Preaching and the Two Halves of Life

Feature Article by Dr. Clint Heacock

Once in a while we are fortunate to encounter a person whose unique perceptions can oldmanyoungmanquite literally change our lives. Such was the experience I had in October 2014 at the Catalyst Conference in Sheffield, England ( There I heard an interview with an author I had heard a lot about but had never been exposed to any of his works: Father Richard Rohr. Attached to the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque, NM ( Fr. Rohr is the author of numerous books and explores the subjects of Christian mysticism, contemplation and social action for the socially marginalized.

The subject of the interview concerned his 2011 book Falling Upward which introduces the concept Rohr refers to as ‘the two halves of life.’ This short article will briefly explain this concept from the book and then finish by raising some implications for preaching from the point of view of Rohr’s model.

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Preaching the Gospel

The preaching of the gospel is neither a fad nor the key to membership in a particular preachinggospelmovement. When we communicate the Bible according to its intent, we are serving the purposes of a God who is actively reconciling his creation to himself by the gospel. When we serve the gospel according to its elemental interests, we will engage people, instruct people, convict people, and inspire people. Biblical preaching is gospel preaching. Gospel preaching is integrative preaching.

This is a full-length feature article. For the full article, click here.

Preaching with Visuals

I published this several years ago. I think it still holds up!


The primary tool of a preacher is his or her voice. Of course, effective preachers have always understood the added power of a well-chosen visual aid. Jeremiah once hid a linen belt under a rock in order to help his audience visualize the ruin of Judah and the spiritual decay of Jerusalem (Jer. 13). Today’s methods are more technologically advanced, yet they serve much the same purpose.


Using PowerPoint

How it can help: Still image project helps the preacher to focus the attention of listeners on key ideas and propositions. It can assist the preacher in sharpening focus, deepening impact, and enhancing listener retention.

How it can hinder: Building an effective PowerPoint presentation takes a lot of time. For many, the energy taken to develop these presentations comes at the expense of the time that might have been invested in study of the Scriptures. In the end, the preacher might have a pretty presentation without much worth presenting. People are accustomed to viewing professional quality presentations on their televisions and in their workplaces. Few churches are able to come close to matching the people’s expectation without investing huge amounts of time in the process. The answer might be to delegate the task, but this is not as easy as it sounds. Effective presentations require the integration of technical, graphic, and theological acumen. A computer geek might not have a good eye for graphics. A graphic designer might not have the theological insight necessary to know how to actually enhance the sermon. In the end, the preacher may decide that it is easier to do it alone at the expense of other aspects of sermon development.

How to use it well: Despite the challenges, still image projection is likely to grow in use. Preachers can make it work for them if they pay attention to a few basic concepts:

Start with the Sermon: The best way to build a great PowerPoint presentation is to have great material. Garbage on the page will be garbage on the screen. A good presentation starts with a good sermon, clearly conceived and carefully constructed. The first thing is to make sure the preacher has a clear grasp of the big idea of the sermon. PowerPoint will expose any fuzziness in sermon design so the words have to be sharp. Theme statements ought to be short (12 words or less), simple (no conjunctions), declarative statements (not phrases) that can actually be spoken by the preacher. The heading for this paragraph, “Start with the sermon” is an example of the kind of focused wording that will communicate on screen.

Create Visual Metaphors: Preachers need to use fewer words and more visual metaphors in their PowerPoint presentations. Slides should highlight words or phrases, rather than offering a point-by-point breakdown of the sermon. The visual presentation ought to reinforce the point rather than duplicating it. Images come from a variety of sources. Some images can be found online for free. Other fee-for-service websites like or can be helpful. Some preachers will take their own digital photos in order to get just the right image. Remember that PowerPoint is the software that allows you to present the image. The best slides are often created using Adobe Photo Elements (the cheaper version of Photoshop) or some other image production software that allows the designer to creatively merge words with images in ways that communicate an overall concept. The completed image can then be imported into PowerPoint.

Less is More: Like a child with a new toy, preachers initially want to make use of all the bells, beeps, and transitions the technology offers. Wise preachers understand that more is not necessarily better. Simple images and constructions are almost always stronger. As a general rule of thumb, 25 words on a single slide might be a maximum, and 12-15 slides in a presentation might be an outside limit. For further hints on slide construction, check the information and links found at

Aim to be Seen: All our efforts will not be worth much if the slides cannot be seen. Try sitting in the back row with a normal Sunday morning light array and ask how easily the screen can be read. Font sizes of less than 28 points might be difficult for some to read. Generally, white fonts against dark backgrounds read well. Colors ought to contrast without clashing. Sometimes, the technology itself causes a problem. A weak projector that offers images too dull to be seen from the back row will frustrate more than it will help. If you’re going to spend the money, spend enough money. 1800 lumens might be a minimum standard for a small church building.

Team Up: Few preachers bring expertise in homiletics, theology, computer technology, and graphic design. A team approach, however, could bring all of these together. Rather than seeing this as a burden, preachers could see this as an opportunity for collaborating on sermon development. The design team could serve as a kind of sermon consulting group, giving the preacher helpful feedback on the sermon while the cement is still wet.

Throughout the sermon, the preacher needs to retain the focus of the listener. The technology must always be in the service of the human event that is the sermon. Preachers don’t have to ignore the screen, for instance. Referring to the image, pointing at the screen, and reading from the screen, can help to keep the listener focused on the human preacher while still making use of the projected image. Remember that the screen does not always have to be illuminated. It may, in fact, enhance the dramatic flow of the presentation to have the screen darken at a strategic moment, when the preacher is calling for response, for instance.


Using Video

Computer projection units also offer the preacher opportunity to show motion picture clips, either those prepared in-house, or taken from popular movies and other public sources.

How it can help: The use of video allows the preacher to connect with listeners on their own terms. Video is the language of contemporary culture in just about any part of the world. Not only does it add variety, color, and motion to the preaching experience, it shows that the preacher is relevant and in-touch with the culture. Inexpensive access to digital video cameras and editing software allows churches to customize sermons with locally produced “on the street” interviews, dramatizations, and music-video style enhancements. Such approaches allow the preacher to involve people in the process of putting truth into the context of life. Digital video cameras can now be found for less than $400. Simple video editing packages start at less than $100. Apple Computers bundle iMovie, a simple, intuitive, editing package, with their computers for free.

How it can hinder: A video clip is a kind of super-charged sermon illustration, subject to all of the strengths and weaknesses of such illustrations and then some. Video can eat precious time and interrupt carefully designed sermon flow. Further, a video clip creates a world for the listener to inhabit. Many times that world is more compelling than the world of the sermon itself. Listeners can get lost there, losing touch with the actual intent of the sermon itself. Preachers need to be particularly careful with clips taken from movies which can be seen to give license to listeners to view things that might be substantially less than the pure and lovely things of good report that Paul describes in Philippians 4:8.

How to use it well: Preachers who want to make good use of video would do well to keep a few simple principles in mind.

Keep it Legal: Copyright issues must be respected. Using clips taken from copyrighted motion pictures without consent of the rights holder is theft. Gaining consent usually requires paying a fee. Blanket licenses can be obtained. Whatever the fee, it will not equal the cost of a preacher’s integrity.

Keep it Short: Using a movie clip often requires some kind of contextual “set up.” If the clip requires too much explanation, it probably isn’t worth using. A clip of more than two or three minutes (10 percent of the sermon duration) is probably as long as can be sustained without damaging the sermon itself. Shorter is always better.

Keep it Flowing: Transitions are critical. Video does not do well as a stand-alone piece in worship or in sermons. In most cases, it might be best to use the video clip as a lead-in to the sermon or as a post sermon piece. Either way, videos need to fit the flow of the overall worship experience or they could be more trouble than they are worth.

Keep it Clean: Remember that showing a movie clip in church is equivalent to offering a blanket recommendation for the whole movie. The clip the preacher shows might be clean, but what about that graphic sex scene forty-five minutes later in the movie? If a preacher can’t recommend the whole movie, then he or she should not use it at all. 

Still and video projection are only two of the more contemporary uses of visual enhancement in preaching. While perhaps not as trendy, a good old-fashioned object lesson still has power. Using real human beings in the sermon is another low-tech way of enhancing the sermon experience. Either through using brief dramatic sketches or through personal testimony or interview, the preacher can use the experience of real people to humanize, contextualize, deepen, and accredit the ideas the sermon presents.


Visuals are valuable, but they should be used with the confidence that the greatest visual effect inherent to preaching is the image of the preacher standing and delivering. Preachers are going to have difficulty competing with Hollywood or with the multi-media found on cable. But no one excels the preacher in terms of standing up and speaking. It might be worth asking whether the preacher actually needs technological reinforcement. The strength of preaching is that a human being, having heard from God, helps others hear the same. The energy and passion of such a preacher might be visual stimulation enough.







Staying Awake

Staying Awake: A Study of Attention Spans in Sermons

By Justin Smith

Justin Smith is Interim Pastor at New Hope Baptist Church in Charlotte, North Carolonia

Undoubtedly, if you have carried on a regular pulpit ministry, you have seen the following scene played out a number of times before your eyes. As you make your way through the second point of your well-prepared sermon, you take a quick glance at those in your audience, only to find that their eyes, and most likely their minds, are no longer tracking with you. One listener appears to be gazing out of the window while another is coloring in the vowels on the front of the bulletin with a pencil from the pew. By the time you reach your third point, you decide to wrap up your message early rather than compete with the labored breathing from the sleeping senior on the back row or the chattering youth in front of him, cutting another lesson short and feeling as though you have failed yourself once again.

If it makes you feel any better, take comfort in knowing that you are not alone! A recent study in the British Educational Research Journal found that only 2% of college students felt that no part of the lectures they listened to were boring. In fact, 30% felt that either most or all of their lectures were boring, leading them to daydream, doodle, color in letters on handouts, pass notes or outright talk to the person next to them, or even working to find a respectable way to leave the lecture.[1] Herein lies the problem for both practitioners and instructors in the art and science of preaching: preaching is, among other things, primarily a lecture event. After all, lecturing has been defined as anytime a teacher is talking and students are listening or, in the case of preaching, whenever a preacher is speaking and congregants are listening.[2] Therefore, if those who seek to preach are to be successful in their craft, it is essential that their lectures serve as instruments to guide their hearers to the truth of God’s Word, not as sedatives guiding their minds to lethargy.

This work, in an effort to help those who endeavor to preach and teach, will examine briefly why listeners are not able to pay attention throughout the course of a lecture by looking at research on cognitive processing and attention spans. Then, a number of suggestions will be given to help speakers keep their listeners engaged throughout their lecture, which will in turn help their listeners to understand the message God has laid before them through the preacher’s work.


No Chunking Time Means No Learning

A look at the way the brain processes information sheds light on the reason why most people are not able to maintain attention throughout the course of a traditional sermon or lecture. Current cognitive research indicates that the way the brain handles and stores information is quite similar to the way computers process information. The process begins as the senses register new data, which is stored in short-term memory. The typical person is only able to hold about seven pieces of information in their short-term memory at a given time,[3] so the brain must carry out a process known as “chunking,” where it organizes information into a mini-network of knowledge. These networks seek to attach to previously existing networks of knowledge, either strengthening or expanding existing knowledge.[4] As illustrated in Figure 1, this process seeks to attach new information to existing knowledge, which allows it to be stored in long-term memory. If one is not able to attach new information to previously existing knowledge, it is essentially thrown away, meaning the new content has not been learned.

Two major implications for the lecturer emerge from the research mentioned above. First, it is critical that all lectures include ways to connect new information to prior knowledge, as this allows the brain to store information naturally. Second, the small capacity of the short-term memory limits the amount of new information that a person can handle in a given period of time. Thus, when a listener receives a long stream of new content without any time to pause and process it, their minds are not able to organize the new information into meaningful networks, resulting in the content being lost. In other words, listeners are not able to learn most of the content given, meaning the speaker has essentially spent forty-five minutes to an hour lecturing on a topic that his audience will not remember.

Figure 1: The Brain’s Chunking Process


Surprising Attention Span Studies

A look at research concerning attention spans shows the other side of the coin in regards to an audience’s ability to pay attention to a sermon or lecture. Citing a number of landmark studies in attention spans, educational researchers Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish conclude that the attention span of the average adult lies between fifteen and twenty minutes, with a significant drop in attention after twenty minutes.[5] Further, Lisa Burke and Ruth Ray argue that while there is some variance in the degree to which listeners may concentrate due to personality and learning styles, the fifteen to twenty minute range of attention span is consistent,[6] meaning the range is a reliable estimate for all levels of teaching and preaching. As Ed Neal summarizes, “After 15 minutes students begin to tune out and, although some may continue to take notes, they are no longer processing the information they receive.”[7] When combined with the research concerning the brain’s cognitive processes, it becomes apparent that if one seeks to lecture or preach new content for over twenty minutes, he is embarking on a journey where he is leaving his audience behind. Unable to focus for the length of the speech and losing the unprocessed new content given, listeners often walk out of the service bored and distracted, leaving behind the content of the precious Word of God which was preached in their midst minutes earlier.

An Answer to the Problem

While the research seems convincing, it presents a significant problem for the pastor and teacher. It seems apparent that people are not able to handle more than fifteen to twenty minutes of lecture at a time, yet a number of conditions require the speaker to use more than twenty minutes for their tasks. For the preacher, social and professional requirements push him to aim for a thirty to forty-five minute sermon. Most have heard the phrase “sermonettes for preacherettes” echoed throughout their time at seminary, while there still remains a number of people in the church who feel as though they “didn’t get their money’s worth” if the sermon is shorter than forty-five minutes. Teachers of preaching have a similar problem, as most classes range from fifty minutes to one and a half hours, with night classes extending the class time to nearly three hours long. How does one balance the relatively short effective learning time with the necessary time frame he must work in?

The answer to the problem is to find ways to break up lectures, forming a number of fifteen to twenty minute segments within the sermon. As Middendorf and Kailsh note, speakers “must do something to control their students’ attention. We recommend changing the activity, building a “change-up” into your class to restart the attention clock.”[8] These breaks in the lecture utilize an approach known as active learning, which has been defined as “anything course-related that all students in a class session are called upon to do other than simply watching, listening, and taking notes.”[9] Research supports that this idea is effective in keeping your listeners concentration level constant throughout your sermon. Burke and Ray’s study of classes utilizing active learning intervention techniques demonstrates that such actions at least maintain a constant level of concentration throughout the lecture, with some techniques even increasing the concentration level of the listeners for the last half of the class.[10] While this may sound intimidating at first, such a practice is commonly carried out by the best speakers and teachers, sometimes without even knowing they are doing it. As Howard Hendricks wrote, “Maximum learning is always the result of maximum involvement;”[11] taking an active learning approach to breaking up lectures allows listeners to stay involved throughout the course of a lecture, maintaining their interest and helping them to retain the message your sermon is bringing them from God’s Word.

Suggestions for Practice

While the need for incorporating active learning into sermons has been established, the question of methodology arises. What follows is a listing of some suggestions for the pastor who wishes to maintain his audience’s attention, but a note concerning the development of activities to break up lectures is in order. Activities should seek to bring variety to lectures and involve listeners. As Roy Zuck notes, Jesus’ style of lecturing was a case study in adding variety, as He regularly combined lecturing with other methods, used a multitude of illustrations, appealed to various aspects of the soul, were directed toward the individual needs of the audience before Him, and moved from the known to the unknown.[12] However, one should not seek variety just for the sake of novelty; as with Christ’s example, all methods and activities should be purposefully chosen to address the needs of the audience before the pastor. The goal is maintain the congregation’s attention, not to become a spectacle or a circus sideshow.

Further, a warning should also be offered before one attempts to bring active learning techniques into a sermon or lecture. You may face resistance as church members realize that sermons are no longer times to think about lunch or the football game after the service. As Richard Felder details in his “Sermon for Grumpy Campers,” “students will not all be thrilled with the added responsibility and some may be overtly hostile to it.”[13] The resistance may be stronger for the preacher from his pulpit for certain activities, as the Sunday morning service has a sanctity that should be maintained for the sake of the church. At the onset, it would be highly recommended that you start slowly and allow your hearers to adjust. Personal experience speaks to the effectiveness of such a tactic, as our weekly prayer meeting now regularly utilize active learning techniques after a number of months of phasing in such activities. The goal is not to force your audience to engage in activities they do not like, but rather, to help your audience understand and retain the information you are sharing with them. Take your time and practice patience when some in your audience protest; your diligence upfront will be rewarded when your congregation bears the fruit of the Scripture being planted, remembered, and applied in their lives.

In moving toward a more engaging, active learning preaching style in sermon development, a few suggestions may help. In your sermon planning, remember that quality always trumps quantity. In light of the research concerning the short-term memory’s ability to process a small amount of new information, it is recommended that the pastor focus his sermon on no more than three well-developed topics rather than expositing every topic of thought in a given passage. Indeed, the well-established development of the Big Idea, as described by Haddon Robinson, is helpful, as the pastor needs to determine what the passage is talking about (the subject) and what the passage is saying about the subject (the complement).[14] The pastor can do his congregation a great favor if he will determine the subject of the passage and focus on three complements. Above all, this will take discipline on the preacher’s part, as he must force himself to draw out the most essential complements for his audience and situation and stick to them. He must not allow himself to wander through all of the possible complements to a given passage; if the need to present them is that strong, the preacher should devote another sermon to their exposition.

Structuring the sermon around no more than three complements affords the preacher the perfect organization to incorporate active learning techniques into his sermon. If a preacher aims for a 40-minute sermon, with around 10 minutes given for an introduction and conclusion, his three points should take around 10 minutes each. Thus, he is given a built-in time to incorporate active learning technique after his first point and after his second point, as displayed in Figure 2.

While this is an ideal set-up, it is recognized that few sermons will be able to maintain the rigid time structure detailed in Figure 2. However, if the general outline is maintained, the preacher will take a major step toward keeping his audience engaged.

With the sermon organization and structure established, all that remains is a brief discussion of intervention activities. Above all, remember to be creative: these are simply activities to reactivate your audience’s mind. In designing activities, a goal should be to reinforce or further illustrate one of your topics, helping your listeners to attach the new content of your idea to their existing knowledge systems, allowing them to remember your points easier. As Robinson points out, there is a reason advertisers invest millions of dollars to restate their ideas on all forms of media: one can ignore an idea given once, but thoughts and actions are changed by hearing the idea repeatedly.[15] Further, using activities to support or reinforce ideas gives the audience a chance to process the information without adding new content to their plate.

So what activities are helpful to use? As stated above, virtually any activity that calls on listeners to do anything other than watching, listening, and taking notes will help keep your congregation’s attention. These activities should be kept short, lasting no longer than 3 or 4 minutes, as their goal is a brief break and reinforcement. For the more traditional church, stories, illustrations, even jokes may serve as the needed element to enliven lectures; these verbal activities, while still relying on the speaker, may provide the momentary pause in lecturing needed to allow the congregation to process information. Another idea for the traditional service is to incorporate hymns as a change-up activity. Leading your congregation in a verse of a hymn that applies to your topic is particularly powerful, as your congregation is physically involved and the use of hymns may incorporate older members feeling left out by the advance of contemporary music in the church.

Another important tool in incorporating active learning in sermons is the use of visual aids. Taking a simple object into the pulpit as a display item to illustrate a point may help your audience to have a mental image to hang onto in your sermon. Displaying a graphic organizer or chart to illustrate the progression of a story or to show how ideas relate helps your audience to understand the relations between ideas and allow them to engage their minds visually. The use of artwork in the auditorium that displays the central theme of the sermon can help the audience to reflect on the topic in a more creative way. For the more adventurous pastor, the use of a video clip may provide the needed reinforcement for a point; at a more technologically savvy church, members of the church may be employed to create such works, involving them in the very production of the sermon.

Finally, an oft-neglected tool is the use of discussion-based practices in a sermon. This is the most dangerous of the methods suggested, as some church members may have strong objections to this method; however, if the pastor is willing to try this method, huge rewards may be reaped. The pastor may pose a challenging question or problem and ask congregants to discuss the issue with 2 or 3 people around them for one minute. Using a technique called Think-Pair-Share, a preacher may give the congregation a problem to think about individually for a moment, then ask them to share their solutions with a partner and call on pairs to share to the group. Admittedly, these methods are the most likely to be rejected by a church; yet, if implemented well, these could serve as the most valuable tools, as people are allowed to think reflectively concerning the topic of discussion, producing the highest levels of thinking.


While this work has covered a good amount of ground in relation to attention spans and sermons, at the base of the article is the sincere hope that pastors will work to keep their members engaged. In preaching the Scriptures, preachers are literally applying the words of life to a people in desperate need of the power of God. If we truly believe that God’s Word changes lives, it must be our goal to engage those under our authority in His Word, which means that our sermons must not be exercises in futility, but instead, exercises in learning about our great God and His wonderful plan for us. Keep your congregants awake and allow God to work in their lives through your preaching ministry!

[1] Sandi Mann and Andrew Robinson, “Boredom in the lecture theatre: an investigation into the contributors, moderators and outcomes of boredom amongst university students,” British Educational Research Journal 35.2 (April 2009): pages 243-258, especially pages 249-253.

[2] Joseph Lowman, Mastering the Techniques of Teaching, San Francisco: Jossey- Bass, 1988: page 96.

[3]Ed Neal, “For Your Consideration: Thoughts on the Lecture Method,” Center for Teaching and Learning (UNC Chapel Hill) 6 (November 1989): .

[4]C. Yeager, “Linking brain research to best practices,” in Student successes with thinking maps, ed. D. Hyerle, L. Apler, & S. Curtis. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press, 2004: pages 19-28.

[5] Joan Middendorf and Alan Kalish, “The ‘Change-Up’ in Lectures,” Faculty and TA Development (Ohio State University) (1994): page 2.

[6] Lisa Burke and Ruth Ray, “Re-Setting the Concentration Levels of Students in Higher Education: An Exploratory Study,” Teaching in Higher Education 13.5 (October 2008): pages 571-573.

[7] Neal.

[8]Middendorf and Kalish, 2.

[9]Richard Felder and Rebecca Brent, “Active Learning; An Introduction,” ASQ Higher Education Brief 2.4 (August 2009): page 1.

[10] Burke and Ray, 576-577.

[11]Howard Hendricks, Teaching to Change Lives, Sisters, Oregon: Multnomah, 1987, page 56

[12]Roy Zuck, Teaching As Jesus Taught, Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock, 1995, pages 166-170.

[13]Richard Felder, “Sermons for Grumpy Campers,” Chemical Engineering Education 41.3 (2007): page 181.

[14] Haddon Robinson, Biblical Preaching, Second Edition, Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001: pages 41-45.

[15]Robinson, 142.

Three Challenges for Homiletics Today

Kenton C. Anderson


This is both an exhilarating and a frustrating time to be a homiletician. I find the moment to be energizing because there has never been more openness to explore questions of form and function in the act of preaching. But that very opportunity is at the same time a source of concern for the homileticians like me, who find that the tried and trusted templates of preaching past no longer seem enough. I feel professionally like I did personally when my wife and I were renovating our home. No doubt the improvements would one day actually improve, but for the longest time it seemed we lived in disarray.

When asked to describe three challenges facing homiletics today, my immediate response is, “what, just three?” Forced as I am, however, to narrow my reflection, I would speak of an increased challenge to the nature of authority in the preaching task today, a related pressure to give greater place to dialogue in our preaching, and in consequence, a perception of a lack ofaspiration among the young among us who no longer hear the call to preach or find such calls preach compelling.


1. Challenges to Authority

Preaching, traditionally, could be seen as a transaction that relies upon a tacit agreement between the preacher and the listeners. The listeners agree to give the preacher a respectful and reflective hearing based upon the assumption that the preacher brings an authoritative message. This has not generally been a problem for preachers who have been able to trade on the inherent authority of their position. Biblical preachers have been able to assume even greater confidence because of the authority of the text of Scripture understood by both listeners and preacher.

This has been a pleasant and productive relationship, but one wonders whether it can hold. Today, the image of an authoritative orator dispensing truth to crowds of submissive listeners seems anachronistic and arrogant to the contemporary mind. Few things jar the sensibilities of people today like the idea that any one person should be able to compel another to a particular view of truth. The idea is absurd to people steeped in the sense that truth must be privatized and individualized.

Of course, this situation has been developing for some time. Most of us have been able to avoid much trouble on this score as long as we have kept our preaching to ourselves. The occasional wedding sermon aside, as long as we have limited our preaching to consenting congregations, we have not had to bear the brunt of this antipathy. We expect to have some difficulty when we take our preaching to the marketplace but inside the church we have usually found ourselves safe.

What is new, I am finding, is that we can no longer assume such safety in the church. The broad cultural distrust of authority has now found its way inside the church. Listeners today seem less willing to accept the preacher’s word for its own sake. They may still value the Bible and grant it some level of authority in their lives, but they are becoming more aware of their presumed right to interpret the text for themselves. Preachers who sound too sure of their messages trigger the skepticism gene in the congregational DNA. Preachers regularly find themselves under pressure from listeners who find the messages fit poorly with their own interpretive schemes.

The fact is, I’m not too distressed by this development, even though I recognize the difficulty that it causes me. It was easier “back in the day” when I could assume a more submissive audience, but that ease was not necessarily good for me, good for the listeners, or good for the gospel. It is not a terrible thing to have listeners engaging preaching reflectively, applying the critical thinking skills that can result in a deepened appropriation of the truth when they finally “get it.” This assumes, of course, that they are still listening, and that we haven’t chased them away with what they see in us as pride.


2. The Place of Dialogue

It may be that the challenge to authority is something of an opportunity for us. Many are suggesting, for example that homiletics needs to become much more inclusive, and that preachers ought to become a lot more dialogical. If we could find a way to include listeners in the discovery of truth, we might find a new way forward for the future of preaching.

Doug Pagitt, for one, has been calling us to a different kind of preaching. “Progressional Dialogue” is a more democratic kind of preaching, he suggests. “Preaching isn’t simply something a pastor does,” he says, “it’s a socializing force and a formative practice in a community.” (1) Pagitt would have the preacher lead in a process of sermon co-creation that allows the listeners into the process of proclamation.

A new book by Tim Conder and Daniel Rhodes, picks up this call to greater dialogue. In Free for All, the pastor authors, re-conceive the nature of interpretation and proclamation, putting the task into the hands of the whole community. “We desperately want to liberate the Scriptures from the prisons of individualism and contesting authorities,” they write. (2) Preaching for Conder and Rhodes is a “free for all,” a bracing engagement of the text that invites and involves the wisdom of the gathered congregation in the appreciation that interpretation is not the province only of an authoritative preacher.

Conder and Rhodes quote Justo and Catherine González who see traditional proclamation in racist terms through the metaphor of The Lone Ranger. The Lone Ranger’s Native American silent partner, Tonto, (whose name actually means “dimwit”) existed only as a foil to emphasize the real hero. The Gonzalez’ offer this as a lens to think about our preaching. “When our biblical interpretation fails to be challenged by others, either because they share our perspective, or because they differ from us, we classify them as ‘Tontos’ whose perspectives we need not take into account.” (3)

These authors raise legitimate questions for contemporary homiletics. There are, unquestionably, pitfalls and dangers in this direction. But there were problems with the traditional approach as well, though we often did not think of them. The idea of a homiletic donnybrook has little appeal to me. I worry about an “everything was right in their own eyes” approach to preaching. I still believe that we need trained and gifted people who can lead us in our listening to God’s Word.

That said, I have little question that preaching must somehow learn to respect the dignity and perspective of the listener in ways greater than what we have previously managed. Surely we can agree that God does not speak only through homiletically trained experts.

Perhaps homileticians can help by articulating biblically faithful and reliable ways of dialogical proclamation. We had better, if we care about the future of our task.


3. Lack of Aspiration for the Task

As a seminary Dean I am deeply aware of the shrinking pool of gifted young people who aspire to the preaching task. I cannot tell you the last time I spoke to an entering student who could describe a long-standing call to preach. Denominations everywhere are noticing smaller cohorts of people willing to aspire to such a calling.

I suspect that these themes are all related. I shouldn’t wonder that there would be fewer candidates as the culture within and without the church lowers its respect for preachers. The call to less authoritative models for preaching creates less impetus to find those individuals who God might be calling.

Even within traditional churches, the discontinuation of Sunday night services and mid-week prayer meetings have made for fewer opportunities to groom the up and coming. I am aware of the fact that my first preaching opportunities were all on Sunday nights. As more of us gather in larger churches, I understand the unwillingness to put novices forward on a Sunday morning. Of course, the consequence is that fewer emerging preachers have opportunity to test themselves in public.

It may be that we have to broaden our view of preaching. Homiletics has typically focused on the Sunday sermon. This is for good reason as this is the most visible and possibly the most significant application of our discipline in any church. However, it would help us to put more careful thought into the various ways that preaching happens in a church.

I tell my students that preaching happens whenever someone called and gifted opens up the Bible with the intent to help people hear the voice of God. Whether this happens at youth group on Friday night, with children in a Sunday morning class, in a living room on Wednesday night, or from a pulpit at the appointed hour, if we are trying to help people reckon with the will and way of God as we find it in his Word, we are preaching.

Homiletics, then, would serve the church by looking for broader definitions and models for the preaching task. In so doing, we would find a large body of new aspirants willing to consider how God might use them in the proclamation of his Word.


Sustainable Homiletics

Preaching is not over. It may be changing, but it can retain its relevance. Homiletics must sustain its convictions around the self-revelation of God and the authority of his Word. But homiletics must also accept the continuing challenge to shape our models in ways that will be helpful for those who accept the challenge in this day. What that exactly means is yet unclear, though I suspect it will be substantive in our work over the next few years.


(1) Doug Pagitt, Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith(Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 25.

(2) Tim Conder and Daniel Rhodes, Free for All: Rediscovering the Bible in Community (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2009), 14.

(3) Justo L. Gonzáles and Catherine G. Gonzáles, “The Neglected Interpreters,” in Richard Lischer, The Company of Preachers (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 251, and cited in Conder and Rhodes, op cit., 158.

Preaching the Candidating Sermon

Scott Gibson, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary



Candidating at a church for a pastoral position is like going on a first date and then getting married. The procedure resembles a whirlwind romance. In a matter of weeks a candidate goes through the interview process and ends up as the pastor of a church. Henry A. Virkler observes: “Probably a single sermon, or even a single day, is too short a time for a pastor or a congregation to interact enough to know whether their expectations of each other are compatible.” But, for most churches, this is the process — the only process. The key for seminarians and pastors in search of God’s call in a church is to be sensitive to the dynamics involved and to trust the Lord though it.

Although the procedure of candidating is flawed humanly speaking, we can affirm God’s providence in it. God is sovereign. Through this maze of candidating, men and women and churches attempt to discern God’s call. Throughout the entire search phase, the candidate can use it as an opportunity to deepen one’s faith, to persevere in prayer, to fast, to trust God for His will. The candidating process can be a significant spiritually maturing experience.

For the seminarian, there may be a “great gulf fixed” between the academy and the church. Expectations exist on both sides, some of which are real, while others are imagined. The sooner the seminarian comes to grips with the differences between people and books, the better. But sometimes these lessons are not learned until one is planted in the church and no longer in the classroom.

This article is concerned primarily with the candidating sermon and is written with the seminarian in mind. The fledgling preacher needs to be aware of what takes place as he or she prepares to enter the pastorate. I will walk through the process of candidating considering some of the elements that build into the time when he or she preaches for a call before a congregation.


The Beauty Pageant

To the candidate, the entire candidating process may seem like a Preacher’s Beauty Contest. A Pulpit Committee is established at a church. They contact the denominational office or have other means of communicating a vacancy, including internet search sites. The committee takes resumes and conducts interviews. The procedure may seem impersonal. But we are comforted with the reminder that God is sovereign in processes even like this one. The procedure is not perfect. But God can still use it. This section of the article deals with what happens when an opening occurs at a church. We will examine how the pageant begins.


The Pulpit is Vacant

For most churches, the need for filling the pulpit comes with the departure of the pastor who goes to another church. The reasons for a minister’s leaving are varied. Some churches transition well from one pastor to another, while others struggle. Yet, churches wrestle with departures because of the death of a minister, a pastor is called to another ministry, is terminated, or the church experienced a scandal. No two churches handle change in the same way. This is where good interim pastoral ministry becomes invaluable.

Congregations usually experience an interim period from nine to twelve months. It is not uncommon for some churches to be without a pastor for up to two years. Wise, discerning interim ministry is invaluable for the pastor who follows. The best interim pastor will resemble John the Baptist: the next pastor must increase while the interim pastor decreases. An effective interim pastor will not allow the church to become attached to their ministry, but will be one which looks in anticipation toward the service with the next pastor.


Prepare for the interview

How does one prepare for an interview with a Pulpit Committee? Draw up a list of questions you have about the church, the ministry, the people, programs, and expectations. Although the church may be interviewing you for a position, you are also interviewing them in order to discern if your gifts match their needs. Douglas G. Scott gives helpful insights into the approach one can take when interviewing and what preparations one needs to consider.

You might ask what challenges the church faces presently and what they have faced in the past. If there has been a person previously serving in the position for which you are being interviewed, ask what he or she did well and in what areas would they like to make changes. Find out how long the church has been without a pastor or a person in the staff position for which you are being interviewed. Try to discover the person or persons to whom you would be responsible.

The questions you raise which surface the congregation’s expectations are important. Do not be afraid to ask the pulpit committee, “Is there a question you’d rather I didn’t ask?” One pastor went through a difficult time about two years into his ministry. After it was over he asked the board, “Why didn’t you tell me about this when I candidated?” Their reply was “If we told you, we were afraid you wouldn’t come.”

As for additional questions you might ask, Morton S. Rose suggests:

Scores of questions nag at the minister during this frustrating procedure: What groups in the church are involved [in the interview]? What issues do they want to discuss? How will I deal with the possible controversial matters? How will my family be involved? What sermons will be best suited for the experience? How will we travel? What do we wear? Do I tell anyone in my present church? When will they vote? What is the church’s policy on calling a pastor if the vote is not unanimous? How will I deal with a minority negative vote?

These are some of the questions a candidate will want to consider when contemplating a call out of seminary or when moving from one church to another.

In addition, do your homework. Check the church’s background. Check the church’s references. I know a pastor who, when being considered by another church, went to the town where the church was located a couple of weeks before the interview and asked questions about the church at a local restaurant. He queried about the church at the local gas station. He talked to people at the grocery store. He was better able to discern the church’s reputation in the town and make an informed and prayerful decision regarding the Lord’s call to that church and community.


The Date

The next step is preparing for the date. The preparation for the candidating sermon takes place long before the sermon itself. There are a couple of steps that must first take place.


Mail Order Preaching/Dating

You will be asked to send the Pulpit Committee a sample sermon tape: audio or videocassette or dvd. For many seminarians the video will be the sermon preached in preaching class. If that is all you have, it will serve your purposes. But ideally, you will want to send your best average sermon. That is, do not send the committee the greatest sermon you have ever preached! You probably will not be able to maintain that level of preaching week to week. However, if you have one of your best average sermons, you will be able to show them what you are really like.

Mind you, you may want them to like you. But, remember, God is in the process and no matter what you might do to show your best side, you are still who you are and nothing more, nor nothing less. It is best to err on the side of being modest.


The Neutral Pulpit

The next possible step is the neutral pulpit. Before going to a church for the candidating sermon a candidate will preach a sermon in what is called a “neutral pulpit.” A neutral pulpit is when a candidate preaches at a church which is not where he or she is being considered as a candidate but is an agreed upon church where the pulpit committee can have the opportunity to hear the candidate preach. A neutral pulpit allows both the candidate and the pulpit committee the flexibility to say, “No, thanks” or “Let’s go to the next step.”

At a neutral pulpit the candidate preaches a sermon and the pulpit committee hears the sermon and together they have the opportunity following the service to speak further with the preacher. Typically the decision as to whether or not to take the next step to have the preacher come to the church in need of a pastor is not always made at that time. The chairperson of the pulpit committee will likely suggest a time by which he will be back in touch with the preacher. And the candidate may state that he or she may need more time to consider in prayer what the Lord might do.

The neutral pulpit is a possible next step. It is not the norm. However, if you are asked to preach in a neutral pulpit, you will now know why! Most often the neutral pulpit is used when a pastor is considering a call to another church and the Pulpit Committee wants to hear him or her in a neutral setting before bringing the person as a candidate to the church.


The Candidating Sermon

Then comes the next step—the candidate preaches at the church where he or she is being considered. However, there are some churches which choose not to have a person preach but rely on the report from the pulpit committee. One Southern Baptist leader states:

Some churches have discontinued having a prospective minister preach for the congregation before extending him a call. They prefer to base their final judgment on the report of the pulpit committee which has much more than simply hearing one or two sermons on which to base its report.

Persons in a denomination or judicatory who are appointed to their churches do not have the luxury of deciding which person will be their pastor. Suggestions can be made to the bishop or superintendent, but often, the pastor is appointed without the congregation having the opportunity of hearing him or her preach. Preaching is considered only part of the package. However, requests are received and considered by the judicatory leaders.

Preaching is certainly one of the many skills needed by a pastor and too often congregations may overemphasize preaching. However, if there are opportunities other than preaching for the candidate to interact with the congregation, the congregation will be better served. They will not only be able to hear whether or not the candidate has preaching ability, but they will be able to query about one’s pastoral skills as well.


The Matrimony of Preaching

The date has been set for you to go to the church to give your candidating sermon. Sometimes it is called “The Candidating Weekend.” The candidate arrives a couple of days early and has the opportunity to meet with several groups to answer questions, to engage in conversation, to gain an understanding of the ministry of the church and the people associated with it.

In addition, the candidate becomes acquainted with the area in which the church building is located. The intention of the weekend is to familiarize the candidate with the church and the church with the candidate. However, there are certain factors a candidate must consider when preparing for the weekend and especially for the candidating sermon.


This is a Special Occasion

Special occasion preaching is any preaching outside the ordinary preaching schedule of a pastor. Preaching a candidating sermon is not ordinarily something a pastor does from week to week! The dominant question facing any preacher is “Why this sermon at this time?” Preaching on a special occasion such as this one allows the preacher to speak the Word of God to those gathered, to round out the worship, and to bring focus to the occasion.

Like all your preaching, a candidating sermon, has a purpose: “to give a clear, listener-sensitive, biblically based word to men and women who are sometimes eager and often desperate to hear it.”


Preach a Best Average Sermon

Since this is a special occasion, one may ask “What kind of sermon should I preach?” Like the sermon video you sent to the committee earlier, you want to prepare a sermon and preach it with your best effort all the while realizing your weaknesses and deficiencies. The candidating sermon is not a “sugar stick” sermon, after the sugar that many farmers use to draw reluctant horses nearer to the bridle. A strong dose of realism helps the candidate recognize that he or she is not involved in a beauty contest or a meat market, but in the process of discerning God’s will for your life and the life of the congregation.

What is a best average sermon? It is a sermon that captures who you are as a preacher, your personality; and also demonstrates your competence in handling the Word, delivered with skill.

Remember, you are not trying to preach your “barn burner” sermon. A candidating sermon is not the sole measure of your preaching ability. You want to give the listeners your best average sermon to demonstrate to them what you are able to do week by week.


Get to know Your Date: Link with the Listeners

As best you can, from the interviews, determine the type of people to whom you will preach. Once you know your listeners, you will be able to connect with them and communicate clearly God’s word.

When you have a sense of the people to whom you are preaching you will be better able to select the text on which to preach. You will also want to know if there have been any significant occurrences in the congregation near the time of your candidating sermon: the death of a beloved pastor, church leader, the illness of a church member, a celebration of a major event in the life of the church—all of these may feed into the selection of a text for the sermon.

Knowing the listeners will help the preacher shape a sermon that is biblically based, God-centered, and listener related.


Be Faithful to the Text

The approach I affirm in basic sermon construction is grounded in Haddon W. Robinson’s central-idea preaching. Robinson’s Biblical Preaching develops the step-by-step process of sermon construction, which teaches preachers to form sermons with a central—big—idea derived from the biblical text and communicated clearly to the listeners. Robinson’s definition of expository preaching provides the thrust of good, biblical preaching:

Expository preaching is the communication of a biblical concept, derived from and transmitted through a historical, grammatical, and literary study of a passage in its context, which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through the preacher, applies to the hearers.

Our sermons are to be rooted in the biblical text. Keeping Robinson’s definition in mind of being aware of the historical, grammatical, and literary issues, the preacher is ready to ask two questions of the biblical text to determine the idea of the passage as it fits into the larger context of the author’s writing. Take the text 2 Corinthians 11:1-6. We first ask the subject question: What is the author talking about? For example, “Why is Paul concerned for the Corinthian Christians?” The subject question will use one of the interrogatives: who, what, when, where, why, and how. The context of the passage will determine which interrogative the preacher will use.

The subject question is followed by the complement answer. The complement answer completes the subject question. The complement answer to the sample subject question is, “He wants them to be pure but they have been deceived by super apostles who preach another Jesus.”

The next step is to put the two—subject question and complement answer—together into a single, indicative idea. The process is simple homiletical mathematics: S + C = I. The interrogative form is deleted and the subject question and the complement answer are combined into an indicative statement: “Paul is concerned for the Corinthian Christians because he wants them to be pure but they have been deceived by super apostles who preach another Jesus.” A homiletical idea is then shaped that captures the essence of the exegetical idea but is stated in a memorable way. The homiletical idea serves as the central idea for the sermon. It is the feature of all sermons, including special occasion sermons—and candidating sermons, too!


Be Clear

The law of preaching is to be clear. If a preacher has the clear idea of the text, is clear about who the listeners are, clear about the occasion, and clear about what he or she is going to say, he or she will make a difference.


Be Yourself

You may be away from your home. You may be going from one church to another. You may be a seminarian in search of a position. But you are you. Try not to present yourself as anybody but who you are—nothing more, nothing less.

In addition, you may consider preaching a sermon that shows who you are theologically. That is, the Pulpit Committee will have interviewed you. They will have read your testimony, and read your faith statement. In the candidating sermon you may be able to highlight an aspect of the Bible or theology that is important to you, that shows the listeners who you are and what drives you as a pastor.


Be On Time

Of course you will want to be on time for your interview and other meetings, but, most importantly, stay within the time limit given to you to preach. Respecting the time limitations given you will demonstrate to your listeners your respect for them. A clear sermon can be preached within any time limit!


Be Prayerful

Clearly, you have been praying about the transition from student to pastor or from pastorate to pastorate. Yet, as you consider preaching ask God to give you wisdom and discernment as to the best text on which to preach. And pray for your listeners, too.


Be Selective with Your Introduction and Illustrations

You may decide to preach a sermon you have given before. Make sure the introduction and illustrations fit the listeners to whom you are speaking. Not all introductions and illustrations fit every audience. This serves as a reminder for the preacher to be relevant. If he or she has done homework on the congregation, introductions, illustrations, and conclusions can be shaped to the listeners at that particular church.


Be Open to God’s Spirit

The candidating sermon, bathed in prayer, is to be given humbly to God for Him to use it as He wills. You have put a lot of work into the sermon wrestling with the text, getting the idea, the homiletical idea, putting together the outline, and writing out the manuscript. The sermon has been practiced. It has become a part of you. Now you are to give it.

The sermon is not an assemblage of black letters on white paper. It is the word for God’s people. The sermon has never been yours—it is always God’s. You are God’s spokesperson. All you can do is be dependent upon God’s Holy Spirit. Give the sermon to God, your measly morsels, and ask Him to use it to His glory to feed his people.



The candidating sermon has the characteristics of a sermon one preaches regularly, with the exception that it is a special occasion. It is a special occasion in the preacher’s life and in the life of the church at which he or she is candidating. These are reminders of our utter dependence upon God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, the sovereign Bishop of our Souls, who tells us to “go” and to “come” at His leading. We preach with trembling dependence upon Him and trust Him with the results.

(Scott M. Gibson is Haddon W. Robinson Professor of Preaching and Ministry, Director of the Center for Preaching, Director of the Th.M. in Preaching, and Director of the A.J. Gordon Guild at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in South Hamilton, MA.)

Preaching Matthew’s Parables

Stephen Wright

Stephen Wright, lecturer at Spurgeon’s College in London, England, offers helpful ways of reading and preaching the parables in Matthew. The goal is not to speak of an abstract kingdom, “but one whose signs are seen in the everyday world of employment and unemployment, factory and farm, city and village – right under the nose of this world’s rulers and their systems, which often operate so differently.”

Gospel readings from Matthew include many instances in which Jesus tells a story – as well as others in which he utters pithy sayings or paints word pictures – all of which are covered by the term ‘parable’. What do we make of Matthew’s portrait of Jesus the storyteller and ‘parabler’? And how might this portrait spark the preacher’s creative task?

Matthew, with characteristic organization, collects a whole string of parables together, in chapter 13. It’s interesting, however, to note what the lectionary (with inevitable, though unfortunate, selectivity) leaves out from these readings: the two passages which offer explanations for why Jesus spoke in parables! The first (13:10-17) relates Jesus’ ministry to that of Isaiah, and identifies him as a prophet whose words meet starkly contrasting responses. But whereas Mark sees the parables fitting into this ministry as signs of God’s judgement on hard-hearted people (Jesus speaks in parables in order that ‘they may look, but not perceive’ etc. – Mark 4:12), Matthew sees the parables as means of breaking through this heard-heartedness: Jesus speaks to people in parables because ‘seeing they do not perceive’ etc. (Matthew 13:13). In keeping with this, Matthew is at pains to emphasise the fact that the disciples really have heard and seen: the words of Jesus have done their work in opening them up to the secrets of the kingdom (13:16,17).

The second passage in Matthew 13 about what Jesus is doing in his ‘parabling’ echoes this emphasis on disclosure and openness. This time Jesus is seen in the role of a ‘prophet’ of a different kind – a psalmist. Like the speaker of Psalm 78, Jesus is one who ‘opens his mouth to speak in parables’, who ‘proclaims what has been hidden from the foundation of the world’ (Matthew 13:35). This is interesting because of what the Psalmist actually does in that long Psalm: he tells the story of Israel’s disobedience, clearly as part of a communal act of remembrance designed to warn, and to encourage a return to a faithful God. Jesus’ ‘parables’ have a similar emphasis on warning and encouragement through narrative. ‘What has been hidden from the foundation of the world’ is not some esoteric mystery, but the meaning of history now coming to full light. Thus Matthew encourages us to hear Jesus’ parables as disclosing the reality of God’s rule.

As preachers it is appropriate to see our task in a similar way. We too can use image and narrative as a means of penetrating hearts and minds that have become dulled to God’s word. As we do so, we will be revealing the truth that God rules over this world which in many parts still resists him. Like the Psalmist, and like Jesus, we will speak words which vividly paint both the blessing of accepting God’s rule and the danger of rejecting it.

But how do Jesus’ parables ‘work’? There is a very ancient tradition of reading them ‘allegorically’, that is by identifying at each point what a character or event in the parable stands for, within an overall scheme of Christian doctrine or ‘salvation history’. Thus, for example, the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16) has often been taken as a picture of the Christian life – however ‘late in the day’ a person comes into God’s service, God’s grace to them is just the same as to the one who has served him throughout life. The parables do indeed open themselves to a rich variety of symbolic interpretations.

However, there are problems with this approach: I will just highlight two. First, this way of reading Jesus’ stories (especially in Matthew) has often led to a crude anti-Judaism. So the parable of the wicked tenants (Matthew 21:33-41) has been read as a blanket condemnation of the Jewish race for their killing of the prophets and of Jesus himself. Matthew’s version appears to add weight to this by adding the words: ‘Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people that produces the fruits of the kingdom’ (21:43). But this ignores the particular focus of Jesus’ warnings throughout Matthew to the Jewish leaders; it is clear that people producing the fruits of the kingdom are not only Gentiles, but faithful Jews, the humble ‘poor’ who hear and respond to Jesus’ teaching (cf. Matthew 5:1-12).

Second, the ‘allegorical’ approach tends to deafen us to the resonance of the parables for the people who first heard them – whether from the lips of Jesus himself, or those like Matthew who passed them on. They would have heard them against the immediate background of their social and political situation. Especially prominent in that situation was the might of the Roman empire, the collaborative relationship enjoyed by the Jewish religious leaders with that empire, and the state of economic oppression and hardship endured by the majority of the population of Palestine and neighbouring areas such as Syria, where Matthew may well have been written. Looming up in the midst of all this was the catastrophic event of the Jewish rebellion against Rome, culminating in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE. Scholars disagree as to whether Matthew was written before or after this date, but deciding that question is not as important as imagining the atmosphere of ferment and tension both in the time of Jesus and increasingly in the decades following.

How do Jesus’ stories in Matthew sound when heard against this backcloth? Scholarship on this subject is at an interesting stage with various proposals on offer. My own hunch, which I outlined in my small book Tales Jesus Told , is that they offer pictures of real-life situations which carry an implied, but fairly obvious, warning or encouragement. On such a reading, the figure of a king, landowner etc. is not to be taken as a direct representation of God. Rather, the human encounter in the story reveals what God’s rule looks like ‘on the ground’ – on earth as it is in heaven (cf. Matthew 6:10!).

Consider how this works in two of the parables unique to Matthew. The parable of the unforgiving servant (18:23-35) raises very uncomfortable questions when its ‘king’ is simply equated with God. This is an obvious picture of a human despot, who in a fit of uncharacteristic magnanimity releases a servant from a massive debt, but then quickly changes his tune when the servant refuses to exercise similar clemency to a fellow-servant. What is often missed here is that not only is the servant an example of someone refusing to forgive ‘seventy-seven times’ (18:21): so is the king! Nor is the picture of the king throwing the man into the torture-chamber in any way compatible with Jesus’ image of God as the Father who ‘makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous’ (5:45). Jesus is certainly warning here of the peril of not forgiving, but in the context of a tyrannous social system which in many ways operates on precisely opposite lines from the kingdom of God. Positively, he is pointing out how the kingdom-way can be lived out even in the midst of this social system. The saying in v. 35, ‘So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart’ is thus not to be taken as a sword hanging over our heads, causing us to live in terror lest traces of unforgiveness be found in us. It’s rather a reminder of the principle that Matthew highlights, that ‘earthly’ actions have a ‘heavenly’ significance. ‘Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven’ (16:19).

