, or in different aspects of their ministry.
In coming to church, the people have not come to meet an area dean or an archdeacon: they have come to meet God, partly through the words and actions of a preacher they know and who knows and loves them. In this respect, preaching in rural areas is both pastoral and theological. Furthermore, small country churches can provide the ideal context for empathetic and meaningful preaching because of the intimacy of the space.
Love for God’s people makes for the kind of preaching which requires personal and intellectual humility. Intellectual humility, especially in rural contexts, is too often misunderstood as a need to make difficult texts sound more “relevant” or “accessible”, and, in so doing, to over-simplify their complexity and deny their mystery.
The small intimate environment of a country church should make it easier for preachers and listeners to rediscover the truth of any given text for the times we live in, even if the building is far too cold to allow much time for the sermon, or for the kind of prayerful thought that ought to accompany it. It is presumptuous of any preacher to think that rural congregations are not looking to be challenged intellectually, even if some disagree strongly with what may have been said.
THERE is also a certain fluidity about the size and demography of the average country church on any given Sunday. Congregations will come and go, and change in size, depending on the time of year. This fluidity of movement, along with the widely differing ages and backgrounds of the people, contradicts the received view that country churches are solely populated by a small group of elderly diehards.
In summer, for example, there may be visitors, holidaymakers, or people who are simply passing through the area, all of whom may bring children to a church that seldom sees more than one or two of them among its usual Sunday congregation. All of these people will need to experience the hospitality of that church, not only by the words said to them as they walk through the door, but also in the sermon.
It does no harm for the preacher to welcome the visitors again in the sermon, but without singling them out for undue and badly expressed attention. The preacher should be aware, if possible, of issues and ideas that people of other denominations or churchmanships might find difficult, while at the same time remaining true to his or her own intellectual and spiritual integrity.
Preachers should practise hospitality in their treatment of ideas. They begin this work at the deeper level of self-emptying prayer, in taking some inspired liberties with the text in the preceding week, so that, in the moment of preaching, through the graced energy of their speaking, all can learn its truth in a new way.
The Revd Dr Lorraine Cavanagh is a priest in the Church in Wales and author of Waiting on the Word: Preaching sermons that connect people with God (Books, 7 April 2017).
Take a look at Dave Walker’s cartoon on the subject