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.
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.