Now for a more upbeat parable, that of the labourers in the vineyard (20:1-16). Here it has been even more tempting to make a direct correlation between the figure of power (the landowner) and God, because in the story he acts with such generosity. However, I suggest that again we should resist this temptation. This too seems to be a picture of God’s kingdom-way embodied in the everyday world of work and wage-earning. In fact we can see the landowner as an opposite to the rich young man of 19:16-22. The landowner takes the step of generosity which the young man was reluctant to take. This generosity is not a matter of mere random ‘charity’ – or of giving money to salve a bad conscience. It is a matter of justice. The day-labourers were near the bottom of the pile, victims of a harsh social system. The denarius was a survival wage. Those who work longer and harder are to embrace the landowner’s spirit of generosity which allowed those hired later to put bread on the table.

Both these parables, then, give us a glimpse of a world where forgiveness, generosity, justice, can and do happen. They encourage those all the way through the social scale from top to bottom to grasp the spirit of that world. They also communicate a sense of sadness when it is not grasped. Through their intense focus on a real-life situation they unveil the truth of God’s rule and the choices it opens up. I’ll have to leave you to explore for yourself how this might work for other parables – particularly perhaps the wicked tenants (21:33-41 – Trinity 20), the wedding banquet (22:1-13 – Trinity 21), and the talents (25:14-30 – 2 before Advent).

I’d therefore want to encourage preachers to preach real-life sermons, as Jesus preached real-life parables. Help people to see the joy and reality of God’s rule and the choices it demands – not by speaking of an abstract, purely ‘heavenly’ kingdom, but one whose signs are seen in the everyday world of employment and unemployment, factory and farm, city and village – right under the nose of this world’s rulers and their systems, which often operate so differently.


Jesus and Paul as Models for Preaching

An Introductory Exploration

Stephen Wright, Spurgeon’s College


1. Introduction

In recent debates in homiletics, it has been common to evoke Jesus and/or Paul as supposed models for the task of the preacher today. Such invocation raises many questions which it is far beyond the scope of a single paper to address thoroughly. My aim in what follows is to outline three broad angles from which this practice may be critiqued, and then suggest how the use of Jesus and Paul as models might nonetheless be incorporated within a more satisfactory overall framework for preachers’ formation.

First, though let me briefly outline some of the ways in which Jesus and Paul have been used as preaching models over the last few decades.


(a) Jesus as model for the preacher
We may start with the so-called ‘new hermeneutic’ of the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, associated primarily with the names of the German scholars Gerhard Ebeling, Ernst Fuchs and Eberhard Jüngel. They laid emphasis on the creative power of language and the way in which the language of Scripture acts powerfully to shape its hearers. In particular, they emphasised that Jesus’ own words were instrumental in bringing about the kingdom of which they spoke; and that the task of the contemporary preacher is similar. In all this they were differing from Rudolf Bultmann, whose idea of the task of preaching entailed not so much a reproduction of biblical language patterns as their recasting in modern form.

These German writers were influential upon a generation of American scholars including Amos Wilder and Robert Funk who both produced important works on the language of the New Testament, highlighting that it had not merely a referential but a dynamic, rhetorical quality, breaking open existing patterns of thought. Such writers were clearly aware of the implications of this for Christian preaching. But it was in the so-called ‘new homiletic’ movement associated particularly in its early days with the name of Fred Craddock that such insights came to most widespread and practical fruition.

In Craddock’s seminal book As One Without Authority there were two passages in particular which are germane to our theme. First, in defence of an inductive approach to preaching which provokes thought rather than simply laying out all the answers, he cited C.H. Dodd’s famous definition of a parable, which according to Dodd leaves the mind ‘in sufficient doubt about its precise application to tease it into active thought’. The assumption is clear: Jesus models a way of speaking which it is appropriate for us to follow. Second, Craddock begins his discussion of the dynamics of exegesis with the example of Jesus’ own interpretation of the Old Testament Scriptures. Our process of interpretation of our Scriptures is understood as taking its natural cue from that of Jesus in relation to his.

Subsequently, in his Overhearing the Gospel: Preaching and Teaching the Faith to Those who have already Heard, Craddock suggested that Jesus’ preaching to his contemporaries was particularly fitting as a model for preaching in the context of Christendom, for in each case the challenge is to get ‘under the skin’ of those who deep down know God’s ways, but have become dulled to their implications.

Other writers have picked up the idea of Jesus as model preacher in various ways. Clearly the interest in narrative as a mode of preaching finds a natural focus in Jesus himself as a teller of stories. Preaching is seen to be not just about reporting the content of Jesus’ teaching, but imitating (in some way) its mode. In Britain, recent writers have emphasised not only Jesus’ use of stories, but also the richness of imagery he used, his attention to his listeners’ context, and his dialogical style. Not infrequently, the point is made that Jesus’ approach is especially suited for the era of postmodernity, or post-Christendom – an interesting contrast to Craddock’s view.


(b) Paul as model for the preacher
Other writers have underlined the example of Paul as a preacher. Sometimes this has had a strongly practical and devotional thrust, as for example in some of Donald Coggan’s writing. However, a more substantial treatment was offered in James W. Thompson’s 2001 bookPreaching Like Paul: Homiletical Wisdom for Today.

Thompson’s book aims to be a corrective to some of the ‘new homiletic’ thinking set in train by Craddock. In particular, Thompson argues (as Craddock himself had implied) that Craddock’s ‘inductive preaching’ and the ‘narrative preaching’ which developed from it function best in a culture where the texts and memories of the Church are still familiar and alive. This, even in the U.S.A. and especially of course in Europe, is no longer the case. There is a need, says Thompson, for a more thoroughgoing reflective conceptual quality to preaching, which the indirections and teasing nature of inductive and narrative preaching cannot provide. While acknowledging the central place of narrative in biblical revelation, Thompson points to the fact that rational persuasion plays a big part in it too, not least in Paul’s letters. Further, while the ‘new homiletic’ focused on the experience of the individual hearer in receiving the sermon, Thompson wants to argue that Paul can help us lift our eyes again to the long-term effect of preaching in building communities of faith. More fundamentally still, he suggests that the new homiletic has focused on questions of technique to the exclusion of the aim of preaching. His book therefore not only sets out to offer a corrective to the techniques of inductive or narrative preaching, but also to question the very focus of recent trends on technique itself. Paul does not offer us handy tips, but he is certainly, in Thompson’s hands, a powerful model of aims and ethos in preaching.


It is worth noting at this stage two points about these recent impulses to seek models for preaching today in Jesus and Paul.

(i) Both impulses arise by way of reaction, both to contemporary culture and to previously dominant thinking in homiletics. The impulse to return to Jesus as model is a reaction in part to recognition of the loss of respect for authority in contemporary culture, which is taken to suggest that more indirect means of Christian communication are appropriate. It is also a reaction to a typically modernist separation of content and form, which assumed that the conceptual content of biblical truth could be satisfactorily transmitted without bothering to pay attention to the form in which that truth has been received. Of this separation, more will be said later.

The impulse to turn to Paul, as seen in Thompson’s work, is a reaction in part to recognition of the huge shift in western culture since 1970, which is taken to suggest that Christian proclamation now calls for something more assertive than the new homiletic has offered. It is also a reaction to the new homiletic’s perceived over-emphasis on narrative as the quintessential form of biblical literature. Although Thompson does not specifically state that in advocating a turn to Paul as model he is thereby advocating a turn away from Jesus as model, that seems to be the implication.


(ii) Thompson is emphatically not advocating a return to the modernist assumptions and forms of preaching which Craddock and others have critiqued. He too is concerned with echoing and reproducing the dynamism of biblical language in preaching. He simply argues that in this respect, Paul is an overlooked source of inspiration, as well as in the wider respects of the entire theological and pastoral agenda he models.


This leads me to underline the danger of overstating the contrast between the two models. Putting it simply, Paul seems just as far from three alliterative points as Jesus is. Paul, like Jesus, uses strong images. His language is lively, immediate, sometimes chaotic. There is also a strong narrative substructure to his thought, though scholars differ about the ways in which that is to be discerned. The story of Jesus, the story of Israel, his own autobiography, indeed the story of God himself all give shape to his arguments (as Thompson himself shows). Conversely, it is on the face of it one-sided to argue that all Jesus’ preaching was indirect and teasing. ‘The time is fulfilled, the kingdom of God is at hand: repent, and believe the good news’ sounds pretty direct to me (even if it is understood as a summary rather than a literal transcript). There is also, I think, much work still to be done on the ‘wisdom’ character of Jesus’ sayings. This proverbial quality is perhaps as hard to fit into ‘preaching as narrative’ as into ‘preaching as rational persuasion’.

The outcome, therefore, of taking seriously either Jesus or Paul as a model for preaching is not a straightforwardly predictable matter. My main concern now, however, is not to go into the details of such outcomes, but to subject the whole notion of using either figure for this purpose to some critique, under three headings.


2. Difficulties with the idea of taking Jesus and/or Paul as models for preaching

(a) The hermeneutical level
First, there is the problem that our most direct access to the preaching of Jesus and Paul is through the written texts of the Gospels and Epistles. Any reconstruction, therefore, of their preaching of either is bound to be just that: a reconstruction. The historical problems, questions and methods associated with this task will be familiar to most. The preaching of these men has come down to us mediated by others. In the case of Jesus, it comes in the form of Gospels woven together skilfully by Christian apologists and teachers, for the purposes of handing on tradition but also of addressing particular needs in the churches of their own day. In the case of Paul, it comes in the form of letters, many of which may indeed have been dictated directly by him, but which are nonetheless letters and not ‘sermons’ as we commonly use the word; as well as in some summaries recorded by Luke in Acts.

It is important to face these fairly obvious facts before we get over-enthusiastic about the use of either Jesus or Paul as models for preaching. Written texts are quite different from oral speech. Moreover, in the case of Jesus particularly, the writing is not even from his own hand.

This should serve as a corrective to incautious statements. For example, from time to time I have heard people argue that preaching should or could take a certain form ‘because that’s how Jesus preached in the Sermon on the Mount’. The fact that the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ and the ‘Sermon on the Plain’ are patently literary constructions in both Matthew and Luke is simply ignored. Both Evangelists, here and elsewhere in their Gospels, have obviously gathered material that has come down to them, on semi-thematic lines. It is on the face of it unlikely that we get very close to the form of Jesus’ preaching in either of these so-called ‘sermons’, which collect a range of sayings that may well have been uttered on many separate occasions, some of them perhaps repeated, maybe in similar combinations, maybe in different ones. On any particular occasion there might well have been linking passages, interruptions, dialogue, heckling; indeed the saying might well not have come from anything recognizable as a ‘sermon’ at all – a private conversation with a disciple or Pharisee, perhaps. ‘Sermon’ is our word, not the Gospels’.

With Paul, we are perhaps on surer ground. Thompson rightly emphasises the fact that the letters would have been orally dictated and read aloud to the churches; and that they certainly reflect rhetorical patterns from oral speech. Nonetheless, we are still at one or two removes from Paul’s ‘preaching’ in the flesh; and of course, there is doubt about the Pauline authorship of some of the letters traditionally ascribed to him.

This hermeneutical problem of trying to ‘read between the lines’ of the Gospels and Epistles to get at the preaching of Jesus and Paul does not, I suggest, present an insurmountable obstacle to using either Jesus or Paul as models for preaching. I believe that an attunement to these literary texts can indeed lead to the genuine hearing of voices that are highly suggestive for our preaching in various ways. At the moment, however, this hermeneutical difficulty should simply be taken as a caution. It is irresponsible to think we can just read off a model, still less a blueprint, from the face of the texts. In this, as in many other matters, the atmosphere of our times teaches us that ‘our knowledge is imperfect’ – an appropriately Pauline thought.


(b) The theological level
A second level, however, at which the idea of taking Jesus and/or Paul as models for preaching may be problematic is the theological level. Why, theologically, should either of them function in this way?

At this point it will be helpful to identify more precisely the different possible meanings of the word ‘model’ in this context. I suggest that we might mean the ‘message’ of Jesus or Paul, i.e. that the content of their teaching functions as a model for us; or their ‘methods’, i.e. that the form of their teaching functions as a model for us; or their ‘character’ (in Greek rhetorical terms, their ēthos), i.e. that their whole attitude or demeanour as preachers is exemplary.


(i) The model as the message
In traditional Protestantism, the emphasis has been on Paul as a model, and specifically on Paul’s message. The gospel proclaimed has not been, at least primarily, the message preached by Jesus but the message preached about him. And Paul is our great biblical exemplar of a preacher of the gospel of Jesus the Christ. Indeed, sometimes this fact has led to a kind of dispensationalist approach to the New Testament – even among those who would disown that label. The preaching of Jesus is seen as something immediate, a prophetic word for his own time (thus allowing, for instance, his teaching about non-violence to be relegated as inapplicable to later generations). The preaching of Paul, however, is seen as the authentic and abiding testimony to the meaning of Jesus, in his life and above all in his death and resurrection. Something akin to this kind of ‘dispensational’ approach is found very recently in Howard Marshall’s helpful book Beyond the Bible , in which he argues that in applying biblical teaching to our own time, we should recognize the ‘trajectory’ within the Bible itself: in other words, that we should not read the Old Testament apart from the filter of Jesus, and we should not read Jesus apart from the filter of Paul. In a recent postliberal twist to this Protestant tale, Charles L. Campbell argues that we should be less concerned with ‘preaching like Jesus’ (i.e. imitating his methods, as advocated in the ‘new homiletic’) and more concerned with ‘preaching about Jesus’ – in other words, proclaiming the message as Paul did.

What of the message of Jesus? The preaching of the Church has indeed been understood classically, both pre- and post-Reformation, as the living continuation of the word of God in Christ; but the emphasis has often been on the speaking of the pre-existent and now ascended Christ, rather than on the reported words of the earthly Jesus. However, Catholic tradition has often placed strong emphasis on Jesus’ summary of the law, the double love command, as the heart of the Christian message. In Protestantism we owe especially to a minority tradition, the Anabaptists, the keeping-alive of the idea that the teaching of Jesus must be taken as seriously as the teaching about him.


(ii) The model as the character
The idea of the ‘imitation of Christ’ has been a recurring theme in Christian history, beginning indeed with Paul himself. Whether it is seen in literal terms, as by Francis of Assissi, or in more mystical terms, as in much medieval theology, the notion of Jesus as the ideal human – including, of course, the attitude imbued in his speech – seems uncontroversial. Luther thought that in his day the idea of the ‘imitation of Christ’ had come to obscure the grace by which alone we are conformed to Christ; but the idea of ‘following Jesus’ never seems to be far away from Christian piety and rightly keeps rejoining the intellectual belief from which it should surely never be separated.

In the case of Paul, the fact that he is not Jesus opens the way for some commentators, at least, to be chary of taking him as a morally exemplary speaker. Indeed, some argue the reverse! We may cite two contrasting modern readings. Graham Shaw in his book The Cost of Authority accused Paul of being a manipulator. André Resner, however, discusses what he calls Paul’s ‘reverse- ēthos’. That is, Paul presents his character as a vital element of his message, but asks for it to be judged by a standard directly opposed to those of the day, that is, the cross.


(iii) The model as the methods
When we come to considering the methods of Jesus or Paul as exemplary, there seems to be much less in the tradition with which to engage. Why should this be?

We might approach this question from the point of view of the classic Christian understanding of Scripture as divine Word. As William Abraham has shown, Scripture was early on understood as a means of grace, part of a delicate network of canonical materials which functioned to build up the Church in the life of God mediated to us through Jesus Christ. The precise means by which Scripture was thus to function was not prescribed in advance, as if God had provided helpful notes on how to handle it in a preface somewhere. The task of interpretation was to be a constant journey of discovery, carried out in humility, charity, in light of the rule of faith, with the aim of building up the Church, and above all with openness to the Spirit of God.

The implication of this for our question seems to be that while all kinds of insight and inspiration for the Church in all its tasks, including preaching, could and can indeed be anticipated as coming to us through Scripture, there is no foreordained necessity that one figure from Scripture rather than another should be a model for preaching. Indeed, the stress on Scripture as divine gift puts the emphasis on God’s use of the whole web of texts that make up the canon in order to guide us, rather than individual human exemplars to whom the texts point – even in the unique case of Jesus of Nazareth.

Moreover, there has been dispute in the Church about the way in which Scripture ought to function, and especially the extent to which it ought to be taken as prescriptive in detail for contemporary Church life. Again, such disputes are not, as it were, settled in advance by some preliminary ruling on how Scripture ought to be taken. For instance in the English Reformation, Richard Hooker allowed for development in Christian practices, especially in worship, beyond those specifically mentioned or authorized in Scripture, as long as they were not contrary to Scripture. The Puritans, meanwhile, wished to tie current practice much more tightly to that which was found in Scripture. From our point of view, the interesting fact is that even the Puritans did not take this to the extent of adopting Jesus, or Paul, or any other biblical figure as a detailed model for the rhetoric of their preaching. Indeed, they developed their own distinctive rhetorical style, which though entitled ‘plain’, was nonetheless a form of rhetoric far more indebted to current trends and needs than to Scripture itself.

Thus even the stricter tradition of the Reformation, and still more the mainstream view represented by Hooker, might be taken as warning us off a ‘fundamentalism of form’, as we could call it: the idea that we are supposed to imitate any biblical preacher in slavish detail. However, let us look at the question from another angle. What happens when we separate form and method from content and message, character and messenger?

Such a separation is exactly what has happened since the Puritans and subsequently the Enlightenment. The notion that a message could be detached and abstracted from the language and rhetorical form in which it is couched is a distinctly modern notion which sits uneasily with a biblical view of embodied truth. It has been progressively challenged by forerunners of postmodernity in the philosophy of language. One does not need to go the whole hog with the more radical postmodernists and say that reality is purely a linguistic construct to recognize that form and content, language and truth, message and medium cannot be extricated from each other in any straightforward way.

But the problem with some attempts to reclaim Jesus, in particular, as a model for preaching is precisely that they do seem want to reclaim a style without the substance. This tendency is wittily highlighted by Thomas Long in a sermon on Mark 4:10-12, in which the twelve ask Jesus about the parables. Long says that what we tend to expect Jesus to say in answer to them is something like ‘Don’t you know how people love stories? Something to get them hooked and interested? A few nice pictures, illustrations, windows on to the truth?’ Of course what he says in fact, according to Mark, is that everything comes in parables ‘in order that “they may indeed look, but not perceive, and may indeed listen, but not understand; so that they may not turn again and be forgiven’. Whatever one makes of Mark’s citation of Isaiah on the lips of Jesus at this point, highlighting the mysterious divine purpose in his prophetic ministry, it surely warns us off a superficial use of the style of Jesus as exemplary, without wrestling with the deeper thrust, content and purpose of his message. Craddock himself, it should be said, is too careful a writer to fall into this trap; and we should equally recognize the incongruity against which the ‘new homiletic’ has rightly reacted, that of turning interesting, teasing, provocative sayings such as those of Jesus into abstract and sometimes platitudinous statements of doctrine or ethics.

All this suggests that theologically we must tread a line between two dangers: on the one hand that of turning the rich tapestry of Scripture, given as a means of grace, into narrowly prescriptive models for methods of conducting every aspect of Church life, including preaching; on the other hand that of separating form from content and messenger, ending up with a message that has either biblical style or biblical substance but not both.


The methodological level
The final set of problems with taking Jesus or Paul as models for preaching occurs at the methodological level.

Put simply, the tendency to look for biblical models can seem driven by pragmatism rather than principle. We have already noted the strong reactive element in both the ‘new homiletic’ and Thompson’s Preaching Like Paul, and this to some extent is the way developments in practical theology are bound to happen. It is interesting to note that though Thompson wants to shift the discussion away from the pragmatics of preaching individual sermons to the deeper rationale for the preaching ministry, as found (in his view) in Paul, his use of Paul as a model remains essentially a pragmatic one. He seizes on Paul, at least in part, because in his view ‘preaching in a post-Christian culture [i.e. our own] has much to learn from the preaching of a pre-Christian culture’.

In one sense, there will always be an element of the pragmatic about our drawing on Scriptural models. Indeed, if we accept William Abraham’s understanding of the nature of Scripture, we will resist any tendency to treat the Bible into a handbook to which we can turn for ready answers on any matter of Church order, practice, ethics etc. that may concern us: in other words, we will not treat it as a book of ‘principles’ the application of which must conform to some preordained pattern. There will be a sense of immediacy, life, imagination, prophetic surprise and therefore, perhaps, pragmatism about the ways in which Scripture is seen to address different matters at different times and places. But this kind of prophetic pragmatism, if we may call it that, is surely to be distinguished from the more full-blown pragmatism implicit in some discourse about preaching, which is rooted in modern concerns about ‘what works’ rather than in Christian tradition.

I will therefore move to a final section in which I outline tentatively the basis on which we might indeed take Jesus and Paul as models for preaching today, avoiding the various problems I have discussed.


3. A way forward? The tradition of sacred rhetoric

A way forward may be suggested, indirectly, by a recent book by Michael Pasquarello III, Sacred Rhetoric: Preaching as a Theological and Pastoral Practice of the Church. For our puposes, one of the immediately interesting features of this book is that Pasquarello sets out quite deliberately (even polemically) not to write another ‘how-to’ book on preaching. Here are the opening lines of his last chapter:
Contrary to late modern sensibilities, there are no answers in the back of this book. No new communication theory or method is proposed; no rules or principles for sermon design are provided; no “ practical” tips or advice for particular strategies, programs, or steps to follow are listed.

The other immediately interesting feature is that the book is an account of a series of exemplars of preaching in the Christian tradition, including Augustine, Gregory the Great, Bonaventure, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin and others. Their preaching is described as an expression of their overall vision for the theological and pastoral nurture of the Church. Rather than narrowly-defined models for technique, Pasquarello wishes us to find in this procession of preachers nurture for our own ministry on a much deeper level. It is, indeed, as part of a new sense of immersion in the Christian tradition, a new awareness of our story as the Church, that according to Pasquarello we shall discover a new vision for preaching as ‘sacred rhetoric’.

Pasquarello thus reclaims the time-honoured practice of recalling great exemplars from our Christian past. Moreover, it is the people (in all their fallibility) who are recalled, not merely texts they produced, or texts produced about them – even though much of our access to them now is through texts, rather than oral tradition. Looking back to texts alone can, if we are not careful, lead to arid, rule-based Christian praxis. Looking back to our predecessors in the faith, by contrast, can give inspiration and encouragement: it may not tell us directly how to do things in our own age, nor indeed will it prescribe in detail what we are to say, but it reminds us why we do what we do. Within that, there may indeed be practical help; but without that, any practical help we glean from such exemplars is bound to be merely pragmatic snatchings.

Crucially, Pasquarello presents these figures as Christians conscious that their very language was shaped by the word of God to which they gave voice. They did not think they could communicate a supposedly extra-linguistic ‘truth’ and that the language or form used in this communication was a matter of indifference. They spoke in ways that their contemporaries could hear, but prayed and believed that their words would be truly ‘sacred rhetoric’, human words of which God in his grace was taking possession. Thus they were exemplars of proclamatory speech in its unity: not to be imitated only in content, nor only in the character of the speaker, nor only in form; not slavishly in any sense; but rather as part of the grand tradition of saints whose lips God has touched to speak his word in their time.

I suggest that we should indeed take Jesus and Paul as models for preaching, but do so as a part of this grand tradition. We can look to them – and not only to the texts which bear witness to them – as true exemplars of ‘sacred rhetoric’ in which matter joins with method under the inspiration of God’s Spirit. Clearly both Jesus and Paul occupy unique and distinct positions in the narrative of God’s purposes. But clearly too there is a continuity between them and those who came after. By viewing them in their place in this great procession, we allow insight and inspiration to emerge from each figure of the procession, and are saved from the jumpy pragmatism which darts now to one figure from the past, now another, as the latest fashion seems to suggest.

Moreover, I suggest that we will only see this great procession in proper perspective if we recognize that it does not begin with Jesus. Jesus continues the authentic tradition of Old Testament prophetic speech in its dynamic immediacy. This tradition itself does not begin with those we commonly label ‘the prophets’ but goes back to Moses. The Pentateuch bears witness to the ‘Torah’ or ‘teaching’ of God as words orally received and passed on. Of course it assumed written form, but the important point to note is that the living, oral word for a particular situation did not cease because of the existence of written collections.

Jesus then becomes – like the prophets, but still more clearly than they – a model not just for sacred rhetoric, but for also negotiating the relationship between sacred rhetoric and sacred text. He was recognized ‘as one having authority, and not as the scribes’ (Mark 1:22). He was not a simple exegete of written texts, as even a cursory glance at his reported preaching reveals. Yet he claimed to be uncovering the true and forgotten heart of Torah, the real impulse and purpose behind those texts (Matthew 5:17-48). In contrast to the Sadducees, who stuck safely and conservatively to the Pentateuch, he allowed for new insights, such as the possibility of resurrection (Mark 11:18-27). In contrast to the Pharisees, who had built up a tradition of new insights to deal with contemporary situations, he refused to allow such prescriptions to overturn and evacuate the fundamental and gracious purpose of Torah and turn it into a tool of oppression (Mark 7:1-13).

It is surely this same prophetic tradition of sacred rhetoric into which Paul enters, as under the inspiration of the Spirit he interprets both the story of Jesus and the story of Israel in terms of each other, raising modern eyebrows in the process with his handling of the Hebrew Scriptures. But we note that Paul, like Jesus, is precisely not concerned with novelty. He is concerned to show that the God who spoke to Moses is the same God who now tears aside the veil and gives us the light of the knowledge of his glory in the face of Jesus Christ.

Given our belief in Christ as God’s most complete self-revelation, there is a unique freshness in the preaching of both Jesus, and Paul as his apostolic witness, which it would be quite inappropriate to seek to recapture. The danger, though, is that if we do not see them as models for us, as a part of this great tradition of sacred rhetoric, in which the living word of God captures the speech of individuals in each generation, from Moses to Martin Luther King and beyond, we may not only cease to speak with any true authority ourselves. We may also relapse into speaking like the Sadducees, Pharisees and scribes.


The Elusive Illustration

Letting the Text Provide!

Chuck Sackett, Lincoln Christian Seminary


It’s just a few minutes before I’m to speak. I’m preaching for a friend’s congregation where I’ve spoken on a number of occasions. The only element of liturgy left is the Lord’s Supper. Flashing through my mind is every preacher’s nightmare—I’ve already preached this sermon, here. Foraging through cobwebs, I’m trying to recall something, anything, that will tell me I’m wrong. Suddenly I remember Dr. White’s response to a story in the sermon. I have preached this here before.

Somehow stories stick…and the sermon will be remembered for the story even if not for the message. That being the case, how can the stories (a.k.a., illustrations, metaphors, images) be so textually-driven, that when listeners remember the story, they are drawn back to the text?

Every preacher knows the chorus—“no one remembers my sermons—but I can’t use the same illustration twice.” Our experience is that people tend to remember the images and stories we use to illustrate our “points,” but rarely remember the point itself. Those writing about preaching have argued for the past several years that we should “let the text win” in the dominant thought (big idea, point) and structure—at least then people can come back to something of substance, even when they don’t remember our sermon per se.

I’m suggesting that if the very images, metaphors and illustrations we use are driven by the text, what people remember will draw them closer to that substantive message than if they simply remember our stories. Nothing benefits the listener more that having their hearts and minds anchored in a Biblical text.

Every preacher knows the challenge of finding the right image or illustration. Most have made friends with 10,000 Illustrations for Every Occasion (at least us old guys) or (this list is nearly endless). But is there a better way? At least a way that makes those tools as potent as possible?

I’m suggesting there is. I’m suggesting that inherent in our study of the text (the exegetical process itself) there are clues to effective images and illustrations that will anchor the text (and not merely the story) in the hearts and memories of our listeners.

I envision a series of concentric circles (inner most—the text/explanation; then, reflections on words, grammar, background, etc.; followed by stories/illustrations stimulated by the text; concluding with the material found in secondary sources related to the text) showing a progression of effectiveness—the closer to the middle (the text) the greater the effectiveness of the material.

The practice of creative reflection and observation (as well as the sleuth’s determination) will provide a wealth of useful material for every sermon. Thus our study will not only assure us (as much as can be expected) of accuracy in interpretation/application, but also adequate and effective supporting material to help that truth be seen, felt and grasped.

Homileticians have reinforced for us the tri-part approach to “supporting material.” Every sermon addresses explanation, application and illustration. Explanation attempts to tell us what the text said. Application helps us comprehend what it says. Illustration allows us to see what it looks like.

Sometimes dashed lines separate those three categories. Explanation sometimes comes in the form of an illustration. Application occurs in the simple explanation. Illustration is often application disguised or explanation made interesting.

Given this introduction, the following examples are attempts to “explain/apply/illustrate” what I’m driving at.

Revelation 1:4-6 shows us how attention to background information and context can create an image to carry the sermon. The simplified version: John is exiled on the island of Patmos; the church has lost her preacher and the preacher has lost his church. Random reports of scattered persecution are circulating. Reports are that there has actually been martyrdom. On the other hand, churches are facing the challenge of compromise with the culture. It’s a recipe for discouragement, despair. Yet John breaks into doxology. Instead of being discouraged, he responds with an outburst of praise. How does despair become doxology? How does self-pity become sacrificial praise?

Here context provides not only the answer, but the imagery to carry the answer. First, the answer. Revelation begins as any epistle does, admittedly with some additional flare, yet horizontal in nature: “John to the seven churches in Asia, grace and peace…” It’s nothing we haven’t read before in the letters of the New Testament. But something happens.

As John describes the Trinitarian author (some of the flare) he highlights the concerns faced by the church. He describes God as eternal (“who was and is and is to come”) and the Spirit as omnipresent (“seven spirits before His throne” paralleling “seven churches”). Then He turns to Jesus. Jesus is the “faithful witness”; in contrast to those who have fled the faith in the face of opposition. He is the “firstborn from among the dead”; giving hope to those who have lost loved ones to the persecution. He is the “ruler of the kings of the earth”; contrary to the Romans and their egotistical emperors.

Having so clearly identified the author of the message, suddenly John turns his attention vertical. His words are no longer aimed at his readers, but instead, pointed toward heaven. He reaches upward with a powerfully Christological doxology, “to Him who…” Something has turned his attention from his circumstances and their power to degenerate into despair, to heaven and its power to elate and encourage. He’s seen a fresh vision of Jesus.

So, what does one do when “life tumbles in,” becomes more than we can bear? We look at Jesus. We see Him again, for who He is. And a sermon is born. And an image to carry it develops. The possible images include seeing, vision, fresh look, double take, imagine/imagination, picture, transformation, turning the corner or something similar.

The text also provides the “what” we are to see. Three verbs surface in our study to clarify what we should look for. Here are the attributes of Jesus which produce doxology. He is one who “loves, forgives and trusts (my interpretation of “makes us”).”

In seeking to “explain, apply and illustrate” the text, our research provides the fodder for feeding our creative thoughts. In looking at the grammar we realize we have participles (not something we would necessarily share with the audience). We realize we are not dealing with simple acts, but with characteristics. In other words, Jesus doesn’t just “love” under certain circumstances, He is characterized by love. You can’t stop Him from loving.

We also note that “loves” is present and active. He loves now, in an ongoing fashion. The question then becomes, how do we capture the implication of the grammar (explanation) in a way that will impact the audience (application) and enable them to experience the wonder of this truth (illustration)? We let the text, and our work with the text, win.

Our temptation is to turn to the immediate—go with the song. After all, “Jesus Loves Me” is a good expression of this verse. With some historical detail we can create a good illustration. We may yet use it. But it’s too early to go there. The text still has much more to offer.

Because we always compare translations of the text as part of our study, we realize the King James Version translated this as past tense, “loved us.” Here is an opportunity to teach a valuable study method (comparing versions) while highlighting the text (explanation) and showing its implications creatively (application/illustration). It might sound something like this:

I’m not a grammarian, nor the son of a grammarian, but I recognize an “s” when I see one. This text says Jesus “loves” us, not “loved” us. For some reason the translators of the King James Version chose a past tense form for this verb. But when we look at several more recent translations we see they all reveal the present tense. But isn’t it still just an “s”?

Frankly, some of you would prefer it was a “d,” past tense. You believe Jesus “loved” you. Back when you were more innocent; before life took those unexpected, undesirable turns. You know life isn’t what you’d hoped. Jesus couldn’t possibly love you now, not in these conditions, not under these circumstances, not after what you have done.

Others of you are convinced it should be “will love us,” future tense. You have high hopes and big plans. You’re going to straighten out your life. Or, life is going to get better. You’ll get through the divorce, past the cancer, over the affair, beyond the sin. Then, after life is more like it should be, you may believe Jesus loves you. But not now, not yet.

But look at the text. Look carefully. It’s an “s”. No doubt about it. John says Jesus loves me, now. He loves me in spite of my decisions, in spite of my circumstances, in spite of the condition of my life. In fact, I can’t stop Jesus from loving me. It’s in his nature. It reminds you of a Bible verse, doesn’t it? “Nothing can separate us from the love of Christ…” (Romans 8:37-39). Or a song you heard in Sunday School, “Jesus loves me, this I know. For the Bible tells me so.”

Believe it. Jesus loves you. And nothing you can do will stop Him. Now, if you’re tempted to be discouraged, that should help. When life seems unbearable, take a look at Jesus. Look into His face and note there, love. Jesus’ love. He loves you right here, right now.

The second verb might be handled in a similar fashion. It too, is an attribute of Jesus. He is one who forgives. Except this is past tense. He has forgiven (loosed) us “from our sins by His own blood.” In this case, the explanation/application might come through concentrating on the connecting words. Here we not only help people experience the impact of this text, but we again teach them hermeneutics. It isn’t always the big words that matter. Sometimes it’s the little ones, like “our” and “His.” Possibly something like this:

You’ll notice in the text two really critical words. But don’t look for the big, seminary-sounding words. Look for the little ones. Sometimes they make all the difference. See them? They’re in the phrase “loosed us from our sins by His own blood.”

The two words are “our” and “His.” There are others, too. For example, the word “by.” It’s a word of agency, telling us how something was done. Forgiveness (loosing us from our sins) was accomplished “by” His blood.

But that’s what’s so unusual. It was “our” sin. Shouldn’t it have been “our” blood? Or, if it was “His” blood, shouldn’t it have been “His” sin? That’s what’s so amazing about Jesus. He looses us from our sin, but He does it by His blood. Amazing.

It demonstrates so clearly how much He loves us. He loves us enough to give His own life for ours. If you arose this morning discouraged, if life wasn’t what you expected, this should help. Not only does He love you, He died for you.

We might now turn further from the center; i.e., less explanation and more pure illustration. Possibly there is a strong story that illustrates the shedding of blood or some other sacrifice for the sake of others. It could be the story from Iraq of a soldier tossing himself on a bomb inside their tank. He lost his life for the sake of others.

My story is about my daughter and her first accident. She fell off some playground equipment and split her scalp which bled profusely. It was our first major scare and trip to the local emergency room. I played the story off of wanting to see a doctor, an MD. I didn’t want to see an EMT. After briefly recounting the story, I made this application.

A few days later I was reading my Bible. I ran across that text in 1 Peter. The one that says, “you were not saved by perishable things, like silver and gold. But by the precious blood of Jesus.” And I remember thinking, there are four people in the world I think I’d be willing to die for; my wife and three daughters. But this I know for sure…there is not one person in the world I’d let my daughter die for.

Yet that’s just what God did. He let Jesus die for us, in fact, sent Him to die for us. No wonder John, when he had a fresh look at Jesus, turned to heaven in praise instead of to earth in despair.

By “letting the text win” we create illustrations which apply and explain. They help the audience see what the text meant and means. We have an opportunity to teach (implicitly as well as explicitly) good study practices. We free ourselves from the need to scramble each week looking for a “good story.” And, when the listener remembers the story, they just may remember the text.

The practice can be illustrated repeatedly. Every text has its images and its points of connection. Our concern must be the development of a process for accomplishing this kind of textual reinforcement. The following may provide food for thought.

Not necessarily first in order of importance, but probably first in order of accomplishment: be patient. Too many preachers want to hasten to the application/illustration stage. If we can delay visiting the sermon/illustration websites long enough to finish our study of the text, we will have taken a step in the right direction. That means sermon preparation (i.e., studying the text) has priority over administrivia and other worthwhile activities.

Once the practice of “delay” is begun, that which should be first in importance may occur. That is, we must practice an effective method of study. Whether we adopt/adapt Gorman’s process , work with Fee and Stuart , “cross the river” with Duvall and Hayes , we must find something that is “ours.” We need a process we can rely on week after week. This procedure must become second nature to us.

Without belaboring the point, it must include context, background, words, grammar, discourse, genre, canon; i.e., the basics. But it must be more than mere “information gathering.” The key word in all this study is “significance.” It is never enough to merely parse a verb or discover a fact. The question must be asked, “Why does this matter?”

We should write that question in the margins of every set of notes we produce. We must force ourselves to have a solid explanation of why something is important. It’s one thing to note that Elijah “went ‘east of Israel’ and ‘was fed by ravens’.” It’s quite another to recognize the truth that God has sent him out of the land to be fed by unclean birds as a statement of God’s disengagement with His people.

First, we slow down. Second, we actually study. And, as a part of that study, we ask the question of “significance.” Then we will have to see connections. How does this information lead to that application? Or, how does this word lead to that metaphor? The image that comes to mind is “drawing lines.” Can I draw a line from that story/metaphor/illustration to the text? Can I show where in the text that idea found its origin?

In some ways this can’t be taught; but it can be caught. Therefore listening to sermons and analyzing their inductive elements is an invaluable exercise. We should not only recognize the various elements, but attempt to trace them back to their origin in the text. In other words, practice “drawing lines” of connection.

We might also benefit from “mutual critique” of our sermons. Other staff, or area ministers, might serve as “critics.” We can ask about placement of illustrative materials. Did they fit? Were they appropriate? Where in the text did they find their origin? We can ask why a particular metaphor might have been a great choice and why others might not have been so helpful.

At a more practical level, we need to learn to be selective in our searches (websites, illustration services, etc). To use a “text-driven” search before using a “topic-driven” search will help. By looking for “Revelation 1:4-6” in the search we discover what others have seen as potential connections to this text. This practice will at least keep us thinking textually.

These steps will help us concentrate on the text. If we concentrate on the text, chances are better that our sermon will reflect the text. If the sermon reflects the text, the odds are greater the listener will be drawn back to the text instead of to the preacher. If the listener remembers the text, the probability is they will begin to be shaped by the text. If the text is allowed to shape the listener, the possibility is enhanced that the listener will look more like the author of the text. For that reason, helping a listener see, feel, and grasp the text is worth the effort.


Preaching the Gospel as Meta-Narrative to Postmoderns

Glenn Watson, Canadian Southern Baptist Seminary


Sitting in a conference room in 2004 with three hundred aspiring European movie screenwriters, producers, directors and actors, I experienced, vividly and unforgettably, the antipathy of contemporary culture towards the Christian message. The speaker was Robert McKee, a Hollywood screenwriting guru, giving his annual “Story” workshop in London. I was an incognito preaching professor, hoping to gain some insight for equipping students in narrative communication. Early in the second session, McKee was explaining that a significant human value should be at stake in any story to lend power to the conflict. On his list of possible values, he mentioned “peace.” In mid-sentence, he suspended his train of thought and said, “By the way, we will never have peace until we wipe all religion from the face of the earth.” I was somewhat stunned, but the surrounding silence seemed more of intrigue than of offense. “Mind you, I’m not opposed to spirituality,” he continued, “but these ideas of heaven and hell, that ‘there’s only one way to God and it’s my way,’ ‘I’m right and you’re wrong,’ ‘I’m in and you’re out’—these will keep us blowing each other up until we get rid of them completely.” People around me nodded agreement, and there was a smattering of applause in the room. McKee went on to speak for three days about the nuts and bolts of communicating “truth” through stories. The stories he had in mind were fictional. The “truth” was universal, yet fluid and personal—helpful tidbits of insight into the “human condition” that the screenwriter might discover even in the process of writing the story, and then transmit to the audience in its telling.

That moment crystallized for me the challenge of proclaiming the Gospel in the contemporary secular West. Secular hearers are generally not the least interested in what we have to say, and if they are, it is usually for merely therapeutic reasons. They hope we might give them some story, some insight, some pithy saying that will inspire them and help them make it through the day. However, they distrust our serious claims to Truth, seeing them as destructive, dangerous, unsophisticated and uncivilized. Telling helpful stories is one thing, but affirming a grand story, making universal claims, drawing all-inclusive conclusions—this is something else altogether.

McKee’s matter-of-fact dismissal of all religion as dangerous for the common good illustrates the essence of the postmodern mindset as defined by Jean-François Lyotard in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, first published in French in 1979. “Simplifying to the extreme,” he wrote, “I define postmodern as incredulity towards metanarratives.” (Lyotard, 1984, p. xxiv) The original French word “incredulité” carries a slightly stronger nuance than the English “incredulity” or “disbelief,” and comes closer to describing the suspicion and outright resistance present in contemporary culture towards any affirmation of absolute truth. For those of us who preach, and who attempt to equip others to preach, this barrier to our message is too significant to ignore.


Is Christianity a Metanarrative?

The first question to ask and answer is whether the Biblical story is, in fact, a metanarrative in the sense that Lyotard has in mind. And if it is, what is it about the Biblical story that Lyotard finds so objectionable? This question has been the subject of some discussion. Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh, assuming that the Christian story is, indeed, a target of Lyotard’s rejection, contend that the ultimate reasons for this rejection are both epistemological and ethical. First, the Christian story, like all metanarratives, claims to know more than it could possibly know. When a story that is local in nature, the product of a particular community’s vision of the world, lays claim to moral universality, it oversteps its realm of knowledge. “No metanarrative … is large enough or open enough genuinely to include the experiences of all people.” The second objection is ethical in nature and flows from the first. Metanarratives, including the Christian story, inevitably lead to oppression and violence in their claims of “totality.” (Middleton & Walsh, 1995b, pp. 70-71)

Middleton’s and Walsh’s proposed solution is to answer this misconception by emphasizing the “antitotalizing thrust” of the Biblical metanarrative, apparent in four distinct biblical trajectories. The first is the sensitivity of Israel towards suffering, as seen particularly in the Exodus account and subsequent exhortations to practice justice towards aliens, widows, orphans and other oppressed peoples. Second, the OT prophets proclaimed God’s judgment against Israel because of its own injustice, and advanced a vision of the creator God’s redemptive purpose for all peoples. Third, the shape of the Torah, beginning with creation and ending before Israel enters the land underscores the universal nature of God’s purpose and the nature of Israel’s election for service rather than for privilege—called as a vessel to mediate God’s healing to all the peoples of the world. Finally, the ministry of Jesus, taking the side of the marginalized and the outcast against the political and religious establishment, radically exhorting his disciples to “love your enemies,” emphasizing the universal call of Israel to be a “house of prayer for the nations,” culminates in the ultimate climax of the entire story as the Son of God voluntarily submits to death, vindicated through resurrection, on behalf of all humanity. The Biblical metanarrative properly proclaimed, Middleton and Walsh maintain, answers postmodernism’s objections of totalizing oppression. (Middleton & Walsh, 1995a, pp. 141-154)

James K.A. Smith and Merold Westfal both contend that, not only is Christianity exempt from postmodernism’s incredulity toward metanarratives, but that Christians should see this incredulity as friendly territory for the faith. Smith claims that metanarratives are a distinctly modern phenomenon: “they are stories which not only tell a grand story (since even premodern and tribal stories do this), but also claim to be able to legitimate the story and its claims by an appeal to universal Reason.” (Smith, 2001, p. 354) This appeal to universal, autonomous Reason for legitimacy characterizes such modern narratives as Hegel’s dialectic, Kant’s emancipation of the rational, Marx’s dialectical materialism and Adam Smith’s wealth of nations. It is towards these modern myths that Lyotard directs his critique, not because of their universal scope, but because, in their appeal to reason, they fail to acknowledge that reason itself is just another language game. They will not own up to their “mythic ground.” (Smith, 2001, p. 360) Since the Christianity makes no such pretentious appeal to universal reason, but rather places faith before reason, Smith claims it may in fact find in postmodernism an ally in the construction of a Christian philosophy.

Westphal also claims that Lyotard’s target is limited to enlightenment thinkers like those mentioned above, but for slightly different reasons. Similarly to Smith, he believes that the Christian narrative is distinguished from Lyotard’s metanarratives by the fact that the latter are told by philosophers, appealing to reason, while the former is told by prophets and apostles, appealing to divine revelation. But Westfal gives yet another reason. Modern metanarratives are constructed for the purpose of legitimizing the discourses to which they relate. We tell stories to justify ourselves. In contrast, the Biblical story tends to delegitimize the status quo. The Bible “does not tell us, as a society, as a culture or even as a church that our practices constitute the Kingdom of God, the goal or culmination of history.” (Westfal, 2003, p. 34) Westfal, then, sees Lyotard’s incredulity as an unwitting commentary on the fallen nature of man, and an opportunity for Christian teaching on human sinfulness.

Justin Thacker responds to both Smith and Westphal with a thorough review of Lyotard’s writings to demonstrate that Lyotard specifically includes Christianity among the metanarratives rejected by postmodernism. In Thacker’s view, the issue for Lyotard is not that metanarratives are grounded in universal reason, or that they are attempts by autonomous human beings and societies at self-justification. The issue is that metanarratives do not remain in the local social setting in which they are constructed and told. They “overstep their bounds, and begin to control or manipulate other narratives.” Thacker concludes, “Christianity must be such a metanarrative, for almost any claim it makes will, for Lyotard, impinge upon the claims of other narratives.” (Thacker, 2005, p. 310)

Regardless of where we might stand on the question of just what Jean-François Lyotard meant by “metanarrative,” Thacker’s conclusion seems to reflect most accurately the mind of the audience we face when we seek to address the secular West with the Gospel message. My screenwriting teacher, Robert McKee, did not pronounce his sweeping judgment on all religion, including Christianity, because their teachings are based on universal reason, or because they are attempts by individuals and communities to justify themselves, or even merely because they tend toward totalizing oppression of the minority. It is because he believes that claims about ultimate and universal truth, held with certainty and conviction in a pluralistic culture, are bound to generate disagreement, conflict and even violence, and he sees this belief confirmed on the evening news every day. Living in a pluralistic and multicultural milieu has led him to declare “tolerance” the supreme virtue, and consequently to view adherence to an absolute truth, or a universal story as the supreme evil. He admittedly is open to “spirituality,” and he and my fellow screenwriting students, as well as most postmodern travelers in our culture, would welcome the light our stories might shed on the “human condition,” as long as we maintained a “local” and provisional tone in the telling. But when our message takes on the flavor of a metanarrative, in the universal, absolute and exclusive sense, they will see us as having stepped over the bounds of what we might possibly know, and what we can legitimately proclaim.


What’s a Preacher to Do?

How, then, shall we preach? In the face of such cultural hostility, several strategies present themselves. Depending on the personality and inclination of the preacher, one might choose a strategy of confrontation, taking our cue from the note, scribbled in the margin of a preacher’s outline: “Weak point—pound the pulpit and speak louder.” However, our postmodern audience does not give the impression that it is likely to be overpowered by our strength of conviction, or even convinced by our most clever and rational arguments.

Others might be inclined to opt for a strategy of acquiescence: “If they won’t take what we’re offering, let’s offer them what they’re taking.” Preaching as therapeutic dialogue could conceivably have the appearance of some success, and even resemble Biblical preaching. Tell them the stories of the Bible in an interesting and engaging style, help them to find strength, encouragement and tips for daily living in the pages of the Scriptures. Or look for ways to point out intersections between God’s story and theirs, as they make their way through life. The problem with this approach is that it confirms the postmodern impression that the Christian story, like all other stories, is but a local social construct, void of any real universal or eternal meaning. Our hearers don’t need to see intersections of their own stories with God’s story, they need to see that their stories do not exist independently of His—God’s story is where they already live.

Another option, reflecting a strategy of détente, might be to enter an apologetic dialogue with the culture. This is the strategy of simply keeping the lines of communication open, while agreeing to disagree. As Justin Thacker points out, Lyotard himself recognizes that, in order to remain consistent in his thought, his rejection of metanarratives can only be provisional. Otherwise, he finds himself in the circular quagmire of maintaining an absolute rejection of all absolutes. According to Thacker’s analysis, Lyotard answers this dilemma by recognizing that narratives must sometimes be recognized as being contradictory to one another. In these cases, we should simply “bear witness” to the differences, describing them without attempting to resolve them. Thacker suggests that the best strategy for coexisting with Lyotard and postmodernism is to retain an absolute commitment to Christianity, while maintaining a dialogue of détente with postmodern thought. (Thacker, 2005, pp. 311-312) Thacker’s observation is helpful, and opens at least a space in the postmodern milieu where we might share our story. However, as a veteran of ten years as a missionary in Western Europe, I wonder whether this strategy might become an easy out that is not necessarily true to our apostolic calling. I would question whether simply staying in the same room with Lyotard for a lifetime is equivalent to bearing faithful witness to the Gospel.

Finally, we could opt for a strategy of kerygmatic proclamation, entering into a prophetic dialogue with postmodern hearers. “Prophetic” implies an unapologetic telling of the Christian metanarrative. “Dialogue” implies sensitivity to the incredulity we face, and willingness to listen as well as to speak. J.P. Moreland, in an address on “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy and the Postmodern Turn,” points out the immoral nature of taking the approach of “intellectual pacifism” towards the challenges of postmodernism, which “recommends backgammon while the barbarians are at the gate. It is the easy, cowardly way out that removes the pressure to engage alternative conceptual schemes, to be different, to risk ridicule, to take a stand outside the gate. But it is precisely as disciples of Christ, even more, as officers in his army, that the pacifist way out is simply not an option.” (Moreland, 2005, p. 113) Preachers, and teachers of preaching, must enter the fray, accepting the challenge to engage our culture in meaningful ways with the Gospel. How we accomplish this is an open question, but we will spend the remainder of this paper suggesting some possible directions for a strategy of “prophetic dialogue.”


