By Rev. Justin Smoot

For Wausau Pilot & Review

When we worship, we use language. This language, these words shape the gathering, lift our spirits, sooth our souls, illuminate our hopes, and shine forth our values. The words and phrases we use in worship ascribe attributes to God and enshrine the ideals that transform us.

Pastors are careful with the language we use when speaking about God because we know the power that our language has, especially from the pulpit, especially when touching on the nature of who God is and what God does with and for us. We know the impact of our words on people’s lives and faith and connection to one another.

Every pastor that has climbed into a pulpit, set their notes on a podium, or stood before the faithful knows this so well. The power of the words, language, images, poems, and refrains that will issue forth from them, by the power of the Holy Spirit, that can transform and shape lives.

Every pastor also knows the responsibility they bear for those who follow, because we have so many examples where religious leaders, speaking about God, shaping the ideals of life together have transgressed the trust placed in them.

Every pastor knows about televangelists who have used soul soothing preaching to enrich themselves, who have roused the sprits of the faithful to joy, and stoked that joy in the fires of a transactional belief.

Every pastor knows about fraudulent faith healers, whose words carry with them a façade of power and an illusory foundation of faith. There is power in prayer to heal, but it is not always found upon the stage, before the crowd, by those who claim to lengthen legs and declaring unseen ailments gone. The power to heal and restore comes through prayer, yes, but is seen in ways that are not flashy and dramatic, but powerful and irresistible. The peace that comes in God’s presence and steals fear of death and builds tenacious hope.

Every pastor knows that answering the call to preach the Good News is a path we tread on the edge of a precipice, where we can fall, and fall hard into the cult of personality. The place where we seek to use our words, our position, our pulpit to draw the eyes of believers to ourselves. It is all too easy to forget the power of words to shape, inspire, and transform those around us; for good or for ill.

This is something we cannot forget in our world.

Our words, when they reach the ears of others, impact them, their outlook, and their world. We who speak them bear responsibility for what our words stir up within others. Often that may not be much, but it is often more than you think. People are not islands unto themselves, as much as we want them to be. Neither are we.

Our words naturally, inevitably, draw people to us and form us into something more. This is the power and the pitfall of charismatic leadership. There is something of a charismatic leader in all of us; such is the power of words.

When used constructively, responsibly, this power elevates us, transforming us into something we didn’t think was possible. When used irresponsibly, in service of a cult of personality, this power destroys hope, shatters faith, and makes it possible to justify the worst possible human behavior.

All who share in such speech share equally in the glory or the guilt of what issues forth from their words.

Rev. Justin Smoot is one of the pastors at Saint Andrew Lutheran Church in Rib Mountain. He is always on the lookout for how God’s story turns our lives upside down and draws us closer together.

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