Paying Attention to Life

I heard a sermon this morning on the famous “Widow’s mite” narrative. The preacher took care to tell us the story in a way that had us leaning forward. We were completely gripped by his imaginative handling of the details of this woman’s story. From there he moved directly to a personal story about his three-year old son who was willing to part with his hard-earned money to help a homeless man that he encountered in the street. You kind of had to be there to appreciate the power of these two stories told in parallel. I know that I won’t soon forget it.attentive

We might want to say that this was one of those almost-magical moments where the story of our lives and the story in the text matched perfectly. I suspect, however that this kind of opportunity is there for us more often than we think. The Bible is written to address the stuff of life. If we can’t see the connections to the lives we lead, it is only because we haven’t been paying attention.

Paying attention to life is a significant preacher-skill. It is important that we be attentive to the things that are going on around us, which might offer examples, metaphors, or clues to the meanings that we want to preach. When our sermons can be seen in life, they take on an increased power.

This means we can’t start preparing just the night before. If we want to notice these illustrative and applicational opportunities, we need space in life for these connections to be recognized. A longer gestation period for our sermons will be helpful so that there is time for us to pay attention. Our minds focused on the direction of our sermon will be able to find those points of connection if we are able to give it just a little time.

The preacher I heard this morning, might never have noticed anything special in his son’s response to the homeless man, if it were not for the fact that he had his sermon on his mind. For days he had been contemplating the deep truths of his text such that when he saw an example in life, the connection was readily evident.

I have written before that one way to manage this sort of thing is to work on more than one sermon at a time. For example, you could do your exegetical and interpretive work for the next week’s sermon and also your sermon construction work for the current week’s sermon in the same week. In that way, you can give your sermons a longer gestation period without adding any hours or minutes to your preparation.

If we had time to pay attention, we might find a great number of things that can take us deeper into the truth of our sermons. It only takes intention – and attention.

The Future of Homiletics

I was recently asked to answer the following question for a journal forum: “What is the future of homiletics?” The following was my response…

When I think about the future of homiletics, as distinct from the future of preaching, I am futurethinking about the way that we encourage excellence in the preaching that is done. As a homiletician, I am charged with thinking deeply about the nature of preaching and how to go about helping others grow more effective in their practice of their calling. This leads me, then, to two key thoughts. The first will be about the way we conceive of preaching, and the second will be about the way by which might develop people for this work in the near future.

As to our conception of preaching, I would say that the future will demand us to be far more integrative. Preaching that merely instructs, or which solely engages, will not be satisfying to people who are no longer compelled by culture or tradition to listen to our sermons. Of course, the Scriptures themselves are full of examples of preachers who were careful not only to offer teaching, but also to tell stories, to paint pictures, and to offer prayers. The preaching of the prophets, the apostles, and of Jesus himself, were rich with metaphor, object lessons, and expressive language. Think, for one example, of Jeremiah’s belt. They were varied in their forms utilizing narrative, poetry, didactic teaching and so much more. The preachers of the Bible located their preaching in life. They were pleased to offer abstract theological thought, but they were always careful to root what they had to say in the real experience of their listeners.

Today we hear a lot of hard-core exegetical and theological preaching and I am grateful for it. I believe we needed a return to biblical rootedness and a deeper approach to the word of God. I would like to think that the future, then, could retain this depth, while seeking for broader and more integrated expressions of these truths. If we could do this, we could take our preaching to another level of impact.

As to the development of preachers, I believe we the future is going to be a lot more context-based. Actually, I think that all of theological education is moving in this direction. At my own seminary, we have embraced a fully mastery-model, outcomes-based to pastoral development, including the development of preachers.

What this means is that preaching will be proved more in the church than in the classroom. There will be room for us to discuss theory and to teach technique, but increasingly, this will be done through mentoring in place. Preachers will have to show that they can actually help people hear from God in the context of their ministries instead of only satisfying their professors in the security of the classroom.

This change is going to challenge the identity of some of us classroom teachers. I think we are in danger of having found our meaning more in our positions and our systems than in our callings. If we could free ourselves to think theologically about the outcomes we have been called to pursue, we might do a lot of things differently in the future and we might be more effective.