Humbly Confess Our Humanity

Contemporary hearers do not resist the Christian story out of blind prejudice. They base their distrust, as Richard Middleton and Brian Walsh have observed, on systematic insight and historical observation. The insight is that “those who articulate metanarratives and worldviews are inevitably finite, fallible (indeed, fallen) human beings.” The historical observation is that “the biblical story has, in fact, often been used ideologically to oppress and exclude those regarded as infidels or heretics.” (Middleton & Walsh, 1995a, p. 142) Westphal’s read on the distinctive characteristics of the Christian metanarrative is correct. The Bible does not exist to legitimize our practices and our prejudices. It rather rebukes and corrects us. The first step towards a prophetic dialogue with our postmodern hearers will be to have the humility to acknowledge that they are right about us. We, the messengers, are indeed finite, fallible, fallen human beings. Our vision is limited by our finiteness, by our sinfulness and by our cultural bias. We have often throughout history abused our story by using it to legitimize ourselves instead of allowing it to correct us. Once we have removed ourselves from the debate, we may focus on the message we have received from God.

In his book, Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality, Donald Miller tells the story of a small group of Christians on the campus of Reed College in Portland, Oregon, a campus selected by the Princeton Review, as the college where students are most likely to ignore God. This handful of followers of Jesus felt they needed to “come out” with their faith, and they chose an annual campus festival called Ren Fayre, a two-day party devoted primarily to the consumption of drugs and alcohol, as the time they would make their Christian identity known to their classmates. The method they chose was a “confession booth” in the middle of the campus, where, presumably, their friends could enter and confess their sins. When the students entered the booth, however, expecting a joke of some kind, the Christian students surprised them by asking them to hear their own confessions on behalf of Christendom, acknowledging how Christians had not been true to the teachings of Jesus. Miller recounts his first confession to a friend name Jake:

“There’s a lot. I will keep it short,” I started. “Jesus said to feed the poor and to heal the sick. I have never done very much about that. Jesus said to love those who persecute me. I tend to lash out, especially if I feel threatened, you know, if my ego gets threatened. Jesus did not mix His spirituality with politics. I grew up doing that. It got in the way of the central message of Christ. I know that was wrong, and I know that a lot of people will not listen to the words of Christ because people like me, who know Him, carry our own agendas into the conversation rather than just relaying the message Christ wanted to get across.” (Miller, 2003, p. 123)

The result of this group’s honesty and vulnerability was remarkable. Not only did their peers receive their coming out with grace and tolerance, but they also opened the door for them to share the Christian metanarrative over and over again. Once the hostility towards Christendom was defused, they found real interest and openness to know what the “central message of Christ” really was. A small circle of believers gained immense influence in an intensely secular and postmodern place through simple the act of humble confession. The first step towards an effective telling of the Biblical story to postmodern hearers must certainly be a confessional and humble tone.


Tell the Story, Shape the Worldview

A decade ago, in the course of my training to go to the mission field, I was exposed to the concept of the chronological “storying” of the Bible as a tool for evangelizing primitive, oral cultures. The rationale, as I perceived it, was two-fold. First, because they were oral cultures, they were more able to receive and process information in the form of stories than of abstract principles. Second, because they were primitive cultures, with little or no previous exposure to the Biblical story, they needed to hear the whole story, from the beginning, in order to lay the worldview foundations necessary to comprehend and receive the good news of Jesus. If they merely heard the story of Jesus, without the proper foundations of the Old Testament, they were most likely to end up with some form of syncretism, adding Jesus to whatever gods they already had stored away in their worldview.

Upon arriving in Western Europe, I quickly became convinced that the same approach was needed in a post-literate and post-Christian context. In the postmodern West, stories are once again the medium of choice for communicating at the deepest levels, and we can no longer rely on the an underlying Christian story in the minds of our hearers to support the Gospel message. We must, in our telling of the story, intentionally construct a biblical worldview.

N.T. Wright has done a tremendous service in defining the make-up of a worldview, and the role that narrative plays. “Worldviews provide stories through which human beings view reality,” he writes. “Narrative is the most characteristic expression of worldview, going deeper than the isolated observation or fragmented remark.” (Wright, 1992, p. 123) It is through the stories of the worldview that we learn the answers to the fundamental questions that define our existence: who are we, where are we, what is the problem, what is the solution? To proclaim a metanarrative is essentially to answer these questions in story form. Our metanarrative may be composed of many stories, but each has its place in the worldview and each contains, in some way, the answer to one or more of these basic questions.

Through the years of our ministry in Portugal, we determined to intentionally construct a biblical worldview, through the careful selection and telling of Bible stories, in all our evangelism efforts. We discovered that when we took the pains to do this, whether with school children, third-world immigrants, university students or business professionals, we consistently enjoyed three natural advantages. First, initiating a witnessing relationship was much more natural and stress-free, because there is nothing threatening or high-pressure about telling and listening to stories. Second, when the moment came to invite a response, those who had listened to the entire story were almost always ready to respond positively to the Gospel. Over time, they had gained understanding, openness, and belief in the view of the world they were discovering in the Biblical story. Third, the process of follow-up was simplified and accelerated, because the process of discipleship had begun well before conversion, through the narrative construction of a biblical worldview.

Those who preach to postmodern hearers must give special attention to the architecture of the worldview they proclaim. The biblical metanarrative itself is our best tool.


Tell the Story to Evangelize, Not Legitimize

Having defused postmodern antipathy through humble confession of our humanity, and painstakingly shared the Christian story with a high degree of worldview intentionality and awareness, we need to remain committed to the goal of our proclamation before a postmodern hearing. The objective is not to defend, promote or to legitimize Christendom, Christians or any given expression of the church. Our calling is to announce the good news of God’s activity in the world, from creation to final redemption, climaxing His redemptive work in Christ, in such a way that hearers might respond to Him in faith.

At this point it is worth saying that there is no need to shift suddenly into a systematic mode, spouting our customary four laws or five steps, itemizing the requirements for a legitimate faith. D.A. Carson suggests that our evangelistic tools might more properly be developed as a subset of biblical theology than of systematic theology, especially when those to whom we bear witness have not bought into the Judeo-Christian heritage. “The good news of Jesus,” he affirms, “is virtually incoherent unless it is securely set into a biblical worldview.” (Carson, 1996, p. 502) Carson maintains, as we have, that this worldview is established through an understanding of the Bible’s “plotline,” which he traces exhaustively through Creation, Humanity, Fall, Redemption and Culmination. (Carson, 1996, pp.193-346)

Let me lead towards our conclusion with a story. João was a typical postmodern traveler. He had rejected the religious training he had received as a youth and spent much of his life exploring spiritual options, taking the eclectic approach of gleaning whatever he found interesting and useful from Christianity, Buddhism, Islam, New Age philosophies and African mysticism. He was invited to a noonday Bible study in the office of a friend in the large publishing company in Lisbon where he worked. He accepted the invitation, because of his friendship with the host, but didn’t expect to hear anything he didn’t already know, and his attitude towards the experience was apparent as he sat in his chair crossed his arms and said, each week, “I’m just listening.” As João listened each Thursday over a period of eight weeks, he heard the biblical metanarrative methodically unpacked before him. The stories of God´s intentions in creation, the special place of man, the Fall through sin, the judgment through the flood, the call and faith of Abraham, the redemptive activity of God in the Exodus and the Law, the failure and forgiveness of David and the redemptive work of Jesus were all unfolded, one after the other. Perhaps for the first time, João grasped clearly the work of God from beginning to end. In the seventh session, he ceased being a passive listener and became a follower of Christ.



Lyotard’s description of postmodernism is probably accurate. Contemporary listeners in the secular West do have a decided incredulity towards metanarratives. But their incredulity may not be terminal. The problem with the postmodern position is that it is unsustainable on a practical level because it is so unsatisfying. To affirm that “the truth is there is no truth, our metanarrative tells us that metanarratives are evil, we are tolerant towards all except those we perceive as intolerant, we know that we cannot know,” puts postmodern adherents in a disconcerting malaise of circular reasoning and hypocrisy that is simply not sustainable. My experience increasingly tells me that many postmodern people are actually in search of a metanarrative in which to believe.

There’s no easy answer to the epistemological issue of our metanarrative, except to point to divine revelation, which, while resolving the question of our limited vision places our foundation squarely on a faith supposition. This is as it should be. Having established such a faith-based foundation, and humbly acknowledged our humanity, all that is left to do is to faithfully tell the story, carefully and accurately convey the biblical worldview, and allow God’s Word and His Spirit to take root in the hearts of our hearers.

I recently heard Erwin McManus preach in his church in Los Angeles. Meeting in a downtown nightclub, his audience was obviously made up of many postmodern seekers. In the course of his message, he told the story of a lady who had complained to him one day after church. “I thought this was an interdenominational church,” she said. “I’ve been coming here for two months and all you talk about is Jesus. You’ve not once mentioned Buddha or Mohammed.” Erwin explained to her that she probably had in mind an inter-religious church, and that a Christian interdenominational church would follow Jesus exclusively. Regarding her complaint, he simply said, “This is the only story I know.”

The Christian metanarrative is still the only story that can truly satisfy even a postmodern heart and mind. If not this story, what other story would we tell?


Reference List

Carson, D.A. The Gagging of God: Christianity Confronts Pluralism. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996.

Lyotard, Jean-François. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1984.

Middleton, J. Richard and Brian J. Walsh. “Facing the Postmodern Scalpel: Can the Christian Faith Withstand Deconstruction?” in Timothy R. Phillips and Dennis Okholm, eds., Christian Apologetics in the Postmodern World. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995.

_______. Truth Is Stranger Than It Used to Be: Biblical Faith in a Postmodern Age. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1995.

Miller, Donald. Blue Like Jazz: Nonreligious Thoughts on Christian Spirituality. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2003.

Moreland, J.P. “Truth, Contemporary Philosophy, and the Postmodern Turn.” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, Vol. 48 No. 1 (March, 2005), pp. 77-88.

Smith, James K.A. “A Little Story about Metanarratives: Lyotard, Religion, and Postmodernism Revisited.” Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 18 No. 2 (April 2001), pp. 353-368.

Thacker, Justin. “Lyotard and the Christian Metanarrative: A Rejoinder to Smith and Westphal.”Faith and Philosophy, Vol. 22 No. 3 (July 2005), pp. 301-315.

Westphal, Merold. “Blind Spots: Christianity and Postmodern Philosophy.” Christian Century(June 14, 2003), pp. 32-35.

Wright, N.T. The New Testament and the People of God. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.


How to Preach a Good Sermon

… or a great one!

Kenton C. Anderson

Most people can recognize a good sermon when they hear one, thought they might have difficulty articulating why. For those of us who try to preach those “good sermons” it is useful to understand what it takes to get those positive responses from our listeners.

Of course, listeners vary and have different things that they are looking for in a preacher. A listener’s theology will determine his or her sense of the sermon. Those who are committed to a high view of Scripture might expect something different than one committed to a more active view of the work of the Holy Spirit. Learning style is a factor in considering the effectiveness of a sermon. Some listeners learn best through reflection and others prefer a more active and participatory approach. Culture will affect one’s evaluation of a sermon. Where we come from, what generation, we belong to, our denomination, our economic situation, and our gender all play a part in determining the kind of preacher we best respond to.

Still, if preaching is preaching, there are certain things that can be said across the board. If the following things are in place, we can be fairly confident that our sermons will be well appreciated and lead to the kinds of responses we expect. These, then, are the factors that result in “good” and maybe even “great” preaching.


A good sermon is rooted in the Bible. A sermon ought to find its footing in the Word of God. Many fine things could be said by a preacher, but if the listener doesn’t feel that the sermon has been helpful in engaging the Bible it falls short as a sermon. This means that the Bible will be used as more than window dressing or as a jumping-off point. The Bible will govern the sermon and be the source of its big idea if the sermon is any good. Good preachers understand that God still speaks through his Word. The Bible is the one instrument that God has promised to bless. When it comes to good preaching, the Bible is where the power is.


A good sermon helps people hear from God. This is as helpful a definition of preaching as I know. Preachers work to connect people with the voice of God. If a listener does not sense that she or he has been in the presence of God and heard something meaningful from him, then the sermon could not have been that good. As such, the sermon does not have to fit any particular pre-fab form. The sermon as a medium can flex to respond to the interests and concerns of any culture and situation. If it helps people hear what God is saying, it is a good sermon, regardless of the preacher’s style. This underlines, of course, a dependence on the Scriptures.


A good sermon will be easily understood. Some preachers seem to confuse complexity for depth. In my experience, it is the simple truths that are the most profound. Listeners can understand good preaching. Good preachers work to understand the language, the culture, and the interests of those to whom they preach. They work hard to clarify and unify the presentation so that there will be no confusion about what they are trying to say. In most cases, good sermons offer one idea – an idea big enough yet simple enough for listeners to appreciate and apply to their lives.


A good sermon exalts the person of Jesus Christ. We are Christian preachers, which means that every sermon we preach will exalt the person of Jesus Christ. While not every text is directly Christological, I believe that every sermon ought to be. What are we saying that a Jewish priest couldn’t say? What are we offering that goes beyond what people hear on Oprah? At the end of the day, Christian preachers offer Jesus Christ as the hope of mankind. A good sermon will be sure to make that clear.

These four principles apply to any good sermon I have ever heard. A good sermon will integrate the person and presence of God with the person and presence of the preacher. The divine and the human collaborate in the mystery that is good preaching.


In terms of the content of good preaching, I would suggest four elements that ought to be present in one form or another whenever we preach. While people are individual and unique, the basic needs of human beings are universal. Preachers can help their people if they pay attention to a few basic elements…

Tell a Story: Every text in Scripture has a story because it is always written in the context of real people and real situations. Preachers need to help their listeners connect with the humanity in the bible in order to see the relevance of what God wants to say. Good preaching, then, places the sermon in the context of real human experience. It tells the stories of actual people in real time so that contemporary listeners can locate their own life in the context of the sermon.

Make an Argument: The Bible is also about ideas. Good preachers will teach the listener the truths that can help them live in accordance with God’s will. God challenges people with an alternative approach to understanding and living life. People will grow in their faith if they are led to understand the propositions of God’s word. Preachers need to work to help listeners appreciate the reasons for their faith.

Solve a Mystery: Preaching needs to respond to the deep-seated questions people have for God. We can’t accept that just because listeners understand what we are saying that they are prepared to give their lives for them. While we might not always like the things we hear, preachers need to help their listeners struggle with the mysteries.

Paint a Picture: Sermons ought to offer listeners a compelling vision of the future. Preachers need to show listeners how their encounter with God’s word can change their lives forever. What will it actually look like in our lives because we have heard from God and responded to him in faith? Can we motivate listeners to a faithful response to the things we have heard from God?

Preaching that integrates these four features will offer the authority of God’s word while respecting the dignity of the human listener. It will nourish the listener’s mind while at the same time speak to the listener’s heart. People of all cultures and levels of experience can be encouraged to hear from God and grow in their faith as a result.

Of course it could be said that aspiring to “good” preaching doesn’t take us far enough. We ought to be pursuing preaching that is “great.” No doubt the move from good to great would be preferred. It may even be possible if we are willing to make the effort and if God has given us the necessary gifting. For now, however, I would be satisfied to hear a lot more of what is good than the “fair-to-middling” preaching I hear so much of.

My sense is that listeners tend to be gracious people. If we can faithfully help them into the presence of God each week our listeners will be grateful. Here’s to all the good preachers who do just that, faithfully serving to help people hear from God.


Preaching in the Missional Church

Ervin R. Stutzman, Eastern Mennonite Seminary


The forces of modernization, trailed by the deconstructive troops of postmodernism, have left Western civilization writhing in the throes of secularization. In response, some evangelicals are “going missional” in an attempt to reach an increasingly pagan culture with the gospel of Jesus Christ. Proponents seek to move beyond a traditional emphasis on “missions” by establishing “missional churches” that engage all members and align all aspects of life with God’s mission, God’s reign in the world.

The seminary where I teach is part of a denomination committed to becoming a “missional church.” This paper represents my exploration of the implications of this commitment for my role as a professor of preaching at the seminary. Therefore, I am approaching this paper not as an expert on matters of secularization or the missional church, but rather as a sleuth searching for clues on more effective ways to equip students for ministry in a secular context. I am not attempting a critical analysis but rather an initial inquiry into the implications of the missional church vision for the field of homiletics. I have chosen to make numerous citations to allow missional church proponents to express their concerns in their own words. I look forward to receiving feedback on these exploratory ideas from my preaching colleagues at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Homiletics Society in October 2007.

In this paper, I will explain in brief the nature of secularization in the North American context and the challenges it poses for the church. I shall then seek to elucidate the unique response to secularization by proponents of the missional church, most particularly their perspectives on preaching. Finally, I shall explore the pedagogical possibilities for teachers of homiletics who hope to equip “missional preachers” for effective Christian ministry in a secularizing world.


Secularization in the West

The changes in the modern world, particularly in the last several centuries, have profoundly (re)shaped human consciousness, producing competing “realities” and new ways of knowing. Religious establishments, once the dominant force in many societies, now find their scope of influence vastly reduced. Theorists generally discuss the wide-ranging effects of modernization on religious institutions, beliefs, and practices under the rubric of secularization, describing “the process by which the sacred gives way to the secular.” In the process of secularization, the plausibility structures which support religious beliefs have been dismantled or vastly altered.

Sociologist Max Weber posited a pessimistic thesis of secularization that predicted an ongoing, straightforward and linear decline of religion in modern affairs. However, many modern theorists agree that a paradigm of unstoppable secularization, in which modern societies eventually come to exclude religion, does not reflect current North American reality. “Secularization is not inexorable, nor irrevocable, and it is influenced and ‘bent’ by other major forces in western history” (Hunter 1992, 31). Societies respond in different ways to the forces of secularity, adapting new ideas and adopting new ways of witnessing to their faith. Churches in America, for example, have responded differently than churches in continental Europe.

Marsha Witten (1993) studied how preachers in large Presbyterian and Southern Baptist Churches adapted to the forces of secularization by the way they preached about the parable of the Prodigal Son. Her analysis of their sermons showed that they employed linguistic strategies of accommodation, resistance, and reframing in response to the secular challenge.


A brief definition of secularization

Lesslie Newbigen (Hunsberger 1998, 142f) succinctly defined secularization as follows: “Negatively, it is the withdrawal of areas of life and activity from the control of organized religious bodies, and the withdrawal of areas of thought from the control of what are believed to be revealed religious truths. Positively it may be seen as the increasing assertion of the competence of human science and technics to handle human problems of every kind.”

I chose to cite Newbigen’s definition of secularization here because he stands tall in his influence among proponents of the missional church. As an Anglican bishop, Newbigen worked for years as a missionary in India. His insights about secularization were sharpened by his observation of its differing effects in India and in his native Britain.

Newbigen witnessed the positive effects of secularization from the standpoint of missionary work in India. In an early essay, Newbigen (Hunsberger, 143) argued that the process of secularization “is accomplishing the kind of changes in patterns of human living for which Christian missionaries fought with such stubborn perseverance a century and a half ago — the abolition of untouchability, of the dowry system, of temple prostitution, the spread of education and medical service, and so on.”

As the example of Newbigen’s work in India shows, the Christian church has at times been an ally in the secularization of societies, particularly when missionaries sought to “enlighten” local target populations clinging to traditional religious superstitions or pagan practices. They believed that the secularization of these societies would pave the way for belief in the Christian message as presented by modern missionaries who, along with the Gospel of Christ, brought western beliefs, practices, medicine, and institutions. But Hunsberger (p. 147) explains that Newbigen eventually came to see that the “process which secularized and desacralized the world was based on the “illusion” that failed to see that “men cannot live for long in an ideological vacuum.” What was intended as a positive good had some concomitant negative long-term consequences.

Much of what we now know as modernism grew up out of the stable societies with Christian majorities in western Europe. These societies built on the foundational precepts of Christendom to promote a “biblical secularity”—“the positive value placed on time, temporal events, and temporal goals in Holy Scripture” (Kaiser 1996, 79). The 16th century Reformation unleashed some of these forces with such dynamism that it exploded into all the colonies of Europe, including the Americas. The Renaissance, the Enlightenment, and the growth of scientific knowledge were spawned by Christian assumptions. Therefore, Christians must not point an accusing finger at pagans, agnostics, atheists or practitioners of other religions as the primary proponents of secularism. Practitioners of Christian faith, whether nominal or devoted, are deeply implicated in the history of western secularization.


The effects of secularization on the Christian churches in the West

Many writers agree that the forces of secularization have brought about the end of Christendom, or what some have called the Constantinian era. This epoch was spawned by the “conversion” of Emperor Constantine in the fourth century A.D., at which time Christian belief was first tolerated by the Roman Empire in an official way. This turn of events not only brought an end to the severe persecution of Christians by the state, it eventually mandated Christian belief by the masses. Christianity became an official religion of the state. This development arguably increased the influence of the Christian faith throughout all levels of the empire and paved the way for Christians to serve in the government. It made possible the official establishment of Christian institutions. Thus, from one point of view, Christendom may be seen as an inarguable good.

But many theologians and missiologists have written about the negative effects of Christendom on faith and the Christian church. They observe that the complicity between church and state led to many moral compromises. And the presumption of a Christian population, however nominal in its faith commitments, effectively stifled both evangelism and Christian disciple-making.

Although the political dynamics were different from the Constantinian era, one may view the first centuries of colonial America as a period of Christendom. While the Founding Fathers included Free Thinkers, deists and agnostics as well as committed Christians, the Christian church has been particularly privileged by the democratic society they created. But recent court decisions in celebrated cases show that the civil liberties once enjoyed by Christians engaging in public actions of prayer or witness are being sharply curtailed. Christian churches can no longer assume the hegemony of Christian beliefs in the public square.

In an essay on public theologizing, Hunsberger (2006, 16) reiterates what he calls the “familiar litany” of effects that secularization has had on the church’s public character and witness. In brief, they are 1) “the relegation of religious faith … to the private realm of permitted options, assigned to the private, family, and leisure areas of life and set outside the public ranges of life as having no bearing.” 2) “The shift in recent decades from what remained of the church’s privileged chaplaincy role in the social and public space,” and 3) “the failing confidence in modernity’s reliance on autonomous reason, its epistemological certainty, its privileging of individual choice and self-interest, and its faith in progress,” spawning “postmodern sensibilities corresponding to what has come to be called the ‘postmodern condition.’”

Ian Randall (2007, 238-239), a tutor at Spurgeon’s College in London, spoke of seven significant ecclesiological shifts that British leaders are observing in the post-Christendom West. Each of these shifts is consistent with the effects Hunsberger observed above. Randall observed, however, that in a form of “reverse mission,” many Christians from non-Western nations are “having a highly significant impact in Britain through large and growing Black majority and ethnically diverse churches.”

Many denominations are witnessing similar dynamics in the United States and Canada. The majority of new churches are being planted by non-whites who eschew (post)modern western perspectives. This phenomenon may well show that Christians in the white majority have themselves been deeply compromised by the debilitating effects of secularism. Hunsberger (2006, 145-6) asserts that we Christians “are largely accommodated to the culture of which we are a part, and we live largely in terms of its most basic assumptions and values.” In many cases, churches have taken on the role of a private religious civic club, which at times confuses citizenship with discipleship. Ron Sider (2005) wrote a stinging critique of evangelical Christian moral conduct in America. Citing statistics gleaned through recent surveys, Sider argues that the average evangelical is “living just like the rest of the world.”


The response of the missional church to the secularization process

Proponents of the missional church seek both to address the problems of the church’s worldly accommodation to society and to galvanize the church in its witness to an increasingly pagan world. They seek to stimulate a dynamic interaction between the Gospel, the church, and the culture. As Wyatt (1999, 159) explains, the Gospel incites conversation with both the world (about its godlessness) and the church (about its worldliness).

Leslie Newbigen, upon his return to his native Britain from missionary endeavors in India, observed that what was once a missionary sending nation had itself become a mission field. His subsequent writings helped to spur the application of missionary principles learned in India to a post-Christian and increasingly pagan society at home. Newbigin posited the notion that the church, in its very life, becomes the best witness to a pagan society. The missional church is conceived through the union of ecclesial and missiological parents.


Key tenets of a missional church

The particular concerns and emphases of the missional church have their roots in an International Missionary Council held at Willingen in 1952. Conference participants discussed the concept of mission as God’s work in the world. In summary documents after the meeting, the concept of missio Dei (the mission of God), was named as an essential element in Christian mission. “The emphasis was placed on the mission of the Triune God in the world in relation to all three persons of the Godhead – Father, Son and Holy Spirit.” (Van Gelder, 2004, 438-9). As Barrett (2006, 177) explains, the specific emphasis of the missio Dei was on “the mission as God’s, not the church’s, and on the church, participating in the missio Dei, as missionary by its very nature.” This emphasis remains the central focus of the missional church movement.

The term “missional,” first used in 1907 (according to the Oxford English Dictionary) as a synonym for the adjective “missionary,” was called into service in the missionary councils as a modifier to express the ontological nature of the church. As Richard Bliese (2006, 239) argues, speaking of church and mission creates a bifurcation, dividing what must stay together. In Bliese’s mind, that is the rationale for using “missional” as an adjective describing the church. Or in Van Gelder’s words (2004, 446), “The genetic code of missional church means that it is missionary in its very essence.” In a similar vein, Guder (1998, 182) cites Norman Kraus: “The life of the church is its witness. The witness of the church is its life. The question of authentic witness is the question of authentic community.”

The work of the now defunct missionary councils is being carried on by other entities. The Gospel and our Culture Network (GOCN) took up the mantle, seeking to put into practice Leslie Newbigen’s hopes that the churches in the west could indeed become missionary agents to our own culture. The stated purposes of the network are “to provide useful research regarding the encounter between the gospel and our culture” and “to encourage local action for transformation in the life and witness of the church.” The association has produced a list of volumes named the Gospel and our Culture Series, beginning with Guder et. al.’s Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Another book series — Christian Mission and Modern Culture – produced by Trinity Press, carries many of the same emphases.

As a leader in the GOCN, Hunsberger (2003, 149) set forth four trajectories of self-awareness for the missional church:

1. “We own our cultural-ness, our own culture.” We join with our secular neighbors in living within the particularities of the American culture.

2. “We have the habit of continuous conversion.”

3. “We are a living demonstration of the gospel.” More than rational proof, secularized people want to see whether it is possible to live by the mandates of Christian discipleship.

4. “We structure our lives around being a sent community instead of a vendor of services.” For many churches, this involves a fundamental shift in identity, pastoral leadership habits, community formation, and orientation to the church’s mission.

Another primary emphasis in the missional church is a concern for apostolicity, the recapturing of the missionary spirit of the early church (before Constantine) when Christians were a minority living on the margins of the empire. As Hunter (1992, 35 ) argues the “situation we face today is much like what the early apostolic Church faced.” In short, these believers 1) faced a population with no knowledge of the gospel, 2) turned the hostile persecution into a positive attitude toward the Christian movement, 3) witnessed to an empire with entrenched religions, and 4) invited people to join the messianic community and follow Jesus as Lord. “These were the components of persuasion in the ancient apostolic setting.”

Alan Roxburgh, (2006, 12-13) proposes a paradigm of leadership that contrasts the operating models of a typical pastor with that of a missional pastor who functions in an apostolic way. He also asserts (Roxburgh 1997, 62) that “discipling and equipping require a leadership that demonstrates encounter with the culture in action. This is the role of the apostle.” “Pastor, as apostle, is foundational to all other functions.”

Yet another key aspect of the missional church is the concern for a Christian community that serves as an alternative to worldly culture. Guder (1998, 119) asserts that “If Christian faith makes any difference in behavior, then the church in conformity with Christ is called to an alternative set of behaviors, an alternative ethic, an alternative kind of relationship, in dialogue with the surrounding cultures. Its difference is itself a witness to the gospel.” Again, “An important task of the church is to discern what are those key points at which to be different from the evil of the world;” “some kind of dissent is required if the church is to be genuinely missionary to the dominant culture” (Guder 1998, 127). As Stutzman and Hunsberger observed, (2004, 107) a declaration of allegiance to Christ at times takes “the form of a deliberate, prophetic witness over against some public policy or practice or proposal for public action seen as counter to the claims of God.”

Gibbs and Bolger (2006) explain that some churches, including “emergent churches,” define their missional commitments largely in response to the concerns of postmodernism. They show that postmodern churches seek to “transform secular space” by overcoming the dualisms produced by modern culture. They offer brief explanation of the ways these churches attempt to address modern dualisms such as truncated theology, linear expressions of faith, body/mind dualisms, homogeneity, individualism, self-interested exchange and commodification, clergy/laity split and spectatorship, controlling forms of leadership, truncated spirituality, and separation between church life and contemporary culture.


Missional church approaches to preaching

In spite of the growing body of literature on the missional church, I have found little emphasis on preaching by its primary proponents. In my admittedly incomplete sampling of the literature, cited in the reference list below, I found mostly brief references to preaching. Only one chapter-length essay directly addressed the topic. Perhaps the likely reason for this gap is that missional church theorists seem to carry some disdain for traditional preaching. Most seem to consider it a service of the “vendor church” that must be altered to reach people on the margins of society.

In spite of the paucity of scholarly materials on preaching written by missional church proponents, I offer the following distillation of key characteristics of “missional preaching.” These characteristics are extricated not only from a reading of the primary scholarly texts, but also the journal articles written by preachers committed to the missional vision.


Missional preaching prepares God’s people for their work in the world. Guder (1998, 6) maintains that effective Gospel preaching arises from a missional hermeneutic. This method of interpretation “works from the basic assumption that the New Testament writings are directed to communities which are primarily and essentially defined by their missionary vocation. They are apostolic communities, that is, churches founded by the apostolic proclamation with the purpose of continuing that witness in their particular contexts.”

Too often, in Guder’s mind, the typical “mission sermon” placed the vision of unevangelized pagans overseas before the congregation which was to respond with its prayers, its gifts, and the commitments of those who were called into “fulltime service” (4). Although churches rightly send missionaries to distant places, the missional church desires to equip every member for missionary witness in their own context. As Guder (1998, 9) states:

The ministry of the Word disciples God’s people so that they can move out into the apostolate for which God’s Spirit calls and empowers them. Gospel preaching is, therefore, always ultimately ethical in its orientation, because it addresses the shape and behavior of Christian witness in the particular place in which each community is God’s sent people. Gospel preaching is the public testimony of the Lordship of Jesus Christ over all the contending idols and powers which lure the church away from faithful and obedient witness.

Catherine Gunsalus González (1995, 28) speaks in a similar vein: “If the identity of congregation as the people of God, marked as such by their baptism, is the beginning hermeneutical point for the preacher, then the mission implied by the [biblical] text may be easier to discover.” She believes the preacher should be alert to the missional purpose in each biblical text as a way of reminding—indeed, equipping—the people of God for their mission in the world.

Missional preaching grows out of the “agonistic” encounter between the gospel and the church.Wyatt (1999) recommends agonistic preaching, born out of the internal struggle that results from the conversation of the gospel with church and culture. “Out of the intense dialogue between culture and gospel within ourselves, there grows a compassion that animates the missionary conversation as a dialogue, not a monologue” (159-160). Agonistic preaching is “the struggle to proclaim the gospel in such a way that it ‘frames’ the entirety of our ministry in light of the context we live in” (160).

Wyatt describes four key expressions of agonistic preaching. It is 1) iconic, 2) midrashic, 3) parabolic and 4) poetic. He believes these forms of address touch postmodern people. Iconic preaching leaves listeners with images, verbal icons of Jesus Christ “that will go with listeners” into their homes, schools, and workplaces. It builds our identity as Christians.

Midrashic preaching intends the same purpose as Haggadic midrash. It is, “at one and the same time, a sustaining and a subversive activity. It nurtures us into a deeper residence within the biblical world, while nudging us awake along the way to notice how many of our perceptions, assumptions, and expectations of both church and world are grounded in commitments to principles and powers other than the sovereign love of Yahweh” (165). “In the deepest sense, midrashic preaching locates us by reinforcing our sense of participating in the heritage and mission of the people of God” (166).

“Parabolic preaching primarily dislocates us from our certainties and idolatries. It brings us face to face with the living God whose presence destabilizes all that we thought was secure and well-founded” (167).

Wyatt refers to poetic preaching not as a genre, but to the “capacity to dream and evoke visions on behalf of God’s people.” “The poetic in our preaching gives compelling voice to what it’s like to be a marginalized and demoralized people” (168).


Missional preaching takes place in many contexts outside the traditional worship service, including the public square. Guder (1998, 135) claims that “‘Preaching’ has come to mean something quite different from the New Testament definition of the word. In many North American churches, preaching is practiced only within the church, to the faithful, on Sunday morning. Such preaching probably bears more resemblance to the New Testament concept of ‘teaching’ than to its concept of ‘preaching’.”

Missional church theorists agree that Christianity must eschew the privatization of religion so common in the secular context. Instead, Christians must engage in public life and witness as a way of communicating the gospel. James Brownson (1996, 251) insists that the term “gospel” has a distinctly public character; it identifies Christian faith as news that has significance for all people, indeed for the whole world.”

Brownson (252) goes on to say that “for New Testament writers, the gospel is inextricably tied up with the identity, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, a story that is announced as an act of God that finds hopeful promise for the whole world. The New Testament finds its point of departure in the conviction that the person of Jesus, including his death and resurrection, is “news” of public significance that needs to be told.”

Hunsberger (2006, 17) asserts that kerygma and its verbal counterparts, although they are usually translated “preaching,” have “nothing to do with what we now call preaching–a homily or exposition or sermon given in the context of (usually) Sunday worship. Its meaning field has to do with the function of the “herald,” the news announcement by the official spokesvoice of one in power or authority. The public broadcast of the news, the “public action” of it, is the form of witness the New Testament describes.”

Linford Stutzman and George Hunsberger (2004, 95) posit that in the New Testament communities, “life together ’in Christ’ was purposeful, intended to manifest before the watching world the promise and possibilities of the coming age.” “The church as a community, the church’s message, and the church’s worship are all cast in the most public of language. Worship is public witness.”

Keifert (1992, 131) sees the worship planner as a rhetor, reflecting the public nature of worship. “A rhetor, in the sense I propose, is a person who leads a public conversation, appealing to traditional sources and contemporary inventions on behalf of shared purposes and goals. In this sense of the word, all worship planners are rhetors. As rhetors they lead and nurture the local church in evangelical, gospel-centered public conversation and action on behalf of the world.”


Missional preaching is concerned with authenticity of life and witness, not simply proclamation of spiritual propositions. Oudshoorn (2006, 14) avows that to be missional, the western church must learn to “speak Christianly in the midst of Babel.” “Christian living, coupled with faith in the Holy Spirit, ought to provide the content and meaning of the Christian message. When Christianity is proclaimed in this way then the church will be equipped to reveal a radical new way of being human in the midst of a western culture dominated by the idols of free-market capitalism and liberal democracy.”

In a concern for authentic witness, McPhee (2006, 136) states that both communication of the gospel and comportment are “essential to our call to witness and evangelize.” “They are like two wings of an airplane. Without them, the message will not fly.” Stutzman and Hunsberger (2004, 151) state that “the missional church both proclaims the gospel and embodies the gospel.”

Gibbs and Bolger (2006, 188) voice the same concern. They avow that “Christians demonstrate a way to live truthfully, not point to a set of abstract, truthful propositions. They approach this truth through compelling lives of people serving God. Postmodern churches do not fight to defend abstract notions of truth. Apologetics not primarily embedded as a truthful way of living will be resisted.”


Missional preaching deliberately draws contrasts between the gospel message and the practices and values of American civil religion, aiming for conversion from habits shaped by participation in American democracy to habits formed through Christian discipleship. Guder (1998, 137) insists, “Public announcements of God’s actions in the world are a call to conversion, to turning around, to giving up idolatries, and to placing one’s loyalty in the one true God and God’s reign.” This is just as true for believers in the church as for nonbelievers outside the church. As Hunsberger (2003, 149) has noted, we are engaged in a dialogue “between the gospel’s version of things and the versions our culture supplies us at the most assumed levels. It means we are always in the place of being converted, again and again.” Secular people, especially youth, seek for authenticity and vulnerability in the church.

Roxburgh (1999, 257f) makes the point that apostolic congregations are not concerned primarily with reaching the unchurched or the needs of the people in their community. “The primary focus of the apostolic congregation is the formation of a people whose life witnesses to the apostolic message.” In his view, authentic apostolicity has to do with fundamental grounding and reference point in the Incarnation of Christ. The content of the faith that is proclaimed is as important as the fact that it is being proclaimed. Therefore, the church must continually examine its life to see whether or not it is being faithful to the gospel in its life and witness. Missional preaching helps to accomplish this task by continually clarifying the gospel for the life of the church.

Guder (1998, 114) declares that, “the message of the reign of God, the gospel, is always communicated with the thought constructs and practices prevalent within the cultural setting of the church in a specific time and place. But when truly shaped by the Holy Spirit, this message also points beyond its present culture’s thought forms and customs to the distinctive culture of God’s reign proclaimed by Jesus. For this reason, the church is always bicultural, conversant in the language and customs of the surrounding culture and living toward the language and ethics of the gospel.”


Missional preaching has a cross-cultural dimension. Brownson (1996, 233) suggests that the “tendency of early Christianity to cross cultural boundaries is a fertile starting point for developing a model of biblical interpretation. It is fertile, especially for our purposes, because it places the question of the relationship between Christianity and diverse cultures at the very top of the interpretive agenda.” Missional preaching, then, engages in various ways with people outside the dominant culture or even the “churchly” culture, the privatized gatherings of Christians in local communities of faith.

Cheryl Bridges Johns (1999, 19-20) declares that “it is the delight of the Spirit to accomplish the missionary task among the ordinary and the powerless. I believe that the future of our mission in North America resides in the marginal people of our society. If we are to have a viable mission the rest of us must go there.” She goes on to declare that “the future of mission in North America is a scandalous future for most of us. It calls for us to receive the prophetic witness of the marginalized,” “becoming part of their communities of faith, rather than vice-versa.”

Cardoza-Orlandi (1999, 3) asserts that the faith’s “bloodline is energized as the Christian religion crosses all types of boundaries—geographical, cultural, religious—and interacts with those realities. The Christian struggle to bring the faith to bear on the daily life of God’s people becomes the hermeneutical key to understanding the vitality of the faith.” This struggle, in his mind, “should be the sine qua non of preaching, particularly missional preaching.”

Cardoza-Orlandi (5) believes that the theorizing about the missional church could be greatly enriched by an intercultural dialogue between North Americans and our neighbors to the south. He asserts that “the struggle for daily bread or the challenge of interacting daily with neighbors who profess a different faith creates a unique relational dynamic” that can provide unique insights on the interaction between faith and daily life. Traditional Western theological reflection often centers on the Bible, tradition, denominational polity, etc., and misses the richness of discussion engendered by existential intercultural and inter-religious praxis.

Cardoza-Orlandi continues (7): “Missional preaching is a ministerial, personal, and communal action in which the congregation listens and discerns the testimony of the Christian people in their struggle with and participation in the activity of God in the world.” The existential praxis of people, engaged in witness in daily life, provides much of the grounded resources for missional preaching.

These comments reflect Newbigin’s (1986, 146) assertion about the benefits of seeing our own culture through the eyes of “Christian minds shaped by other cultures.” Our need for this interaction is greater than theirs at this time, he insisted, since “they have been far more aware of the dangers of syncretism, of an illegitimate alliance with false elements in their culture, than we have been” (147).


Missional preaching employs an interactive style of presentation that engages postmodern listeners in a participatory manner. Postmodern or Emergent churches have perhaps voiced the strongest commitments to participatory worship contexts. Perhaps no missional leader has written with more passion on this subject than Doug Pagitt (2005), pastor of an emergent community called Solomon’s Porch. He contrasts traditional preaching, which he derogatorily labels as “speaching,” with “progressional dialogue.” The purpose of progressional dialogue is to bring about substantive changes in the changes of the “sermon” content in the “context of a healthy relationship between the presenter and listeners.” He describes the process as follows:

“I say something that causes another person to think something she hadn’t thought before. In response she says something that causes a third person to make a comment he wouldn’t normally have made without the benefit of the second person’s statement. In turn I think something I wouldn’t have thought without hearing the comments made by the other two. So now we’ve all ended up in a place we couldn’t have come to without the input we received from each other (23-24).”

At Solomon’s Porch, Pagitt employs progressional dialogue on behalf of the sermon in two ways: 1) for sermon preparation, which involves in-depth conversation with others, and 2) “the weekly open discussion that happens during the sermon” (24).

Pagitt (26) states his vision as follows: “I can imagine a church—and a people—who see themselves as preachers in one another’s lives. Not preachers with inarguable speeches, but people who engage, inform, and build life into one another. Any preaching practice that results in less collective interaction and building of one another should be used sparingly and abandoned as soon as possible.” He uses even stronger words: “Occasional usage likely won’t hurt anyone, but to make a regular practice of speaching may well be an act of relational violence that is detrimental to the very communities we are seeking to nurture” (25-26).

Pagitt’s concern for communal interaction is echoed by Gibbs and Bolger’s account (194) of convictions in the emergent church. “Because of the aversion to the sacred-secular split, community formation becomes primary and the church service secondary.” “Most churches,” they aver, “are committed to remaining small enough to facilitate in-depth relationships.”


Missional preaching employs storytelling and metaphorical language in an “abductive” mode.Windsor (2005, 20) employs the Engel Scale to show how different types of preaching—deductive, narrative, inductive, and abductive—may be most effective among certain audiences. He posits that the traditional deductive type may be most helpful for equipping the most faithful saints in the church. The abductive mode, in contrast, is designed to seize people by their imagination and transport them from their current world view to a new one, may be the most effective type for the most secularized listeners.

Winsor writes with a concern for the secularized, the hardened, the hostile, and the apathetic individuals who are rarely touched by typical Sunday preaching in churches. In that vein, he sees the parables of Jesus as the best models to imitate. He outlines eleven characteristics of Jesus’ parables then goes on to discuss a troika of parabolic modern communication strategies that may perhaps be adapted for parabolic use by missional preachers. They are the well-told joke, the political cartoon, and the TV commercial. Although preachers may depend on the deductive mode as the mainstay of their preaching, they may develop new effectiveness in reaching the unchurched by fashioning “quality pieces of abductive communication” that can be pressed into service in “the media and public life” (24).

In a table entitled “Operating Models of Leadership” Alan Roxburgh and Fred Romanuk (2006, 12-13) contrast two columns labeled “pastoral” and “missional.” Under the heading of “pastoral,” they assert that “preaching and teaching offer answers and tell people what is right and what is wrong.” They characterize preaching as “telling, didactic, reinforcing assumptions, and principles for living.” Under the missional heading, they assert that “preaching and teaching invite the people of God to engage Scripture as a living word that confronts them with questions and draws them into a distinctive world.” They characterize this kind of preaching as “metaphor and stories,” and preaching that “asks new questions” (12).


Missional preaching is shared among those in the congregation who are effectively sharing the gospel with others. A number of missional church proponents expressed particular concern about the professionalization of the contemporary pastorate and the general neglect of equipping for the ministry of laity in the church. Guder (1998, 195) asserts that the typical seminary reflects the ethos and clerical paradigm of Christendom. He declares that this view “effectively eclipses the gifts for leadership in the non-ordained contingent of God’s sent people, those known in Christendom as the laity. Ministry remains identified with the static roles of clergy as priest, pedagogue, or professional, all dispensers of spiritual resources.”

For the church to be truly missional, the gifts of all members must be released, including the gifts of preaching. Cheryl Bridges Johns (2006, 17, 19), averred that Jesus, the eschatological prophet, has by agency of the Holy Spirit poured forth the Spirit of prophecy on the people of God as an eschatological community of prophets. Embracing the “prophethood” of all believers can equip the church for the missional task in North America. She states further: “It appears to me that Luke fuses the priestly power to bless with the prophetic power to disrupt. The result is a priestly-prophetic community whose vocation is mission.” She declares that “when the congregation is a community of prophets, it actively participates in the sermon. The congregation is to share in the same “anointing of the Spirit” as the preacher. The effect is that the sermon becomes a field of communication which surrounds the whole congregation.”


Implications for the Pedagogy of Preaching

As noted in the paragraph just above, missional church proponents are calling for changes in the church’s notion of leadership, both in its conception of the pastoral role and of the methods by which leaders are trained. If indeed the whole church is to be equipped to be the people of God, we must conceive of ways for leadership training to extend beyond the traditional pastoral role. Throughout missional church literature, I found embedded hints regarding new directions for training preachers. But no one says it more clearly than Roxburgh (2006, 205), who throws down the gauntlet to seminaries with the following words:

“Ministry formation must shift away from the professionalized, abstractionist forms of training that still dominate the church across North America. Formation and ministry development must occur as apprenticeship within local communities rather than as extractionist models that equip for the needs of their denominational systems and the regulations of the academy. This is not to diminish the importance of theological and intellectual formation, but the pedagogies and location of formation must change. The notion of “professors” located in distant places to whom one goes for three years to be trained for “ministry” has no correlation with what is happening in the contexts where the church is now finding itself. What is starting to emerge is a new sense of what it means to be the people of God in terms of incarnational embeddedness in, with, for, under, and against the communities, neighborhoods, and networks with which people actually find themselves. This shift away from attractional church models to missional communities in the midst of people must have its concomitant shift in terms of ministry formation.”

In times of “liminality” and “discontinuous change” as Roxburgh (2005) labels our current reality, we must humbly explore new models for training preachers for the missional church. We have little basis for certitude about what will work best in their formation. This is a time for exploration, for experimentation, for calling on God to show the way forward in faith. I agree with Roxburgh that it is also a time for cooperation between traditional leaders and emergent, postmodern leaders (22). We have many insights to gain from each other and the body of Christ on earth hardly needs more fragmentation than the habits of modernity have already prompted.

I am drawn by Demond’s (2002) explication of pedagogy and epistemology for preaching. Though not writing as missional church advocate, his concept for “reflection-in-action as a way of knowing squares with the apprenticeship model advocated by Roxburgh and others. Demond draws on the work of Donald A. Schon (1983 and 1987), who theorized about how professionals in various fields of endeavor get to know what they know, and how they teach others what they know. Schon was particularly interested in moving beyond the technical know-how to the way professionals learn how to draw upon their experience to solve problems or act helpfully in new or demanding situations. Demond (4) suggests that a “student-preacher must experience trying-in-action and achieving-in-action before he or she can know-in-action. Only as the student and the accomplished practitioner engage together in the practice context, with both words and actions, can this convergence of understanding and consequent new learning occur.”

This idea is not new. As Demond (4) asserts, “teachers of preaching have long espoused the historic educational models of apprenticing (individual coaching) and practicum learning (group coaching).” Yet, as Demond (4-5) observes, these modes have often been marginalized in the classroom-bound approaches in the University, Bible College, and seminary. I agree with him that we would do well to “reposition and reinvigorate the coaching model and invite the exploration of some non-traditional homiletic educational approaches” into the seminary classroom.

Clinical Pastoral Education educates through reflective practice. The same patterns could be used to engage effective missional leaders as coaches for student preachers. Students wanting to learn missional preaching could work as apprentices alongside more experienced leaders. Cardoza-Orlandi (1999, 3) asserts that he learned how to preach by listening and observing his pastors and later by “listening to and integrating the suggestions and critique of my parishioners.” He confesses: “I believe I received the best possible training in the congregations—maybe even better than that received in seminary.”

Systematic feedback to sermons in congregational settings can indeed be deeply instructive for preachers. It can serve as a hedge against the most unhelpful traits of “speaching.” Many congregational members have deep wisdom they could share with student preachers, whether in preparation for sermons or in sermon feedback sessions. For generations, congregants in my faith tradition employed a form of sermon feedback called Zeugnis (Greiser, 2003, 24).

Seminaries will do well to cultivate a system of “teaching churches” where professors can help structure the learning process and provide helpful theoretical insights. This is consistent with Guder’s (1998, 214) insistence that “apostolic, missional leadership will be learned through apprenticeship within communities.” Having served as a denominational leader, I echo his assertion that “current ecclesiastical systems and judicatories could take the first steps to such an approach by examining how those in positions of bishop or area minister could make the apostolic function the heart of their callings. At present, these kinds of leaders are primarily administrators, advisors, or consultants” (Guder, 215).

I am not yet ready to abandon the traditional homiletics classroom. Students can learn a great deal in the classroom about the history of preaching along with the skills of biblical exposition, sermon development, and effective public presentations. As Gatzke (2006, 73f) has posited, some of what is promoted as emergent or postmodern preaching shares attributes with the New Homiletic. Students have much they can learn in the classroom about new modes of preaching. But in and of themselves, these skills are incomplete for the missional task. Students must learn to share the gospel outside the four walls of the classroom. They must have opportunity to share the gospel with secularists, agnostics, hardened skeptics, and unchurched postmoderns. They are not likely to learn modes of “abductive” preaching without significant interaction with the people they are trying to “abduct” or capture with their sermons. They need to observe skillful missional preachers in action, not only in the pulpit but in other more interactive settings.

Student preachers must be given opportunities to interact cross-culturally with Christian people from other cultures, with people from other religions, and with people on the margins of society. Interactions in these settings can help students shape their sermons to address the questions that are being posed by people in settings very different from the student. Carlos F. Cardoza-Orlandi (1999, 4) asserts that many American Christians carry such radically individualistic and compartmentalized faith commitments that they do not readily experience the interpenetration of faith and witness assumed in many Third World Christians. He suggests that the “vitality of Christianity in the southern continents is due to the interaction of the faith with the multiple factors of life” in “daily praxis.” By arranging cross-cultural interaction with believers who live by very different assumptions, theological schools in North American can help student preachers become more aware of compromises and blind spots in their faith commitments.

Finally, training schools must find ways to equip a range of people, beyond the seminarian or other matriculated student, for the ministry of preaching. To reach our world for Christ, we need a multitude of lay people (if such a term is even appropriate), to announce the gospel in every corner of our nation, indeed around the globe. These preachers can benefit from instruction in preaching even though they will not earn a degree in one of our evangelical institutions. We will do well to provide training for them in the context where they live and work.

To train missional preachers will require a reorientation and new ways of educating the people of God. The skill of missional preaching cannot readily be taught in the classroom; it must be honed in the trenches. Most of all, training missional preachers will require an outpouring of God’s Spirit, not only on individual leaders but on the communities of God’s people who long to be about God’s work. Ultimately, we must cry out to God for enablement to equip God’s people for God’s work in God’s way.


