Growing up in Assemblies of God churches, I often heard preaching in an imperative — even imperial — mode. Pastors operated with a command-and-control model of leadership that carried over into the pulpit. They thundered forth the Word of God in a high, loud and fast tone of voice. They left no time for questions and made no space for nuance. When they finished their sermons, all they wanted was a yes or no answer from the congregation.
Early on in my pastoral career, perhaps as a reaction to imperative-mode preaching, I preached in the indicative mode. I downloaded information on members of my congregation with a professional tone of voice. My sermons were long, complex and nuanced.
There is a place for both imperative- and indicative-mode preaching. Sometimes, pastors must exercise their authority as leaders of their churches. At all times, they must teach — through word and personal example — what Christians believe and how they behave. But as I matured as a pastor, I came to realize that most preaching occurs in the subjunctive mode. It expresses fond wishes and makes heartfelt requests. It urges, appeals, comforts, encourages, pleads and exhorts more than it commands and as often as it informs.
Both imperative- and indicative-mode preaching assume that pastors exist over the members of their congregations. In the former, pastors have authority over others, which is why they issue commands. In the latter, pastors have a level of knowledge over that of their members, which is why they teach them. But in subjunctive-mode preaching, pastors exist alongside members of their congregation. Paul addressed the Romans as adelphoí, literally, “brothers [and sisters].”
Popular commentaries point out that the verb parakaléo comes from two words meaning “to call” (kaléo) “alongside” (para). Whether that is the word’s proper etymology, “to call alongside” is a good description of preaching specifically and pastoring generally.
- When you preach, does your tone of voice call people alongside you, or does it distance them from you?
- What about your demeanor in the pulpit? Does it draw church members in or push them away?
- Outside of the pulpit, can church members approach you as an elder brother or sister for biblical counsel? Or does dealing with you cause them fear and anxiety?
Our preaching tone and our personal demeanor — in the pulpit and out of it — must call people alongside us in a relationship of mutual respect and trust. Without that relationship, we cannot lead people toward the holiness God seeks from them. For, as has often been said, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”