Reference List

Barrett, Lois Y. “Defining Missional Church.” In Evangelical, Ecumenical, and Anabaptist Missiologies in Conversation, edited by James R. Krabill, Walter Sawatsky, Charles E. Van Engen, eds., 177-83. Maryknoll, NJ: Orbis Books, 2006.

Bliese, Richard. “The Mission Matrix: Mapping out the Complexities of a Missional Ecclesiology.”Word and World 26, no. 3 (2006): 237-48.

Brownson, James V. “Speaking the Truth in Love: Elements of a Missional Hermeneutic.” In The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Cardoza-Orlandi, Carlos F. “What Makes Preaching “Missional”?” Journal for Preachers 22, no. 4 (2006): 3-9.

Demerath, N. J. and Rhys H. Williams. “Secularization in a Community Context: Tensions of Religion and Politics in a New England City.” Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion 31, no. 2 (1992): 189-206.

Demond, Allan. “Beyond Explanation: Pedagogy and Epistemology in Preaching.” Homiletic 27, no. 1 (2006): 1-12.

Gibbs, Eddie and Ryan K. Bolger. “Postmodern Forms of the Church.” In Evangelical, Ecumenical, and Anabaptist Missiologies in Conversation: Essays in Honor of Wilbert Shenk, edited by James R. Krabill, Walter Sawatsky, Charles E. Van Engen, eds., 184-95. Maryknoll, NJ: Orbis Books, 2006.

González, Catherine Gunsalus. “The Baptismal Lens for Missional Preaching.” Journal for Preachers 18, no. 3 (1995): 27-30.

Greiser, David B. and Michael King, Eds. Anabaptist Preaching: A Conversation between Pulpit, Pew, and Bible. Telford: Cascadia Publishing House, 2003.

Guder, Darrell L. “Missional Theology for a Missionary Church.” Journal for Preachers 22, no. 1 (1998): 3-11.

Guder, Darrell L., Project Coordinator and Editor, Lois Barrett, Inagrace T. Dietterich, George R. Hunsberger, Alan J. Roxburgh, Craig Van Gelder. Missional Church: A Vision for the Sending of the Church in North America. Edited by Craig Van Gelder, The Gospel and Our Culture Series. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

Hunsberger, George R. Bearing the Witness of the Spirit. Edited by Craig Van Gelder, The Gospel and Our Culture Series. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1998.

———. “Birthing Mission Faithfulness: Accents in a North American Movement.” International Review of Christian Mission 92 (2006): 145-52.

———. “The Missional Voice and Posture of Public Theologizing.” Missiology 34, no. 1 (2006): 15-28.

Hunter, George G. III. How to Reach Secular People. Nashville: Abingdon, 1992.

Johns, Cheryl Bridges. “When All God’s People Are Prophets: Acts and the Task of Missional Preaching.” Journal for Preachers 22, no. 4 (2006): 16-21.

Kaiser, Christopher B. “From Biblical Secularity to Modern Secularism: Historical Aspects and Stages.” In The Church between Gospel and Culture: The Emerging Mission in North America, edited by George R. Hunsberger, and Craig Van Gelder, 79-112. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1996.

Keifert, Patrick R. Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.

McPhee, Arthur. “Authentic Witness, Authentic Evangelism, Authentic Church.” In Evangelical, Ecumenical, and Anabaptist Missiologies in Conversation: Essays in Honor of Wilbert R. Shenk, edited by James R. Krabill, Walter Sawatsky, Charles E. Van Engen, eds., 130-39. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2006.

Newbigin, Lesslie. Foolishness to the Greeks: Eerdmans, 1986.

Oudshoorn, Daniel. “Speaking Christianly as a Missional Activity in the Midst of Babel: Christian Living as the Exegesis of the Gospel Proclamation after the End of History.” Stimulus 14, no. No. 1 (2006): 14-24.

Pagitt, Doug. Preaching Re-Imagined. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Randall, Ian M. “Mission in Post-Christendom: Anabaptist and Free Church Perspectives.”Evangelical Quarterly 79, no. 3 (2007): 227-40.

Roxborough, Alan J. “Covenant Community: A Practical Approach to the Renewal of the Church.” In Confident Witness—Changing World: Rediscovering the Gospel in North America, edited by Craig Van Gelder, 260-69. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1999.

Roxburgh, Alan J. “The Contours of Ministry in a Postmodern Age” In Evangelical, Ecumenical, and Anabaptist Missiologies in Conversation, edited by James R. Krabill, Walter Sawatsky, Charles E. Van Engen, eds., 196-205. Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2006.

———. The Missionary Congregation, Leadership, and Liminality. Edited by Alan Neely, H. Wayne Pipkin, and Wilbert Shenk, Christian Mission and Modern Culture. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1997.

———. The Sky Is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition. Eagle: ACI Publishing, 2005.

Roxburgh, Alan J. and Fred Romanuk. The Missional Leader: Equipping Your Church to Reach a Changing World, Leadership Network Titles. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2006.

Schon, Donald A. Educating the Reflective Practitioner: Toward a New Design for Teaching and Learning in the Professions. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1987.

———. The Reflective Practitioner. New York: Basic Books, Inc., 1983.

Sider, Ronald J. The Scandal of the Evangelical Conscience: Why Are Christians Living Just Like the Rest of the World? Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2005.

Stutzman, Linford L. and George R. Hunsberger. “The Public Witness of Worship.” In Treasure in Clay Jars: Patterns in Missional Faithfulness, edited by Lois Barrett, 100-16. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2004.

Van Gelder, Craig. “From Corporate Church to Missional Church: The Challenge Facing Congregations Today.” Review and Expositor 101, no. 3 (2006): 425-50.

Windsor, Paul. “A Space to Occupy: Creating a Missional Model for Preaching.” Stimulus 13, no. 1 (2005): 20-25.

Witten, Marcia G. All Is Forgiven: The Secular Message in American Protestantism. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993.

Wyatt, Lee. “Preaching to Postmodern People.” In Confident Witness — Changing World, 155-70. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1999.


The Preaching Pastor Survey

135 Preaching Pastors Tell About Their Preaching

Kenton C. Anderson

Every November the national and regional leadership of the six denominations affiliated with the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS Seminaries) come together to meet with the faculty and discuss some issue of current importance. In the fall of 2007, the subject was preaching. A comprehensive survey of 135 preaching pastors was undertaken. These are some of the implications that were discerned.

The ACTS “Preaching Pastor Survey” offers a number of interesting and occasionally surprising insights into the place and practice of preaching in the six denominational constituencies that comprise the Associated Canadian Theological Schools. As the person charged with teaching preaching at ACTS, I have been asked to mine the data and reflect upon my findings. To that end I would observe the following.


Preachers are optimistic.
More than half of the surveyed preachers (54.6%) say that they consider their preaching to be “very effective” in satisfying their listeners expectations. The remaining preachers all (45.5%) indicated that they were at least “somewhat effective” in satisfying their expectations. Maybe you have to be an optimist to lead churches and to spend so much time on such a culturally disrespected thing like preaching or perhaps these preachers are not in tune with what their listeners are thinking. It would be interesting, for instance, to survey these same preacher’s congregations to see if they are feeling similar. Regardless, this describes a strong sense of self-confidence in the work that they are doing. Almost half the preachers in the survey (43.6%) claim to be “highly skilled” in biblical exegesis and theological understanding. A further 52.4% claim adequacy in this area. Only 4% claim a lack of exegetical and theological ability. Whether or not this confidence is justified it speaks well to the self-image of these preachers and it validates the significant investment that the preachers seem to be willing to make in the work of their preaching.


Preaching is far from dead.
We have been hearing for some time that preaching is anachronistic. It is common to believe that preaching is past its sell-by date and that it must be deeply altered or even jettisoned if we are going to be relevant for the next generation. But this kind of thinking does not seem to be indicated by respondents to this survey. Almost half the survey respondents (44.8%) say that preaching “is the most meaningful thing that I am called to do.” A further 53.7% say that it is “one of the most meaningful things that he or she is doing.” This is a remarkable finding given the pressure on preachers to focus on leadership, counseling, and so many other aspects of their work. In essence 100% of survey respondents see their preaching as meaningful work. It is not viewed as a mere requirement of the job, but as something that is core to their identity and their productivity. It might also say something about the commitment of the ACTS partner denominations to the Word of God and to its dissemination.


Preachers are willing to invest in their work.
The high value given to preaching is reflected further in the evidence of investment in the work made by these preachers. More than 95% of these preachers are spending at least six hours per week in sermon preparation. More than 60% spend more than 13 hours. Almost 20% spent half their work-week (18 hours or more) in preparing to preach. These preachers are reading commentaries (99%), consulting theologians (96%), and “reading culture” (99%). These preachers want to improve in every skill area related to preaching (no aspect of preaching scored less than 28%). They are willing to work at it. 70% would be willing to attend a seminar or short course if it would improve their preaching. 41% would engage a formal course. 18% would enroll in a seminary degree program. The challenge then for us is to find ways to meet this need in a manner that would be perceived as productive by these preachers.


Our approach to preaching is still largely exegetical and didactic.
In other words, our approach to preaching hasn’t changed much. The last ten years of homiletic discussion among evangelicals has opened the door to an increased interest in pragmatic preaching, narrative preaching, and other less traditional forms, but ACTS denominational preachers are still a very traditional crowd when it comes to sermon form. More than 70% say the form of their preaching is typically exegetical. 36.5% claim that they typically seek to teach listeners by “making an argument” from the text of scripture. Helping listeners solve problems, addressing issues in culture, involving listeners through story are all down the list. This probably reflects our continuing commitment to the exposition of Scripture. The idea that biblical exposition might allow for a greater integration or at least a variety of forms doesn’t seem to have sunk in for these preachers, for the most part.


Our preachers would rather study culture than confront it.
The surveyed preachers describe a strong commitment to a study and awareness of their surrounding culture. 44% consider themselves “students of culture.” 53% deliberately “read the culture” in an attempt to bring relevance to their preaching. Only one respondent claimed to have no interest in making an impact or understanding contemporary culture. The effect these preachers hope to have on the culture, however, is understood largely within the private sphere. Trying to exert power within contemporary culture and speaking prophetically to the culture was described as significantly less important to these preachers than equipping Christians to evangelize and influence within their personal spheres and to encourage these same Christians to faithfully endure the challenges presented by the culture. In other words, these preachers study culture with a view to an indirect engagement with the world, rather than for the purposes of a frontal assault on culture.


Responses from seminary graduates are not significantly different from their peers.
Those of us who work within the seminary context might have preferred to discover that seminary graduates show a greater sense of effectiveness than the rest of the sample, but with a few exceptions, the numbers don’t seem to be substantially different. While seminary grads are 17% more likely to describe themselves as “highly skilled,” they are actually less likely to view themselves as highly effective. 53% of seminary grads rated themselves as “very effective” compared to “55% of the group in general. Of course, almost all of the respondents described a great deal of confidence in their abilities, which may be a more positive way to interpret the findings. Clearly, seminary education is highly valued by the sample. 62% of all respondents say that their formal education has been essential in preparing them to preacher. 33% say that it has been helpful. These numbers will probably surprise some, but shouldn’t be shocking to people who think carefully about the complexity of the work that we are talking about.


Younger preachers are not as radical as we might think.
This might be the most surprising finding of all. Given the literature about emerging and missional church models crowding our desks in recent years, we might have expected to read dramatic differences in the responses of younger preachers, but this was not the response of these post-boomer preachers. In fact, any substantial differences seemed to show up in surprising places. 14% of the younger respondents claimed that an understanding of contemporary culture “has had little impact” on the shaping of their understanding of the Bible and theology. This compares with 6% of the greater group. A strong majority (60.7%) of these younger preachers said that “explanation” comprises 75 to 100% of their typical sermon. This compares with 41.6% of the general group. Younger preachers are less likely to say that preaching was the “most meaningful” thing that they do (35.7% compared with 44.8% of the general sample). Not surprisingly they were also less likely to say that they were “very effective” (44.4% compared to 54.6% of the general group). They were also 50% more likely to invest in a formal course of program if it would improve their preaching.


Preaching is still a work done by men.
A lot of energy has been expended in the ACTS partner denominations over the last several years on the issue of the qualification of women for pastoral ministry. Each of the six denominations have come to their own conclusions about the matter. Many women have been encouraged to come to seminary and many have been hired by our churches. A healthy portion of each homiletics class at ACTS seminaries is comprised of women. Still, women are not preaching, at least not regularly. Of the 134 survey respondents, only two were female. This is not to make any judgment about the propriety of allowing women to preach. It’s simply to say that despite much effort to open doors for women in our churches, the indication is that women still are not perceived as preaching pastors in their churches.

These comments do not speak to everything reported by the numbers, but only the most interesting and thought-provoking implications. Having described these things, I think it worth noting that the sample size, while strong, is probably not large enough to make such sweeping statements with a strong degree of confidence. It would be well to test these findings further through interview and experience.


Preaching In the Zone

When Preaching Just Feels Right

Kenton C. Anderson

I am one of those preachers that play golf. Most of the time my golf game is a lesson in humility, a kind of willing mortification of the flesh that reminds me that for all my supposed spirituality, my conquest of the physical world is tenuous at best. Preachers don’t have time to learn to play great golf. The time it would take to master the game would come at the expense of time spent with people or with God’s Word. At least that is what I tell myself when I card yet another double bogey.

Still, there have been moments, rare though they may have been, where I felt that I could do no wrong, crushing my drives, sticking my irons, and dropping my putts. Sports psychologists call this being “in the zone,” that place of confident performance and seeming invincibility.

I’ve known those moments in the pulpit. You know them too – those times it seems we have a perfect connection to the mind and heart of each listener so that everything we say is registering exactly as it should. In times like these we can do no homiletic harm. God’s presence is known and his Spirit is at work. We are in “the preaching zone.” These are the sermons we send for publication. These are the moments we remember when the sermonic cupboard seems bare.

The truth is, I don’t find the zone on every Sunday. Like my golf swing, I think I have it one week, but the next week it goes missing. I wonder what I’ve done or where I’ve left it. I don’t seem to be able to find the zone at will. I have discovered, rather, that there are things that encourage preaching in the zone and things that discourage it.


Things that help: Assimilation of the Message

It helps if the preacher takes time to assimilate the message. The sermon needs to be taken off the page and written into the preacher’s heart and life. Our messages need to be less hypothetical. We need to look for ways to actualize our messages in life before we preach them so that these are no longer words to be spoken but a way of life and faith that bubbles up and spills out from inside us. Our preaching needs to come out of the overflow of our life lived with God and with his Word.

Assimilation requires intentional effort on the part of the preacher beyond the exegetical and homiletical preparation of the sermon. Once the text has been studied and the sermon constructed, the preacher needs to intentionally work to sense the sermon’s language, pray the sermon’s truths, and live the sermon’s implications.

We preach a lot of sermons and so it might not be possible to do this in depth every single time. Nevertheless, we would do well to invest at least some of our preparation time in the work of listening to and obeying our own messages. Sometimes we will be able to respond right away. If, for example, we are preaching on forgiveness and realize that we have a grudge against someone, we could pick up the phone and deal with it immediately. Other themes are more deeply rooted and will take a deeper engagement. We might not be able to get to the bottom of things, but we could at least prayerfully intend some kind of beginning. Other times we may be speaking of things that are not currently “front-burner issues” but which may have been at some time in the past. We can recall those times, reflecting upon the emotions and intentions of that period, bringing back a sense of consequence that may have lain dormant for a while.

The zone is reserved for preachers who are intimate with their messages. This intimacy seldom comes by accident. It is the intentional result of preachers willing to engage their own preaching.


Things that hinder: Time Pressures

Good preaching takes time. There is just no way around it. It is hard to imagine any sermon that could not be improved if the preacher had more time. Unfortunately, time is limited and preachers seem to have less of it than most.

Part of the problem might be where we are spending our time. Perhaps a little homiletical time management might be in order. Powerpoint is great, but it might not be the most important investment of your time. Gettting the exegesis correct is essential, but sometimes we keep on parsing long after we have got the meaning of the text. Obsessing over every word in the manuscript might help if you want to get your sermon published, but if you really want to find the preaching zone, that time might be better spent assimilating the message, or spending time with God in prayer.


Things that help: Anticipation

This is a faith thing. Preachers in the zone believe that God is working. They understand that preaching is not a sterile consideration of ideas and concepts but an active engagement with a God who is present and who is at work. Preachers who want to find the zone anticipate God’s action and work to cultivate a sense of his presence.

Preaching is worship. Contrary to appearances in many of our churches the worship does not end when the preaching begins. Preaching is simply worship in another key and the good preacher has been building up to it for some time.

When we are preaching in the zone we have given our sermons back to God. We sense that he is the preacher and that we are simply providing service so that God can work through what he has to say. We anticipate great things to happen. We are looking for the doorposts to shake like they did for Isaiah in the temple. Something is happening here and we are privileged to share a part.


Things that hinder: Spiritual Weakness

Preaching is spiritual work but sometimes we just don’t feel very spiritual. It is usually our own fault. We are not praying. We’ve let sinful attitudes take root in our hearts. The spiritual truth we are preaching has become hypothetical to us because we have let ourselves get too busy to tend to our hearts. God has become a stranger to us, so it is little wonder we have trouble helping people hear his voice. One can feel a little guilty standing in the pulpit, trying to muster up a sense of spiritual consequence when there has been little spiritual substance in our recent lives.

The antidote, of course, should not surprise us. The spiritual disciplines were made for times like these. Perhaps a day or week of prayer and fasting would be in order. A session could be spent with a spiritual director to discuss one’s attitudes and state of heart. Spiritual passion will ebb and flow. Good preachers know this, and so they invest energy in keeping their spiritual life in tune.


Things that help: Trusting the Gift

Good preachers are gifted. God has given these people a special ability to use language to communicate his truth. It is difficult to hit the zone when we read our sermons to the people. Effective preaching is experienced as an event in God’s presence. It is a unique moment in time when people hear God’s voice and respond to what he is saying. It is difficult to script such a thing.

In no way would I want to downplay the value of careful preparation. Still, once we have a faithful message and have assimilated it well, we could relinquish our manuscripts a little and trust the gift that God has given. Gifted preachers don’t need to fear whether something will go astray because we have not locked down every word. Rather, as we work with the people in the sermon moment, the gifting works to empower the message from God’s Word, carefully discerned and intentionally assimilated.


Things that hinder: A Bad Attitude

Preaching is an act of love – at least good preaching is. Preaching is a way of blessing people by helping them hear from God. This is very hard to do when we don’t like the people very much. Sometimes it is difficult because these people say some nasty things about us and do some terribly hurtful things. But it isn’t going to help if we are angry with them. Bitterness and resentment are not going to help us find the preaching zone.

Few things empower a sermon like love. Not only do we need to love our listeners, but we need to make sure that they know we love them. We actually have to tell them. There is vulnerability and humility in this kind of expression that heightens the moment and deepens the sense of consequence that preacher and listener feel.

We could consider this a kind of checklist. If it’s been a while since we have found the zone we could ask ourselves whether our spiritual life needs a tune-up, whether our attitude needs adjustment, or whether we are investing our time in the right kind of things.

Still, we could do everything right and still come up empty. John of the Cross described a sense of spiritual greed we experience when we become more attached to the feeling of spiritual attainment than the actual substance of our devotion. Perhaps God is working a kind of “dark night” of the homiletic soul in order to work something wonderful later on.

The truth is, preaching is God’s work and he will use it as he sees fit. Golfing in the zone leads to lower scores. Preaching in the zone usually leads to more powerful responses, but whether it does or does not is a matter of God’s inscrutable will.

I am incurably optimistic when it comes both to golfing and to preaching. Every time out I expect a lower score. Every time in the pulpit I’m looking for that holy zone. It is wonderful how God works through us when we’re faithful. This coming Sunday’s going to be great!


Why We Need Dead Pagans in Our Homiletics Classrooms

Ancient Rhetoric for Preaching Today

by Dave McClellan, pastor of The Chapel at Tinkers Creek and instructor at Duquesne University.

“What is truth?” Besides being a hotly contested question today, it is also Pilate’s irritated reply to Jesus’ seeming preoccupation with the word. At first glance, it seems to be simply the nervous maneuvering of a scared tyrant. But perhaps there could be a little more to his conversation-ending question. Pilate was a well-educated Roman procurator, grounded in the grammar and rhetoric of both classic Greece and Hellenized Rome (Enos, 1995, p. 69). Just a generation before him, the politician and orator Cicero had demonstrated and documented the training in rhetoric that Pilate had no doubt studied back in Rome.

Pilate, then, would have had more than just cursory knowledge of Aristotelian, Platonic, and Ciceronian rhetoric. When he asks, “What is truth?” he’s not just stalling. He’s opening the can of worms that had been brewing for centuries in the ancient world. On the one side he was familiar with Plato’s Philosopher-King who loves the truth and only the truth, despising all efforts to massage or distort it. On the other hand, he knows the arguments of Plato’s detractors, the Sophists, who point out the difficulty in ascertaining a universal truth. The Sophists recognized that “truth” is articulated from a particular point-of-view, and those with varying points-of-view both claim to have “truth” on their side. For the Sophist, it’s pointless to seek universal truth since all truth is situational and based in perception rather than reality.

So when Jesus tries to challenge him to “The Truth,” Pilate knows his escape. Adopting a sophistic outlook, he squirms his way out. “Is the truth really so simple, Jesus? Is there only one truth? Wouldn’t your accusers also have their ‘truth?’ Doesn’t truth depend on where you’re standing at any given moment? You quiz me as if there’s some obvious Truth when in actuality, the world is a lot messier than that.”

His tactic is to paint Jesus as simplistic and stuck in Plato’s bygone era. “Any educated man knows,” he tells himself, “that an appeal to universal truth is impossible, delusional, and dangerous. It’s no wonder that he’s gotten himself into such trouble. This is how you get yourself killed. You take an absolutist minority position against an absolutist majority. I can’t help a man who won’t help himself.”

Pilate rarely gets credit for thinking on a philosophical level. We have a truncated version of him pulled from the scriptural text, but uninformed by any broader context. So Pilate becomes a caricature of himself, opening the door for hermeneutic/homiletic
Darwinism where we assume we’re smarter because we’re newer, and that our situation is unprecedented. Pilate’s question to Jesus is a marvelous bridging of the ancient world with the worlds of modernity and post-modernity. But to catch it, you have to have some sense of first century rhetoric. Then we see that some things never change and our so- called “new” issues are really quite old. It’s a healthy antidote for our addiction to novelty.

But study of the ancient world also reveals some differences. Because they utilized different technologies, they processed information differently. While reading and writing were certainly not rare skills in the first century AD, they were implemented more for the preservation, and not the production of knowledge. Communication was primarily oral with literacy serving in a back-up role. As long as we picture the first century church assembled, like us, with their individual study bibles, reading the word quietly, or a second century pastor writing out his weekly sermon, we risk imposing ourselves back onto that world, and failing to hear how and what the revealed word originally spoke.

On the contrary, bringing ancient rhetorical theory into the seminary classroom has both hermeneutic and homiletic benefits. Pagan rhetoricians flesh out the world of communication in the biblical milieu. Just as we study Greek and Roman history to
understand the historical context for the New Testament, so we can study Greek and Roman rhetoric to understand the communicative context. Yet in a survey of recent homiletic textbooks, only 1 in 9 made any reference at all to classical rhetoric and that reference was scant indeed, limited, for the most part, to the “Further Reading” section at the end. Zondervan’s massive and recently released anthology of preaching, The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, has no reference to the age of oratory. To get any sense of the overlap between pagan thinkers and preaching, we must go all the way back to Broadus’ 1870 classic, On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons (where he actually addresses Aristotle, Cicero, and Quintilian). Remaining textbooks give the distinct impression that passionate, grounded oratory was invented just 10 minutes ago.

Some might object that history is “factual” whereas communication theory is laden with pagan values, right? Why care what pagans think about communication? Well whether or not we agree with classical rhetoric, is, at this point, beside the point. Approve or disapprove, pagan theorists demonstrate explicitly how communication actually worked in the ancient world. It is precisely that communicative context, and no other, that produced the speech, preserved by writing, that became scripture. Peeling back our exclusively literate orientation, we can see the oral foundations to the written word of God and perhaps “hear” and “speak” from it as we might not otherwise.

Tracing the oral under-girding of the scriptural text is beyond the scope of this paper. But more and more scholars are calling attention to this under-developed side of hermeneutics. Bruce Shields in From the Housetops: Preaching in the Early Church and Today demonstrates oral roots in the gospels, epistles, and book of Acts, roots that affect how a passage is understood. Susan Niditch in Oral World and Written Word performs a similar task for the Old Testament, underscoring the interplay of orality and literacy in the production of scripture.

Once we have an understanding of the world of primary orality, we can appreciate the strengths of both orality and literacy. Both were used to produce and reproduce the word of God for successive generations. The prophet or the apostle, or Jesus himself, delivered the message to an original audience via speech. Jesus wrote no sermons. That speech was then subsequently recorded and preserved with the precision and durability of text. But it would seem that to fully “hear” the word of God, it needs to become speech again.



Perhaps we could conceive a water/ice/water metaphor. Water is best ingested in liquid form. But if we must transport water a great distance and we have no waterproof container, we must find a way to freeze the water into ice for transport in a refrigerated
freight system. Yet when the ice arrives at the new destination, it needs to be melted again to be efficiently and satisfyingly consumed. In a similar way, the ice of text preserves the word of God for transport through the centuries. Perhaps the preacher in this scenario becomes warming agent to melt the ice back into digestible (oral/aural) form. Such a preacher has great appreciation for the ice and a different sort of appreciation for the water.


The World of Water

Classical rhetoric, while familiar with ice, depicts mainly a world of water; a world where speech was king. So then, what is this world of water like? What insights from the world of classical rhetoric might apply to homiletic task of “melting the ice?” The remainder of this paper will sample rhetorical theory from four classic rhetorical theorists, two Greek and two Roman. To avoid an impossibly exhausting task, we will limit our observations to theory that has direct relevance to homiletics i.e. the task of converting ice to water, text to tongue. The observations noted are not intended to accurately summarize the particular author’s theory, but hopefully will not violate the larger context of the author’s work. We will proceed chronologically from Plato up through Quintilian.


Plato- Good Preaching Starts With Truth Held Authentically

In about 370 B.C, Plato composed a dialogical examination of the art of speaking named after Phaedrus, Socrates’ partner in the discussion. We must remember that Socrates, consistent with his critique of literacy, left no writings behind. Without the transcriptions of his student Plato, his philosophy would have terminated in the minds (and graves) of his disciples. The dialogue is far too long to summarize here, but toward the end Socrates makes some observations about speaking that have direct application to preaching today.

Like today, Socrates was confronted with a popular and very influential school of thought previously referred to in this paper as Sophism. Sophists rejected transcendent truth, reducing everything to probable knowledge. Since nothing can be known for sure, persuasion is key to constructing reality. What people come to believe, or are persuaded to believe, is the only truth there is. Listen to Socrates’ irritation with this turn from transcendent truth.

For in the courts, they say, nobody cares for truth about these matters, but that which is for convincing; and that is probability, so that he who is to be an artist in speech must fix his attention upon probability. For sometimes one must not tell what was actually done, if it was likely to be done, but what was probable, whether in accusation or defense; and in brief, a speaker must always aim at probability, paying no attention to truth. (Phaedrus, p. 164)

The irritation is driven by the sense that it doesn’t really matter what’s true, just what sounds plausible or persuasive. This, in turn, leads to a shallow sort of speaker who has no patience to discover ultimate realities, but has a sense for “what will preach.” Socrates, on the other hand, places knowledge of the truth before the speech. A good speaker must be, first of all, a good thinker. Not one who simply admits to truth or parrots truth, but one who understands truth at foundational and synthetic levels. Listen to his summary.

Unless a man take account of the characters of his hearers and is able to divide things by classes and to comprehend particulars under a general idea, he will never attain the highest human perfection in the art of speech. (Phaedrus, p. 165)

Or again:

A man must know the truth about all the particular things of which he speaks or writes, and must be able to define everything separately; then when he has defined them, he must know how to divide them by classes until further division is impossible; and in the same way he must understand that nature of the soul, must find the class of speech adapted to each nature, and must adorn his discourse accordingly, offering the complex soul elaborate and harmonious discourses, and simple talks to the simple soul. (Phaedrus, p. 167)

Socrates would listen to a shallow preacher and pinpoint the problem as a shallow thinker. He would doubt that a person can be taught to preach without teaching them first to think. And with sound thinking, in good theology, a wellspring of preaching builds quietly, looking for the right time, the kairos, to be spoken. And when the time is right, the speaker, the true orator, the gifted preacher is not limited to this week’s scratchings on a legal pad, but has a reservoir of thought that is synthesized with and activated by speech that fits the occasion and the audience. In this sense, homiletic preparation goes on all the time, unstoppably and unconsciously.

Socrates would say that theology precedes and fuels homiletics. If we ever get to the point where we simply coach shallow speakers to tweak their ramblings toward a more hospitable reception without addressing what that speaker really believes, then we have inherited the worst form of sophistry and called it preaching. A good preacher must have a cogent and well-developed anthropology, a soteriology that is owned and more than pat phrases, and an ecclesiology that is honed and tested.

Socrates makes much of breaking things down to first principles so that we know what we believe partly by what we don’t believe. This is the kind of dialectic that used to be fostered by the great confessions of the church, but has largely fallen by the wayside. Certainly good preaching doesn’t stop with good thinking, but it starts there. As it continues, it produces what Socrates calls “the word within himself.”

Only in words about justice and beauty and goodness spoken by teachers for the sake of instruction, and really written in a soul, is clearness and perfection and serious value, that such words should be considered the speakers own legitimate offspring, first the word within himself. (Phaedrus, p. 167)

The truth becomes written in the soul, and when spoken becomes a sort of procreation or legitimate offspring. Socrates is concerned about legitimacy because the increasing use of writing during his time was a threat to legitimate speech. The new technology of writing made words easy to borrow and parrot so that speech could become illegitimate and shallow.

For they will read many things without instruction and will therefore seem to know many things, when they are for the most part ignorant and hard to get along with, since they are not wise, but only appear wise. (Phaedrus, p. 165)

Literacy offers the preacher a plethora of literate resources. Commentaries, interpretive notes, downloadable sermons, and books of sermon outlines and illustrations can all be the crutch that robs a sermon of its first person, original power. It is easy to appear wise and well-read without having much true understanding. One of the tests of true wisdom, of “the word within himself” is the ability of a speaker to defend his speech when challenged. Likening a written, disembodied speech to a helpless child, Socrates bemoans the weakness of the literate word.

And every word, when once it is written, is bandied about, alike among those who understand and those who have no interest in it, and it knows not to whom to speak or not to speak; when ill-treated or unjustly reviled it always needs its father to help it; for it has no power to protect or help itself. (Phaedrus, p. 166)

For Socrates, wisdom and an understanding of the truth comes through oral exchange of ideas in the refinery of dialogue. The Platonic dialogues themselves illustrate this. For though they are written, the literacy is merely the preservation of oral combat. The ideas are turned over and inside-out in the world of interlocution, not in silent and private meditation.

One could wonder how many sermons are like Socrates’ helpless children. If challenged or questioned, they could not defend themselves inasmuch as they lack the requisite original thinking, reflecting instead a certain second or third-hand regurgitation. Professors of homiletic would do well to foster Plato’s standard of “the word within himself” that is the legitimate offspring of the speaker, sensitive to the occasion. About 700 years later, Augustine, also suspicious of manipulative rhetorical technique that diluted authentic speech, advocated the interiorization of scripture to provide infinitely flexible fodder for unfolding sermons. “If the preacher is to rhapsodize on a topic, drawing from a copia informed by the reading of scripture, then scripture and its wisdom are obviously not outside the speaker, but interiorized” (Schaeffer, p. 1139).


Aristotle- Good Preaching Depends on Credibility That Persuades

In contrast to the idealism of his mentor, Aristotle seems to take a slightly more pragmatic approach to persuasion. He doesn’t deny transcendent truth, referring to it quite freely. “Things that are true and things that are just have a natural tendency to prevail over their opposites.” (The Rhetoric, 1355a: 22). But he seems to evidence less confidence in our ability to access it accurately. Indeed, he categorizes persuasion in the field of art, not science. (The Rhetoric, 1359b: 12). For Aristotle, most of the things we discuss and dispute cannot be held with scientific precision. They have a debatable, or contingent nature.

Most of the things about which we make decisions, and into which therefore we inquire, present us with alternative possibilities. For it is about our actions that we deliberate and inquire, and all our actions have a contingent character; hardly any of them are determined by necessity. (The Rhetoric, 1357a: 24).

This seems to be where we find ourselves in preaching too. Our sermons are about transcendent, universal truths. Truths that are bigger than us and truths we cannot control or create. Truths that go on, with or without our consent. Yet our access to those truths is not with scientific precision, and that by divine design. What Aristotle calls contingency, we could call faith. God intentionally leaves things muddy enough that it requires some stepping beyond empirical knowledge to participate. Faith and rhetoric go hand in glove, for rhetoric is most at home in the world of probability, the world of contingency.

This is where Plato and Aristotle help us in our transition from modernity to post- modernity. Being pre-modern themselves, they have no stake in either view of truth. But between the two, we can see something very old which has currency today. With Plato, we concur that truth is transcendent and not merely socially constructed. But with Aristotle we concede that our limited access to transcendent truth will always force us back to world of probability and faith. Borrowing from these pre-moderns equips us to handle challenges from both relativists who say there is no big-T truth, and hip-pocket apologists who try to prove the unprovable.

With Aristotle we say, that since theology cannot be demonstrated empirically, it falls into the realm of art more than science, and can benefit by being openly rhetorical. It’s a subtle but significant shift. Notice the difference between a sermon entitled “Tithing: God’s Mandate For Giving” and “Why We Should Be More Generous Than We Are.” The first is treats the audience as a pupil. The second frames them as a volitional being faced with real and confusing choices. The first assumes the audience needs instruction. The second assumes the audience needs persuasion.

Persuasion is central for Aristotle’s rhetoric since he defines rhetoric as “observing in any given case the available means of persuasion.” (The Rhetoric, 1355b: 26). Those means are summarized in three categories (logos, pathos, ethos) and for three different communicative contexts (forensic/legal, deliberative/legislative, and epideictic/ceremonial). If we attempt to appropriate Aristotle in the homiletic realm, it makes sense to focus on ethos and the ceremonial realm; the ceremonial because it most closely approximates a congregation gathered on Sunday, and ethos because it is more closely linked to the preacher than the other two.

It is only a few pages into Book I of The Rhetoric that we encounter Aristotle’s first mention of ethos. Predictably, it is listed along with its two counterparts: pathos and logos, but listed first among the three: “The first kind depends on the personal character of the speaker, the second on putting the audience into a certain frame of mind, the third on the proof, or apparent proof, provided by the words of the speech itself” (The Rhetoric, 1356a: 2).

He then elaborates with two notable sub-points. First he stresses that ethos is working while the speech is so spoken as to “make us think him credible.” Strictly speaking, it matters not whether the speaker is actually credible (from the perspective of factually verifiable standards). The crucial dynamic that builds Aristotelian ethos is what the audience perceives coming from the actual words of the speaker.

The second clarification distinguishes Aristotle’s definition from later depictions (most notably, Quintilian) of ethos that flows from the moral character of the person, outside the speech. In contrast, Aristotle makes it clear that, at least for the point under discussion, he is only referring to the persuasive ethos that is “achieved by what the speaker says, not by what people think of this character before he begins to speak” (The Rhetoric, 1356a: 9). But how would credibility emerge from the speech event itself? How does a preacher build credibility in the midst of the sermon? Aristotle has some interesting observations.

Aristotle talks far less about the epideictic environment than he does the other two. So as we examine ethos the epideictic, we are looking at the least-discussed mode of proof operating in the least-discussed rhetorical environment. Sullivan finds, in this peculiar matching, some natural aptness. “Since epideictic is about character and ethos is the portrayal of character, there is a natural link between the two” (118).

Sullivan delineates this “constellation of purposes” as “preservation, education, celebration, and aesthetic creation.” Sullivan concludes, “Epideictic rhetoric creates a situation that magnifies the importance of ethos over logos primarily because it does not argue to win a particular debate” (117). Epideictic is not seeking to win the argument. Rather, since its audience is the already converted, the epideictic orator seeks to buttress the community with a reaffirmation of its shared values; what would be popularly described as a pep rally, with ethos providing the “pep.”


Homiletic Ethos

Armed with the definition of ethos as the by-product of an audience’s positive intuition, we have to conclude that the only ethos a speaker ever has, is that granted to him by the situation of the audience in their shared space. From an Aristotelian perspective, there is no speaker who carries that ethos around as resident within, or portable. Now, we must take that kind of ethos into the epideictic sermonic environment and ask what it looks like there, and what, if anything, can be done to foster it. Sullivan offers some help here, distilling epideictic ethos down to five factors: reputation, vision, authority, good reasons, and consubstantiality. All five have some bearing upon the preacher.



Although Sullivan includes the idea of a portable reputation that exists outside the speech, we will confine our questions to Aristotle’s unfolding sense of reputation that is only sensed during the speech act. Pertinent questions might include: What kind of reputation flows from my words? What do my words say about who I am? How do my words establish me as a competent spokesperson for the community of faith? Do my words demonstrate shared values and goodwill toward the audience?



Here Sullivan elaborates, “On a purely naturalistic level, this vision might be called insight, but the epideictic tradition has roots in the religious ceremonies and sacred poetry of ancient Greece. And there is a sense in which the epideictic rhetor is perceived as a seer, a prophet with supernatural vision” (126). So the logical questions that follow might be: Do I have anything to say that is sourced in something other than myself? Do I evidence any connection to divine wisdom and direction? Do I have any authentic message from God? Am I putting my own words in God’s mouth?



It is broadly acknowledged that epideictic speakers, in addressing the “converted,” are not required to demonstrate exacting detail. Sullivan, quoting Weaver, calls this a sense of “spaciousness” that is granted to an epideictic speaker. “The audience brings to the discourse a willingness to accept the speaker’s assertions because of the speaker’s generally perceived ethos. This openness allows the speaker to draw upon his or her own authority, rather than the authority derived through citing others or evidence” (123).

This brings up an interesting complication to homiletic ethos. Does the role of the preacher as mediator of God’s message through scripture bring with it automatic ethos? To what extent can the preacher’s credibility simply ride the coattails of scriptural authority? Here the preacher is walking a tightrope between self-generated authority and secondary “borrowed” authority. On the one hand there is the ethos flowing from the “word as being spoken” (Schrag 161), and on the other hand there is the scriptural ethos of the “spoken word.” This is the blend of prior language with present speech. Schrag contends that all communication has this element of past and present going on simultaneously. “Although distinguishable, they are interwoven. Whenever I am engaged in speaking I make use of words which have already undergone institutionalization, either explicitly or implicitly. The spoken word is present in the word as spoken” (161).

In the case of the preacher, the ethos of scripture becomes inseparably bound up with his or her own, in a sobering blend of the human and divine. While the preacher’s authority is of a different nature than that of the text, it’s difficult to substantiate where one stops and the other begins.

Pertinent Questions: How much personal authority do I claim? How do I honor the authority of Scripture? Is it legitimate for people to believe things just because I say them? How should I honor that kind of trust? How could I betray it? Should I distinguish, when preaching, where God’s word stops and my own opinions start?


Good Reasons

The ethos of the speaker is energized by the ethical arguments of the discourse. The passion demonstrated for moral purpose seems to transfer, in the audience’s mind, from the argument to the speaker himself, with the assumption that only a highly moral person would argue so strongly for morality.

Sullivan, referring to George Yoos and his four ethical qualities (A- seeking agreement, R- rational autonomy of audience, E- equality with audience, and V- shared values), takes good reasons a step further. “Thus, rhetors displaying these qualities are like teachers who, though they have the authority simply to tell students the way things are— may choose to […] support generalizations with good reasons out of respect for the students’ rationality” (125). Do I show respect for the audience’s thoughts? Do I present myself as “above” them in any way? Would I be persuaded by my own arguments?


Creation of Consubstantiality

This last point is Sullivan’s foremost and favorite. For it speaks of a shared timelessness between audience and speaker. “Things that are consubstantial share substance, and if in some metaphysical sense, we can say that those who share a common mental or spiritual space also share a common substance, we begin to experience ethos as consubstantiality” (127).

This is not too far a departure from Aristotle’s own description of the epideictic as concerned with the present (as opposed to the past or the future). Indeed, in epideictic, part of the fodder for discourse is the room itself. This is not so with forensic or deliberative which are always concerned with issues “out there.” The unique capacity of the epideictic moment is that the audience and the speaker, and their very present “in here, right now,” experience can become part of the celebration or contemplation. This is the synthetic realm unique to epideictic ethos.

Pertinent questions for preachers include: Do I address the present tense? Do I make the audience part of the sermon? Is there a timelessness in the room, or are people glancing at their watches? Have we, in any sense, lost track of time?

In conclusion, Sullivan’s description of epideictic ethos takes us right to the doorway of the church. His outline almost gives the impression he’s dressed up the experience of a good sermon in rhetorical terms. Consider his summary: “One can almost call such a place sacred, for it is the place where the educative and celebratory functions of epideictic take place, the place where the continuing ideology of an orthodoxy is given birth in a new generation and rebirth in those who already dwell within the tradition” (130).


Cicero- Good Preaching is Fueled by Authentic Emotion

Moving forward several hundred years to the first century BC, Cicero opens the field of Roman rhetoric with his adaptation and extension of the Aristotelian model. Cicero’s work on the subject includes seven volumes and in general carries forward the idea that the ideal orator must be widely grounded in all fields and disciplines, able to thoroughly understand the subjects in dispute. Like Plato, he believed that good speaking starts with good thinking that is also expansive and exhaustive. Though admittedly a daunting challenge, Cicero refused to confine oratory to simple rhetorical handbooks that emphasized technique over originality. Cicero depicts a flexible and well-grounded oratory that can adapt on the fly to new circumstances or twists in the debate.

Like Aristotle, he also granted emotion a sweeping role in persuasion. But ever the moralist, he decried false or trumped up emotion that is merely theatrical. The following excerpt from Book II of De Oratore captures it well.

In fact it is impossible for the hearer to grieve, to hate, to envy, to become frightened at anything, to be driven to tears and pity, unless the self-same emotions the orator wants to apply to the juror seem to be imprinted and branded on the orator himself. Now if, for instance, the grief that we must assume would somehow be unreal and pretended, and if this mode of speaking would involve nothing but deception and imitation and feigning, then we would probably require some quite powerful art… I swear to you that every time I have ever wanted to arouse grief or pity or envy or hate in the hearts of jurors through my oratory, I was invariably, while working to stir the jurors, thoroughly stirred myself by the same feelings to which I was trying to lead them… For oratory that aims at stirring the hearts of others, will, by its very nature, stir the orator himself even more strongly than it will any member of his audience…For this reason, Sulpicius, I am teaching you two this (being of course a good and learned teacher): to be able to get angry when you are speaking, and to grieve, and to weep. (Book II 185-196).

The homiletic application is so obvious here, no additional comment is needed. Though this fails to even scratch the surface of Cicero’s expansive thought, just this citation gives us a taste of the kind of speech modeled by classical orators; the kind of speech that is both authentic and emotional. Classical rhetors understood the role of passion in speech and were unapologetic about unleashing it upon an audience. In an earlier section one of the interlocutors is summarizing the passionate display he saw exuded from a friend.

But I swear, Crassus, that on my part, I always shudder when you handle these matters in your cases: such mental vigor, such energy, such passion always show from your eyes, your face your gestures, even from your finger; so overwhelming is the flow of the best and most impressive words; and so sincere are your thoughts, so true, so novel and so devoid of immature frills, that it seems to me that you are not just setting the jurors on fire, but are ablaze yourself. (Book II, 188).

It’s sad to say that not many preachers could live up to that description. We can get a sense of it in Jesus’ condemnation of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, in the early sermons of Peter after Pentecost, and in Paul’s farewell to the Ephesian elders in Acts 20. But where today? And why so rare? If Crassus could be so caught up in a court case, cannot we, entrusted as we are, with the oracles of God?


Quintilian- Great Preaching Looks Simultaneously Backward and Forward

Marcus Fabius Quintilianus was born in Spain about two years after the start of the Christian church and lived and taught all during that crucial first century of the church’s existence. In that light, it’s intriguing to think what was happening in the background behind the lives of the apostles, the writing of the New Testament, and the steady expansion of the church toward Greece and eventually Rome. While that was happening, Quintilian was hammering out the educational philosophy and praxis that would, before too long, be absorbed into the emerging Christian culture of the west.

As with Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, we can only manage here a sample of the kind of contribution classical rhetoric makes to homiletics. We will focus on one citation from Book 10, Chapter 6 of his Institutes of Oratory. His topic is premeditation, which, for Quintilian, means a stage of preparation that is halfway between written precision on one hand, and total extemporaneous speech on the other hand. Premeditation, he says, borrows power from both other forms, and serves to fix the speech in the mind in such a way as to facilitate its unencumbered release.

We cannot write everywhere and at all times; but there is abundance of time and room for thought. Meditation may, in a very few hours, embrace all points of the most important causes. When our sleep is broken at night, meditation is aided by the very darkness. Between the different stages in the pleading of a cause it finds some room to exercise itself, and never allows itself to be idle. Nor does it only arrange within its circle the order of things, (which would itself be a great assistance to us), but forms an array of words, and connects together the whole texture of a speech, with such effect, that nothing is wanting but to write it down. (10, 6, 1-2).

Here we have form of sermon preparation which has more flexibility than writing, yet more precision than a purely extemporaneous delivery. With premeditation, the natural flow of a speech or sermon is fixed mentally in a sensible sequence that can be recalled without the assistance of notes or literate aids. Even though Quintilian argues repeatedly for the value of writing a speech, the writing is a part of a stage of invention that produces the premeditation that culminates in extemporaneous delivery. Writing is a tool that is left behind as one approaches the oral event. In its place is a loosely fixed outline or sequence that is covertly rehearsed by the rhetor to the point of easy fluency. How does one attain this level of mental preparedness?

A habit of thinking must then be gradually gained by embracing in our minds a few particulars at first, in such a way that they may be faithfully repeated; next, by additions so moderate that our task my scarcely feel itself increased, our power of conception must be enlarged, and sustained by plenty of exercise; power which is a great degree depends on memory. (10,6,3)

Quintilian recommends the kind of mental exercise not unlike a workout in the physical realm. That the memory can be trained and expanded until it can keep, in proper relation, a vast amount of information. Memory was huge part of preparation for the oral event, firmly ensconced in the classical canon of rhetoric to which Cicero and Quintilian both subscribed. Today our memory muscles are weak and underdeveloped, victims of the debilitating omnipresence of literate prompts. Even though literacy was included as part of preparation in Roman rhetoric, by the time the orator assumed the podium, literacy was left behind and an extemporaneous style, fueled and guided by premeditation, took over.

That premeditation was not intended to lock the speech in a finished state is clear by the disclaimer added next.

But if by chance, while we are speaking, some glowing thought, suggested on the instant, should spring up in our minds, we must certainly not adhere too superstitiously to what we have studied; for what we meditate is not to be settled with nicety so that room is not allowed for a happy conception of the moment, when thoughts that suddenly arise in our minds are often inserted, even in our written compositions. Hence the whole of this kind of exercise must be so ordered that we may easily depart from what we have arranged and easily return to it; since, though it is of the first importance to bring with us from home a prepared and precise array of language, yet it would be the greatest folly to reject the offerings of the moment. (10,6,5)

Quintilian finishes the section by describing a mental process that is constantly unfolding during a speech, a balance of what he calls looking backward and looking forward. The backward look is toward what has been prepared and what is already familiar. He says we are mistaken if we focus there exclusively. The forward look is to the room and the audience, and a portion of our mental capacity must be allocated there so as not to miss something in the moment. This kind of simultaneous duality in thinking exploits the best of preparation and the best from spontaneity, producing a speaker both grounded and yet very much alive to the room.



Clearly these classical theorists have thought through oratory at a level deeper than most homiletic textbooks today. Just these samplings demonstrate their commitment and comfort in thoroughly oral speech forms; the kind of forms where the best sermons thrive. For just because all sermons are oral, does not mean they were prepared orally. Indeed most sermons today are oral literature, prepared and delivered from the presuppositions of the literate world. Classical authors give us, if nothing else, an older and yet still relevant methodology for homiletics.

So why study the classics? What pertinence do they have in contemporary homiletics?

1) The Greek and Roman rhetoricians are the foundations for our craft. Ignorance of classical rhetoric is ignorance of our history, comparable to a psychologist ignorant of Freud, or a physicist ignorant of Newton.

2) Awareness of the communicative context of the New Testament assists us hermeneutically as we interpret passages which have oral under-girding.

3) Classical rhetorical theory was penned while speech was still king. As preachers we are disproportionately committed to the spoken word. Those today who love oratory should have a special kinship with, and respect for, the world of primary orality.

4) As our culture transitions from modernity to post-modernity, these pre-modern scholars help us navigate in the new (actually old) waters of contingency and probability.

5) Classical rhetoric frees us from the misguided notion that ancients were inferior or primitive in thought. In fact, they raise the standards for communicative effectiveness and display a level of mental agility and extemporaneous flexibility that should be the envy of all good preachers today. As technology goes forward, mental competence regresses, just as Socrates predicted.

Augustine faced this same issue in the transition between the classical world and the emerging Christian culture. To what extent can insights from classical rhetoric be appropriated by the church? Augustine answers that question in On Christian Doctrine. “As a rhetor himself, he knew the advantages that his training conferred, but he also rejected the applause-seeking artificiality that he thought characterized many of his contemporaries.” (Schaeffer, p. 1136) Though not slavishly bound to rhetoric and well aware of its propensity for manipulation and deceit (he taught rhetoric for a living before his conversion), he nonetheless recognizes its value in defending and propagating the faith as well, quoting as easily from Cicero and Virgil as from scripture. Here his famous classification of all truth as divine provides a particularly fitting conclusion.

But we should not think that we ought not to learn literature because Mercury is said to be its inventor, nor that because the pagans dedicated temples to Justice and Virtue, and adored in stones what should be performed in the heart, we should therefore avoid justice and virtue. Rather, every good and true Christian should understand that wherever he may find truth, it is his Lord’s. (2.18.28)


Reference List

Aristotle. The Rhetoric and Poetics of Aristotle. New York: Random House, 1984.

Augustine. On Christian Doctrine. Up Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, 1958. Broadus, John A. On the Preparation and Delivery of Sermons. New York: Harper & Bros., 1870.

Cicero. On the Ideal Orator. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Enos, Richard Leo. Roman Rhetoric: Revolution and the Greek Influence. Prospect Heights: Waveland, Press, 1995.

Plato. “Phaedrus.” in Bizzell, Patricia. And Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001.

Quintilan. Institutes of Oratory. in Bizzell, Patricia. And Bruce Herzberg. The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2001.

Schaeffer, John D. “The Dialectic of Orality and Literacy: The Case of Book 4 of Augustine’s De doctrina Christiana,” Publications of the Modern Language Association of America, 111, 5: 1133-1144.

Schrag, Calvin O. Experience and Being. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1969.

Shields, Bruce E. From the Housetops: Preaching in the Early Church and Today. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000.

Sullivan, Dale L. “The Ethos of Epideictic Encounter.” Philosophy and Rhetoric. 26 (1993): 113-133.

Yoos, George E. “A Revision of the Concept of Ethical Appeal.” Philosophy and Rhetoric 12 (1979): 41-58.


Loving Your Library

Acquiring and maintaining the pastor’s intellectual toolbox.

Kenton C. Anderson

I love books. I love the smell of them. I love the feel of them. I love the way they encourage me to think. I love the way they take me to far-away places. I like to keep my books. My wife is always trying to encourage me to use the library, but my problem with that is that when I find I love the book, I won’t want to take it back. Then I’m going to have to go out and buy the book I have already read because I want to keep the books I love. Some of you know what I am talking about.

Owning books is a wonderful thing, but it is not without its difficulties. I occasionally see offers of “free books” around our campus, but I have learned that books are never free. Books need to be read, filed, stored, and when you come to move to a new home or office, you will have to transport them. Books are heavy and movers charge by the pound. Still, I can’t help myself. I’m going to accumulate books. The challenge, then, is to learn how to make my library as orderly and useful as possible.



The most important way of managing one’s library is to be careful about what one acquires. Like a skilled emergency room nursing staff, I try to determine which books are a priority and which ones might not merit accumulation. For example, I spent some time at my favorite bookstore this morning and found at least five books that I thought would be worth reading. I was successful, however, in resisting the urge to purchase them, due to consideration of a number of factors.

First, there is the matter of value. Not all books are equally worthy of one’s limited time. With the multiplicity of books available on virtually every subject, one would do well only to select those resources that will be of greatest use. If it requires some time reading reviews, that time is worth spending, when one considers the amount of time that could be wasted reading things of limited value.

A great way to discover things that are worth reading is to check the bibliography in books that have really helped you. When you find yourself helped by one book, try to discover what that author has been reading. If she or he is quoting someone a lot, you might want to check the book for yourself. Another surprising source of this kind of information are the customer reviews on You don’t want to put too much confidence into these, but I have found them helpful in getting a sense of how the books are being received by the general public. I would recommend you go to and click on the link labeled “The Best Resources for Studying Scripture.” This is an outstanding list of resources including a list of some of the best commentaries for each book of the Bible. For resources on preaching, you could go to the reviews section (click under “resources.”

Second is the question of redundance. Once you have mastered and retained a particular theme, there is little need to add more to the same pile of materials. This is not to say that one should ever completely stop reading in a particular category. Just that it is not necessary to retain every book written on a particular theme. Just keep the best ones.

Third, we could consider utility. I have kept a number of books on my shelf that have not been opened in many years. Young’s Complete ConcordanceThe New York Public Library Desk Reference, and many of my dictionaries and language tools are no longer useful given that I can access the information that they offer much more quickly via my computer. Given that these are some of the largest books I own, relieving myself of them creates a significant amount of valuable shelf space.



While the best way to manage this is to control the intake of materials, it remains necessary to cull the books that may have been previously useful to see if they are still suitable for inclusion. Some books, that have had value in previous years, no longer are suitable for retention years later.

Remember the recycle bin is your friend. Having the courage to get rid of books we once found useful can actually increase accessibility to the truly good things we have collected. Recycling is also good for the environment God has given us.

Consider gifting books that are no longer useful to you but could be of value to someone else. One person’s trash is another’s treasure. It occurred to me a few years ago that my large collection of youth ministry materials was no longer of value to me, given that I was no longer actively involved in youth ministry. Some of the stuff was junk and I treated it accordingly. Our church youth pastor, however, was pleased to receive the good stuff. When you can’t think of anyone who could make good use of the book you have in mind, remember there is always ebay. If nobody wants it there, it really ought to find its way into the trash.

Some years ago, I moved into a new and smaller office. There was simply not enough room to store all the books that I had gathered. I ended up putting several heavy boxes into the crawl space underneath our house. It took a few years, but inevitably I hauled the heavy boxes out from under my house and disposed of them. If a book is going into long-term storage, it probably isn’t ever going to be worth keeping.



Once we have determined which books are worth retaining, there is still the question of how we are going to store them.

Shelving hasn’t changed a great deal over the years. My dorm room, years ago, was a maze of planks and patio blocks. Today my shelves are more respectable, but their utility hasn’t much improved. Remember that if you are going to bother putting your books on shelves in your office, it isn’t for the purposes of display. I know that pastors have often shelved their books for the purpose of impressing or sometimes even intimidating the people who would come into their offices. In fact, the only reason we should truly want to store our resources is so that we can find them when we need them. The most important issues with respect to shelving has to do with how accessible the most-used books will be. If I have to get up out of my seat to retrieve them, they probably are not going come to hand as often.

Increasingly, there are software solutions for the storage of books, particularly the classics in public domain. Years ago, I purchased a CD that contained original full-text versions of 700 pieces of “the world’s greatest literature.” The disk contained everything from Mark Twain to John Donne to the Greek storyteller Aesop and his famous fables. It is handy to be able to do keyword searches of these books without having to store them all on shelves. Logos and other companies offer hundreds of useful full-text books in electronic form, easily searchable as part of one’s Bible study software.

Google Book and Google Scholar are increasingly becoming useful sources for information. While not everything is available in complete full-text form, there is a remarkable keyword search capacity making available a massive amount of useful information. This resource will only improve over time as the various legal issues find resolution and usage increases. Questia.comis another full-text book resource that allows for online reading or keyword searches. You might not always find the exact book you are looking for. None of the books I’ve written came up in a keyword search, for instance (sigh), but when I typed the words “biblical studies” into Questia, I came up with more than 1,000 books, many of them recent.



Simply having the books on our shelves is one thing. Being able to effectively retrieve the information is another matter altogether. In my early days of library-building, I spent many hours meticulously building a 3×5 card filing system so that I could retrieve the information that I felt would be valuable. When computers became available, I was an early-adopter. I spent countless hours building databases that would not only catalogue my library but made the essential contents of the books accessible.

What a colossal waste of time! While all of this work may have had some utility initially, the true usefulness of the material became apparent when I upgraded computers, rendering obsolete and inaccessible all my previous work. Redoubling my efforts, I set out to build a new and better system. A fatal computer crash a few years later destroyed all of that hard work. While I could be berated for lacking foresight and for not backing up my work effectively, the truth is, I hardly missed the materials I lost.

This is not to say that filing has no value. It is just that it can take years for a person to learn just what is worth saving and what is not. Things that seemed indispensable years ago are now more readily googled.

There are many software solutions available for cataloguing and organizing small libraries. A listing and description of these various resources can be found at <a href = “” target = “_blank”> Here you will find affordable ways of managing your personal library database, including checkout capabilities just like a real library. Offering dozens of products, this site is sure to offer a product that will suit your particular needs.

For smaller items, bits of information, sermon illustrations, and other snippets and clippings, I have found it useful to use the “Notes” software that is part of the Microsoft Office suite. I have hundreds of such notes entered in Entourage that sync automatically with my Palm Treo so that I have them with me everywhere I go. This is a remarkably useful way of managing ideas, and it has the added benefit of automatic backup.

For example, one of these notes might include some particularly useful quotations from a book that I have read. Another will feature ideas that I have been generating for a new book or article. Still another will feature ideas I recorded while listening to a conference speaker. These can then be assigned “categories” for the purpose of organization. The great thing about these notes is that they can all be keyword searched despite the fact that they are different in nature. It is like having a drawer full of scrap pages and restaurant napkins all covered with important information. With this search capability the exact note your are looking for is easily retrieved.

Finally, integrated desktop searching on your computer allows you to find that needle in the haystack so elusive in the past. I’m running OSX on my Powerbook. A program called Spotlightis built into the desktop allowing me to keyword search my entire hard drive, including the content of documents, in seconds. Similar products are available for Windows computers fromYahooGoogle and Microsoft (MSN Search Toolbar, Windows Desktop Search). This function allows instant accessibility to all of the digital content that is stored on your computer.



This morning, one of my students told me that his hard-drive had crashed rendering all of his digital material inaccessible. Imagine having to rebuild everything you have – from nothing. Of course, this pastor’s tragic tale could have been avoided through regular backups of his hard drive. Electronic material can be wiped out, and so storage redundancy is important.

I am told that CDs are only guaranteed to last about three years before their performance becomes unreliable. The advent of High Definition DVDs should help both with the quantity of storage space and a longer period of reliability, but nothing lasts forever. Whatever system we use, we need to keep backup copies and keep everything fresh by replacing data on new hard drives and disks every few years. Data itself does not corrupt, but the storage media does.


Loving your Library

I have read that the Italian writer and scholar, Umberto Eco, has a personal library of some 40,000 volumes. For Eco, books are something to accumulate whether or not one reads them. He loves to walk through his stacks simply to browse. Obviously the expense of storage and cataloguing of this many books would require a budget and staff beyond the capacity of most of us. Still, something about this appeals to me. I love books – I even love to read them. But we have to be a good steward of our money and our books.

This week the student lounge at my seminary was crowded with tables full of “free books” donated by a deceased former pastor. I looked lovingly at several find books but eventually put them all back on the table. Before incurring the time and expense of adding new books to my collection, I want to do justice to the ones I already have.


Preaching as Dialogue

Moving Beyond the “Speaching” of the Word

Kenton C. Anderson

This paper was first presented to the Evangelical Homiletics Society in October of 2006. It was also published in the January/February issues ofPreaching magazine.

Preaching can seem a little one-sided, particularly when the listener disagrees with what the preacher is saying. In the early years of my ministry I decided that I would preach directly to an area of controversy in the life of the church. It wasn’t really a fair fight. I had the pulpit, which meant that I had all the power. One man was particularly upset about what I had to say. “That’s not true,” he screamed, shaking his fist at me as he stormed out of the room.

I suppose that this was a form of dialogue, though I don’t offer it as one of my better moments in preaching. It does, however, illustrate the problem listeners can have with monological sermons. The listener has no way in. If the sermon is safe and all are in agreement, there might be little problem, but if the preaching is a little more adventurous in its intent and there is potential for dissension, the listener is shut out.

This is one of the reasons so many find our preaching wanting. Preaching that ignores the listener will not seem relevant to the very ones the preacher wants to reach. Perhaps the time has come to encourage greater dialogue in the preparation and presentation of our preaching as a means of involving listeners more fully in the process.


The Potential for Dialogue in Preaching

The current interest in dialogue results, in part, from a broader cultural move toward a greater sense of inclusiveness and a deeper sense of humility among those who would speak to others. Postmodern winds have blown away the overconfidence felt by many public speakers, leaving in its wake a more tentative and open stance to listeners. This softer, more Socratic approach to communication may be less familiar to preachers, but it has now become a preferred means of knowledge acquisition (Phillips 2001, 1-35).

This approach is being championed within the “emerging church” as a way to be more authentic in the preaching that we offer. In contrast to the “speaching” practiced by traditional preachers, these emergent preachers are looking for more of a relational approach that engages the listener in a process of sermon co-creation (Pagitt 2005, 22). Doug Pagitt, for example, is championing something he calls “progressional dialogue” as the way of the future for preaching.

It works like this: I say something that causes another person to think something she hadn’t thought before. In response she says something that causes a third person to make a comment he wouldn’t normally have made without the benefit of a second person’s statement. In turn I think something I wouldn’t have thought without hearing the comments made by the other two. So no we’ve all ended up in a place we couldn’t have come to without the input we received from each other. In a real way the conversation has progressed (Pagitt 2005, 24-25).

At its best, this kind of communication is democratic, humble and has the potential for an exponential impact. Whether it is preaching, remains open to debate. Many preachers will find it difficult to go this far, perhaps because of principle, or perhaps because of the cultural expectations developed in our churches. There are several reasons, however, why a heightened attention to dialogue would be a welcome thing for biblical preachers.

Dialogue is welcome because the listener matters. Pagitt says that “our preaching ought to change depending on who’s there (Pagitt 2006, 36).” The sermon is not about the preacher and his or her opinions. In the communication transaction between God and the listener, the preacher is the least significant player, except in the preacher’s own role as a listener to God. The listener has dignity in the communication process (Anderson 2006, 70-73) and must be respected for her or his right to dissent or to enhance the sermon through insight or application that she or he is better positioned to provide. This is a means by which we “make ourselves responsible and responsive to the patterns of experience and understanding that people bring” to the sermon (Howe 1963, 34).

Increased dialogue in preaching would help us deal with power and authority issues in our preaching. Sermons that are given from the pulpit can tend toward a popish kind of power that gives a sense the sermon cannot be challenged or discussed (McClure 1995, 32). Authority in the sermon is then located in the place of the pulpit and in the person of the preacher rather than in its proper location, which is the Word of God. Pagitt’s concern on this point is well taken:

Speaching also creates a belief that even in the presence of dozens, hundreds, even thousands of other Christians, there are a select few who know God’s truth and who get to tell others about God. There is hardly a preacher who wants her hearers to leave with the notion that they must access the truth of God through the preacher. But that is precisely the message speaching perpetuates: The pastor has the authority to speak about God, and you don’t. When communities are convinced they are better off with a unified understanding of God that is best articulated by trained presenters, we end up with people who cannot translate what they hear in church to the way they live their lives (Pagitt, 29).

I find that the Baptist in me resonates with this concern. The sermon belongs to the people who as believers serve as priests to their own interest under the Chief Priest, Jesus Christ. In other words, Jesus is the only mediator of a person’s faith. The preacher, then, who oversteps his or her authority, makes it difficult for the listener to hear from God, own what is said, and ultimately apply its truth in life. Preachers, in short, need to get themselves out of the way. God is speaking. The place of the preacher is not as the eloquent and authoritative orator. It is as a fellow-listener, struggling to understand and to help others do the same. Dialogue can encourage this.

Dialogue is also useful in preaching as a way of enhancing community within the congregation. Dan Kimball, in his definitive description of the practice of the emergent church sees the sermon as an act that integrates the life and worship of the community together. “A lot of the preaching,” he says, “takes place outside of the church building in the context of community and relationship (Kimball 2003, 175).” Whether inside or outside of the church, dialogue requires we learn to listen well, not only to God, but to each other.


Ways to Engage in Dialogue in Preaching

Dialogue in preaching is not new. Whether we want to go as far as Pagitt in terms of a major reconstruction of the sermon form, there are several ways to encourage a more dialogical approach. Many of these things have long described the best in biblical preaching. I am not, then, so much championing a new thing as I am encouraging a refocus on an aspect of our preaching that might be under-utilized. The following themes would help us increase or enhance the level of dialogue in our preaching of the Bible:

Induction: I have long been struck by Fred Craddock’s observation that if most listeners have any place in the traditional sermon it is as “javelin catcher” (Craddock 2001, 46). Craddock’s solution was to encourage an inductive form of preaching that begins with the needs and concerns of the listener and moves toward a biblical solution. Whether a sermon is entirely inductive, sermons that respect the listener’s perspective are definitively dialogical.

Discussion: It is in the small group movement where dialogue truly reigns and as far as I am concerned, if the intent of the group leader is to help people hear and respond to God through the Scriptures, he or she is preaching. However, even in the traditional sermon, there could be room for some discussion. I once heard Bill Hybels at Willow Creek Community Church stop his sermon and take questions from the floor. If he can do it in a church of that size, it might be possible for the rest of us as well. We could learn here from some of the teaching techniques normally reserved for the Sunday School classroom. Asking questions, utilizing incomplete questions, and other such techniques invite the response of those who listen.

Anticipation: I think it important that preachers work to discern those problems and sticking points that listeners will bring to the things they hear from us. Having understood what is going to get in the way of the listener’s positive response, I am suggesting that we might learn to speak with their own voice, anticipating the objections and giving voice to them in words listeners will recognize as their own.

Application: A sermon is never complete until the listener applies it. That is to say that the sermon is more than what the preacher says. It may be that the presentation of the sermon may be one-sided, but the truth is that the listener is participating whether it is evident or not. Listeners sift what they hear, retaining things that strike them as meaningful and intending those things that seem to them to be powerful in their life. So then, whether or not there is audible dialogue, there is internal dialogue for the listener at least. Preachers can encourage more of this by focusing on application.

Interviews and Testimony: Inviting specific people to the platform at strategic points in the sermon to interview and give testimony are an excellent way of involving people in the process. Such people endorse the things the preacher says from the perspective of the listener. The interviewee becomes a kind of proxy for the rest of the listeners who feel a greater sense of inclusion as they listen.

Collaboration: Increasingly, preachers are looking to others to enhance the process of sermon preparation. I have heard of pastors who gather together monthly to listen to each other’s sermon plans. Others bring together teams of people from within the church – the preaching pastor meets with the powerpoint designer, the worship leader, and other trusted people to talk the sermon through in conversation. By this means, the sermon becomes the product of a wider dialogue than just what happens in the preacher’s mind.

Conversational Delivery: Enhancing a sense of dialogue can be as simple as adjusting the tone of the delivery. A sermon in the grand style that feels heavy and authoritative discourages participation by the listener. Simply changing from the second person to the first person plural makes a remarkable difference. When the sermon is spoken from a we/us perspective, listeners feel more helpfully engaged. Joseph Devito says that effective conversations are open, empathetic, positive, immediate, satisfying, and expressive (Devito 1996, 158). Sermons that take that tone come across as winsome and inviting of the listener’s engagement and involvement.

Note-Taking: Listeners can be encouraged to participate in the sermon through the taking of notes. Fill-in-the-blank handouts can be helpful as long as they are not too prescriptive. There are many ways to record one’s response to the Word of God. Some people like to take detailed notes on the sermon outline. Others prefer a more personal journal-like written response. Still others find value in purposeful doodling, storyboarding the sermon as it progresses. Instead of note-books, perhaps we could give out sketch-books or modeling clay to those so inclined.

Evaluation: Offering the listener opportunity to evaluate the sermon is another way of giving an opportunity for dialogue if only after the fact. While preachers can find this intimidating, we will give the opportunity not only to help us improve our skills, but also to give the listener a meaningful channel through which they can share the things they are thinking about what they have heard.

Accessibility: Not many years ago in the churches that I preached it was common practice for the congregation to sit down politely after the final hymn so that the preacher could make his way to the back door so as to shake the hands of everyone there. Sheer numbers make this impractical in many churches today. I feel a certain loss in this. Some of the best dialogue I have had with people is in the immediate aftermath of listening to the sermon. Whether or not the preacher stands at the door, it is important that the preacher is accessible somehow to hear from those who have listened. Deliberate channels of communication need to be made available to the people or they will feel distanced and personally irrelevant.


The Limits of Dialogue

So far, this paper has been largely positive in its encouragement toward finding ways, perhaps incremental, to enhance the dialogical nature of our preaching. There are, however, limits.

While dialogue invests authority in the various participants, this investiture is not always warranted. I remember asking my father about the adult Sunday school class in our church when I was still a boy. Not being of sufficient age, I had never been able to attend, but I was curious as to what happened there, given the size and popularity of the class. “A lot of pooled ignorance,” was my father’s evaluation. While wisdom is sometimes gained through an abundance of counselors, sometimes more voices simply add to the noise.

Effective dialogue requires the intention of a focused leader who comes purposefully to the event with the idea that we will learn specific things. It may be the discussion surprises with insight not anticipated, but this does not obviate the preacher from the obligation to lead. Preaching is, in many ways, a leadership function and the best preachers come prepared to lead the people to an understanding and application of the things that God is saying in his Word. It is not just a matter of “winging it,” trusting the learning outcomes to the serendipitous responses of the group. Preachers need to lead intentionally. They need to come with an agenda. This is what we mean by proclamation. Preachers are pro-claimers, which is to say that they have a message in mind and they intend to be persuasive.

It may be that the traditional form of the sermon might be more efficient in this regard than a more open dialogical approach. A well-conceived monologue allows the preacher to control communication such that the impact of the message is intended and deliberate. The best preachers come purposefully with something to proclaim. Limiting dialogue can ensure that the sermon remains locked into the purposes the speaker has in mind without straying off topic toward interesting irrelevancies or even to an alternate or dangerous understanding of the nature of the truth.

For example, the last many years have seen the development of an interest in dialogue between religions. It is felt that through such open conversation, greater understanding can develop that can only be productive in the pursuit of the common ends desired by spiritually concerned people everywhere. This dialogue, made possible by technology and our “shrinking planet”, is seen by some to be essential given the increased proximity of human beings to each other. “In the past it was possible, even unavoidable, for most human beings to live out their lives in isolation from the vast majority of their fellows, without even having a faint awareness of, let alone interest in, their very existence (Swindler 1990, vii).” Now we find the peace of the world depends upon an increased dialogue between partners who are accustomed to hostility.

Dialogue, in these cases, could keep us from killing each other. It could also have the effect of changing us in ways not imagined. Certainly, there is a possibility that changes could be warranted and to fear dialogue simply because we are afraid of the possibility we could be altered by it is to betray a weakness of conviction and a nagging sense our faith won’t stand the scrutiny. Further, to engage dialogue dishonestly, without an openness of heart and mind toward the other seems neither fitting nor fair. Like a stalled labor negotiation, little accommodation can happen until all parties are willing to put the core issues on the table.

John McClure is not intimidated by the prospect. In his offer of an “other-wise” approach to homiletics he counsels a complete “deconstructive erasure” of the current approach to preaching so as to let our sermons “be transformed by a profound awareness of the proximity of preaching’s ‘others’ (McClure 2001, xi).” Of course, this is why many have problems with the postmodern turn in preaching. Giving listeners their voice seems risky when there is so much at stake. Dialogue doesn’t feel safe to people committed to their convictions.

Still, one senses value in a humbler, more honest form of preaching. Surely the future might allow for a greater sense of interplay. Perhaps the solution can be found in a reconsideration of who it is that engages in the dialogue. Preaching is a conversation between God and listeners. The preacher simply serves to lead this discussion. In fact, the preacher is one of the listeners, subject to the message just like everybody else. God values dialogue with his creatures, though it is more in the nature of an interchange between a father and his children. The father cares what the child thinks, but it is hardly a dialogue between equal partners.

The gospel is not designed by focus groups. Preaching, if it is to be proclamation, speaks truth to listeners. Proclamation is not co-created. It is declared. All voices are not equal in the homiletic dialogue.


The Listener Wants In

Dialogue in preaching may feel new, but the method is at least as old as Plato (Thompson 1969, 15). Still, it is unlikely that the dominant form of preaching is going to change any time soon. Published proposals for fully dialogical sermons go back to the 1960s and 70s (Conley 1973), pre-dating Pagitt by more than thirty years. If we cannot bring ourselves to a dramatic change in pulpit style, we could, at least, give greater room for the listener’s participation in the process.

Leonard Sweet is looking for ways of doing church that are more participatory. “The people want in,” he says. “They want out of the bleachers and onto the court (Sweet 1999, 218).” Surely, this is not unreasonable. Preaching is, after all, about the listeners and their response to God. Sermons are too often written in the absence of the listener. Perhaps that is why they are so quickly forgotten.

Let the listener in. Sermons belong to listeners more than they belong to preachers.


Sources Cited

Anderson, Kenton C. Choosing to Preach: A Comprehensive Introduction to Sermon Options and Structures. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006.

Conley, Thomas H. Two in the Pulpit: Sermons in Dialogue. Waco, TX: Word, 1973.

Craddock, Fred B. As One Without Authority. Revised Ed. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2001.

Devito, Joseph A. Essentials of Human Communication. 2d. Edition. New York: Harper Collins College, 1996.

Howe, Reuel L. The Miracle of Dialogue. New York: Seabury, 1963.

Kimball, Dan. The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003l.

McClure, John. ‘Other-Wise’ Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics. St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2001.

McClure, John. The Round-Table Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1995.

Pagitt, Doug. “Preaching as Dialogue: An Interview with Doug Pagitt.” In Preaching (Vol. 21: May-June 2006), 34-40.

Pagitt, Doug.  Preaching Re-imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005.

Phillips, Christopher. Socrates Café: A Fresh Taste of Philosophy. New York: Norton, 2001.

Sweet, Leonard. SoulTsunami: Sink or Swim in New Millennium Culture. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1998.

Swinder, Leonard, John B. Cobb, Jr., Paul F. Knitter, and Monika K. Hellwig. Death or Dialogue: From the Age of Monologue to the Age of Dialogue. London, SCM Press, 1990.

Thompson, William D. and Gordon C. Bennett. Dialogue Preaching: The Shared Sermon. Valley Forge, PA: Judson, 1969.


Only Human

Toward an Anthropology of Preaching

Kenton C. Anderson

Did you see the cartoon in Leadership years ago? A pastor and his family are receiving a farewell gift from their congregation. No doubt the pastor had preached faithfully to these people for many years. An elder is presenting the pastor with a very large and heavy looking book which the pastor is barely able to receive for its sheer weight and bulk. The title of the book is visible on the spine, “The Life and Times of Pastor Smith as Compiled from His Sermon Illustrations . . . Volume One.”

We all know the agony of listening to a preacher far too impressed with himself and his own life experiences. Yet few of us would care to listen to a sermon devoid of human experience and real life color. For his part, the preacher does not want to get in the way of the message of Scripture. Yet at the same time, the listener finds it desirable if the preacher has a pulse.

How human should a preacher be? Exactly, how much humanity can a preacher offer without interfering in the divine act of communication intended by the task of preaching?

The question could be answered in the positive or in the negative. Both responses have worthy reasons to commend them.


Negative: Repress It

The human being, fallen and finite, is an unfit vessel for the precious Word of God. Preachers who speak for God ought to repress the human element in their preaching for the following reasons:


Human preachers will misinterpret the message.

It is very difficult for even a conscientious preacher to avoid putting a personal spin on the message. The preacher’s challenge is not only to understand the text rightly, but to communicate it correctly as well. To achieve this perilous task, the preacher must suspend the insistence of his personal opinions sufficiently to be able to identify whatever it is that God wants to say through his word as opposed to what the preacher wants said.

Walter Kaiser describes the difficulty of transferring biblical principles across the ancient/contemporary gulf.

In order to principlize without spiritualizing, historicizing, psychologizing, moralizing, or allegorizing, we must first restate the author’s propositions without including a reference to men or places in our sermon points. It is only God’s person, character, work, demands, teaching and comfort which we new wish to urge upon all men (Kaiser 23).

The challenge is to “principlize” the biblical passage without confusing “our own personal point of view (good or bad) with that of the inspired writer (14-15)” In other words, get out of the way. Opinion can have a terrible impact on biblical preaching.


Human preachers will compete with the message.

Preachers who hilight their own person and experience in their preaching run the risk of hindering the objective of the Word of God. Preaching must exalt Christ and Christ alone. As John Piper says, “The goal of preaching is the glory of God reflected in the glad submission of the human heart (Piper 26).”

The preacher who tells a personal story runs the risk of either looking too good or looking too bad. In the former case, the preacher can appear arrogant and self-serving. In the latter case, the preacher risks the negation of either his point or his authority. In both cases, the preacher draws attention to himself at the expense of the text.

Physically, the preacher standing in front of the congregation is the center of attention. The position is seductive. Many preachers succomb to the temptation, encouraging the attention through their choice of physical attire and personal demeanor. When listeners pay more attention to the preacher than to the sermon preached, the process has been sabotaged.


Human preachers will tarnish the message.

All have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God (Ro.3:23). Truly, the message is born by those with feet of clay. Of course, one can cite preachers who are widely praised for their integrity and their blameless character, but for every Billy Graham there is a Jimmy Swaggart.

We preach the grace of God, yet the preacher who draws from that well too often and too deeply will lack integrity in the eyes of the congregation. Surely, the wise preacher will limit the exposure of personal foibles in order not to tax the listener’s sense of forgiveness (Bailey 559-60).


Positive: Express It

On the other hand, there are several arguments in favor of the expression of one’s humanity in the practice of preaching. Preachers ought to express their humanity in their preaching for the following reasons:


Human preachers will realize the message

One of the difficulties inherent in preaching is the otherworld liness of the message. The preacher seeks to offer transcendent truth to people who cannot escape their position within space and time. How can the finite appreciate the infinite? How can the contemporary listener overcome their subjective nature sufficiently to gain access to the objective (Grenz 1996)? Somehow the message has to be perceived as “real” by the listener. Speaking of the text in “real” terms, offering contemporary examples and real human interaction makes the truth more accessible to the listener.

The preacher who accents the human character of the text, stands a good chance of winning a hearing at least. Fred Craddock says that “the distance between ourselves and the original readers of the text is in a measure bridged by our common humanity (Craddock 134).” The people in the Bible (as well as the original intended audience of the text) are not so removed from the experience of contemporary people. They hurt like we hurt. They felt the same things that we feel today. If the preacher can help listeners “real-ize” the text, they might be well prepared to at least consider the propositions in the text.


Human preachers will endorse the message.

People rely on one another. In a complex option-laden world, people tend to rely on the advice and recommendations of people they admire or trust. This is of course what has made Michael Jordan a stupendously wealthy man.

Preachers who are willing to describe their own experience with the text endorse the message of the text. A preacher who has earned the trust of the congregation can greatly enhance the impact of the message through the telling of a few well chosen personal stories. In this case, the preacher bears some of the authority for the message in concert with the inherent authority of the Word of God (Miller 1994).


Human preachers will reckon with the message.

Finally, preachers who are not afraid to express their humanity in their sermons will be forced to personally reckon with their messages. Haddon Robinson’s famous definition of expository preaching says that it is the “communication of a bibical concept . . . which the Holy Spirit first applies to the personality and experience of the preacher, then through him to his hearers (Robinson 20).” This personal reckoning with the message adds significantly to the power of the sermon. The preacher who expresses through word and manner that he or she has done business with God will gain credibility in the mind and heart of the listener.


The Problem with Repression

These are not “straw men” arguments. Expression of one’s human character seems not only important to the task of preaching but dangerous to that same task. So which is it to be? At first glance, repression seems holier. It is motivated by a high view of scripture and a deep desire to exalt Christ at the expense of the human preacher. Yet to call for the complete repression of anthropological content and concern is problematic for the following reasons:


It’s Impossible

At the risk of offending the reader’s intelligence, let it be noted that both preacher and listener are irredeemably human. The preacher can no more renounce his humanity than he can grow gills and swim like a fish. It is simply not possible.

When God created humankind he deemed his handiwork “good.” God understood that when he gave his Word in written form that it would require translation and interpretation inevitably creating confusion as a result. He built emotion and passion into the human experience knowing full well that these feelings would be difficult to control.

Humans are sometimes uncomfortable in their own skin. Men and women misunderstand their own impulses, much less those of one another. It is frustrating, bewildering, and exhilerating and it is part of the plan of God.


It’s Unnecessary

When Jesus took on flesh and blood (Jn. 1:1-14) he showed the value God places on created human beings. We preach because we have a message. Our humanity would have hindered us from knowing God in his transcendence, except that God was willing to make himself known from within our human experience. William Placher says,

We can know the transcendent God not as an object within our intellectual grasp but only as a self-revealing subject, and even our knowledge of divine self-revelation must be God’s doing (Placher 182).

God is making himself known, revealing himself from within our experience, integrating objective truth in subjective form. God created man in his image. He sent his infinite Son to live in finite flesh. He encased his Word in words. He speaks in space/time by means of his Spirit.

Therefore, we preach. God has been willing to make himself known in the down and dirty of everyday human life. In fact, it is in the deepest of human experiences that God is most fully revealed. The crucifixion taught us that. We should no more find it necessary to divorce our humanity from our preaching than God himself did.


It’s Unwise

If our experience tells us that a disembodied experience is impossible, and the incarnation tells us that it is unnecessary, our listeners will tell us that it is unwise. People want to hear about people.

One of the faster ways to empty a church is to refuse to tell stories and offer emotion. Jesus himself taught us that one of the most effective ways to offer truth is by encasing it in human narrative. The gospels were not afraid to tell us Jesus wept (John 11:35). When Nathan had to confront David over his sin, he did it with a story (2Sa.12). Later, when David went to God to confess his sin, he wrote a psalm, a deeply emotional expression of his human sorrow (Ps.51). If the Bible can express humanity, whey can’t a preacher?

Mark Galli and Craig Brian Larson are sold on the power of human narrative. One of them confesses that he had been preaching for years before he fully appreciated the power of a well told story.

“My college degree was in accounting, and I’ve always felt at home with facts, analysis, and principles – the abstract and conceptual. I would have been embarrassed to simply tell a Bible story in a sermon – that was for children.”

“Somehow, however, these sermons were not hitting the mark. The people were not interested.”

“So I tried recounting Bible stories in my sermons, accenting dialogue, building suspense. I began woodenly, then loosened up and found I actually enjoyed telling the stories! Best of all my people now had looks of interest. They were enjoying the stories too (Galli and Larson 81,82).”

Preachers will find it wise to express their humanity in the practice of their preaching. Their listeners will thanks them.


Toward an Anthropology for Preaching

This paper has raised only a few of the issues relative to the question of anthropology and preaching. The work begs a fuller treatment. Nevertheless, let it be said that as human beings charged with the task of preaching the gospel, we ought to …


Express Humility

We bear our treasure in jars of clay (2Cor.4:7). We are easily tempted and subtly selfish. We owe everything we have to the grace of God. Therefore we express ourselves humbly and graciously, submitting carefully to the authority of God’s Word, even as we offer that Word to others.


Express Integrity

Those who offer themselves to preach must examine themselves closely as one called to a higher standard (Ja.3:1). We do not want to disqualify our message by our actions. We must spurn our pride and live faithfully, if not perfectly, that people would be compelled to listen and respond.


Express Confidence

Despite our weakness, God is gracious. He has promised that when we preach the Word it will accomplish its purpose (Is.55:11). The Word preached humbly, truthfully and with integrity, can be preached confidently.


Only Human, Yet…

To this point, I have been studiously following academic convention, avoiding the first person, and generally seeking to keep my person out of the argument of this paper as much as possible. However, in a paper on the expression of humanity in proclamation, I think it time I practiced what I preached. Let me share with you a personal experience.

Last week, my wife and I attended the movie, Mystery Men. I do not admit this with pride, as the picture was undoubtedly one of the more mindless and silly things ever put to celluloid. The plot described a group of super-hero wannabe’s vainly trying to describe and employ their “powers” in the desire to combat evil. The main character is “Captain Furious” whose dubious power seems to be the ability to get very, very angry. The story climaxes when he realizes there is real power in the simple acknowledgment that his name is “Roy” and that he is a human like everyone else.

As we walked out of the theater my wife asked me, “if you could be a super-hero, who would you be and what would be your powers?”

“I would be “Preacher Man” I said, able to put people to sleep by the power of my voice in 30 seconds flat.” We laughed and the conversation moved on. Later, however, I found myself returning to the thought. I am Preacher Man combating evil with the power of my voice. Yet, like Roy, I need to know that I myself am only human and I can’t do it on my own. The power comes as God takes my weakness and fills it with his strength to change the world and bring glory to his name.


Works Cited

Bailey, Raymond. “Ethics in Preaching.” In Handbook of Contemporary Preaching. 549-61. Nashville, TN: Broadman, 1992.

Craddock, Fred. Preaching. Nashville, TN: Abingdon, 1985.

Galli, Mark and Craig Brian Larson. Preaching that Connects: Using the Techniques of Journalists to Add Impact to Your Sermons. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.

Grenz, Stanley J. A Primer on Postmodernism. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1996.

Kaiser, Jr. Walter C. “The Use of Biblical Narrative in Expository Preaching.” In The Asbury Seminarian 34 (July 1979): 14-26.

Miller, Calvin. The Empowered Communicator: 7 Keys to Unlocking an Audience. Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman, 1994.

Piper, John. The Supremacy of God in Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1990.

Placher, William. The Domestication of Transcendence: How Modern Thinking about God Went Wrong. Westminster John Knox: 1996.

Robinson, Haddon. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1980.


Theological and Rhetorical Perspectives on Self-Disclosure in Preaching

Jeffrey Arthurs and Andrew Gurevich

This essay arises from the conviction that preaching is “standing between two worlds,” an articulation with the ancient text and the modern listeners (Stott Between Two Worlds). The preacher is the bridge as the truth of the Word flows through his/her personality. The bridge building metaphor leads to an inescapable fact, the subject of this essay, that preaching involves self-disclosure. The speaker and the message are inseparable. As Carrol C. Arnold states, in oral rhetoric the speaker “stand[s] with his symbolic acts” (200). We cannot hide literally or figuratively in the pulpit, and we should not try to because God has ordained that his truth be communicated through human agents. His treasure is in earthen vessels. Paul knew this and was glad to share with the Thessalonians not only the gospel but also his life (1 Thess. 2:8).

We use the term “self-disclosure” to mean verbal or non verbal revelation of the speaker’s feelings, values, and/or personal experiences (see DeVito 139; Stewart 245; Trenholm & Jensen 136; George 34-35). In Why Am I Afaid to Tell You Who I Am? John Powell lists various levels of disclosure: (in George 15)

Level – Content of disclosure – Example

1 Cliche conversation “Nice weather, huh?”

2 Factual conversation “I went to Troas to preach the gospel of Christ and found that the Lord had opened a door for me.” (2 Cor. 2:12)

3 Revealing personal judgments “Our conscience testifies that we have conducted ourselves in the world, and especially in our relations with you, in the holiness and sincerity that are from God.” (2 Cor. 2:16)

4 Revealing feelings “I had no peace of mind because I did not find my brother Titus there.” (2 Cor. 2:13) “I wrote to you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears.” (2 Cor. 2:4)

In this essay, we use the term “self-disclosure” to mean levels 3 and 4, while recognizing that level 2 may also fall under our definition.

While this essay is not primarily an explication of the advantages of self-disclosure in preaching, a brief summary of those advantages is in order. When used well, self-disclosure illustrates the point under consideration. It holds listeners’ attention. It demonstrates the relevance of the Word and is a tool the preacher can use to disciple the listeners by modeling values such as humility. It tends to increase the cohesiveness and satisfaction of church members (Palmberg 213) and builds an atmosphere of trust between pastor and people (George 59). In general, it makes koinonia more likely (Palmberg 213).

Most preachers have experienced at least a few of these advantages. Most preachers know that self-disclosure “works.” This essay explores why it works. Why do listeners sit up and take notice when the preacher reveals a feeling or an incident from his/her childhood? How does adherence to values grow when preachers talk enthusiastically about their values? Why does loyalty to the church’s vision increase when the preacher reveals his/her passion for that vision? Our answer is that preaching that uses self-disclosure is incarnational; it helps preachers stand between two worlds by embodying the message. This thesis is explained from two perspectives-theology and rhetoric. A final section of the essay suggests ways to implement self-disclosure in our preaching.


Theological Perspectives on Self-Disclosure

“Therefore, wishing to help men, he [the Word] naturally dwells with men as man, taking to himself a body like other men. And from things of sense, that is by the works of his body, [he teaches them] so that they who were unwilling to know him from his universal providence and guidance may through the works of his body recognize the Word of God and through him come to the knowledge of the Father .” Athanasius, De incarnatione

The preacher who uses self-disclosure in order to reveal truth about God is in a sense recreating the very process by which God has revealed truth about himself. In fact, it seems that the method and the content are inseperable. In other words, with regard to the nature of truth and how it is communicated, we agree with Marshall McLuhan’s axiom, “The medium is the message.”

There are only two things that bear the title “Word of God”: Jesus Christ and the Scripture. The culmination of God’s self-disclosure to mankind is the Word of God in each of these expressions. Our contention is that just as God has communicated himself to us, so should we communicate God to others. If we change the medium, we change the message. We are to “witness”-share personal experiences, values, and feelings that reveal Jesus Christ.

God has revealed himself in the Son and in the written Word. Furthermore, he has chosen to continue to reveal himself through the foolishness of preaching. Since God has ordained that knowledge of himself be mediated through human personality, self-disclosure in preaching is unavoidable, appropriate, and valuable. Of course, the self-disclosure must be a tool to reveal God, not a means of promoting the messenger. Suggestions are offered at the end of this essay to help the preacher avoid self-promotion. The point here is simply that God uses “self-disclosure” and has ordained that we do also.


The Incarnation

The quotation from Athanasius highlights several key ideas that are worthy of consideration. First, Athanasius recognized that God [the Word] desired to help men understand who he was. To do so, God “took to himself a body like other men.” Truth in its most extraordinary and crystallized form, was incarnated. The implication for preaching is that truth that is incarnational in essence should remain so in proclamation. As Clyde Fant states, “When the Word would make its fullness known it took on flesh and dwelt among us; and to make itself known now, the Word must keep on becoming flesh among us” (46). In other words, what God did to reveal himself to mankind, the preacher should do to reveal God’s truth to mankind. God identified with humanity through the Incarnation. In communication jargon, God intersected with our “frame of reference.”

Athanasius also recognizes God’s self-disclosure through general revelation; however, he argues that this revelation must be augmented by God’s ultimate self-disclosure: the Incarnation. He states: by the very works of his body, Jesus teaches men about the Father “so that they who were unwilling to know him from his universal providence and guidance may through the works of his body recognize the Word of God and through him come to the knowledge of the Father.” It is in the person and work of Jesus Christ that mankind receives an understanding of God that would otherwise be too wonderful and obscure for them to apprehend. For example, the abstract statement “God is love” can be seen and experienced in the incarnation-a crown of thorns, a beating, and a cross. Just so, preachers should let audiences see and experience the truth of God by embodying the message.

The self-disclosure of Jesus intentionally focused on one thing: the glory of God the Father. It is the grand miracle of God becoming man in order to redeem man that is the thrust of Jesus’ self-disclosure. He preached what he was to the glory of God. The preacher should do the same. As one who has been redeemed and who is now has God living inside of him/her, the preacher should reveal God through himself/herself.


The Written Word

The Scripture speaks of itself as God’s self-disclosure, not merely man’s religious ideas (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Psalm 33:4-6). It might be said that the Scripture fulfills in print what Jesus fulfilled in flesh: disclosing the truth about God to mankind. It is no accident that both Jesus and Scripture are called the “Word of God” (John 1:1; Psalm 119). Orthodox bibliology also claims that the Scripture, like Jesus, is fully divine and fully human. In other words, the only two places we find the convergence of the divine and the human in such a profound sense are the Incarnation of Jesus Christ and the holy Scriptures.

The Scripture is not a detached series of abstract propositions but the dramatic and personal account of God’s revelation to humans and our response to that revelation. The form of the message matches the content. The Scripture is, in a very real sense, “incarnational” because it communicates God’s truth in forms that are emotive, imaginative and immediate. The Scripture has “presence.” The biblical writers found forms of communication that mirrored the message they had received. Through forms such as story, poetry, personal letters, and prayers they proclaimed God’s truth as those who had experienced it. The biblical writers realized that God’s truth was personal and dynamic, not distant and abstract. Preachers should communicate God’s Word in the same manner it has been communicated to them: “incarnationally.” To that end, when preachers use self-disclosure, they reflect God’s self-revelation in the Scripture and in the person and work of Jesus Christ. God works in and through men in order to save men.


The Preacher as Witness

The personal testimony of the apostles is the fertile ground out of which the Gospels sprang (Luke 24:48; Acts 1:8, 26:16; 2 Pet. 1:16). Although the primary focus of the term “witness” is that of a firsthand, eyewitness encounter with Jesus, John Stott rightly asserts that the concept of witness is still valid today even for those who have not literally heard, seen, and handled the Word of Life. The concept of “witness” can be broadened to include a subjective and mystical experience of Christ. In other words, we are still witnesses today. Stott argues:

“In our preaching, we do not just expound words which have been committed to our stewardship. Nor do we only proclaim as heralds a mighty deed of redemption which has been done. But, in addition, we expound these words and proclaim this deed as witnesses, as those who have come to a vital experience of this Word and Deed of God. We have heard His still, small voice through His Word. We have seen His redeeming Deed as having been done for us, and we have entered by faith into the immeasurable benefits of it. Our task is not to lecture about Jesus with philosophical detachment. We have become personally involved with Him.” (Portrait 74)

Stott claims that the preacher must preach from the context of a “personal experience of Jesus Christ Himself. This is the first and indispensable mark of the Christian witness. He cannot speak from hearsay. He would not be a witness if he did” (Portrait 71).

Personal experience should not stand on its own as the sole pillar of truth for proclamation. However, it is one legitimate source of authority when it is grounded in the witness of God to Himself. The Triune God is the chief witness to Himself and our witness should flow from and reflect that ultimate reality. The Father testifies to the Son (John 5:37). The Son testifies to the Father (John 5:43). This testimony comes through the Spirit (John 16:13-14) and through the Scripture (John 5:39). For the preacher to use personal experience effectively, he must imitate this model and witness to Christ, not about himself (Portrait 67).


Rhetorical Perspectives on Self-Disclosure

Having laid the groundwork for self-disclosure in preaching, the answer to the question, “why does it work?” is more apparent. The answer is inherent in the theology of self-disclosure; namely, that God’s communication is incarnational, and humans, created in the image of God, communicate best when they include themselves in a presentation of ideas, values, or images. This is an ontological answer to the question, and a rhetorical perspective fleshes it out.



Kenneth Burke’s theory of “identification” is simple but has profound implications for those who would stand between two worlds. He explains the theory this way:

“A is not identical with his colleague, B. But insofar as their interests are joined, A is identified with B. Or he may identify himself with B even when their interests are not joined, if he assumes that they are, or is persuaded that they are. . . . In being identified with B, A is “substantially one” with a person other than himself. At the same time he remains unique, an individual locus of motives. Thus he is joined and separate, at once a distinct substance and consubstantial with another.” (20-21)

In practice, the theory of identification looks like this: A preacher expounds a truth from the Word, but it remains merely an abstract principle. Then the preacher discloses how this truth has impacted him/her, or how such and such a personal experience demonstrates the relevance of the principle, or how the expositor himself/herself has wrestled to live out the precept. The listeners are likely to see themselves in the personal disclosure. The preacher voices their feelings, values, and experiences. They identify with the preacher and the same impact the truth had on the preacher is likely to occur with the listener. A is not B, but when B identifies with A, response to the proposition is not far behind.

Closely related to Burke’s theory of identification is Lee and Gura’s discussion of “empathy.” Lee and Gura’s field is oral interpretation, but the principles are applicable to homiletics: When a performer imagines and feels the literature, then the audience will too. The listeners adopt the performer’s stance toward the text (128). In the same way, identification and empathy created through self-disclosure can help preachers stand between their text and the congregation. As one preacher said, “The people come to watch me burn and then they catch fire.” Aristotle’s well known theory of “ethos” provides a second and complimentary rhetorical perspective on self-disclosure in preaching.



Aristotle states, “We believe good men more fully and more readily than others: this is true generally whatever the question is, and absolutely true where exact certainty is impossible and opinions are divided” (Rhetoric 1356a). The qualities of Aristotle’s “good men” have been described with terms such as:

* Competence-the speaker is knowledgeable or experienced.

* Trustworthiness-the speaker demonstrates sincerity.

* Dynamism-the speaker demonstrates poise and conviction.

* Warmth-the speaker likes the audience.

* Similarity-the speaker identifies with the audience. (Cook 55; Lucas 326)

Self-disclosure increases ethos by heightening each of these qualities (Trenholm & Jensen 136; Stewart & Logan 259). For example, you must trust listeners to make yourself vulnerable to them. A display of trust honors listeners and prompts them to trust in return. The reciprocal nature of self-disclosure is well attested in communication studies and everyday experience. DeVito calls it the “spiral effect” as one self-disclosure begets another, usually deeper, one (140). Conversely, “lack ofpersonal disclosure is often associated with relational problems and breakup” (Stewart & Logan 246).

Besides building trust, self-disclosure also heightens ethos by drawing attention to similarities between listener and preacher. This strategy may be particularly crucial for the modern preacher since Americans value personalness over office as a source of ethos (Markquart 159). As Griffin states, “Intimacy is possible only when there is parity of power” (177). Self-disclosure that highlights “similarity” is a tool for preachers who would act on Robinson’s insight: Listeners “want the speaker to understand their pain and the difficulty they have in doing what’s right without letting them off the hook” (“Preaching To Everyone” 101). Nash states simply that “we are attracted to people who are like us” (87).

Along with attraction and trust comes influence. Even when we differ with a speaker, if he/she is attractive and trustworthy, we may change our minds when “cognitive dissonance” sets in. For an unbeliever, it might look like this: The unbeliever has a friend who is a Christian. They share many similarities, but faith in Jesus is not one of them. This creates dissonance in the unbeliever because he values you but not your faith. The dissonance can be resolved in one of three ways: He can (1) devalue you, (2) pretend that you are not a Christian, or (3) change his ideas about faith in Jesus (Nash 91). In this way, self-disclosure may be integral to witnessing. Those who reveal their feelings and values may be persecuted (scenario 1), or they may win souls (scenario 3). In either case, self-disclosure influences the listener to change.

A final rhetorical perspective on self-disclosure and preaching arises out of narrative theory. Good stories, including stories about oneself, can help preachers stand between two worlds.



Little that is new can be offered on the rhetorical power of stories. This bone has been chewed thoroughly. Briefly, we may be reminded that although stories may not appear to argue, appearances are deceptive. They argue! Stories serve the propositions the preacher advances and model his/her values. They do so by enchanting listeners.

This “enchantment” occurs because narratives use concrete details of people, places, and actions. Details hold attention. Craddock reminds us that “primary attention is given to the specific rather than the general” (163; see also Markquart 160). In terms of self-disclosure, when the preacher tells his/her own story, the specific details “awaken within listeners dormant experiences and feelings” (Hart 133). It may seem counter-intuitive that personal experience could lead to widespread persuasion because my headache is not your headache, but with stories less is more. Specific details rather than universal propositions are the stuff that listeners translate into their own experience. Stories can be powerful rhetoric because listeners imaginatively enter the story and identify with the speaker. They collaborate in their own persuasion.

A second way stories enchant is by prompting listeners toward closure. When a story begins, we all want it to have a middle and an end. We “will” the story on to completion. When that completion occurs, we experience the formal satisfaction of a chord resolved or a prayer that closes with “amen.” And when listeners collaborate in the form of the story, acceptance of the story’s propositions is not far behind.

Based on the theological concept of God’s communication as incarnational, we have offered a rhetorical perspective on self-disclosure in preaching. It creates identification, builds ethos, and employs the beguiling power of story. The final section of this essay puts theory into practice.


Suggestions for Using Self-Disclosure in Preaching

Many homileticians have warned against the perils of using self-disclosure in the pulpit. For instance, Lloyd-Jones suggests that the response evoked from a congregation by a preacher’s self-disclosure is simply a “lust to know personal details” (233). In a similar vein, Buttrick states, “To be blunt, there are virtually no good reasons to talk about ourselves from the pulpit” (142). Buttrick claims that a personal illustration will “split the consciousness” of the congregation. In other words, some will follow the illustration as it illuminates the idea being discussed while others will simply remember the illustration as an example of the preacher’s character (142).

We recognize and affirm the concerns raised by those who reject the use of self-disclosure in preaching. Like any communication device, it can be used poorly. Preachers must not brag about themselves in their self-disclosures. Neither should they use the pulpit as a therapy session for themselves. And they should not reveal themselves as a substitute for revealing Christ and his gospel. But poor self-disclosure does not negate the argument we have presented. Therefore, we offer the following suggestions to help the preacher avoid the pitfalls of misuse.


1. Consider your motives.

Darin Lantham suggests four reasons preachers use self-disclosure: to illustrate, to identify, to shock, and to purge conscience (12). Of these four, only the first two are valid. Graphic details which shock cause the congregation to recoil from, rather than identify with, the preacher. Robinson illustrates this with the story of a preacher who in the interest of complete transparency said to his congregation, “I too know the power of lust. In fact, I have lusted after some of you” (Bringing 131). This type of self-disclosure is obviously inappropriate and will disillusion a congregation and obscure the message rather than clarify or illustrate it. The pulpit is not the place for preachers to resolve their own issues with God and others. Self-disclosure from the pulpit should not be confused with self-disclosure to God, one’s spouse, and to close personal friends and family.


2. Count the cost.

With transparency and vulnerability come risk. The potential for enhanced identification and trust is great but so is the potential for estrangement and gossip. A thorough consideration of the risks involved can help the preacher avoid using self-disclosure haphazardly. Preachers should not only count the cost for themselves but the for their congregation as well. Our purpose is not to burden people with our emotional baggage but rather to encourage them by demonstrating God’s grace.


3. Get permission from others involved.

Although this seems like an obvious caveat, many preachers neglect it, especially with regard to their own children. By gaining permission from our children we make them part of the process of edifying the church, not simply the raw material.

A preacher should usually avoid using personal illustrations that involve current members of the congregation. However, if it seems appropriate to use such an illustration, the preacher must always secure the permission from the other persons involved. If this is not done, the preacher will lose credibility and trust.


4. Honesty above all.

The apostle Paul encourages us to be sober-minded about ourselves (Romans 12:3). Therefore, our illustrations must be honest and sincere. As witnesses and heralds of God’s grace, we should present our true selves to the congregation, not sanctified or vilified versions. John Stott warns, “There must be an exact correspondence between our experience and our testimony. We must be strictly honest” (Portrait 74). Hypocrisy from the pulpit will not be tolerated by a congregation nor should it be.


5. Appropriate level and timing of self-disclosure.

There are no simple guidelines for determining how much and when to disclose from the pulpit. The rule of thumb is simply that the level of self-disclosure should be appropriate to the point being made, the level of intimacy between the preacher and the congregation, and the occasion of the message. Backing up an emotional dump truck and burying a congregation with a load of intimate details can create awkwardness and distrust rather than a sense of intimacy and trust.


6. Disclose resolved difficulties.

This is a general, not universal, guideline. Lantham comments, “When using personal weakness or struggles as illustrative material it is usually wise to speak only of resolved situations. Using an unresolved situation can unsettle and distract an audience” (11). While it is true that disclosing unresolved issues can create identification (the preacher is seen as “one of us”), a resolved struggle can elicit the same response with the added benefit of the wisdom that comes from years of reflecting on the experience. Furthermore, the preacher’s account of coming through a struggle can be seen as a light at the end of the tunnel. Those in the midst of similar circumstances can be encouraged that God will bring them through this struggle.

Robert Morgan writes, “Nothing disheartens a church more than a leader who broadcasts his darkness before he has discovered the source of light (109).” Richard Exley adds, “I am careful to disclose them [personal temptations] in such a way that the worshipers’ attention is focused not on my struggle but on the grace of God . . . . If I admit sinful actions, they should be ones I’ve repented of and, if possible, made right” (119). Exley continues, “My preaching should inspire hope, not amusement or sympathy, or worse yet, doubt. When we make our congregations privy to our present temptations, we inevitably threaten them” (120). The preacher’s job is to offer hope. Otherwise, we speak about thirst but offer no water.


7. Beware of the “cult of personality.”

This is Bonhoeffer’s phrase. He states: “Every cult of personality that emphasizes the distinguished qualities, virtues, and talents of another person, even though these be of an altogether spiritual nature, is worldly and has no place in the Christian community” (Fant 104). How then does the preacher balance his/her duty to present the person of Jesus Christ with the need to preach “incarnationally” out of his/her own heart and experience? The words of the Apostle Paul come to mind:

“When I came to you brothers, I did not come with eloquence or superior wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness and fear and with much trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.” (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Paul’s statement is not critical of self-disclosure. On the contrary, The statement itself discloses much about the apostle. However, the disclosure is done in such a way as to magnify the power of God, not to obscure it.


8. Self-disclosure is not a preaching technique but a style of life.

Self-disclosure is less a preaching technique than a paradigm for living. Stott quotes William Temple concerning this matter: “It is quite futile saying to people, ‘Go to the cross.’ We must be able to say, ‘Come to the cross.’ And there are only two voices which can issue the invitation with effect. One is the voice of the Sinless Redeemer, with which we cannot speak; the other is the voice of the forgiven sinner, who knows himself forgiven. That is our part” (Portrait 74). Augustine said, “What I live by, I impart.”

It is not enough for preachers simply to tell stories about themselves. Remember that self-disclosure includes non verbal communication. Unless the preacher “owns the message” and speaks out of the fullness of his heart and mind, the message will be hollow, void of life-changing power. Thus the need for what Stott calls the “culture of the soul”: “The preparation of the heart is of far greater importance than the preparation of the sermon. The preacher’s words, however clear and forceful, will not ring true unless he speaks from conviction born of experience” (Portrait 76). The preacher must be committed to a genuine and open relationship with God first, family and friends second, and the congregation third.


9. Don’t overlook the ordinary in search of the extraordinary.

A congregation can have difficulty relating to story after story of a preacher’s adventure climbing the Andes mountains or performing an emergency appendectomy in the back of a bus racing through the streets of Bosnia. Although these experiences can be used effectively from the pulpit, the preacher must remain sensitive to the fact that the congregation is made up of mostly ordinary people, with ordinary concerns, and ordinary lives. Exley states, “If I miss the ‘little’ moments, I will be the poorer for it, and so will my preaching (121).” In fact, it is these “little” moments with our spouse, our children, our God and each other that most acutely illustrate the grace of God working in our lives. The extraordinary fact is that God has come down to dwell with the ordinary; our preaching and our lives should reflect this, the most extraordinary of all truths.


10. Share positive and negative experiences.

It seems that some preachers find it easier to share about their struggles than their victories. Their preaching sounds like the evening news which runs stories of murders, bombings, hurricanes, and scandals instead of stories of peace, harmony, and community. Perhaps these preachers think that the congregation will find stories of sin and struggle more interesting than stories of peace and contentment. However, even if the congregation does exhibit a proclivity for “negative” seld-disclosure, the preacher should resist giving them a steady diet of it. Other preachers share only “positive” stories of victory. Eventually their self-disclosures ring hollow, for we all know that “life just ain’t like that.” The Christian life exists in the interplay of both experiences. Therefore, the role of the preacher should disclose what is true about himself, both his victories and his defeats. This will spur the congregation on to both genuine repentance and joyous celebration.


Sources Consulted

Aristotle, The Rhetoric and The Poetics of Aristotle. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. New York: Modern Library, 1984.

Arnold, Carrol C. “Oral Rhetoric, Rhetoric, and Literature.” Philosophy and Literature 1 (1968): 191-210.

Bailey, Raymond. Jesus The Preacher. Nashville: Broadman, 1990.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 1950. rpt. Berkeley, CA: 1969.

Buttrick, David. Homiletic: Moves and Structures. Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987.

Craddock, Fred B. Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985.

DeVito, Joseph A. The Interpersonal Communication Book, seventh edition. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Exley, Richard. “Decent Exposure: Preaching About You and Yours.” Leadership Journal 8/4 (Fall 1992) : 118-125.

Fant, Clyde E. Preaching for Today. San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987.

George, David T. “An Examination of Self-Disclosure in Preaching.” Th.M. thesis, Dallas Theological Seminary, 1976.

Griffin, Em. Making Friends (& Making Them Count). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1987.

Hart, Roderick P. Modern Rhetorical Criticism. Glenview, IL: Scott Foresman, 1990.

Latham, Darin. “The Trauma of Transparency: ‘Should I Let Them See Me?’” Eastern Journal of Practical Theology 7/2 (1993): 6-13.

Lee, Charlotte I. & Timothy Gura. Oral Interpretation, seventh edition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1987.

Long, Thomas G. “Preaching as Bearing Witness.” Preaching 6/4 (Jan.-Feb. 1991): 2-3.

Lucas, Stephen E. The Art of Public Speaking, second edition. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1992.

Markquart, Edward F. Quest for Better Preaching. Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishing, 1985.

McDill, Wayne. The 12 Essential Skills for Great Preaching. Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1994.

Morgan, Robert. “How Much Should I Let On?” Leadership Journal 17/2 (Spring 1992) : 107-110.

Nash, Tom. The Christian Communicator’s Handbook. Wheaton: Victor Books, 1995.

Palmberg, Lynn, and Onas Scandrette. “Self-Disclosure in Biblical Perspective.” Journal of Psychology and Theology 5/3 (1977): 209-219.

Robinson, Haddon W. Biblical Preaching: The Development and Delivery of Expository Messages. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1980.

-. “Bringing Yourself Into the Pulpit.” In Hybles, Briscoe, and Robinson, Mastering Contemporary Preaching, 129-140. Portland, OR: Multnomah, 1989.

-. “Preaching To Everyone In Particular.” Leadership Journal 15/4 (Fall, 1994): 99-103.

Stewart, John, and Carole Logan. Together: Communicating Interpersonally, fifth edition. Boston: McGraw-Hill, 1998.

Stott, John R.W. Between Two Worlds. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982. -. The Preacher’s Portrait. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1961.

Strong, W.F., and John A. Cook. Persuasion: Strategies for Public Influence, third edition. Dubuque, IA: Kendall/Hunt, 1992.

Trenholm, Sarah, and Arthur Jensen. Interpersonal Communication, second edition. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 1992.

Tubbs, Stewart L. & Sylvia Moss. Human Communication. seventh edition. New York: McGraw Hill, 1994.


Creative Thinking for the Expository Sermon

Answering the Unasked Questions in Your Text

Randal E. Pelton


Creative thinking, if it is going to be true to its name, must be thinking that is inventive or imaginative. It’s inventive in the sense that this type of thinking is somewhat original, innovative, and fresh. Creative thinking is imaginative in the sense that it is the creation of images or concepts that are not present to the senses. In a sense creative thinking is what our youngest daughter does frequently during her play time. In almost God-like fashion she creates something out of nothing. That is, of course, until you look more closely…

Upon closer examination, you notice that Amanda really isn’t creating something out of nothing. She’s actually creating something out of very little. From just one or two household items she is able to create a huge playland. Creative thinking for the expository sermon is somewhat like that-we might be uneasy if it were any more inventive or imaginative.

Few, if any, EHS members would be comfortable with the content of the message being totally creative in the purest sense. That message, rather than having the authority of God’s Word, would only have the authority of the mind that created it. We are safer to engage in creative thinking that springs from a careful study of the biblical data contained in our preaching portion.

The particular facet of creative thinking that this paper is dealing with relates to inventing or creating questions to be asked and answered in your sermon that are not explicitly dealt with in the preaching portion. From the unmistakable, well-defined data in the preaching portion comes material that fuels the preacher’s mind to create implied questions. The data, like the few household items at a pre-schooler’s disposal, is sufficient to set the preacher’s mind and, later, the parishioners’ minds on a whole new world of discovery that can play a major role in the logical development and relevance of a sermon.


Add Creative Thinking to the List of Skills Necessary for Developing a Sermon’s Points/Moves

Let’s begin by placing this skill among the other sermon development skills. Creative thinking as it relates to asking and answering unasked questions in the preaching portion is a step in the logical development of a sermon’s points or movements.

What does a preacher do to develop a main point or move within a sermon? Most of us are familiar with Robinson’s three developmental questions: What does it mean? Is it true? What difference does it make? He argues that any idea, whether a big idea (theme) or little idea (sub-themes or sub-points), can either be explained, proved, or applied (1980, 79-96). At times one or more of these questions are dealt with in a major point of the sermon. During the process of explanation much time is spent defining terms (“wisdom”, “understanding”, “counsel”),defining phrases (“against the Lord”), and relationship between phrases (“no wisdom, nor understanding, nor counsel against the Lord”). Preachers also illustrate abstract concepts within a point or move.

Myers uses the term logic to encompass the analysis, explanations, and definitions developed at this point in the sermonic process (1997, 5). The word “logic” is helpful because there is a reasoning process going on in exegesis that creative thinking appears. The “point” or “move” must be saying something, must be going somewhere. Often one link in the chain of reasoning is that out of the data being amassed will come reasonable, deducible questions.

From the logic which leads to the raw material for the sermon’s points or moves comes the logic which leads to the actual arrangement of them. The final modifying phase of Warren’s theological process is called “Organizing…moving from textual structure to a logical/psychological flow” (Warren 1997, 1). Many times the implied question and answer will be inserted into the sermon at their point of discovery-it logically fits there. Other times, however, a preacher may want to save the information for a more strategic point later on in the sermon. Robinson and Chapell remind us that listeners often require sermon sequence differing from the textual arrangement (Robinson 1980, 128-129). Chapell writes “listeners hear most clearly what a speaker says last. Therefore, in order for preachers to represent most accurately the truth that a biblical writer wants to emphasize, they may choose to say last what the author wrote first” (1994, 113).


Examples From Selected Proverbs

Proverbs 21:3 “To do justice and judgment is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.”

Question(s): Why are acts of justice and judgment more acceptable to God than sacrifice?

Proverbs 20:22 “Say not thou, I will recompense evil; but wait on the Lord, and he shall save thee.”

Question(s): Who would say, “I will recompense evil”? Why are we so prone to say this? Why shouldn’t we say this?

Proverbs 20:21 “An inheritance may be gotten hastily at the beginning; but the end thereof shall not be blessed.”

Question(s): How can a person quickly get his inheritance? Why will that hurried acquisition of the inheritance not be blessed?

Proverbs 20:9 “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?’”

Question(s): Who would actually say something like this? How could a person try to make their heart clean?

Proverbs 20:7 “The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him.”

Question(s): Why are the just person’s children blessed after him?

Proverbs 20:6 “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness: but a faithful man who can find?”

Question(s): Why are most men prone to advertise their own goodness? Why are faithful men so rare? How does a man become faithful?


Categorizing The Questions

From the six proverbs listed above, we can begin to categorize the questions so that they are more readily available whenever other preaching portions require their use…


Always Ask The Question, “Why?”

One habit of very young children is particularly helpful for adult exegetes-learning to ask the question, Why?, and learning to ask it often. Notice from our Proverbs that whenever an observation is given about human nature or about the way life is, the Why?-question is asked (e.g., “Most men will proclaim every one his own goodness…” leads to questioning the reason for this activity).


Ask The Question, “How?”

When God makes a statement about someone doing this or that, sometimes the question, How?, is appropriate (e.g., “An inheritance may be gotten hastily at the beginning…” leads to the question of how a person could do that; or in Matt. 7:22 “Lord, Lord, haven’t we prophesied in your name? and in your name have cast out devils? and in your name done many wonderful works?” leads to the question of how they could accomplish these things and not be Christian? Or when Genesis 6:8 records that “Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord”, the question is, How did Noah find grace?).


Ask The Question, “Who?”

Whenever God asks the question, Who?, it is sometimes helpful to answer that question even though the preaching portion may not provide the answer (e.g., “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?’” leads to the question of who would say something like that. God says that no one really can say it truthfully, but there are people who would say something like that. Who are they? Proverbs 31:10 asks, “Who can find a virtuous woman?” I can imagine a lot of single men who are serious about God’s will asking this question and wanting an answer. They would like to know, Who can find such a wife?).

N.B. It’s possible that if enough preaching portions were observed, we might be able to create questions that begin with all six of Robinson’s faithful friends-how, what, why, when, where, who? Remember that the only questions we’re dealing with are creative questions, those which are not specifically addressed within the preaching portion.


Answering the Creative Questions

The next logical question is, Where does a preacher find the answers to these creative questions? Are the answers just as imaginative or creative as the questions? There’s no sense in preachers raising these types of questions if they cannot be answered from God’s perspective. To invent answers from human wisdom is to defeat the purpose of preaching. Since these questions are implied in the preaching portion, we cannot expect to find their answers there. We can expect, however, to find them in other places in Scripture.

The place to start looking is in other sections of the Bible that deal directly with the topic under discussion. Let’s look, again, at Proverbs 20:7 “The just man walketh in his integrity: his children are blessed after him.” Our question was, Why are the just person’s children blessed after him? One specific answer comes from a study of Exodus 20:5-6 which reads:

“You shall not bow down to them or worship them; for I, the LORD your God, am a jealous God, punishing the children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love me and keep my commandments.”

The favor which the man of integrity received from God is now continued on to his children. In other words, God continues to treat the children just as He did the parents. He favors them and helps them. Of course, a preacher will have to ask why God does that. Searching a concordance under the headings of “children” or “generations” would lead you to these verses.

Another possible answer might come from Proverbs 13:22 which the student would have encountered in the above concordance search:

“A good man leaves an inheritance to his children’s children…”

These grandchildren of the good man have the benefit of a tremendous inheritance. Parents of integrity will leave something behind for their children. In a sense these children are jump-started into a successful life.

There are times, however, when, even though you may not be able to refer to verses that specifically touch on the same issue, you can refer to Scripture that answers the question in more general terms. Take, for instance Proverbs 20:9 “Who can say, ‘I have made my heart clean, I am pure from my sin?’” One implied question might be, Who would actually say this?

Although it might be impossible to find a verse or verses which specifically show a person claiming to be clean from sin, other Scripture which deal with the nature of sin and man might help us answer this important question. One might refer to Ephesians 2, Romans 3 and 5. These sections would show why a person is not able to take care of his own sin problem. The Scribes and Pharisees and Jews of John 8 provide examples of some who claimed to be spiritually clean.


The Benefit of Asking and Answering These Unasked Questions

1. At times, this type of creative thinking fills huge logical gaps in the presentation of some biblical teaching. For example, think of the hole which would exist if a preacher preached Genesis 6:1-8 without asking and answering the question, How did Noah find grace in the eyes of the Lord while living in such a wicked culture?

2. Frequently, this type of inquiry leads to a more thorough understanding of the human condition. Chapell talks about the FCF or fallen-condition-focus as being “the mutual human condition that contemporary believers share with those to or for whom the text was written that requires the grace of the passage” (1994, 42). In his lectures, Robinson uses the phrase depravity factor. Lowery (1980, 20) explains the value of asking Why?: “The question why is most often the context for the transition into homiletical form….Every explicit theme presumes an implicit problem….In the tension produced by the interaction of these ingredients, sermons are born.” In other words, asking the question, Why?, helps the preacher uncover the implied problem of the Text which, according to Lowery, should be solved late in the sermon by the Good News. To ask, Why are faithful men so rare?, while preaching Proverbs 20:6 is to delve into our fallen condition.

N.B. Lowry also writes, “ask why and [do] not be content with your answers (1980, 42).” Children develop this skill intuitively. They are not content with their parents first or second or third answer to their questioning “Why?” so they keep asking it. But, if you’ve ever been caught in one of these inquisitions, you know that by the time you’ve answered the final “Why?”-just before you resort to your final answer, “Because”-you have unearthed some truths that you haven’t considered for quite a while. You’ve gone deep into the nature of things.

3. Out of this analysis of the human condition comes greater relevance. A sermon that focuses on the human condition that needs God’s Word is a sermon that relates to where people live. Expository sermons often get labeled as dry and irrelevant. These questions, however, bring the raw data out of the lab and into the living room.

4. These questions and answers provide a logical and natural place to bring information from biblical and systematic theology into the sermon. One of the problems preaching students have is trying to bring in biblical information from elsewhere without breaking up the continuity of their sermon. At best, the listeners get a list of disjointed truths about a particular topic. Unasked questions provide a natural bridge on which the preacher can bring in other facets of the concept.

N.B. Biblical and systematic theology is normally thought of as a kind of checks-and-balance to exegesis (Warren 1991, 476-478; Greidanus 1988, 102-121; Osborne 1991, 264). This discussion, however, gives the two disciplines another function. Biblical and systematic theology goes beyond the realm of developing intended meaning or fuller meaning by adding logical connections-other facets-to the topic in question. These logical connections give the congregation added information while maintaining the flow and dominant idea of the sermon.

This is especially helpful to beginning students. Exegesis and theology occur so “early” in the study, preachers may not readily see their connection to homiletics-once the idea has been checked and refined against the data of theology, the information has served its purpose. But the process of doing biblical and systematic theology can be very helpful in developing the logic and flow of the sermon, rather than just supplying more data.

5. Creative thinking that centers on asking and answering the unasked questions of the preaching portion boosts attention and interest through dialogue. Hogan asserts that “all effective preaching must be dialogical. Verbal exchange may not be present, but the preacher must engage in silent dialogue with the congregation: by anticipating what they are thinking, by asking rhetorical questions that forces them to engage with the sermon mentally, through eye contact. Preaching that is not dialogical, at least in this sense, is likely to go right over people’s heads, or to put them to sleep” (Hogan 1997, 6; cf. also Arthurs 1997, 1).

Take the question, Why?, for example. Tension is created whenever something is questioned. That tension often creates attention by forcing the congregation to think with you and to think critically about what is being said. Lowery (1980, 1985), well-known for his work on narrative sermons, calls the second of his five-fold loop, “Analyzing the discrepancy” or simply “Ugh!” He states that “…a sermon is a plot…which has as its key ingredient a sensed discrepancy, a homiletical bind. Something is ‘up in the air’-an issue not resolved (1980, 15). Forcing people ask and answer the question, Why?, is an excellent way to create the homiletical bind.

How important is it that preachers ask questions in their sermons? One of the interesting results from Lewis’s comparison of sermons found in 20 Centuries of Great Preaching with those found in Cox’s The Twentieth Century Pulpit was that “Of the thirty-seven preachers Cox included, the sixteen popular and famous enough to be included also in the 20 Centuries work averaged twenty-two questions per sermon. The lesser known preachers included in Cox’s book averaged eleven questions” (Lewis 1989, 31).


How Do You Train A Student To Create These Questions?

1. Every preaching portion discussed in class in whatever forum provides an opportunity for creative thinking of this kind. Point out the logical gaps that could be filled by these kinds of questions.

2. It’s possible to help students work backwards. From their preaching portion, let them cross-reference and do biblical and systematic theology with creative thinking in mind. After they have isolated pertinent data elsewhere ask them if that data answers a question not dealt with in their preaching portion. If the data answers questions already covered in your preaching portion, then the student knows that the cross-referenced text is adding to his sermon by restatement or repetition. Sunday morning leaves little or no time for turning to other texts which don’t add significant truth to the preaching portion.

3. The first two are simply ways to teach students to add this type of search to their fast-improving observational skills. Teach them to look carefully for these implied questions. They are often present, but students must learn not to miss the obvious…

Juan comes up to the Mexican border on his bicycle. He has two large bags over his shoulders. The guard stops him and says, “What’s in the bags?”

“Sand,” answered Juan. The guard says, “We’ll just see about that. Get off the bike.”

The guard takes the bags and rips them apart; he empties them out and finds nothing in them but sand. He detains Juan overnight and has the sand analyzed, only to discover that there is nothing but pure sand in the bags. The guard releases Juan, puts the sand into new bags, hefts them onto the man’s shoulders, and lets him cross the border.

A week later, the same thing happens. The guard asks, “What have you got?”

“Sand,” says Juan.

The guard does his thorough examination and discovers that the bags contain nothing but sand. He gives the sand back to Juan, and Juan crosses the border on his bicycle.

This sequence of events is repeated every day for three years. Finally, Juan doesn’t show up one day and the guard meets him in a Cantina in Mexico.

“Hey, Buddy,” says the guard, “I know you are smuggling something. It’s driving me crazy. It’s all I think about…..I can’t sleep. Just between you and me, what are you smuggling?”

Juan sips his beer and says, “Bicycles.”

Part of teaching students to think creatively is to encourage them to look for the obvious questions that are not so obvious at first glance. The preaching portion may not be asking and answering these questions explicitly, but they are crying out for attention.


Reference List

Arthurs, J. (1997). “Proclamation through conversation: dialogue as a form for preaching.” South Hamilton, MA: Evangelical Homiletics Society.

Chapell, B. (1994). Christ-Centered Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Greidanus, S. (1988). The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Hogan, W. (1997). “White guys can’t preach.” South Hamilton, MA: Evangelical Homiletics Society.

Lowry, E. (1980). The Homiletical Plot. Atlanta: John Knox.

-. (1985). Doing Time in the Pulpit. Nashville: Abingdon.

Lewis, R. L. & Lewis, G. (1989). Learning to Preach like Jesus. Wheaton: Crossway.

Myers, G. (1997). “An experience-based model for the teaching of expository preaching.” South Hamilton, MA: Evangelical Homiletics Society.

Osborne, G. (1991). The Hermeneutical Spiral. Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press.

Robinson, H. (1980). Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker.

Warren, T. (1991). “A Paradigm for Preaching.” Bibliotheca Sacra, 148 (592), 463-486.

-. (1997). “Preaching’s theological process.” South Hamilton, MA: Evangelical Homiletics Society.


Slow Cooking Sermons

Taking Time for Better Preaching

Kenton C. Anderson

Years ago my mother purchased her first microwave oven. I was impressed. To be able to cook hot dogs in mere seconds seemed a wonderful innovation in culinary technology. Around the same time, however, she bought a crock-pot, an instrument that baffled me entirely. Why would anyone delilberately buy an appliance designed to do the job slowly? It could take all day to do dinner in the crock-pot. The microwave would do it in seconds.

Of course, as any decent chef will tell you, some things taste better when cooked slowly. Time can be a useful ingredient in deepening a rich and full-bodied taste. You don’t always want to rush things in the kitchen. You don’t always want to rush things in the pulpit.


Let the sermon simmer.

Fast food never nourished anyone. Fast food may be better than no food – maybe. Still a homiletical diet of a burger and fries is not what is going to sustain congregations. Listeners notice when sermons are thrown together late on Saturday night. Good preaching requires time, both in quantity and in duration.

I”ve found that my best sermons are developed slowly. Like my mother’s crock-pot chili, slow cooking makes for a more appetizing fare. I need time to contemplate a text in Scripture. I may schedule a couple of hours into my Palm Pilot for sermon preparation. That doesn’t always mean those hours will be productive.

I have found it helpful to begin preparation several weeks in advance. This doesn’t add any time to the process, but it does require some planning. In any given week, I can have three different sermons cooking, each at different stages of preparation. This has two primary benefits. One is the enrichment that comes from a longer duration. I’ll admit that some of my best sermon ideas don’t occur until I’ve had a couple of weeks to stew on the text. This isn’t to say that the sermon is a constant presence in my mind. But I have found that if I take the sermon off the front burner and turn it down to simmer some interesting things can develop over time.

The second benefit is that working on more than one sermon at a time allows for a greater sense of unity among the sermons being prepared. Like the crock-pot stew, the carrots flavor the meat, which flavors the potatoes. I have often been surprised while working on one sermon to discover an insight into a different sermon that had been quietly deepening on the back burner.


Let the listener savor the message.

I come from a long line of slow eaters. I spent the better part of my childhood listening to my mother encouraging me to “hurry up” and to “eat faster.” Now I tell her that slower eating aids digestion. It is healthier, or so the experts say. Whether for reasons of health or reasons of necessity, listeners consume their sermons slowly, more slowly, at least, than preachers want to serve it.

Most preachers are good writers. Having been through years of university and seminary education they have been well trained to communicate in complex literate constructions. The problem is that sermons are not term papers. Many of the sermons I have heard would make for good reading, but as an oral product, they are difficult to process. In a written piece (like this one) the consumer can take her time. She can reread difficult sections. She can compare and contrast issues from various stages in the presentation. She can pause to ponder or reflect. The listener to a sermon can do none of these things. An auditor must take it as it comes as quick as it comes. For many, it is just too much.

My wife and I recently attended an Asian wedding -10 courses of mostly unidentifiable seafood, painstakingly presented. Every dish was put together like a work of art, served individually and placed before us. We had no choice as to what we were going to eat. We just kept eating because the plates kept coming. Eventually some around the table were forced to surrender due to the relentless conveyance of food.

The problem is the rate of delivery. We preachers take hours in preparation chewing on the text. By the time we”re ready to preach we want to offer everything we’ve gathered and serve it to our listeners in one gigantic meal. We feel we are doing the listener a favor by loading up their plate. What we don’t understand is that while we have had the advantage of hours in the study, the listener has to digest the whole thing in 30 minutes. It is just too big a serving for many. A lot of good food goes to waste.

Charles S. Mudd and Malcolm O. Sillars put the put the problem well in their book, Speech: Content and Communication,

A listening audience . . . has no such opportunity for leisurely consideration of the ideas presented to it. Listeners cannot go back to rehear. If they pause to reflect, they break the tightly woven chain of the speaker’s organization, lose connection with the speaker’s development, and are left behind. (261)

Preachers ought to slow down, not dumb down. Rich food is served in smaller portions. The truck stop on the highway will pile your plate with whatever slop they have on the menu, but a fine dining establishment will be more sparing with their servings. Good preaching offers a rich gastronomical experience. Exposition is rich fare. We need to let the listener savor our sermons. Force feeding platefuls of propositions will only leave the listener with indigestion. Too many meals like this and they will soon search out another restaurant. They may even opt for the junk food that is so readily available in our time.

Preachers can help their listeners hear the message by fleshing out the cerebral content with examples and stories that both feed the listeners heart even as they give the listener”s head an opportunity to catch up with the flow of the sermon. Preachers can ‘signpost’ the sermons more effectively, making sure that the listener understands where the preacher is in the flow of discussion. Mostly, preachers ought to assume less of the listener. This is not to say that the preacher should disrespect the listener. It is to say that the preacher should not assume that the line of argument is communicating as clearly to the listener as it is to the preacher. Preachers and listeners tend to operate at separate rates of speed. The onus is on the preacher to discover how much their listeners can handle in one sitting.

Generally speaking, preachers would say a lot more if they said a lot less. Slowing down the rate of delivery will help listeners digest the sermon more satisfactorily. Preachers need to slow down in order to say more


Fast Food

One of the more bizarre programs to emerge on television is The Iron Chef. This is a program that puts chefs in competition to see who can cook the most elaborate meals in the least amount of time. This is the ultimate in fast food -as if Emeril was a game show. The program may be entertaining, but it doesn’t serve as a way to learn to cook.

Let me tell you what your grandmother has been telling you for years. All that fast food and fast eating isn”t good for you! The same goes for microwave preaching. Take time for better preaching. Cook your sermons in a crock-pot.

Sermons that nourish require slow cooking.


Work Cited:

Charles S. Mudd and Malcolm O. Sillars, Speech: Content and Communication. 3d edition. (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975), 261.


Mapping the Landscape of Preaching Today

Kenton C. Anderson


A good map makes a difference. I learned that on vacation this summer as I drove my family across the continent and back. We spent two very miserable hours in a late night storm in Buffalo, New York, trying to find our way across the border. It would have been a lot easier if our map had been up to date.

An old map might look similar to the territory. There might be some common place-names and a few familiar looking roads, but an old map can still get a person very, very lost.


A New Map For Preaching Today

It is time we had some new maps for preaching. The old maps were suitable in their day. The places that they mark still sound a little bit familiar, but a preacher could get lost if he tried to follow one of them.

Maybe the most well-worn map of the preaching landscape was written by that pioneer homiletic cartographer, John Albert Broadus. Writing in 1870, Broadus’ map described ‘the textual sermon,’ ‘the topical sermon,’ ‘the textual-topical sermon,’ and ‘the expository sermon.’ While these categories may have served the preacher of the late 19th century they are not sufficient to describe all of the territory explored by preachers today.

We need a new map of the preaching landscape, that describes more than just what we know as the traditional listener. A good map will give us insight not only into the quality of preaching, but the manner of listening as well. It will assist the contemporary preacher with a sense of the possibilities involved in a biblical communication across cultures.


A Map of the Landscape

A new map of preaching needs to be correctly oriented. Geographical maps are set to the standard of North and South, East and West. The homiletical map has a different set of poles that mark the territory.

Let us replace east and west with the polar sources of process for preaching, deduction and induction. These poles address the question of where the sermon comes from and what it is designed to do. The deductive or objective sermon is concerned with submission. It is designed to bring the listener to bow the knee and to submit in faith to a transcendent God and an ultimate truth. The inductive subjective sermon is concerned with solutions. It exists to help the listener find meaningful ways to fix problems and respond to needs.

Next, we will replace north and south with the two poles of homiletic input, cognition and affection. These poles describe the question of how the presentation will be structured in order to achieve its purpose. The cognitive sermon seeks to explain the necessary concepts and ideas through means of reason and logic. The idea is to bring the listener to a place of understanding. The affective sermon seeks to bring the listener to an experience of the material on offer in the sermon.

These four poles match nicely with David Kolb’s map of learning styles. The deductive pole describes Kolb’s ‘watcher’ (reflective observation. The inductive pole represents the ‘doer’ (active participation). The cognitive pole stands in for Kolb’s ‘thinker’ (abstract concepts) and the affective pole for the ‘feeler’ (concrete experiences).

Put all of these together, then, and we have a useful map of the homiletic landscape with four primary territories:

The primary interest in the land of the cognitive/deductive sermon is proclamation. The preacher seeks to explain the need of the listener to submit to the person and will of God.

The key concern for the inductive/cognitive sermon is instruction. The preacher works to inform the listener of the principles necessary to an enhanced life situation.

The focus of the affective/inductive sermon is persuasion. Here the preacher uses narrative, image, and other persuasive means to bring the listener to submission.

The critical factor for the affective/deductive sermon is motivation. Here the preacher tries to create an experience that inspires the listener to a resolution of his or her felt needs.

While every preacher is interested in proclamation, instruction, persuasion, and motivation, each sermon will be tinged differently depending upon where the sermon lives.


Those who Inhabit the Territories

People tend to inhabit the different territories because that is where they are the most comfortable. Listeners who appreciate story, tend to live in inductive/affective territories. Preachers who want to speak powerfully to them might want to read the map carefully. Sometimes people live in territories for theological reasons. For instance, they believe that submission ought to be primary over solution seeking. Others have no strong reason for the territory they live in. They have just always lived there and they have no intention leaving. A preacher who tells a lot of stories to people who live in deductive territories are going to come off like foreigners. For some, it is as if they are speaking a different language.

There are many examples of preachers and homiletic models for each of the territories. In most cases, these models are not specific to one territory, but range over across the lines into other lands. The borders tend to be porous, though there are always those who argue the need to police them diligently. It is probably fair to say that these are all ‘mostly models.’ That is to say that they mostly inhabit one territory or another, but can find a home beyond their natural borders as well.

The land of DedCog: Here we find the home of the declarative sermon favored by classic biblical preachers who value traditional approaches to biblical exegesis. A good model for Dedcogian preachers is the lawyer. Preachers and listeners living in DedCog (John MacArthur comes to mind) won’t want to ‘waste time’ telling too many stories. Dedcogians are watcher/thinkers.

The land of CogInd: The land of CogInd is where you will hear a pragmatic sermon. CogInd is where the sermon seeks to solve problems for listeners through biblical truth. Cogindian preachers (like Rick Warren) might look to the detective for a model. Cogindians are doer/thinkers.

The land of IndAff: Indaffian preachers (Eugene Lowry) offer narrative sermons. Their model is the novelist. Indaffians are doer/feelers.

The land of AffDed: Affdedian preachers (like Calvin Miller) offer visionary sermons. The preachers, modeled on the artist, like to paint pictures for their listeners motivating them to respond to truth. Affdedians are watcher/feelers.


Travelling the Territories

Different people take different approaches to the homiletical map. As is often the case with maps, people who live in one territory often take exception to those who live elsewhere, suspecting, for instance, that Indaffian culture is somehow inferior to that of the Dedcogians. People who can see the entire map, see the problem with this kind of thinking. Certainly, preaching ought to encourage submission to God and to his truth. But that doesn’t mean that it is illegitimate to seek solutions for human problems. Explaining truth is great, but so is experiencing it. Clearly, then, we need to think about how we can get people traveling the territories. A great sermon will work for people of many different territories.

There are several ways to think about the challenge of inter-territorial concern.

Put down roots: Some people prefer to choose a favorite territory and to settle in. This approach will ensure an agreeable relationship between preacher and people, but it might not help the listener to grow in all of the desirable directions.

Go on a journey: Another way to preach across the territories is to build sermons that travel from territory to territory, using explanation and experience, submission and solution. This works well for preachers who speak to multi-territoritorial congregations. It also serves to build a greater tolerance among people with different cultural leanings.

Tear down the borders: Another approach is to seek to erase the distinctions between territories, liberally mixing the elements of object and subject, induction and deduction.

In fact, this latter approach might be forced on us soon. We are already beginning to feel the earthquakes as the tectonic plates shift beneath us. As territories begin to collide we find peaks and valleys. Sometimes explaining difficult doctrine will feel like climbing a high mountain. Other times, we will feel like we are experiencing a pleasant valley. Neither is better than the other, but both will be part of pan-territorial preaching.

Specifically, integrating cognition and induction might lead to an abductive approach to process. Uniting cognition and affection results in a behavioral response. The integrative preacher is something of a missionary engaging and crossing cultures to communicate truth.


It’s A Small World After All

In the real world, we are discovering that the globe is smaller than we had ever thought. The experience-based cultures of the south are influencing the more explanation-based cultures of the north. The subjective ‘enlightment’ focus of the east is rampant in the more objective cultures of the west. We just can’t avoid one another like we used to.

Preachers that want to speak powerfully in the new world will need maps that help them travel the territories, climbing the peaks and resting in the valleys, and speaking God’s word meaningfully to whoever they find.


Angst About Alliteration

“Three Things Can Happen When You Throw a Forward Pass, And Two of Them are Bad” – Woody Hayes – “Four Things Can Happen When You Alliterate a Sermon, and Four of Them are Bad” – Don Sunukjian.

Donald Sunukjian

Woody Hayes, legendary coach at Ohio State (1951-1978), ran an offence which the sportswriters dubbed “three yards and a cloud of dust.” When asked, “Woody, why don’t you ever throw a forward pass,” Hayes replied, “Three things can happen when you throw a forward pass, and two of them are bad.”

In that same vein, I would like to suggest: “Four things can happen when you alliterate, and four of them are bad.”

Alliteration, in ordinary writing, is the literary device of repeating the same initial sound or letter several times in rather close succession (e.g. “conspicuous consumption,” “nattering nabobs of negativism,” and, as in the abstract above, “the speaker’s cleverness . . . the Scripture’s content”).

In homiletics, alliteration is most frequently used to convey the major outline points of a sermon.

There are times, of course, when alliteration is appropriate and effective in preaching. Succinct and accurate words can crisply communicate the concepts of a short outline – e.g., “Today we’re going to look at the cause and the cure of our problem.” (Note-crisply communicate the concepts, another serendipity.)

But when a sermon outline extends to multiple main points, the use of alliteration runs the risk of “four bad things.”

-It may use a word nobody knows, and thus be unclear.

-It may change the author’s meaning, and thus be biblically inaccurate.

-It may highlight the outline more than the central truth and its relevance.

-It may draw more attention to the cleverness of the speaker than to the truth of God’s word.


First, alliteration may cause the speaker to use a word nobody know, and thus to be unclear. In order to sustain the same alphabet letter, the speaker searches his thesaurus. Unfortunately, the only word which accurately conveys his concept is a word few of his listeners are familiar with:


I. The purpose of prayer

II. The power of prayer

III. The perspicacity of prayer


The speaker may be accurate with the text, but he is unclear to the listener. Second, alliteration runs the danger of changing the author’s meaning. If the speaker resolves to alliterate with only familiar words, he may find himself finessing or manipulating the true meaning of the text in order to remain intelligible to the listener. The speaker may be clear, but now he is biblically inaccurate.


(I Samuel 17:17-54)

I. Cooperative (17:17-24)

II. Curious (17:25-27)

III. Courageous (17:31-37)

IV. Careful (17:38-40)

V. Confident (17:41-47)

VI. Conclusive (17:48-51)


“Cooperative,” “consistent” and “careful” do not accurately reflect what is happening in the text. “Obedient,” “persistent” and “wise” come closer to describing David’s actions in those verses.

Worse than changing the meaning of a small paragraph within the text, alliteration sometimes violates the author’s entire flow of thought as the speaker turns the biblical “progression” of ideas into an artificial David Letterman “list” of parallel points.

It is doubtful that the author of I Samuel said to himself as he came to chapter 17, “I will now write about the seven characteristics of leadership.” Such an approach to preaching is far from the intent of the author—i.e., a young man from the tribe of Juday, believing the covenant promises of God, finishes the task God gave his tribe by removing the ‘uncircumcised’ from ‘Gath’, thus qualifying himself for leadership among God’s people.

Alliterated “list-preaching’ not only violates the author’s theological intent, but also inevitably presents supposed “truths” which are easily contradicted elsewhere in Scripture. Abundant examples could be found of biblical leaders who are uncooperative (Peter refusing the Sanhedrin), inconsistent (Joshua changing strategy at Ai), fearful (Gideon preparing for the Midianites), rash (Jonathan charging the Philistine outpost), and uncertain (Daniel’s friends explaining to Nebuchadnezzar).

Alliteration runs a third danger. Not only may it lead the speaker to be unclear or unbiblical, it also suggest to the listener that the most important thing in the message to remember is the outline. It subtly says to the listener, “Get this outline! Remember it!”

But what the listener really needs to “get” is the central truth and its relevance for his life. He should walk away from the message, not with an outline, but with an awareness of how a biblical truth bears on his life. His mind should be engaged, not with “points,” but with how he, in some concrete way, is going to think or act differently as a result of his time with God.

Worse yet, the alliterated outline, which has been unwisely high-lighted, all too often is “content-less” – it communicates no content. If the listener does manage to remember it, he still doesn’t know anything.


I. The process for preaching

II. The practice in preaching

III. The product of preaching


Taken from I Thessalonians 1:4-8, the speaker’s message conveys the following thoughts:

-When preaching the gospel, we must remember that God elects and the power of the Spirit saves.

-We must practice what we preach.

-The gospel cuts through human suffering, causing joy and growth.


But none of these thoughts are accessible by remembering the outline. The alliterated outline terms are unnecessary “middle-men” which the listener must mentally jump over in order to form the concepts in his mind.

If remembering the outline is important, a non-alliterated, “content-ful” set of points (i.e., in complete declarative sentences) would be more effective:


I. We don’t need to sell it.

II. But we must live it.

III. It will change lives.


The final “bad thing” that can happen when we alliterate is that the listener’s attention may be drawn more to our cuteness and cleverness than to the truth of God’s word. He may appreciate our skill more than he absorbs God’s message.

The words of an ancient divine still ring true: “No man can at one and the same time give the impression that he is clever and that Christ is mighty to save.”


Alliteration? We could say:

-It misproffers

-It misleads

-It misdirects

-It mishonors


But it might be better to say:

-It may be unclear

-It may be unbiblical

-It may highlight the outline more than the truth

-It may draw attention to the cleverness of the speaker


Preaching in Stereo

The Rich Sound of Grace and Holiness

Kenton C. Anderson


I grew up listening to news radio on my mother’s push button am receiver in her ’64 Dodge. When I got my own car, the sound was worse – a single speaker mounted in the back seat delivered my tunes. When I finally installed a new stereo tape deck with dual box speakers in the back window, the sound was incredible. Well, not incredible really, but relative to what I was accustomed to, the sound was outstanding. I remember deliberately taking the long way home just so I could keep on listening to the full, rich sound. Moving from mono to stereo is to the ear like moving from two dimensions to three dimensions is to the eye.

Pierre Babin has employed the stereo metaphor to describe the necessary integration of cognitive (left brain) and emotive (right brain) elements in preaching (Babin 31,32). It strikes me that the metaphor could serve to describe other integrative aspects of the homiletic task, such as the relationship between preaching grace and preaching holiness. Twisting the ‘Balance’ dial on the car stereo to one side or the other produces a diminished monotone. Preaching that resonates requires the full play of both polarities. Such preaching will bear the mark of Jesus’ own preaching which was known to be ‘full of grace and truth (John 1:14, 17).’

There are at least three reasons why our preaching ought to integrate grace and truth. . .


The Preacher Depends On It

I am never sure if I should enjoy the pulpit or run in fear from it. A biblical answer would probably encourage both. Some Sundays I can’t wait to climb the platform and let loose with the message God has given. The sheer joy of feeding truth to starving seekers is a passion. The privilege of preaching is exhilarating on those days I am not overwhelmed by the impropriety of such a thing.

While I am familiar with the joy, I am also acquainted with the misery. I have some appreciation of the sense Moses must have had when he took his shoes off because he was standing on holy ground. I am cognizant of the fact that I serve the same God as Aaron who was under strict instruction even to the extent of his underwear before leading people into the presence of God (Lev.16:4). ‘Who may ascend the hill of the Lord? Who may enter his holy place?’ I’m not sure my hands are clean enough or my tongue pure enough to speak for God before the people. It is preposterous to think that I would be fit to represent the almighty. Some suggest that failure (read ‘sin’) enhances a preacher’s ability to relate to the congregation’s need. Such people need to reread the Pentateuch.

Or maybe I need to reread Romans 8. I appreciate that I come to the pulpit from this side of the cross. God’s grace invigorates me even as it justifies me. Yet, though I preach in the light of New Testament truth, I am challenged by my reading of the Old Testament. The God I serve was awfully finicky in Leviticus. I am theologically astute enough to know that he hasn’t changed or grown. It is simply that I am privileged to stand at a different vantage point.

Holiness matters. It is not that God decided that he had been too hard on us and that if he didn’t lighten up there wouldn’t be anyone qualified to speak on his behalf. Grace was not a ‘lightening up.’ Grace was not cheap. God’s standard was not softened, it was satisfied. I am thrilled that God has given me the opportunity to offer his Word as his servant. My awareness of the price tag on that privilege only enhances my appreciation and my passion.


The Message Depends On It

I love to preach grace. Given the choice, I would rather bear good news than bad. My personal dependence upon grace predisposes me to a grace-full preaching diet. I would just as soon leave holiness to the pulpit pounders on TV. It seems so twentieth century to hammer on holiness. After all, you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar. That’s in the Bible somewhere, I’m sure.

I would like to think so, at least, because I am committed to a biblical ministry. The more I study the Scripture, however, the more I am aware that my affection for grace does not allow a corresponding aversion for holiness. Grace does not do battle with holiness. As Graeme Goldsworthy put it, ‘The gospel event is not a repudiation of the law; it is its most perfect expression (Goldsworthy 159).’ Paul’s apparent light treatment of the law should not be understood as ambivalence. It is, rather, a function of his location in salvation history.

Paul Scott Wilson has described the nature of the gospel as hopeful. For Wilson, ‘hope’ describes the integration of law and grace. We can preach God as one to be feared or God as one to befriend. A true gospel sermon will offer both. Hope is present only as we are rescued from peril. Hope is not equal to judgment, nor is it equal to grace. Hope is equal to judgment and grace (Wilson 107).

Wilson is particularly critical of expository preachers on this point. Such sermons ‘move once from exegesis to application and frequently express explicit hope only in the closing minute (105).’ If our concern to listen for God’s voice in a specific text leads us to disrespect the broad message of the Bible, Wilson’s point is well taken. Goldsworthy describes moralistic sermons that masquerade as biblical when in fact they are only legalistic. Even texts that offer ethical instruction need to be read in the context of the gospel. Preaching that emphasizes obedience is not gospel preaching.

To say what we should be or do and not link it with a clear exposition of what God has done about our failure to be or do perfectly as he wills is to reject the grace of God and to lead people to lust after self-help and self-improvement in a way that, to call a spade a spade, is godless (Goldsworthy 119).


The Listener Depends On It

Listeners have an ear for stereo. I can hear a stinging sermon but only for a little while. The harangue as homiletic has a short shelf life. Similarly, a sweet sermon can make my heart soar, but only in moderation. What is sweet soon becomes sticky and beyond my ability to enjoy.

There are some stilted souls, who come to be beaten. These are the ones who view the sermon as penance, who have not understood the gospel as grace. There are others as well, who prefer Pastor Thumper, who knows that if you can’t say something nice, then you had better not preach anything at all. These listeners are elderly children who lack the maturity to value the full sound of stereo.

Most listeners have grown to know that sin has its consequences. Helping them appreciate this as part of the fabric of life under God will prepare them to hear that love has its privileges, that grace is the tonic for our inability to obey. Preachers who fulfill the message of holiness with the life-giving message of grace have found the

I broke my headphones recently. This seriously impaired my ability to enjoy my Walkman. I like to listen to baseball while I’m cutting the lawn or catch the news while I go for a run. Now I had to listen out of only one ear. I know that is the way that people listened to their transistors in the ‘50s, but I’ve grown to value more than that. I like to hear the music resonate in my cranium.

God gave us two ears for a reason. I don’t take that fact for granted. I only have partial hearing in my left ear, the result of a series of surgeries that have left me with a hearing impairment. I’ve found that I can manage all right, but there are times I’ve found myself struggling to know what is going on.

As preachers we cannot afford such disadvantage. Our message can not accommodate such impairment. Our listeners cannot afford to be impoverished. We must preach in full stereo. We must preach holiness and we must preach grace.


Works Cited

Babin, Pierre and Mercedes Iannone. The New Era in Religious Communication. Translated by David Smith. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991.

Goldsworthy, Graeme. Preaching the Whole Bible as Christian Scripture. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.

Wilson, Paul Scott. The Practice of Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Abingdon, 1995.


If Leonardo Could Preach

The Art and Science of Biblical Preaching

Kenton C. Anderson


A year or two ago I took my family to the museum to see a traveling exhibition of the work of Leonardo da Vinci. The exhibit featured careful reproductions of the great artist’s inventions. There seemed little that he had not applied his mind to – everything from human kinetics to the properties of flight. There were copies of his notebooks filled full of philosophical insight, technological innovation, and artistic inspiration. The highlight of the exhibit was an “exact” copy of the Mona Lisa, a copy so good that it is often used to replace the original piece on display in the Louvre.

In this day of specialization, it was wonderful to interact with a man who was able to cross disciplines so effortlessly. I loved how he was able to integrate the fruits of science and technology with the grace and glory of art. He was the original “renaissance man.

I think he could have been a pretty good preacher.


The Science of Preaching

Preaching is a science. It is a technical discipline that requires both meticulous study and careful construction of the sermonic product. Homiletical textbooks describe ‘the functional elements’ of preaching and the technical “steps to the sermon.” Seminaries emphasize the study of original languages in order to ensure that preachers are rightly dividing the word of truth.

This is appropriate, given that preaching is the presentation of God’s truth as mediated by his word. God himself is defined by our preaching, and as the saying puts it, he is “in the details.” Preachers need to get it/him right. We cannot afford slipshod hermeneutics. Listeners need the preacher to be clear and logical in their presentation of the truth.

In the recent movie, A Beautiful Mind, the Nobel Prize winning mathematician, John Nash, is portrayed as on a compulsive search for what he called “the governing dynamics.” I marveled at the way in which he was able to describe the most common occurrences by means of the language of mathematics. The movement of a flock of pigeons or the interplay of young people in love could all be described and to some extent explained by means of algorithmic equations.

There is an underlying logic to all of life. Like the unseen circuitry inside a computer, every function has its reason. Preaching seeks to expose those reasons, displaying the truth too often hidden from our sight. Preaching requires precision.


The Art of Preaching

At the same time, there is an art to preaching. The best preachers display creativity and an almost whimsical passion. There is beauty and fire in the most compelling sermons. The scientists complain that truth cannot communicate through abstraction, but true artists know better.

My wife is studying as a visual artist and we have long talks about the subject. Most artists want to communicate through their art form. The problem, of course, is that many contemporary artists want to communicate without seeking to persuade. Today’s acclaimed artists are content to create visuals that offer open-ended opportunities for listeners to supply their own meanings. One would look in vain for the artist’s ‘meaning’ in a Jackson Pollock painting or a piece by Picasso or Mondrian. My wife wants more than this from her painting just as I want more than this from my preaching. She actually wants to persuade people and her art gives her the means.

Preaching, similarly, has to guard against the tendency to provide opportunities for listeners to invent their own meanings. Preaching announces meaning, but it does so through a multitude of ways. It is not limited to rational, linear, cognitive presentation. Preaching is capable of moving the soul and awakening the intuitive part of the mind God has given us. Preaching can speak to the heart.


If Leonardo Could Preach

My daughter is about to begin junior high school. She is currently being asked to determine her area of extracurricular specialization. Apparently, the decision has life-altering consequences. I try to imagine Leonardo da Vinci sitting down with his high school guidance counselor. “No really Leonardo, you’ve got the makings of a bright career in engineering, but at the same time, you’re not too shabby with a paint brush. You’re going to have to make up your mind!” Personally, I’m grateful this conversation never occurred.

I wonder what it would sound like if Leonardo could preach? The brilliance of da Vinci’s technical achievements are seen in the convergence of form and function that is evident in his work. Not only would his machine fly, but it would look beautiful doing it. There was art in his science as there is in the best of contemporary preaching. I am no Leonardo da Vinci, but I do believe my preaching is enhanced when I bring together the science and the art of preaching.

Specifically, the science of preaching is seen in the attention to detail the preacher gives to exegetical study. For instance, does John 1:1 say that “the Word was God” or that –the Word was a God. It matters. It will be important for the preacher to use precise language in the presentation of this text. At the same time, the preacher ought to speak with grace and beauty of the meaning of this truth. That the Word, which became flesh and dwelt among us was present at creation is an evocative idea that can be offered with color and with passion. Leonardo would have likely found a way.

If I could preach like Leonardo I would integrate the science and the art of the sermon. Paying attention to the exegetical details would keep my sermon honest. Creative expression would help my words to soar. God’s word seeks full expression of both.


Preaching By Design

by Dennis Cahill

The mundane issue of preaching shape has been the ‘hot’ topic in the homiletical world during the last quarter century. It is not too much, as Eugene Lowry does, to call the new thinking a “paradigmatic shift” (O’Day and Long 1993, 95). Richard Eslinger (1987, 65) has described the change in sermon form as “the Copernican Revolution in homiletics.” Numerous books have been written that focus particularly on the issue of sermon structure: Fred Craddock’s, As One Without Authority and Overhearing the Gospel; Milton Crum, Jr.‘s Manual on Preaching; Eugene Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form and Doing Time in the Pulpit: The Relationship Between Narrative and Preaching; Preaching Biblically, edited by Don Wardlaw; Richard A. Jensen’s, Telling the Story: Variety and Imagination in Preaching; and especially David Buttrick’s Homiletic.

Out of all this discussion has come an emphasis on inductive , narrative, and story preaching. And David Buttrick has contributed his own Homiletic of Moves. Much of the current emphasis on form tends to be an approach toward form that stress inductive movement, narrative logic, imagery, creativity and flexibility.

The responses to the new approaches to form have been varied. Some, particularly many evangelicals, have continued with business as usual-almost as if the revolution had never happened. Like flat-earthers in a round world they continue with classical homiletics in a rapidly changing field. Their preaching has not changed, and often the writings of their homiliticians do not even acknowledge the newer approaches to form.

Others have quickly-sometimes too quickly-seen the light and adopted the newer sermon shapes as the right homiletical approach for newer times. Tired of the ‘same old thing’ they have quickly grasped onto the newer approaches to the preaching task. These new approaches to sermon form have often seemed like a breath of fresh air, relieving the monotony of a pulpit which has at times become all too predictable. But often they have failed to realize the theological baggage which the newer forms of necessity bring.

And then there are those who don’t know what to think. Uncertain which way to go, they go with what works.

The question we ask as evangelicals deeply interested in homiletics is: how do we relate to the shape of contemporary sermons? Do we embrace them as the savior from the homiletic doldrums or denounce them as departure from the truth?


The Forces Which Shape Structure

We cannot hope to evaluate the newer forms unless we first understand the forces which have shaped contemporary thought about sermon shape. The newer sermon forms did not appear out of a vacuum. There are at least three major forces which have affected recent thought on sermon form: theology of preaching, literary criticism, and culture.


Theology of Preaching

Bryan Chapell is correct in noting the interrelationship of theology of preaching and sermon form.

It should be noted that many of the modern challenges to traditional sermon structure result from modern redefinition of the preaching task. When the Bible loses its authority sermons are less concerned with communicating its specifics than with leaving religious impressions and making moral challenges. This change of focus necessarily calls for structures more compatible with eliciting human perceptions and less concerned with communicating biblical information (Chapell 1994, 132).

In traditional homiletics the purpose of a sermon was to bring an idea or concept across the homiletical ‘bridge’ which connects the horizon of the text with the horizon of the listener. Traditional forms served this purpose well. The sermon was intended to convey an idea which would be written as a proposition.

But more recently the emphasis has been on the sermon as an event or experience. It is more a feeling, an emotion, or an event that is to be brought across the bridge. It is this view of doctrine that is reflected in David Randolph’s definition of preaching as “the event in which the biblical text is interpreted in order that its meaning will come to expression in the concrete situation of the hearers [italics added]” (Randolph 1969, 1). The sermon, then, is often seen primarily as an event. The sermon is not static, but dynamic; something should happen during the preaching time. We are to preach the text, not about the text. It is in this theological soil that narrative, storytelling and other more innovative forms have taken the deepest root. But sometimes in this approach the fact that the Bible does say quite a bit is overlooked.

The transition then has been from a conceptual approach to preaching to an event approach. This development has been paralleled in the advertising industry. Compare the old fashioned Tide commercial which attempted to prove that Tide was more effective than ‘Brand X’ with the more modern Nike ads in which athletic shoes or even the name Nike may not appear.

The preacher’s approach to preaching in terms of function is directly related to sermon form. When it was thought that a proposition was to be communicated, then a rational, discursive form predominated. But if feelings and attitudes are what is to be communicated, then non-direct, inductive preaching may be best. Those who advocate an event approach to preaching will probably gravitate toward a narrative or story form of preaching as the most effective means of communicating on this level. Some have recommended that these forms be used exclusively.

But it is not necessary to choose between cognitive and expressive models for homiletics. Sermons communicate on more than one level. Both ideas and feelings and attitudes can be part of the sermon purpose. Sermons are both conceptual and eventful. As Thomas Long points out, “Biblical texts say things that do things, and the sermon is to say and do those things too” (Long 1989a, 84). A sermon should have both a focus and a function (to use Thomas Longs’ language) or an idea and a purpose (cf. Haddon Robinson).



Evangelicals should agree with the emphasis on the sermon as event even while maintaining that the sermon is both word and event. If we understand sermons as both saying and doing then some sermon forms may not be appropriate (at least on a regular basis). Sermon forms that are overly vague, ambiguous and open-ended may be rejected as not communicating the idea of the text, while strict arguments or propositional forms may fail to do justice to what the sermon intends to do.


Literary Criticism

One of the more important concerns in recent homiletical thought has been the relationship between the genre of the text and the form of the sermon. We must “decide how to preach so that the sermon embodies in its language, form and style the gospel it seeks to proclaim” (Long 1989b, 12).

This homiletical concern began first in the field of literary criticism. Amos N. Wilder (1971) has demonstrated the essential connection between form and content. “Shape and substance are inseparable and mutually determinative,” he states (25).

Form, then, is part of the meaning of the text. Homiliticians, building on the work of literary criticism, have suggested that the form of a text ought to have some influence on the form of the sermon. A sermon on a narrative text ought to be preached differently than a sermon on a proverb. The form of a sermon on an apocalyptic text ought to be different from the form of a sermon on a parable.

Traditional homiletics paid scant attention to the form of the text. The procedure usually followed was to exegete the passage, identify the central idea and then discard the form. Ronald Allen (Wardlaw 1983, 31) contends that “the preacher takes the passage (story, poem, letter, command) runs it through the mill of discursive logic, often in categories supplied by systematic theology, and boils down the residue like so much sorghum. The sludge of the form is thrown away.”

More recently, however, there has been a firestorm of renewed appreciation for the integral relationship between textual form and sermon form. Why should the gospel “always be impaled upon the frame of Aristotelian logic,” asked Fred Craddock (1971, 45), “when [the preacher’s] muscles twitch and his nerves tingle to mount the pulpit not with three points but with the gospel as narrative or parable or poem or myth or song.”

Some have gone as far as to suggest that sermon form is determined by the form of the text. Henry Mitchell writes, “to select a form or vehicle different from the one inherent in a given text is to do violence to its divinely intended meaning, since meaning and form are inseparable. Thus a narrative parable text demands a narrative sermon form” (O’Day and Long 1993, 233).

But many homiliticians have recognized that the relationship must be less direct. They have noticed that text and sermon are different types of communication (literary vs. oral/aural), have different audiences, and different cultural contexts, and often will have different purposes. Therefore one cannot simply take the form of the text over as the form of the sermon. David Buttrick (1981, 56) states, “A sermon need not be bound by biblical form: the how and why of form is more important than the form itself.”

A better approach is to allow the textual form to influence the shape of the sermon. Greidanus says that the sermon form reshapes the form of the text. “The significance of sermon form becomes evident when one realizes that this reshaping will distort the text’s message unless it is done with sensitivity to the text’s form” (Greidanus 1988, 141). Greidanus suggest that rather than imitation, the goal of sermon form is “respect for the text.”

Thomas Long’s slender volume entitled Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible exemplifies Greidanus’ approach. Long asks five questions:

“1. What is the genre of the text? 2. What is the rhetorical function of this genre? 3. What literary devices does this genre employ to achieve its rhetorical effect? 4. How in particular does the text under consideration, in its own literary setting, embody the characteristics and dynamics described in questions 1-3? And 5. How may the sermon, in a new setting, say and do what the text says and does in its setting? ” (Long 1989b, 24).

In this approach the textual form is allowed to influence the form of the sermon. The focus is perhaps more on the rhetorical function of the form than it is on the form itself.

David Bartlett (O’Day and Long 1993, 147-163) gives examples of how the genre of the text might influence the form of the sermon. In preaching on a parable we can make use of the image or metaphor of the parable. We can tell parables on the parable, that is, parallel stories. Or the preacher can tell the parable in modern dress. When preaching on the psalms we will not often speak in poetry. Rather we will allow the form of the text to come through by making use of the central imagery of the psalm. We can also make use of such poetic conventions as repetition and reinforcements. In preaching Paul we will enter into the discussion between Paul and his readers and will, as Paul does, begin with the good news and move to exhortation. In preaching the gospels we will always preach in light of the climax of the book, the death and resurrection of Jesus.



What should we make of this new interest in the relation between textual form and sermon form? Evangelicals should applaud loudly this new concern since it is a thoroughly biblical one. There are at least two things that we learn from literary concerns.

(1) We need to allow the rhetorical function of the text to influence the form of the sermon. This means that we must pay attention to genre and it’s function in a particular passage. At times this may mean employing the same form as the text. A narrative text will most often call for a narrative sermon. But at times the impact of the form of the text will be more subtle. We may try to interweave the imagery and tone of a psalm into the fabric of our sermon or make use of the symbolism of apocalyptic throughout a sermon on Revelation.

(2) The current interest in literary form also reminds us that if God has used a variety of forms to communicate his message, then the preacher would do well to use a variety of forms to communicate that same message today. Story, narrative, poetry and more didactic and reflective approaches can all be used in the proclamation of the good news.


Cultural Concerns

Another force which greatly affects sermon form and is an important shaper of contemporary homiletics is contemporary culture. The argument goes like this: our culture has changed in significant ways – indeed people listen differently today than just a generation ago. Therefore we need new sermon forms to communicate the old message to a new day. The preacher then must be a student of both Scripture and culture.

In Marketplace Preaching, Calvin Miller recalls us to preaching that engages culture. “Marketplace preaching is a call to get outside the walls and find out once again what people are talking about and what their interests and needs really are” (Miller 1995, 19). This leads Miller to an emphasis on inductive preaching (65).

The change in culture is a factor in much of the newer homiletical forms. A major impetus for Fred Craddock’s As One Without Authority (1971, 12) was the “radically changed situation” of his day. Any reading of current society must come to grips with the reality that though the ‘heart’ of humanity is not different, the lifestyle of our day is radically different from the lifestyle of even a generation ago.

Wade Clark Roof in A Generation of Seekers (1993, 36-51) lists five defining factors which shaped the lives of the Boomer generation. They are the upheaval of the times, affluence, gender revolution, higher education, and the media. Of all the above none has had a greater impact on rhetorical structure than the media. By age 16 the average baby boomer has watched between 12,000 to 15,000 hours of television (Roof 1993, 53). It has become the major source of information and perhaps more than anything else shaped their sense of reality. “Perhaps the most important impact of television was that it replaced the word with the image: Henceforth the dominant medium would be the fleeting, discontinuous flow of electromagnetic pictures” (Roof 1993, 54).

A primary change brought about by the electronic media is a return to orality. According to Kathleen Hall Jamison (1988, 29) “the central claims of Madison Avenue, of prime time television, and of widely viewed films have replaced those of the Bible, Shakespeare, and the great speakers as the lingua franca of contemporary oratory.” Literate cultures are “characterized by objective, analytical, formal, logical communication” while oral cultures are marked by “subjective, informal and narrative forms of communication evident especially in personal and collective storytelling” (Willimon and Lischer 1995, 473).

This change in culture necessitates a change from a more literary toward an oral form of speech. Barbara Bates explains some of the implications of moving toward oral form:

“In a context of secondary orality preachers cannot assume that worshipers will know a large number of scripture passages, proverbs, or formulas by heart. Worshipers tend to retain concrete sensory images and well-told stories rather than long trains of reasoning or complex theoretical language (Willimon and Lischer 1995, 353).”

A further implication of the media age is participation. Marshal McLuhan is well known for introducing the concepts of hot and cool mediums. A medium that calls for multi-sense involvement and participation is labeled ‘cool’. ‘Hot’ medium, on the other hand, excludes involvement and participation, and usually involves only a single sense (Hall 1971, 11). Television is a ‘cool’ event for it requires the listener’s participation. This suggests that the television generation needs a higher degree of participation. Preaching forms that do not engage the listener in the dialogue of thought will not be effective.

It is precisely for this reason that Fred Craddock in 1971 argued for the inductive approach to preaching. Inductive preaching involves the listener to a greater extent. The same is true of narrative and story. The listener must participate.

Intimacy is a further feature of the media age. “Instancy and intimacy would be the distinguishing features of [the electronic] media” (Roof 1993, 54). Quentin Schultz notes that television creates intimacy through close up shots (Willimon and Lischer 1995, 471). A conversational and oral style combined with narrative and story imagery will work to create a sense of intimacy in non-television preaching.



The danger in too much emphasis on culture is the tendency to begin with the needs of the culture and going to the Bible for answers rather than beginning with the Word of God and then seeking the needs of the culture. There can be a tendency to do what works without much serious theological reflection.

And yet, the preacher cannot ignore the cultural winds that swirl. To the extent that it is theologically faithful, the wise preacher will seek to use sermon forms that are more culturally relevant.

It is out of the soil of theological, literary, and cultural concerns that modern sermon designs such as inductive, narrative, and story preaching and even David Buttrick’s Homiletic of Moves have sprung.


Discerning Use of Contemporary Approaches

So what does all this say about our sermon design? Which way do we go? Some will choose to continue with traditional sermon structure-“if it’s not broke, don’t fix it”. But others respond by pointing out “it is broke” and needs the radical surgery of story, narrative or even Buttrick’s Homiletic of Moves to relate to contemporary congregations. Confusion reigns and we are tempted to go with what ‘works.’ Yet out of the confusion some direction can be discerned.

A number of years ago Dr. Haddon Robinson (1993) stated in a class: “There is no such thing as sermon form!” By which (I believe) he meant that there is no particular sermon form that must be used and that a variety of sermon forms are possible. We can therefore make discerning use of both more traditional and more contemporary sermon forms in our preaching. The following considerations may help us in designing our sermon structure.

Design should be governed by the intention of the sermon. Begin with the recognition that sermon design must be governed by intention. Not every text has the same intention and not every sermon shares the same purpose. And as in architecture form must follow function. We will not arbitrarily select a sermon design prior to considering the intent of the text and of the sermon.

Recently some homileticians, while recognizing the contributions of the newer ‘event’ designs, have begun to move the homiletic world back to what may be called design governed by intention. In this approach it is the intention of the text and the sermon that should govern rhetorical design, not any preconceived understanding of sermon structure. Says Robinson,

“To test a form at least two questions should be asked: (1) Does this development communicate what the passage teaches? (2) Will it accomplish my purpose with this audience? If a form communicates the message, by all means use it; if it gets in the way, devise a form more in keeping with the idea and purpose of the Scripture (Robinson 1980, 127).”

This approach then is not committed to any particular form, but to the form that best fulfills the intention of text and sermon.


Design should be influenced by the literary form of the text.

Literary criticism has taught us of the unity of form and content. We will want our sermons to reflect the genre of the text. Evangelical homiliticians particularly have failed to see the rich connection between the textual genre and sermon form, often plodding along in their classical rhetorical structures oblivious to much of the biblical and theological thought going on around.

The obvious illustration is narrative. Since the Bible is primarily narrative, Calvin Miller (Duduit 1992, 103) asks, “Why then do our preceptual sermons so often roar on, entirely out of sync with the Bible’s narrative mode?” Certainly our sermons could and should begin to reflect the narrative reality of the biblical landscape. Especially rich in potential is the use of narrative logic which allows for so much flexibility in development.

We will surely at times want to retain the form of the text in our sermons and at all times to allow the genre of the text to have a proper influence on the sermonic form.


Design should be affected by the rhetorical situation.

The intention of the text and the sermon and theological concerns must have the place of priority in our sermon designs, but the wise preacher is not unaware of the rhetorical situation of the world in which we live. Our understanding of the culture in which we live are useful in structuring our sermons.


Design should be concerned with variety.

One of the key lessons we can learn from the contemporary discussion about form is the need for variety. Many pastors are caught in the rut of designing sermons in one stock way week after week after week. Some are caught in the rut of classical rhetoric, others have dug a new narrative rut. But ruts are ruts.

Three truths argue for the use of variety in form. First, the Scriptures themselves reflect variety. This is seen not only in the variety of genre but also in the variety of form in the speeches and sermons of Scripture.

Second, we should vary form for the form of a sermon tends to form world view. Craddock in his text Preaching tells us that “form shapes the listener’s faith” (Craddock 1985, 173).

Ministers who, week after week, frame their sermons as arguments, syllogisms armed for debate, tend to give that form to the faith perspective of regular listeners. Being a Christian is proving you are right. Those who consistently use the “before/after” pattern impress upon hearers that conversion is the normative model for becoming a believer. Sermons which invariably place before the congregation the “either/or” format as the way to see the issues before them contribute to oversimplification, inflexibility, and the notion that faith is always an urgent decision. In contrast, “both/and” sermons tend to broaden horizons and sympathies but never confront the listener with a crisp decision (173, 174).

And lastly, we should vary the form of our sermons because our listeners have different styles of listening. Calvin Miller (Duduit 1992, 108), in arguing against the overuse of narrative preaching, warns that “in every congregation there exists a strong percentage of souls whose life orientation is less story-oriented.” In any congregation some are more preceptually oriented, some are more narrative oriented. The incomplete sermon may fit some but not others. We must vary the form of our sermons.



Sunday sermons come in many sizes and shapes. There have been bombastic, declaratory sermons that bring great conviction, rational arguments designed to convince, gripping narratives that make us feel that we were there, erudite teaching sermons that grant us greater understanding, andsermons filled with imagery that inspires and lifts us up. The mystery of preaching is that God has used all kinds.

But the nagging question remains “what will be the shape of this week’s sermon?” Intention, literary form, the rhetorical situation, and the need for variety will help us to design God’s message for the coming week. Preaching must always be by design.


Reference List

Buttrick, David G. 1981. “Interpretation and Preaching”. Interpretation 35 No. 1 (Jan.): 46-58.

Chapell, Bryan. 1994. Christ-Centered Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

Craddock, Fred. 1971. As One Without Authority. Enid, Okla.: Phillips University Press.

Craddock, Fred. 1985. Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon.

Duduit, Michael, ed. 1992. Handbook of Contemporary Preaching. Nashville: Broadman Press.

Eslinger, Richard L. 1987. A New Hearing: Living Options in Homiletic Method. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Greidanus, Sidney. 1988. The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.

Hall, Thor. 1971. The Future Shape of Preaching. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Jamison, Kathleen Hall. 1988. Eloquence in an Electronic Age. New York: Oxford University Press.

Long, Thomas G. 1989a. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

________. 1989b. Preaching and the Literary Forms of the Bible. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Miller, Calvin. 1995. Marketplace Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Books.

O’Day, Gail R., and Thomas G. Long, eds. 1993. Listening to the Word. Nashville: Abingdon Press.

Randolph, David James. 1969. The Renewal of Preaching. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Robinson, Haddon W. 1980. Biblical Preaching. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Robinson, Haddon W. 1993. Class Lecture. Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Roof, Wade Clark. 1993. A Generation of Seekers. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco.

Wardlaw, Don M. 1983. Preaching Biblically. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press.

Wilder, Amos N. 1971. Early Christian Rhetoric. Cambridge: Harvard Uiversity Press.

Willimon, William H. and Richard Lischer, eds. 1995. Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.


Relevant Biblical Preaching without Dumbing Down

Keith Willhite

Like pizza, sermons come in two distinct forms: deep dish or thin and crispy. Either the content is so “deep” that we cannot possibly discern what we’re eating or the toppings are so sparse than, an hour later, we wonder why we bothered ordering. Deep dish sermons are filling, even stuffy, and require lots of chewing. Thin and crispy sermons go down effortlessly, but leave us craving more substance. Deep dish sermons are full of stuff – content rules! Thin and crispy sermons appear so appetizing, but they offer very little substance for satisfaction.

Is it possible to serve savory and satisfying sermons? Relevant biblical preaching not only tastes great, it satisfies the nutritional longings of the soul. Like a good recipe, however, relevant biblical sermons must mix the right ingredients both proportionately and sequentially. How do we preach biblical content with relevance, without becoming too thin? Three strategies root the sermon in the biblical text while demonstrating the relevance of the Scripture to daily living.


First, look from the pew rather than the pulpit.

In relevant biblical preaching, perspective is everything. When it comes to relevance, we have to ask ourselves, “Who determines whether the sermon is relevant?” From a theological perspective, the only viable answer to the question is: God. God did not leave us his Word in hopes that we would discover some human utilitarian value in it. He revealed himself and his will to bring himself glory through the obedience and praise of his people. From a communications perspective, however, listeners determine whether the sermon is relevant. We might think that this communicative perspective seems contrary to the theological perspective, but the two are quite compatible.

For a long time, I struggled with trying to “be relevant.” That was the case because I focused on the wrong part of the sermonic process. I asked, “How can the preacher be relevant?”, a focus on the sender. I asked, “How can the sermon be relevant?”, a focus on the channel. I asked, “How can the Bible be relevant?”, a focus on the message. Relevance, however, is a relative word. So, we have to ask, “Relevant to whom?”, a focus on the receiver.

With only a cursory look, I rejected this receiver orientation because it seemed too pragmatic, too humanistic for my theocentric preaching paradigm. I hesitated because I feared that receiver orientation would lead to what I think masquerades for relevant biblical preaching. We hear sermons that are no more than pop-psychology (“Ten Timely Tips for Taming Your Teenager”) or Sunday’s weekly survival prescription (“How to Hold Up in a Fold-Up World”). These may be appealing titles, but you could summarize the substance of the truth found in those sermons on a 1×3 mailing label and still have white space left over. I feared that this receiver orientation would dissolve biblical and theological content, that the communicative perspective would overwhelm the theological perspective. In other words, I feared that the sermon would become simply a “sales job.”

We can, however, and we must take a communicative perspective without rejecting the theological perspective that preaching ultimately seeks to bring glory to God through the glad submission of human hearts. Our communicative perspective then serves as a means to the theological perspective. We are not making God’s Word relevant. We are demonstrating that God’s Word is relevant, both to God and to His people.

If then we are to demonstrate the relevance of God’s Word to listeners, we must take the perspective of the pew rather than the pulpit. As a student of Scripture, trained in exegesis and theology, I can get lost in the study of the Ancient Near East’s worship of Baal, the compositiion of the tribes of Israel, or the debates about the scientific feasibility of Elijah’s fire from heaven. As a preacher, give me good biblical historical-theological evidence, and I’ll buy the sermon’s thesis. But I’m thinking as a preacher beacuse I live in a preacher’s world. The people to wholm I speak on Saturday night abnd Sunday morning live in a world of bioethics, mediated violence, car payments and the Interent. Trying to explain to them Elijah’s conflict on Mount Carmel (1 Kings 18) by giving an abbreviated history lesson on Baal worship is like trying to sell flood insurance in the desert. That’s because I’m talking in the preacher’s world.

When I talk in the listener’s world, I may need to explain the essential tenets of Baal worship so that people will understand what Elijah was up against. The Ancient Near East offered an assortment of deities. People could choose one god over another, or to be safe, they might worship several gods. Elijah made it perfectly clear that the people could not waver between gods. The God of Israel is the only true God. Sitting in the pew are Jay and Leah. Their son Jason is a freshman at a major university. One of his classes is a study of world religions. Jay and Leah fear the beliefs being pumped into Jason’s mind: that religion is a sociological phenomenon of every culture, a matter of choice, an option in pluralism. To suggest that there is only one correct belief system is irrational and exclusive. These are the culture wars of our day. They sound a lot like the culture wars of Elijah’s day. When we see the similarity between the two situations, we need to ask, why was Elijah so insistent that the people of Israel not waver between gods? And when we discover the answer in the theology of the Old Testament, we are ready to talk to Jay and Leah about how to help Jason face the challenges of his own culture wars. When I look from the pulpit, I see Baal worship, Elijah, sinful Isreal and a fascinating showdown on Mount Carmel. When I look from the pew, I see Jason, 230 miles away, shy, questioning, tempted, facing the challenges to his monotheistic Chrsitian faith. In preaching, perspective is everything.


Second, whet the listener’s appetite for God’s Word.

I would love to think that Jay and Leah came to church this morning craving the truth of God’s Word about monotheism. Maybe they did, but they may not know it yet. If I begin the sermon in the Ancient Near East or by talking about the great victory of Elijah, they probably will overlook the relevance of God’s Word. Unfortunately, I cannot assume their appetite just because I say, “Let’s turn in our Bibles to 1 Kings 18.” I have to help them want to hear from God. Rather than assume that people will discern the relevance of the biblical passage, the sermon needs to begin where people are and then cultivate an appetite for God’s Word. So, the sermon will start by talking about how we know that we really have the truth. We’ll explore questions such as: “Is there only one God?” “Are we being too narrow-minded when we contend that the God of the Bible is the only true God?” “Why can we be confident that Christianity is right?” More than merely probing these questions cognitively, the sermon needs to touch the heart and show the significance of these questions in concrete experience.

For example, I may try to show the significance of teaching our children that there is one true God rather than a smorgasbord of religious options. I can move back to the fact that if we are going to teach our children the truth about God, we must be convinced that God is who he claims to be. At this point, Jay and Leah should be thinking about Jason and feeling the tension that begs for relief – relief that only God’s Word can supply. Then when I move from talking about religious options and teaching children about God to the showdown on Mount Carmel, they are eager to hear about Elijah’s contest. Once we look from the pew and whet people’s appetite for God’s Word, we are ready to show people what God’s Truth looks like on the street.


Third, show ’n tell.

Stating biblical truth without showing what it looks like in real life is like forgetting to bring your hamster to show ‘n’ tell on pet’s day. You can describe the hamster: his twitching, long tail, fast feet on the treadmill, and soft, brown fur. But nothing takes the place of seeing (and smelling!) that critter. It is not enough to tell God’s Word; we have to show it. If I call people to obedience, I try to give them a “success story” of someone who is obeying. Success stories take truth out of the realm of “pie in the sky” theology and say “It can be done.”

It is not enough to say, “God wants you to prioritize your family over your career.” Every professional man and woman knows how difficult that is. Careers require large quantities of time and creative energy. Too often, the kids get the leftovers, and there isn’t much left in the dish. So, talented, capable people sit in the pew, saying “yes but…” to God. They need to see a success story or two.

If I tell them about my friend Mary who is an emergency room physician and a great mom, the feasibility of obedience begins to climb. Mary works 24 horus on and 48 hours off. she doesn’t know how to live any other way than juggling. I don’t know whether her house is always neat or the oil in her car is changed regularly, but I know her kids. They’re winners. Along with Mary, I want people to hear about another friend, Steve. Steve jumps on and off airplanes most weeks. He spends a fortune on long distance calls. But Steve and his wife, Vicki, communicate more than most couples I know. And when Steve is home, his time belongs to Vicki and the kids. These stories visualize that God wants us to prioritize our families over our careers, and that it can be done.

When we look from the pew rather than the pulpit, whet people’s appetite for God’s Word, and show ‘n’ tell God’s Truth, we can preach and teach God’s Word with integrity and relevance. We do not need to settle for trite, cheap answers to people’s troubling questions. We can turn them to the only reliable authority for life, the Bible, if only we will show them its relevance. As with good pizza, we will leave them satisfied and nourished, rather than stuffed or wanting. As we preach, let’s help people savor God’s Word.


Squeaky Clean

Ethics for Biblical Preaching

Kenton C. Anderson

Originally appeared on Also appears in The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching (Zondervan, 2005).


That preaching ought to be ethical is beyond debate. Good ethical practice is foundational to preaching and good preachers know it. Listeners accustomed to media stories of fallen preachers might wonder, but for most of us there is no question about our intent to be ethical in the pulpit. The question is not whether we want to do right, but whether we will know what is right and whether we will we be able to do it.


Personal Integrity

The apostle Paul had confidence enough to invite people to examine his own life and character as evidence to the truth of his message (1 Cor. 11:1). That might be a higher level of scrutiny than many of us might welcome. The more we are aware of our own sin, the less we feel competent to stand and preach. Yet privacy cannot be promised to the one who claims to speak for God. Listeners still have a right to ask whether we are going to practice what we preach. The reprobate preacher is a common media stereotype. Unfortunately, the cliche is far too often realized in life. Truth is truth no matter who preaches it. Yet nothing compromises the credibility of the message like a life that denies the words the preacher speaks. Character counts. A politician or an actor might be able to shrug off indiscretions. Not so the preacher. A politician can survive as long as the economy is humming and the trains run on time. But the preacher is accountable because of the nature of the message. ÒDo as I say and not as I do,Ó does not make it as a homiletic policy.

Of course, few of us would think it does. We want to have integrity. When we stand in the pulpit offering wonderful pictures of what faithfulness looks like, we want to believe it is true of us as well, or at least has been in our better moments. The problem is that we make it very hard on ourselves and on our people when we treat the Bible moralistically. We are not doing anyone favors by preaching arbitrary standards of behavior that we can’t even live up to ourselves. Biblical preaching ought to be more about redemption than it is about listing appropriate behaviors.
Still, there are some basic things we will want to give attention to. For one, listeners need to know that we will handle our sexuality appropriately. Preachers are sexual beings. We dishonor the God who created us when we try to present an a-sexual persona in the pulpit. In fact, people need us to talk to them about sexuality, but they need to know we can be trusted. We will establish distinct boundaries, well clear of danger. We will not indulge in cheap questionable humor. We will remember Paul’s advice about stronger and weaker brothers in 1 Corinthians 14. There are times an ethical preacher will choose not to show a helpful clip because some will have problems with sexual portrayals elsewhere in the movie. No preacher intends to fall victim to sexual infidelity. Yet, so many do. Preachers intoxicated by their position or intimidated by their place fall prey to the weaknesses of their physical nature. Sin committed in private quickly becomes public. The result is always ugly as families are scarred and ministries defeated. God himself is dishonored when his servants sin with sex.

Financial propriety is another area of concern. It should be obvious to our listeners that we are not in it for the money. Paul claimed that preachers do not peddle the gospel for profit (2Cor 2:17). This has certainly been true for generations of preachers who have labored in poverty. Yet, underpaid preachers can be tempted by money. So can well paid preachers who have grown accustomed to its charms. Jaded listeners have the sense that every preacher is part Elmer Gantry, manipulating listeners in order to separate them from their money. Too often their cynicism is warranted. We need to make sure that our personal approach to money does not get in the way of our preaching. Not that we have to be financial wizards, but we shouldn’t let mismanagement lead us into temptation, fear, or the bitterness that can so easily find its way into our preaching. When we negotiate our salaries, we will not appear grasping. When we receive an honorarium, we will do it graciously and not as if it is required. The best way to make sure that people sense we are not driven by money is not to be.

Resolve to live an open life. Don’t keep secrets, especially from those to whom we are accountable. Let us establish strong relationships with people courageous enough to ask hard personal questions of us in order to keep us from these destructive impulses. We are well advised to intentionally limit our personal freedom by avoiding even the appearance of evil.

An example can be found in the ministry of Billy Graham and his team. In 1948 Graham and his teammates, Cliff Barrows, George Beverly Shea, and Grady Wilson, met in Modesto, California to determine the ethical parameters for their preaching ministry. The resulting code, nicknamed ‘The Modesto Manifesto’ described four key commitments. They deliberately determined that they would avoid even the appearance of financial abuse. All money would be carefully accounted for and fully disclosed to the public. They determined that they would be absolutely honest in their publication of statistics. They chose to exercise care to avoid the possibility of any perception of sexual impropriety, never appearing alone with a woman not their wives. They agreed to co-operate with any local church that could subscribe to their view of the gospel so as to avoid any sense of competition among churches. Many would have thought they had taken precautions beyond what was necessary. Yet decades later Graham’s ministry stands as a paragon of ethical propriety. The credibility of Graham’s preaching has been immeasurably enhanced by these commitments to character deliberately chosen and carefully maintained over all these years.

Still, we will mess up, sometimes spectacularly. Yet if we mess up, we’ll clean up, and we will rest heavily upon the grace of God, We know we don’t stand on the merits of our own character but on the basis of that which has been granted by Christ. The opportunity to stand with character intact in his presence is only because of God’s forgiveness. Listeners, also, are seldom fooled. Even the act of listening is an act of grace.


Truthful Representation

Ethical preaching requires honest speech. Listeners must know that the words the preacher uses are truthful and accurate.

Truthfulness begins with exegesis. God’s Word is given in human language and language inevitably requires interpretation. This is not to render preaching entirely subjective. It is to say, however, that there is a certain amount of human discretion involved in the preacher’s use of Scripture. That discretion can be abused, however, when the authority vested in the pulpit is used to provide added weight to the preacher’s particular take on the text. While the Bible can be misinterpreted unwittingly, the preacher must never knowingly use his or her position to manipulate meaning for personal purposes. We are responsible to make use of all the accepted tools of grammatical-historical research to interpret the Scriptures according to their intent and present the plain truth as it is found in the text.

Our listeners have a right to expect that we will be committed to honest speech. People should not have to take our words with the proverbial ‘grain of salt.’ While preachers are known to embellish stories or to speak ‘evang-elastically’ in the use of statistics, our points are never enhanced when we bend truth in the direction of our own interest, even when we do it because we think it is in the service of the gospel. This is not to say we have to be slavish to the details of the stories we are telling. In our use of the Bible, for example, we can imagine a puzzled look on the face of the rich young ruler or a tear in the eye of the prodigal son. The text doesn’t give us those details, but we are not violating the intent of the text when we provide them. People have become adept at screening the bias out of advertising, media editorials, and political speech, but these skills should not be required of those who listen to preaching. Listeners are not always in a position to evaluate the claims we make from the pulpit. While they will critically evaluate what we say, we should not tax that faculty too heavily.

Plagiarism is a particular concern for the preacher. While many would suggest that the pulpit allows latitude in the use of other people’s ideas, unauthorized appropriation of intellectual property is theft. Plagiarism occurs whenever we pass along someone else’s idea or words as if they were our own. It is unethical, for instance, to place ourselves in a factual story that was actually the experience of someone else. Preachers do stand on the shoulders of others. It is good practice, for instance, to benefit from concepts, commentary, and even sermon constructions offered by others. In some of these cases, the ideas are essentially in the public domain and no longer need to be cited distinctly. In other cases, where either the ideas are unique to a particular source or where the use is substantial, we will want to identify who it is that we have benefited from. This is not difficult. It can be done orally (“I like the way Rick Warren put it…”), on the powerpoint screen, or in the printed bulletin. A more substantial problem lies in the increasingly common practice of preachers who lift entire sermons from the internet and claim them for their own. Not only is this practice unethical, but it is lazy and not particularly helpful to our listeners.

A further area of concern, complicated by new technologies has to do with the use of motion picture content without appropriate permissions. This is both a legal and an ethical concern. A judiciously used movie clip can add much to a sermon, but just as we have learned to do with music, we must either get permission from the rights-holder or purchase one of the many blanket license options now available.


Respect for the Listener

Ethics in preaching demands that we speak and act respectfully toward our listeners. The pulpit is a place of power if for no other reason than that the traditional sermon offers little opportunity for dialogue or interaction. Statements we make from the pulpit are not easily challenged. Any half-truths or untruths can be devastating to people unable to defend themselves.

We usually have the best of motives. We preach that people would find faith in Christ and that the followers of Jesus would serve to bring God’s kingdom here on earth. Rare is the preacher who does not feel the subtle strains of temptation to manipulate the listener even just a little. Facts can be stretched, stories exaggerated, and rhetoric heated to the point where the listener finds motivation, not simply in the power of the message or the call of God’s Spirit but in the manufactured emotion of the moment. Seminaries don’t teach this, but still we learn it well. There is a subtle line between manipulation and motivation and preachers must learn to stay on the right side of it.

For example, we must be careful not to use the pulpit as a means to bully people into submission. While we often feel disrespected and maligned, the pulpit is no place to get even or to ‘set the record straight.’Preachers, adept at the use of words, can damage and defame, all the while sounding spiritual and upright. Jesus was particularly vehement in his opposition to such Pharisaical behavior.

We ought rather to seek to be affirming to ‘the other.’ Preachers should deliberately search out ways of understanding what they say from the perspective of people diverse to themselves in terms of gender, socio-economics, age, and even sexuality. We don’t have to share the listener’s experience or even agree with it in order to be kind and gentle. The preacher’s words are only heard with greater power when they are truthful in what they represent.

In the end, preachers embrace righteousness because we serve a holy God whom we love and who will hold us to account. ‘Be ye holy,’ the Bible says, ‘because I am holy’ (1 Peter 1:16).


The Homiletical Schoolbus

Time Traveling Through the Text of Scripture

Kenton C. Anderson


Occasionally my children watch a program on PBS called The Magic School Bus. The show features a group of school children that go on surprising educational adventures to places like the interior of the human body or to the bottom of the sea in their amazing school bus. I’ve often thought that preachers drive a similar school bus.

In many ways we act like cosmic Holy Land tour bus operators. We pull the bus up to the front of the church as we begin our sermon and invite everyone to find a place inside. We drive back 2000 years to biblical times and take people on a tour with us.

When we get there, we point out all kinds of interesting features. “Here is something to take notice of,” we say. “Listen to this conversation over here. Did you notice how he responded to her? Here is something else to notice. We want to be sure to remember all these things upon our return home.”

Inevitably, the 30-minute tour comes to an end. The people all get back on the bus and the preacher drives them home again. Just before they exit, the preacher offers one more word of exhortation, to ensure that everyone will remember the lessons learned.

The passengers disembark and return home. There they find a couple of urgent messages on the answering machine. There is a football game to watch. And of course there’s the prospect of work the next morning lurking in the background. The homiletical holiday in the Holy Land seems very distant.

This problem of distance stems, in part, from our concept of preaching. Preachers have long been conditioned to think of their task as creating a bridge to join two distant environments: the contemporary world and the ancient text. The best preaching, it is thought, offers a perfect balance between text and today, taking the people back and forth across the homiletical bridge.

The trip can be exhausting. Worse, our paradigm might be creating some unfortunate thinking in the minds of our listeners. The homiletic school bus approach to preaching will tend to communicate that God did all His speaking in the past – that listening to God requires traveling back to a distant time when God spoke directly and powerfully to His people. Is this what we want to teach? Has God ceased speaking?

God still speaks! Yes, he spoke to Daniel, and Paul, and Zephaniah, but He still speaks to us today, revealing His character and will in wonderful ways. Listeners are not so concerned about what God said (past tense) as they are with what God is saying (present tense). God is alive and his Word is a dynamic presentation of truth through and into history.

Secondly, the two worlds are not so different. Things haven’t changed as much as we often assume. The world is still the world and people are still people. Sure, we may have to explain what a shophar is or who the Hittites were, but these things are easily described and quickly overcome. The historical nature of Scripture is crucial to its character and its authenticity, but it does not have to be an impediment to communication. Preachers should not worry so much about the distance between text and today. The text is today!

Preaching that communicates with power today will help people hear from God. Such preaching provides a dynamic opportunity for people to hear from God through His Word and through the voice of the preacher. Let’s get off the homiletical school bus and collapse the distance between text and today. Let’s preach the ancient text in the present tense.


The Baptist Preacher in a Pluralist Context

Lose the label if you like, but don’t let go of these helpful Baptist principles.

Kenton C. Anderson


Say the words ‘Baptist Preacher’ and you will get different responses from different people. For some, the words will raise the names of Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Gardner Taylor, and W. A. Criswell, great men who took the Bible seriously and blessed many with its message. For others, however, the name evokes a more negative connotation. Bellicose and opinionated, the stereotypical Baptist hardly fits the pluralism of the times.

The very idea that preaching could be Baptist seems a dubious distinction to many who haven’t yet given up on preaching. To them Baptist loyalty would seem quaintly amusing if it were not so expensive. Those of us struggling to retain our voice in these preacher-phobic times might feel we can’t afford to wear any kind of label, must less one so heavily freighted.

If it is worth distinguishing our preaching as Baptist it must be because Baptist distinctives add value to our efforts. If by acting as Baptists we can offer something that is particularly helpful in our pluralistic context, then our Baptist-ness could be worth retaining. What then, is distinctively helpful about Baptist preaching in these times?


Helpful Distinctive #1: People of the Book

It is common among preachers today to move away from a biblical foundation for the sermon in the attempt to seem relevant. Thematic preaching is seen as a way of capturing the interest of disinclined people. Yet when preaching disconnects from its biblical roots, it seems little different than a motivational speech or newspaper editorial.

A pure thematic approach to preaching will always be welcome in these pluralistic times as opinion remains the one accepted form of public discourse. Few are threatened by opinions as they tend to lack authority. Yet, while they may be less threatening they are also less helpful in the end. Preachers actually want to be of assistance to people, which is what should drive them to the Bible.

Baptists have always been known as people of the book. In a Baptist church, one expects to hear the Bible, and rightly so. Many will take offense, yet others will take heart. The historic Baptist concern for biblical fidelity requires as much courage as it always has. But as was the case in ages past, this insistence on biblical authority allows the Baptist preacher to avoid charges of arrogance and insensitivity. People might have a problem with what we say, but their problem will be with the Bible more than with the preacher who gives it voice.


Distinctive #2: Soul Liberty

While some preachers have sought to cozy up to the culture with listener-friendly sermons, many Baptists have taken a different tack. Instead of making friends with the world, these preachers have chosen to make war with the world, challenging the culture with strong language and strong ideas. Clearly, the world can use the criticism. Yet, somewhere along the way, Baptist preachers became known for their dogmatism and heavy-handedness, an unwelcome image in a pluralistic context.

No doubt some of this is in the Baptist DNA. Baptist doctrine grew out of conflict and dissent. When John Smyth established the first Baptist church in England (1607) it was an act of defiance against the Church of England and the surrounding culture. Yet, the following year, when that church composed its first statement of faith, at the center was the idea of ‘soul liberty’ or the sense that every individual must do his or her own business with Creator God.

If Baptists were serious about reaching their culture(s) they might take another look at this historic piece of doctrine. There is no more powerful idea operating among humans than that we might be free. The gospel is given openly and without control. Baptist preachers are not compelled to control their listeners or to demand response. We do not need to threaten people because we are confident that the gospel can stand on its own. The message can stand the scrutiny.

This is a matter of tone as well as doctrine. We preach with conviction and we preach for decision but we let people make their decisions for themselves. If we can cultivate this kind of open environment, we will create places and sermons that people without Jesus might find welcome.


Distinctive #3: Preaching is A Calling, Not a Trade

The contemporary Baptist preacher, John Piper, recently published a book called Brothers, We are Not Professionals. Roger Williams himself could not have said it better. Williams, the first North American Baptist, stood directly opposed to the so-called ‘hireling ministry’prevalent during his day. In his view, wages paid by means of a forced tithe and collected by the civil government was directly responsible for the weakness of the church and the lack of power in the preaching of the day.

Today, it is common practice for Baptist churches to pay the preacher an honest wage, and such is as it should be. Yet, as Piper contends, an unhealthy sense of professionalism has snuck into Baptist life, creating pastors who see themselves as the privileged leaders of the congregation, operating at a certain distance from the people they seek to serve. Sermons then are ‘handed down’ to the people like a press release from head office. Such sermons can feel like directives or memorandums from the boss.

The point of preaching, from a Baptist perspective, is that we are all listeners, equal before God and before the Word. The preacher has simply been given the privilege of a head start. In truth, God is the preacher. We all come together to listen to what he says. Perhaps this is a kind of egalitarianism that we can all embrace and which the world around could warm to.


Preaching isn’t going to go away, nor should it. The church of the future might not put a lot of stock into the Baptist label, but it would do well to retain the value of these Baptist principles.


Let Him Who Has Ears, Listen

On the need to restore godly listening and participation.

by Michael J. Quicke


“The skills of the hearers are more important than the skills of the preacher” controversially claimed G.E. Sweazey, Preaching the Good News 1976, 310). He went onto argue how hearers “need their own instruction in homiletics. . .they need to know what the whole idea of preaching is.” This overstates the case for in preaching there is a principle of mutual responsibility with a complex balance of accountability between hearers and preacher. No preacher can abdicate accountability for conveying God’s truth and neither can hearers evade responsibility. Boring sermons produce yawns, but willfully bored people can stonewall sermons. Both sides have to listen and learn from each other. Preachers need to listen to their own hearers in order to preach better and hearers need listen to preachers in order that they might respond more sensitively to God’s word.

This paper considers a New Testament command embedded in the teachings of Jesus and probes at some of its implications in the light of recent research in orality, culture change and a theology of preaching. It concludes with some practical steps (which would please Sweazey!)

The Synoptic gospels testify that on several different occasions Jesus called for active listening with the refrain: “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen” (Mark 4:23; 7:16; Matthew 11:15; 13: 9, 34; 25:29; Luke 8:8; 13:9; 21:4.) It is particularly interesting to look at Jesus’ parable in Mark 4:1-20 (and its parallels) with its different soils and harshly realistic quotation from Isaiah 6: 9-10. How significant is it that Jesus opens with the command: “Listen!” (verse 3) and concludes with the refrain: “Let anyone with ears, listen”(verse 9)? Commentators are convinced that Jesus raises the threshold for hearers. Cranfield likens it to way the daily Shema opens (Deut. 6.4). It is “both an appeal to hear aright and at the same time a solemn warning of the possibility of a wrong hearing.” (Cranfield, 1959, 149.) “This is no self evident truth.” Wessel (1984, 648). “By it the hearers are summoned to hear at a deeper level than mere sense perception, to take hold of the meaning of the parable, to apply it to themselves and thus ultimately to hear the word of God which can save them (Ezk. 3:27).” Marshall (1978, 320). It seems that hearers bear some responsibility for being seeded in ‘good soil’ accepting and “bearing fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold”

“Let anyone with ears to hear, listen” is not an empty ritual refrain but an urgent encouragement that listeners need to listen with more than their ears with spiritual apprehension. It calls for holistic listening. Hearers have a responsibility to be willing to live in new ways. It involves an intensity of response that casual notice may miss to its peril. Hearing words and not putting them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house upon sand (Matt.7: 26). For “faith comes from what is heard” (Romans 10:17.) You catch the urgency, for example in 1 Cor. 15:51, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! Hearing opens up a dimension of responsibility that echoes in the early church (Rev.2: 7,11,17,29; 3:6,13,22) and complements the accountabilities of the preacher.


Holistic listening then

Orality focuses on the role of spoken words. The history of spoken words can be described by three main eras: aural-oralitywriting and print, and electronic. The early period of aural-oralitywas marked by the dominance of the spoken and heard word. It continued long after the invention of writing and many of its features were seen up until the invention of printing. Though Old Testament Scriptures were written by hand, and the gospels were later to be recorded, (and Paul’s letters to be sent), the ways of thinking and ordering thought among Jesus’ disciples were most influenced by an unwritten culture of “word of mouth.” Words operated very differently from what happened later when you could see them written down. Words were ‘sounds’ from within a person’s ‘interior consciousness’ and these sounded out words were events in themselves. Hence the Hebrew word dabar means both word and event. Words were personal happenings with direct impact on the ears of the listeners.

The ear was all-important. There was no other back up to memory. Communication was abortive if people failed to hear and to remember. Orality meant aurality. Important truths needed to be recalled afterwards. The primary way therefore for Jesus to engage his disciples in sustained thought and action was tied to hearing speech, to “think memorable thoughts” as Ong (1982,35) describes it. Sounding out words and listening to them were both essential for faith and community. Various techniques were developed to help the ear such as mnemonics, rhythms, repetitions, formulae, but the most obvious and far-reaching was the place of “stories.” Accurate listening and ability to recall was fundamental to truth telling and truth living.

“Let anyone with ears to hear, listen” directly related to how words worked in an aural/oral culture. At the center of Jesus’ discipling were sounded out words which created a community of the ear. Indeed, Wilson has described the era of the early church: “The authority of word as sound” (1992 17-66).

Babin,(following ideas of McLuhan 1969), has further emphasized the vital role played by themedium of communication within this aural/oral culture. “The message is not in the words but in the effect produced by the one who is speaking. . .modulation is the essence of audiovisual language. . .. Modulation indicates vibration frequencies which vary in length, intensity, harmonics and other nuance. . .perceived by our senses and induce emotions, images even ideas” (1991,6). Christ’s teaching not only concerns information and ideas, but also invites hearers into relationship with himself through audio-visual language. Babin asserts the importance of the communal life as Christian faith was learned through what he terms “immersion” from New Testament until the fifteenth century. “Immersion” describes how faith was communicated in an aural/oral culture characterized by “the pre-eminence of communal life, by liturgy and practice, by stories and images, and by the sacred part played by the person teaching.” Hearers were drawn into a deep belonging where “there was no gap. . .between the sacred and the profane. The whole of life was bathed in a religious climate.”(21). It was a total learning experience. “To understand is to participate.”

The aural/oral era was succeeded by an era dominated by writing and print. Instead of the ear being primary, with learning by immersion in community with participation, the eye was dominant. “Let anyone with eyes to see, see” became the litany for individual readers who no longer had need of immersion in community nor for techniques of recall—you could simply look it up on a page and put the page down at your convenience. Thinking could now be recorded in linear and logical format with a greatly extended vocabulary. Babin makes the judgment that this led increasingly to a “more cerebral form of faith. . .but one day we woke up to the fact that, for the majority of people the living reality of faith had fled.” (99)


Holistic listening now

My enthusiasm for orality studies concerns the present third era with the advent of electroniccommunication. Modulation, vibrations, participation in community have returned with two electronic media—the audio-visual which relates primarily to pleasure and entertainment anddata-processing which involves information and calculation.

Babin believes that these two media together open up a “new era in religious communication.”

I do not think it is possible to separate an audiovisual form of catechesis, one that appeals to the heart and to human feelings, from a purely notional form, one aimed more precisely at the intellect and reason. This new, combined type of religious education will hereafter be calledstereo catechesis (his italics). . … The greatest danger threatening faith today, I am convinced, is not the absence of information and firm instruction, but the lack of interest in Jesus Christ and the failure of our hearts to be converted (1991, 31-32).

Two kinds of language therefore coexist. ‘Conceptual’ language appeals to intellect and reason and is grounded in writing, print and data processing. “Symbolic” language is his term for audiovisual language that “adds modulation to abstract words.” (146) Babin claims that Jesus’ language was primarily symbolic which “leads to spirit, heart and moves the body. Full of resonances, rhythms, stories, images which lead to a different kind of mental and emotional behavior.” (149). It is transformational more than informational. However, these two languages operate together in stereo form, combining like “two waves, each one carrying with it its own sand.” (152)

The electronic revolution has opened up new possibilities for stereo listening, head and heart. “Let anyone who has ears to hear and eyes to see, listen and see.”

Many authors on preaching are wrestling with the implications of stereo communication for preaching. There is increasing awareness that conceptual language alone, characteristic of the print age, is not communicating as effectively in the electronic age. Contemporary congregations have people who hear, see and touch the preaching differently. Frick (1999) generalizes about three groups found in congregations: those who respond visually and often sit at the back of the congregation in order to see the big picture. Others respond audibly, sitting in the middle so as not to miss anything. Yet others respond kinesthetically preferring to be drawn into experience by participating physically. Sitting at the front they engage with bodies as well as minds. To respond to the needs of all these different kinds of listening Frick calls for a “total learning experience” with a variety of creative approaches. He joins a long line of those who have studied orality change and suggest new options for preaching. Some have focused on using words in multi-sensory ways (Mitchell 1999), on emphasizing orality by preaching without a manuscript (Elsworth 2000) and on using technology (Slaughter 1998, Wilson 1999). Others have emphasized “participation and immersion” by developing collaborative preaching with listeners involved at each stage of the preaching process (Schlafer 1992, McClure 1995).


Spiritual apprehension

Central to holistic listening is a theological issue about what God does in the act of preaching. Though this paper allows only limited space to sketch out some implications we should consider how the triune God empowers effective preaching?

Torrance warns how many Christians are practical Unitarians with a practice of worship which:

Has no doctrine of the mediator or sole priesthood of Christ, is human-centered, has no proper doctrine of the Holy Spirit. . ..we sit in the pew watching the minister “doing his thing,” exhorting us “to do our thing,” until we go home thinking we have done our duty for another week (1996,20).

In contrast, a Trinitarian view of worship sees it as “the gift of participating through the Spirit in the incarnate Son’s communion with the Father (20).” Torrance calls for a fresh experience of the two movements of grace: the God-humanward from the Father, through the Son, in the Spirit and the human-Godward to the Father through the Son in the Spirit. No genuine listening and responding to God in preaching can occur except by gracious revelation of the Father, Christ’s interceding presence in the midst and the empowering Holy Spirit who enabled Scripture first to be inspired, and now interpreted, interactive, heard and lived out in faith. Preaching is a Father event, a Christ event, a Spirit event or it is merely resounding gongs or clanging cymbals.

Preaching occurs within a 360 degree dynamic as the Lord gives a word and it returns to him. Comparing the word to the cycle of rain falling from heaven and not returning until it has watered the earth and caused seed to grow, “so shall my word be that goes from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and succeed in the thing for which I sent it”(Isa.55: 11.)

This returning word, in a 360 degree dynamic, is difficult to describe. Any attempted model is untidy and multi-dimensional with arrows and lines flowing in many directions and many more connections too complex to show in a flat diagram. The triune God of grace is involved in every point yet begins and finishes the process. Each line and arrow describes Trinitarian connections between preacher and hearers, and hearers and preachers as the whole community is challenged in its living.

The command: “Let anyone with ears to hear, listen” invites participation in a dynamic where God’s word will not return empty, Christ stands with those who gather in his name (Matthew 18:20) and prays for all believers (John 17:20-26) and the Holy Spirit actively creates spiritual apprehension (1 Thess. 1: 5). “The quality of preaching is affected most significantly by the level of awareness of the movement of the Spirit shared by those in the pulpit and the pew” (Forbes, 20).

Convincing, rebuking, loving, healing, converting, sending out, are all evidences of God’s work through a preacher. It is the Holy Spirit who will “prove the world wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment” (John 16:8) and who makes connections “bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God “(Rom 8:16). The outcome of preaching is well summarized in 1 John 1:3: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”


Let anyone with ears to hear, listen

Earlier I referred to a principle of mutual responsibility between hearers and preacher. On one side, preachers have accountability to ensure good news is just that. Preachers in their exegesis, interpretation and design need always to be conscious of their listeners, making connections and ‘hooking’ responses by content and interesting style. David Mains, of Mainstay Ministries, contends that 80% of evangelical sermons fail because preachers are unclear what response they are calling for. Hearers can tell you afterwards what the theme was but they had no idea what to do about it. Contemporary preachers should not avoid working through the implications of stereo preaching and we have already noted some authors’ contributions.

However, in the last part of this paper I want to address hearers in particular. Authentic twenty-first preaching must recover authentic listening and preachers have a critical task of restoring godly listening. Sweazey (1976) argued that hearers need their own instruction in homiletics. He suggested that an occasional sermon with a subject such as: “Partners in Preaching” could be useful as well as offering courses on homiletics for hearers. Preachers have to awaken passive listeners to become active partners in hearing and doing God’s word. Mark 4:1-20 has to be taken seriously. Hearers have to be alerted to responsibilities before, during and after preaching. Like loving God “with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind” (Luke 10: 27), stereo listening requires everything of a hearer. Here are some guidelines:


1. Prepare for worship expectantly.

The more casual and unprepared that listeners are as they come to worship the less likely they are to experience God. All worshipers, preacher included, should make space and time for genuine prayers of preparation. “Who shall stand in his holy place? Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully” (Ps 24:3,4). Snatched seconds of perfunctory routine before worship smothers spiritual possibilities within worship. “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth” (John 4:21) and be sensitive to God who is spirit. Spiritual insensitivity to God beforehand can condemn to spiritual insensitivity during worship. The outcome is a Unitarian utilitarianism – preachers “do their own thing” which may or may not have any relevance to hearers “doing their thing.”

Preachers need to include themselves in more rigorous practice of prayerful preparation that stills the spirit (Psalm 37:7) and raises expectation that God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit are involved in a spiritual happening in worship for the whole community. God’s word does not return empty. God’s seed in good soil can make an astounding difference—”bearing fruit, thirty and sixty and a hundredfold. ” Worshipers should prepare with openness to what fruit they might bear. If you think a sermon is going to be a waste of time, nine times out of ten it will be. If you believe in an active present God anything could happen.

Preachers have a responsibility to model sensitive preparation for worship. In the crescendo of interruptions often leading up to the service prayer should not be treated as a routine to be squeezed out by more important matters, but the foundation for prepared minds and hearts of everyone. Listeners can be encouraged to pray in the days leading up to worship by specific information. Preachers can share next week’s Scripture text and theme and ask listeners to prepare by reading and reflecting themselves as well as supporting the preacher in preparation. The more seriously preachers reflect personal conviction about the Trinitarian dynamic of worship and preaching, the more seriously listeners will prepare with them.

Those who commend collaborative preaching where they work with a small group of people, before, during and after the preaching, comment on hearers’ heightened awareness as they work on a text beforehand (McClure, Schlafer). It may be a far cry for most congregations to undertake home assignments on the text for the next Sunday and prayerfully uphold a preacher, but nothing is more effective in raising the possibilities of fruit bearing. Preachers have a responsibility to raise the stakes.


2. Listen with all your mind

Stereo listening hears both conceptual and symbolic language. Morreale and Bovee stress the importance of developing four kinds of listening which cover both kinds of language: content(comprehensive) to understand a speaker’s message; critical listening which evaluates the message; empathetic listening which seeks to understand the speaker’s feelings and viewpoint;appreciative listening which intentionally seeks to admire and enjoy (2000, 70).

Many older members of congregations have a strong preference for conceptual language in preaching which emphasizes precision, clarity, analysis, idea, explanation and linear sequence (fig 1). They particularly focus on content listening and critical listening.

There is a considerable literature on the dynamics of listening to conceptual language and about the effort involved to develop active listening. Active listening is a willingness to participate mentally with a speaker, to dialogue, question and engage with a developing linear sequence. It requires concentration. The average person speaks at a rate of 125-150 words per minutes while the average capacity to listen is nearer 500 words per minute. This considerable extra capacity for the mind to wander is a common cause of those with ears to hear not hearing. While appearing to be listening attentively, hearers can be “miles away.”

Many churches, especially those that publish worship bulletins, provide aids for listeners in the form of sermon outlines and spaces for writing sermon notes. Some churches have sermon note pads provided in the pews. On other occasions preachers ask specific questions which they expect to be written down while they are preaching and in some cases small groups use these at a later occasion to follow up the sermon.

Morreale and Bovee give six strategies to improve active listening which can be applied to preaching. Improve your concentration recognizes how easy it is to be distracted and calls for a conscious focusing on speaker and following through what is said, anticipating the next point and testing what has been said so far. For sermon listening, this means holding the Scripture passage open, listening for assumptions, questions and surprises in the passage so that time and energy are invested while the preaching proceeds. Focus on verbal and nonverbal cueslooks at a speaker’s face, posture and gestures and asks whether it reinforces or contradicts the message. Withhold your judgment stresses the need to listen to the whole and compare conclusions. Manage personal reaction disciplines prejudice from past experiences about certain people, clothing styles, accents, words and topics. Take notes not only of central idea and main points but an overview of the whole listening experience. Share the responsibility for successful communication emphasizes the quality of feedback that hearers give nonverbally. Listeners who slump with heads down are not an encouraging sign. (1998, 76-82).


3. Listen with all your heart

Clearly, it is false to distinguish sharply between head and heart responses. Preachers who use conceptual language would claim to change hearts through changed thinking. However, symbolic language is characterized much more by participation, immersion, intuitive and imagination and evolves “by thresholds rather than by linear accomplishment” (see fig 1). The more symbolic language is used, the less satisfactory is the taking of notes.

Preaching to the heart is more often stressed in black preaching than in white. In many white congregations conceptual language focuses on content and critical responses. A white colleague of mine, in a highly liturgical tradition, commented recently how distressing he found it that people gave so little response, even facially. In black congregations, however, there can beempathetic and appreciative listening with highly vocal dialogue. Some black preachers invite responses not only directly: “Do I have a witness? Do I hear Amen?” but by their whole approach to holistic preaching from which we can all learn.

Mitchell in Celebration and Experience in Preaching (1990) emphasizes how preaching should be to the whole person, cognitively and emotionally. “Every sermon must make sense; it must be manifestly reasonable. . .otherwise the subsection of the rational mind that monitors such things will shut down one’s receptivity. However, although reason ..opens the gate to the intuitive, it does not itself beget faith. . invades our lives through the intuitive andemotive sectors of consciousness. . .experiential encounter (his italics) (19-22). Mitchell has much to say to preachers about moving in sermon design from outline as “flow of ideas” to outlines as “flow in consciousness”(49). The implications for listeners are very significant too. As “Jesus required “clients” to take some part in the healing. . .no healing at the church can take place without the cooperation of the person in need. . .to have openness to and confidence in the healer. So seeds come to life.” (149). Symbolic language seeks a personal commitment from a listener to be sensitive to the spiritual possibilities of God acting in the present tense.

One or two of my African American students have commented how in their experience, certain patterns of black preaching can sometimes build their own momentum that seems to owe too much at times to congregational expectation or, worse, a need for ministerial affirmation. Yet on many occasions there is an undeniable participation and celebration that actively involves the whole congregation.


4. Listen with all your strength.

Preaching should always result in more than a cerebral response, such as notes made on a sheet of paper. Its outcome is about people building on rock and not on sand, doing God’s word and living God’s word together. It is about God’s word returning to him having changed lives and communities. Preaching is about forming Biblical shaped, Christ centered individuals and communities. The test for preaching is what happens in the behavior of the hearers.

The reference in 1 Cor. 14:3 to “those who prophesy” relates to intelligible speech (verse 9) and therefore to preaching. Its three outcomes are listed as “building up” (oikodomeo), “encouragement” (paraclesis) and “consolation” (paramythia). 2 Tim. 4:2 adds convince (elegeon) and rebuke (epitemeson). Mitchell calls for each sermon to have a “behavioral purpose.” “Every sermon will have a controlling idea and require some intellectual growth or increased understanding, but maturity of attitude and behavior—deep trust with willing obedience is the central objective.” (54)

Hearers, and preacher, need to recognize that God may be calling for a specific response that requires deeper trust and willing obedience. Too many listeners rate a sermon in terms of its interest and weight, but what matters most is what they will do differently. As Sangster once commented, what counts is “service beyond services”, or in Bill Hybel’s words that hearers become “a biblically functioning community.”


5. Remember: Good listening makes for better preaching.

In Sweazey’s advice to hearers he describes how ministers who preach away from home are sometimes struck by contrasting responses from different congregations (perhaps to the same message). In some places it feel like “slogging through mud up to the waist” as all eyes are averted and body language is depressed. Yet in another church everyone seems to lean forward with excitement (316). Most hearers have little idea of what a vital role they have to play in the worship and preaching event. They have never understood the impact that their body language makes, and what difference their graciously worded comments afterwards can make (including negative observations). Which preacher has not risen with eagle’s wings when they are told about significant events triggered by a sermon?

It is beyond the remit of this paper to pursue important issues about how preachers might develop greater mentoring and organize more formal feedback after sermons. But listeners should be awakened to their responsibilities to share in the dynamics of a preaching event.

For many churches these five guidelines mean a revolution in listening habits. Some churches would benefit from “listening clinics” for new believers who are unused to listening to sermons, tired and middle-aged listeners who long ago gave up expecting to hear anything from God and have settled for tedium. For the elderly who were excited once and who long to hear the sound of heaven again. “Sermons are delivered to the church on Sunday so they can be delivered to the world on Monday. Out there is where the harvest will be reaped” (Sweazey, 318). “Anyone who has ears to hear, listen.”


Reference list

Babin, Pierre. The NEW ERA in Religious Communication. Minneapolis; Fortress 1991

Cole, R.A. The gospel according to St. Mark. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1961

Cranfield, C.E.B. The Cambridge Greek Commentary on St. Mark. Cambridge: Cambridge, 1959

Ellsworth, Wilbur. The power of speaking God’s word. How to preach memorable sermons.Fearn, Ross-shire; Christian Focus 2000

Forbes, James. The Holy Spirit and Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon, 1989.

Frick, Murray. Reach the back row. Creative approaches for high-impact preaching. Vital publishing 1999.

Marshall, I Howard. The gospel of Luke. Exeter: Paternoster 1976.

McClure, John S. The round table pulpit—where leadership and preaching meet. Nashville; Abingdon 1995

McLuhan, Marshall. The Gutenberg Galaxy; the making of typographic man. New York; Signet 1969

Mitchell, Henry. Celebration and Experience in Preaching. Nashville: Abingdon 1990

Mitchell, Jolyon P. Visually Speaking—Radio and the renaissance of preaching. Glasgow; T&T Clark 1999

Morreale, Sherwyn P. and Courtland L. Bovee Excellence in public speaking Orlando: Harcourt Brace 1998

Ong, Walter. Orality and Literacy: the technologizing of the word. London: Methuen 1982

Schlafer, David J. Surviving the sermon. A guide to preaching for those who have to listen.Boston, Massachusetts; Cowley publications 1992

Slaughter Michael. Out on the edge. A wake up call for church leaders on the edge of the media reformation. Abingdon 1998

Sweazey, George E. Preaching the Good News. New Jersey; Prentice-Hall 1976

Torrance, James B. Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace. Downers Grove: IVP1996

Wessel, Walter W. Mark (Gaeberlin, Frank E. ed.) Expositor’s Bible Commentary Volume 8 Grand Rapids: Zonervan 1984

Wilson, Len. The wired church. Making media ministry. Nashville; Abingdon 1999

Wilson, Paul Scott. A concise history of preaching. Nashville; Abingdon 1992

Serving Sermons from a Bowl

The appeal of non-sequential sermons to multi-cultural audiences.

Kenton C. Anderson


I recently spent a week teaching preaching in Seoul. I heard a lot of preaching while I was there, and while I didn’t know the words of the sermons I recognized the style. It was the preaching I heard in my childhood – dogmatic and didactic, logical and linear. It didn’t strike me as authentically Korean. There is not much I could recognize in the city of Seoul. In a full week there, I saw only two other faces the color of mine. The food was different, the language was different, the pastimes were different, even the cars were different. Everything was different except the preaching. That bothered me.

I believe that preaching is cultural. The message we preach is founded in Scripture and transcends culture, but the preaching of the message, is definitively tied to the expectations, assumptions, and languages of the cultural context. Preaching speaks truth into time – specific times and specific places, and therein lay my problem. I did not want to perpetuate the sins of the past. I did not want to teach Koreans to preach North American. I wanted them to preach in ways that fit their culture. I wanted to help them find their own voice.

It took a few meals for me to get it. Lunch each day was ordered in, delivered on the back of a motorcycle from a local restaurant. It was serve yourself – buffet style and so I loaded up my plate in my customary style, meat, noodles, vegetables, all in their appropriate places. I am a stickler when it comes to keeping my plate organized. My hosts, I noticed were not. They didn’t even use plates. Everything went into a bowl – mixed up and messy, all the tastes and textures combining into every single mouthful. The Koreans called it ‘tang.’ The Chinese call it Chop Suey. I call it different. This was not my preferred form of eating, but I’m from North America. Why should they want their food the same way I want it. As long as it is nutritional and all four food groups are represented, does it matter whether the food is ingested separately and sequentially or all together in one big mouthful?

The model I use to help students understand preaching looks very much like a plate – one of those disposable Styrofoam party plates, actually, with the pre-formed dividers. I believe there are four major elements in any effective sermon: engagement (the story), instruction (the point), argument (the problem), and application (the difference). My model helps the students integrate these four sermon keys, usually handling them sequentially, beginning with the story and ending with the difference. It is, to my mind, a helpful and logical approach.

But what if the sermon wasn’t served on a plate? What if one was to remove the middle lines and turn the sermon on its edge? What if the plate became a bowl? If the elements were stirred would the sermon suffer? If the message was mixed would meaning end up messed? Just how critical is linear form to effectiveness in preaching? Is our bent toward sequential clarity a cultural idiosyncrasy or is it a universal requirement? Must we separate the peas from the potatoes, or could they combine in the listener’s mouth for a more satisfying taste. I’m beginning to think that my predilection for sequential ordering might be more about where I come from than it is about what the listener needs. I’m beginning to wonder whether I should serve my sermons in a bowl.

So what would this sound like in an actual sermon? Well to start with, the preacher ought to make sure he or she is working with the right ingredients. The Canada Food Guide says that every Canadian should eat a balanced diet of Grains, Dairy, Meats, and Vegetables. Similarly, I think the sermon ought to include the four elements mentioned earlier:

Engagement: connecting listeners with the human story in the text

Instruction: clearly defining and declaring the point God wants proclaimed

Argument: giving the listener room to wrestle with the inevitable problem

Application: imagining the tangible difference intended by the message

Preachers like me want to handle these one at a time, but what if we got a little more creative? What if we scraped our well-ordered plate into a bowl and stirred it up a little. For example, maybe we might engage our listeners through opening with argument. Maybe we might paint an imaginative and compelling application before we instruct the listeners, or maybe the whole thing happens all at once.

An example? Last Sunday I preached the story of Namaan the leper from I Kings 5. I followed my normal pattern, beginning by (1) telling the story of this man who was forced to humiliate himself in pursuit of God’s healing. I then (2) made my point about how God often humbles us before he is willing to bless us. Next, (3) I helped the listener argue the point. After all, I know how hard pride dies. Finally, (4) I challenged people with a picture of an altered future where we would no longer be hindered from doing what God wants for fear of looking foolish. 1, 2, 3, 4 …all elements present and accounted for.

But what if I mixed things up a little. With a little creativity I can imagine a less linear lineup of the various sermon elements:

Namaan’s servant was intelligent. He understood what was going on. A little humiliation was a small price to pay given all that was at stake. “Look,” the servant said, “If the prophet had asked you to do some great thing, you would have done it without giving it a second thought, but here he asks you to do a little thing, a foolish thing, and you resist. I think you ought to do it. What would it hurt you to dip your toe in the water? What do you have to lose?” (engagement)

Sure, we’ve got nothing to lose – nothing to lose but our pride! As if that were nothing! Our pride is all I’ve got, isn’t it. Strip it all down and what else is there? Take away my friends, my money, my accomplishments – at least I still have my pride. Isn’t that what we say? “At least I still have my pride.” (argument)

And God says, ‘No, I want that too. I want you knee deep in muddy water, looking like a fool if that is what it takes for you to get this thing straight.’ There is no room for pride in the Christian life. I think that one of the primary tasks of the Christian is to grow to understand who God is, understand who we are, and to understand the difference. (instruction).

So Namaan got his feet wet. Not just his feet, but he got his whole self wet. Over and over he plunged himself in the river. He could hear them snickering on the riverbank because he really did look like a fool as he came up out of the water for the third, the fourth, the fifth time. He looked like a fool. Hey, he felt like a fool. But God promises to bless the humble fool. (engagement)

And that’s the thing, isn’t it. Are we willing to be humbled? Can you imagine what God could do through us if we were? Can you imagine what might happen if we could only get past our fear of looking foolish? What would happen if I could love my friends enough to tell truth to them even if they didn’t want to hear it? What would happen if I could care more about what God wants for me than for what I look like to others? (application).

And so on. I can imagine the sermon continuing to weave the various elements throughout the presentation, mixing the message for maximum impact. It is a chaordic form of preaching. The use of the four main elements give just enough order so that the sermon has purpose while still allowing enough chaos to bring the sermon to life.

I’ve got to admit, I’m not a big fan of Asian cooking. I’m guessing some of you might not find these suggestions to your taste either, but then since when did that ever matter? Preaching isn’t about the preacher’s preferences but about the listener’s need to hear from God. I believe we will need to become more inventive in our sermon structures as we preach to increasingly diverse congregations. I believe that non-sequential sermons could appeal to multi-cultural audiences. Serve your sermons in a bowl and see who comes to dinner.


The Place of the Pulpit

Kenton C. Anderson

My church bought a new pulpit this year. Gun-metal grey, portable, yet solid, the design offers an understated utility. Suited to the contemporary ambiance of our architecture and worship style, the new pulpit is intended to provide minimal interference to the communication process while still offering preachers a handy place to rest their notes.

I don’t like it. Give me the old oak pulpit, oiled by fist pounding and stained with preacher sweat. Give me “the sacred desk” or give me nothing at all. None of these acrylic, see through podiums for me, thank you very much. Give me the “furniture of authority” or else let me wander free like Whitfield in the country. Maybe that’s even better! Perhaps you should let me loose to walk among the people, just like Jesus, communing and communicating with the people without the barrier of pulpit furnishings.

Last Sunday I was invited to preach in a recently planted church. They offered a fine wooden pulpit. It looked a little odd set in the middle of the high school gym were they met, yet I was sure it would provide a perfectly good place to rest my Bible and hide my knees should they commence to knocking. To use or not to use, that was the question. On the one hand, the people obviously expected me to use the pulpit. Even in the short space of that church’s history, the people were accustomed to hearing their sermons from that particular spot of real estate. Would I somehow be diminishing the power of the preached word by moving away from the symbolic authority of the furniture? Would I cause too much disquiet by upsetting the people’s traditional expectation? Would I draw too much attention to myself by placing my person front and center without the discreet covering of the pulpit? On the other hand, was the pulpit necessary at all? Wouldn’t it just get in the way? Couldn’t I communicate more effectively by eliminating the barrier and adopting an intimate, face to face posture among the people?


The History of the Pulpit

There are no pulpits in the Bible. Somehow, Jesus managed without a pulpit in his sermon on the mount or any of his other discourses. Even in the synagogues there is no evidence that Jesus, Paul or the rabbis would have used anything approaching our contemporary conception of a pulpit (Hoppe, 1). Of course the early church met primarily in homes. It was not until the third century AD that Christian congregations began to build and furnish structures intended to house the worship of a local congregation (White, 19).

The first reference to a pulpit is found in a letter of Cyprian, bishop of Carthage, in the mid 3rd century. Cyprian makes several references to ordination as it relates to the pulpitum of his church building (White, 69 n.18). In fact, this is one of the first references to any sort of formal development of the building of churches. Michael White, says,

The term seems to refer to a slightly raised dais or platform at one end of the assembly hall where the clergy sat. In one instance the honor of ordination is symbolized in ascending the pulpitum in the loftiness of the higher place and conspicuous before the whole people. The phrase “to come to the pulpitum” even becomes the technical term for the ordination of a reader in the church at Carthage (White Vol.2, 23).

While this indicates a special place for the clergy in the sanctuary, it may more accurately indicate what we might call the platform in contemporary church buildings. There was no indication here that this pulpit was set apart for the preaching of God’s Word.

Around the fourth century AD, reference begins to be made to the altar and to the ambo as furnishings in the church. Dargan describes Chrysostom, for example, variously sitting in the ambo or “in the preacher’s usual place,” standing on the steps of the altar as he preached his famous sermons (Dargan, Vol.1, 88). The ambo was a small desk used for the reading of lessons and often for the preaching of sermons (Fiddes, 29). Originally the ambo was placed front and center in the sanctuary. By the ninth century the pulpit appears in a lateral (sometimes elevated) position in the basilican cathedrals of the day (Fiddes, 30). This move represented the less prominent place of preaching in the congregation and the heightened emphasis upon liturgical aspects of worship (Dargan, 109).

Eventually, pulpits became extremely ornate in their construction. Carved stairways, intricate ornamentation, and grand canopies describe the pulpit as a piece of art in the pre-reformation european cathedral (Bangs, 31-43). John Throop describes preaching in one such pulpit at the Trinity Church in Stratford-on-Avon. “To reach the marble pulpit in that church,” he said, “I had to climb nearly 12 feet up a long flight of circular steps. I couldn’t tell whether the breathlessness that followed was from being up so high, or being in a pulpit from which, hundreds of years ago, holy and articulate preachers, perhaps even the Bard himself, preached GodÈs Word (Throop, 48).”

The reformation led not only to a renewed emphasis upon the sermon but to the repositioning of the pulpit in the center of the sanctuary (Fiddes, 42,43). This better symbolized the reformation emphasis upon the centrality of God’s Word. In contemporary protestant churches this tradition has been continued. The pulpit assumes a central, though less ostentatious position. Today pulpits tend to be built more for functionality. Aesthetics have not been abandoned entirely, however. It is possible today, to purchase pulpits made of granite, acrylic, steel, or even wood. There are pulpits to suit every taste and purpose. The proliferation of styles, substances, and price points, only serves to complicate the contemporary confusion about the place of the pulpit.


Implications of the Pulpit

The central position of a fixed pulpit is thought to suggest a theological prominence about the preaching of the Word of God. It is thought that somehow, the furniture represents the authority of Scripture in a visible and tangible way. Many churches offer a “lectern” for liturgical readings so that the pulpit can be kept solely for the high purpose of preaching. It is therefore, not without pause that the preacher abandons the sacred desk.

However, one of the lessons of the reformation was that the Bible belonged to the people and that the preaching of the Word was not bound to officially sanctioned locales. The pulpit of St. Janskathedraal at s-Hertogenbosch in the Netherlands offers insight. This ornate, wooden pulpit is intricately carved with images of Moses, Christ, the apostles, and the church fathers, right down to the patron of this particular church. Bangs says,

Presumably the continuity (from Moses through the Fathers) was perceived to reach down to the preacher in that pulpit. The pulpit was built and used when contrasting preaching was fully known to be taking place in houses and fields without such visible support from the reassuring imagery of Roman Catholic tradition (Bangs, 42).

While the pulpit may well serve as a symbol of authority, it is worth remembering that the pulpit, and the ecclesiastical authority it may represent, must not place boundaries around the preaching of the word. The joy of the gospel must be preached wherever the feet of the preacher may take him or her, even to the fields (Rom. 10:15).

The act of leaving the pulpit is also symbolic. The preacher who walks out from behind the pulpit offers a nonverbal affirmation of interest in and proximity to the people. Contemporary audiences are little inclined to respect authority on the basis of position (“I am the preacher, listen to me”) and even less to the trappings of authority (clerical collars, pulpits). Today’s listeners will commit to a preacher that attracts them relationally. Coming out from behind the pulpit pictures the preacher saying, “I like you. I want to be close to you as we talk about these things. You can trust me.” This movement, is not without risk, however. Fred Craddock says, wisely, that “the pulpit reminds me that I am one of a long line of people whom the church has called to preach and teach. It’s a humbling thing to approach the pulpit. With no pulpit, I come on stage, and I am the center (Throop, 48).” Craddock’s point is well taken. Preachers are not performers drawing attention to themselves. Yet, sermons are delivered through preachers, and the character and presence (Aristotle’s “ethos”) of the preacher is indispensable to the process.

There is something to be said for the extemporaneous immediacy of pulpitless preaching. Many years ago Charles Koller described the power of expository preaching without notes. More recently, Walter Ong has described the renewed emphasis upon orality in our post-gutenberg age. It may be, as Clyde Fant has suggested, that in such an age a look-them-in-the-eye approach might be just the ticket (Fant, 165-68). A sermon can be just as faithfully researched and carefully constructed without adopting a literate pulpit style that is clearly less effective in this television dominated age. It’s hard to imagine Jay Leno doing his nightly monologue from behind a pulpit.

Coming out from behind the pulpit is not for the weak of heart. It takes more work, rather than less, to offer a careful, expository treatment of the Scriptures without reference to a sheaf of detailed notes. It requires the preacher take time to assimilate the message so that the sermon comes from somewhere deep within. Structures will have to be memorized. The material will have to be mastered. It will be hard to make all of this happen late on Saturday night. This, of course, is not a bad thing. Experienced preachers may actually be refreshed by the challenge.

In the end, I chose not to use the pulpit that Sunday in the gymnasium. At first I think a few of the people were a little disappointed. Certainly there are those who think the preacher should know and keep his place. As I told the story of Jesus walking on the water, I simulated Peter’s experience, literally stepping down from the platform and walking out into the congregation. It felt risky. I’m sure there were a few that didn’t like the fact that I was invading their space. I’m confident that most of the others, however, we’re too busy imagining the waves and wind. Once we were rolling I’m sure that most of the people that Sunday we’re too busy listening for the voice of God in the words of that sermon to be concerned about the lack of a pulpit.

I love pulpits. One day I’d love to find a fancy big antique pulpit. I’d like to buy it and put it in my office. It would look good there as a symbol of my occupation as a preacher and teacher of preachers. But when it comes to Sunday morning, and the people have all gathered to hear from God, there may be too much at stake for me to hide behind the pulpit. Next Sunday, I imagine, you will find me out in front of the people, looking them in the eye, and pleading for the gospel. You’ll forgive me for that, I trust, understanding that the power is in the Word and not in the furniture.


Reference List

Bangs, Jeremy Dupertuis. Church Art and Architecture in the Low Countries before 1566. Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, 37. Kirksville, MI: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1997.

Cook, John W. “Pulpit.” In Concise Encyclopedia of Preaching, 393-94. William H. Willimon and Richard Lischer, eds. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1995.

Dargan, Edwin C and Ralph G. Turnbull. A History of Preaching. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1974.

Fant, Clyde E. Preaching For Today. Rev. ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987.

Fiddes, Victor. The Architectural Requirements of Protestant Worship. Toronto, ON: Ryerson Press, 1961.

Hoppe, Leslie J. The Synagogues and Churches of Ancient Palestine. Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1994.

Koller, Charles W. Expository Preaching Without Notes. Grand Rapids, MI:Baker, 1962.

Ong, Walter J. Orality and Literacy: The Technologizing of the Word. London: Routledge, 1982

Throop, John R. “Pulpits: A Place to Take Your Stand.” Your Church 44 no.2 (Mar/Apr 1998):48.

White, L. Michael. “The Social Origins of Christian Architecture.” Harvard Theological Studies 42. Valley Forge, PA: Trinity Press International/Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.


The Arrogance of Preaching

Finding Confidence in the Fact that God is Speaking

Kenton C. Anderson

Preaching appears arrogant to people overwhelmed by the limitations of their perspective. That subjective humans could speak meaningfully of an objective God would be absurd were it not that God took the initiative to reveal himself. Perspective becomes an asset as the preacher bears witness to God in the flesh.

Is there anything as arrogant as a preacher? While perhaps not up there with trash talking point guards or raving third world despots, preachers still are perceived as pompous in the mind of the average citizen. Preachers are too sure of themselves in a world where no one takes anything for granted and where no one is certain of anything. “Don’t preach at me,” people say when they want to be particularly cutting.

Preachers are always telling people what to believe and what to do with their lives implying that they have some privileged access to the truth. In postmodern times, such a claim is unforgivable. Surely it is arrogance to claim to know what is best for others and to be willing to proclaim these things to people en masse.

During the 1997 Canadian federal election, national news columnist, Peter C. Newman found a particularly scathing way to criticize Reform party leader Preston Manning. Manning is “a preacher, not a politician,” Newman said (Newman 1997, 51). The implication was obvious. Preachers are by nature intolerant, impatient, and arrogant. Preachers are “know-it-alls”, dangerous to the citizenry of an enlightened and pluralized public.


Better Times

How things have changed! Preachers were once respected as key sources in the common search for objective truth. Ever since Descartes, optimism reigned as people pursued final answers to ultimate issues. No question seemed large enough to withstand the assault of human reason. If the answer wasn’t known it was only a matter of time. Every mystery could be solved by application of the formidable powers of the human mind. The scientific method was hailed as the tool, which could unlock the very secrets of God.

In this context preachers thundered. Giants of the pulpit like Charles Haddon Spurgeon and Dwight L. Moody came to prominence, commanding the attention of thousands who heard in them the voice of God. Even country preachers, often the most educated persons in town, were powerful voices in the community power structure. Consensus was forming around biblical values in the constant pursuit of meaning. The Bible was seen as a book of wisdom and a repository of truth. Expositors who examined the Scriptures with scientific diligence, offered people what they sought – a true word from God himself.


Loss of Confidence

Over time, however, such optimism faded. A purely objective sense of truth proved elusive. The more humanity learned, the less it seemed was known. For every question that was solved, multiple new conundrums were uncovered. The harder people pursued the goal of ultimate truth the more distant it appeared.

The world is much less certain today. The neat order of the past has come undone and people sense a need to hedge their bets. New voices daily challenge the consensus leaving people feeling squeezed. Never before have individuals had to handle so much information in so little time. Technology insures that the amount of information offered increases as fast as the available response time decreases. The first casualty is confidence (Oden 1990, 46). Ideas that once seemed beyond question are now up for grabs. New alternatives to formerly unquestioned convictions raise doubt among people used to a much firmer footing. Judgement is reserved for the time being as people find themselves unwilling to choose between a multiplicity of options.

Preaching suffers. Prophetic pulpiteers shouting “thus saith the Lord” appear as caricatures of a newly unwanted dogmatism. The confidence of these preachers doesn’t match the people’s own experience. Preachers arrogantly deny the obvious complexity. They are caught out of their time, anachronisms dangerous to the fragile psyche of a world which has lost its confidence.


The Problem of Perspective

Or so it is assumed. In fact, many preachers struggle with the same lack of confidence as the people in the pew. Choosing between the variety of worldviews available in a multi-cultural context would require some favored vantage point from which objective evaluations could be made. Unfortunately, such an exalted viewpoint is denied.

Even preachers are bound captive to their perspective and many of them know it. Every idea or event is evaluated through the grid of experience, education, conviction, and bias that necessarily forms around an individual in life. The preacher must function within the limits of time and space experiencing life one moment at a time, one place at a time. Such restrictions seriously limit point of view. Simply stated, people are finite. Brian Walsh and Richard Middleton put the problem well:

How is it possible to judge the worldview of another person or group of people to be wrong when we realize that we have no privileged, universal access to truth and so can only pass judgment from the perspective of our own worldview? (Middleton and Walsh 1995,30)

In the early hours after the death of the Princess of Wales, blame was fixed squarely on the paparazzi who had hounded Diana. The public was merciless in its condemnation of tabloid press photographers. Days later, blame shifted to the driver of the Princess’s Mercedes who had been seriously impaired by alcohol and drugs. A week or two later, blame shifted again. Paint scratches on the Mercedes suggested that another car might have caused the tragedy. It soon became apparent that no one really knew what had happened in that tunnel. The only ones positioned properly to know the facts were dead, or in the case of the bodyguard, incapacitated. Determining the objective truth in this affair, so important to the public, proved unlikely due to the lack of anyone with the entire perspective.

Are preachers any different? They trumpet their interpretation of the world as they see it, locked in the prison of their perspective. Fixed in space and time, are they any more able to speak about truth objectively? At best, they offer an educated guess. Yet a guess in the guise of a prescription abuses the people who must listen and live from within the strictures of their own vantage point.


God has Spoken

The postmodernists are partly right. Man’s best reason could never conceive nor communicate the nature and will of God. Humanity could not imagine the objective truth about God. The best of human scholarship is not able to nullify the fact of man’s finitude and fallenness. Even the idea that truth is objective, that it is separate and independent, scuttles the idea that man could discover it independently. Everything man touches is stained by his fingerprints. The moment one apprehends the truth, its objectivity is compromised.

Except that God has spoken. Were the quest to know the truth solely the expression of human initiative and endeavor the enterprise would be doomed. The good news is that ultimately, this is God’s project. God made it his purpose to make himself known to man. It is through his self-revelation that man discovers the truth that could never be known outside of God’s own initiative. By revealing himself, God overcome the objective/sub-jective distinction, allowing humans locked in time and space the privilege to know the truth and be set free by it.

Certainly, the preacher must work from within the confines of his or her perspective. This limitation is not fatal. John Carey, in his anthology, Eye-Witness to History, describes the difficulty inherent in the process of journalism.

It is an axiom of modern critical theory that there are no accessible ‘realities’, only texts that relate to another inter-textually. But even if he believes this, the good reporter must do everything in his power to counteract it, struggling to isolate the singularities that will make his account real for his readers – not just something written, but something seen. (Carey 1987, xxxii)

It can be helpful, in fact, to view the task of preaching as a kind of journalism. The preacher is a correspondent, describing the activity and message of God as personally seen and heard. Far from rejecting the preacher’s subjective nature in pursuit of an esoteric objectivity, the preacher revels in his or her subjectivity. The preacher is an eye-witness, a participant in the earthy interplay of truth in the trenches. The preacher describes not what could never be known but what has been experienced first hand. Not content to point to disembodied truths which lay pristine and out of reach, the preacher describes that which we have heard, which we have seen with our hands, which we have looked at and our hands have touched (1 John 1:1).

This witness inherent in preaching both acknowledges and overcomes the problem of perspective. Preaching revels in it. Authority is not bound by the restraints of the preacher’s perspective but is released by it. (Long 1989, 44) God has stepped into space and time, permitting his perception by preacher and people. In preaching, then, the ultimate becomes accessible.


A Disheveled Preaching

This is the kind of preaching that will play with postmoderns. It is a disheveled kind of preaching, that is willing to mess with the mysteries and struggle with the sticking-points. It is an exciting brand of preaching that will not abide the tidy triteness of disembodied messages. This kind of preaching will not be content to offer a sermon under glass, safe and unassailable. Rather, this preaching is unafraid to listen to God and to wrestle with the implications of the message that results.

Preaching might appear arrogant to those who are overwhelmed by the limitations of their perspective. The idea that a preacher could speak meaningfully of an objective God would be absurd were it not for the fact that God has spoken. God has taken the initiative to reveal himself in real time to the questions and concerns of preacher and people. Perspective is an asset as the preacher bears witness to the God who is present.


Works Cited

Bakhtin, Mikhail. “Marxism and the Philosophy of Language.” In The Rhetorical Tradition: Readings from Classical Times to the Present, ed. Patricia Bizzell and Bruce Herzberg, 928-43. Translated by Ladislaw Matekja and I. R. Titunik. Boston: Bedford Books of St. Martin’s Press, 1990.

Caputo, John D. “The Good News about Alterity: Derrida and Theology.” Faith and Philosophy 10 (October 1993): 453-70.

Carey, John, ed. Eye-Witness to History. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987.

Fant, Clyde E. Preaching for Today. 2d ed. San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1987.

Long, Thomas G. The Witness of Preaching. Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989.

Madison, G. B. The Hermeneutics of Postmodernity: Figures and Themes. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1988.

Middleton, J. Richard & Brian J. Walsh. Truth is Stranger Than it Used to Be. Downers Grove, IL: Inter-Varsity Press, 1995.

Newman, Peter C. “In Television Debates the Only Rule is to Win.” Macleans, May 26, 1997, 51.

Oden, Thomas C. After Modernity . . . What?: Agenda for Theology. Grand Rapids, MI: Academie Books, 1990.


Preaching in the ER

Linear or Nonlinear Sermon Construction

Kenton C. Anderson


A number of years ago two new television shows went head to head in the most important time slot of the week, Thursday evening at 10pm. Both shows covered the same themes, with similar objectives, through use of the same basic format — the medical drama. The result was decisive. ER, NBC’s frenetically paced ensemble piece immediately shot to the top of the ratings, while Chicago Hope, with its slower, more ponderous style, sank like a stone. Eventually,Chicago Hope was able to resolve its problems, but only by refitting the show in the mold of its more successful sister show. If you can’t beat ’em, move to Monday nights and copy ’em.

Preachers ought to pay attention. This experiment in public discourse offers useful insights into the mind of the listener as we attempt to communicate the Word in the context of postmodernity. If listening styles have changed, preachers need to know about it.

Struck by the unusual opportunity to consider what amounted to a ready-made experiment in social science, I taped random episodes of the two shows from the 1994-95 season in order to discern the reason for this amazing divergence in public approval. The most obvious difference, I observed, may also be the most significant. While it could be argued that ER featured superior actors, or more interesting story-lines, those factors were likely less significant than the radical divergence in discursive method. While Chicago Hope appeared familiar, ER found a whole different way to tell its stories.

The episode of Chicago Hope I taped followed two basic story lines that interwove one another throughout the show ultimately conveying its basic point. The episode of ER, on the other hand, was much more adventuresome, covering no less than fifteen story lines in the forty-some minutes allotted to it, a pattern that the show has maintained in the years since. Some of these stories lasted only a few seconds, while others came back four or five times throughout the show. In the end, somehow, the writers and actors had made their point, imprecisely, but with impact. It’s far cry from Marcus Welby. The good doctor Welby gave us a single story line and a singular plot. Apparently we have become too sophisticated for such simplemindedness.

This observation is disturbing to preachers brought up on a diet of point by point preaching. Traditional homiletics called for simplicity, clarity, and a logical progression from proposition to proposition. Many preachers still believe that such an approach is the only credible way to present the principles of the Scripture with integrity and impact. Cultural critics like Neil Postman would agree that shows like ER with their disinterest in linear, logical point-making, signal society’s descent into silliness. ER may entertain, but can it educate?

There is no doubt, we are witnessing a major shift in the way people learn. Newspapers like USAToday, services like America Online, and stations like Headline News, all showcase the public’s desire to sift information, piecing together the story line from a multitude of sources and perspectives. Whether this is good for us, may be beside the point. Preachers cannot choose their culture, but must find a way to communicate truth within the culture as powerfully as possible. If this is the way people think today, we are going to have to learn to deal with it.

But maybe it is not so much of a stretch. Watching an episode of ER is actually a lot like having a conversation. Our conversations are seldom logical and linear. Conversationalists lose track and chase rabbits. People in conversation get emotional at certain points and quiet at other times. Points are made and lost and revisited later on. Somehow the process works and we emerge in the end having communicated.

Is this any way to preach? It is difficult to know what it might mean to preach a sermon like an episode of ER. Certainly such a sermon would be less didactic. It would be less concerned with scoring points and more interested in creating moods in order to shape awareness and direct a response. The message of the sermon might take greater importance than the form. Stories would be told, arguments offered, and passions aroused. Somehow, in the end we would get the point, even though we might not be quite sure how it happened Such a sermon need not compromise the authority of the scripture or the power of the proposition. Perhaps we could see it simply as a different road to the same destination.

This season ER began with a fully live episode; a first for prime time network drama. The episode attracted almost fifty million viewers, which was also a new record for the show. Somehow it seemed appropriate. ER always plays like a live event anyway and that”s why we like it. Dr. Green gets grumpy. Dr. Ross finally grows up enough to have a serious relationship. Meanwhile, sirens howl, patients “code” and life goes on.

That’s the point, actually. It’s life!

ER is stiff competition for regular local church pastors. But, then, churches are a lot like ERwards anyway. People die. People cry. They love. They laugh. They live. Our preaching should reflect that reality. Our preaching should live.