How do we think about preaching?

Hey all, I’ve had some random thoughts lately about preaching and would like to hear from you. How do we delineate preaching, say, in comparison from teaching or lecturing? Has anyone read anything on preaching that has been really good? I’m not talking about any “how to” manuals here, but a real theology of churchly proclamation. What is the controlling mechanism for churchly proclamation? Is it simply its object, its being carried up by its object, the manner of its proclamation, etc.?

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9 thoughts on “How do we think about preaching?

  1. I know this will be said eventually, but let me be the first: without hesitation, Barth, Gottingen Dogmatics Vol. 1, chapters 2 & 3. Reading great preaching is also helpful; I have been reading Rowan Williams, Open to Judgment and loving it. And of course there is no substitute for being mentored by a great preacher – go find one and listen carefully!

    Anecdotally (and I know you are not looking for practical help here but suffer me just one) one of the most helpful tips I ever received was from Haddon Robinson, namely that messages should be composed of thought unitsno longer than four minutes. This may sound pedantic, but seriously, if you listen carefully to just about any sermon that effectively holds your attention – regardless of its style – it holds true to this principle (even if unintentially). I’m out!

  2. Might not be exactly what you’re looking for Kyle, but he’s always good for a soundbite. Here’s Barth (from his Bonn seminar on homiletics, 1932):

    ‘Preaching… must become prayer. It must turn into the seeking and the invoking of God, so that ultimately everything depends upon whether God hears and answers our prayer. This opening up to heaven must not be blocked by the triumphant coping of a majestic Gothic arch that shelters us from the gaze of heaven, for we are truly sheltered only when we are exposed before God. There is no place, then, for a victorious confidence in the success of our own action, but only for a willingness to open ourselves to heaven and to remain open to God, so that God himself can now come to us, and give us all things richly. Our attitude, then, must be controlled from above: nothing from me, all things from God, no independent achievement, only dependence on God’s grace and will’.

  3. I’ve been particularly helped in this respect by Gerhard Forde’s “Theology is for Proclamation.” Not a homeletical text book per se, but it gets to the heart of everything good about the much maligned Law/Gospel preaching of Lutherans; the idea being that preaching is simply the bold heralding (poclamation) of the Good News of Jesus Christ and the forgiveness of sins found in his life, death, and resurrection. This proclamation is declared unreservedely as historical fact, and in light of this, sinners are called to trust in Christ alone, which fits nicely with Martin’s quote above (only dependence on God’s grace and will).

    It seems that the difference between this and say teaching/lecturing is that the later can, and probably should, involve a level of dialogue, questioning, and the working out of dogmatic theories as the church has developed doctrine from Scripture.

    • Brian, on this line, would the determining factor be content specific then? In other words, in defining preaching, it is not the subject that proclaims which defines the act, but the content of the proclamation?

      • Kyle,
        Yes, I think I would agree with this, notwithstanding that homeletical/rhetorical skill is at play and greatly helps proclaim the content of the faith, which is true in any type of teaching.

        I would also agree w/ Geordie below that this proclaiming event does confront one with our Triune God, though I’m reluctant to use the word “encounter” simply because of its use in the neo-Orthodox movement (Brunner et al). This is why I appreciate a robust/historical liturgy where we participate (maybe that’s a better word than encounter) in the incredible drama of redemption. This way the sermon is not some independent didactic thing, but a part of the overall flow that moves from invocation to confession/absolution, prayers, praises, reaching its height in the celebration of Christ’s body and blood, ending in the benediction and the blessing of knowing that our sins are forgiven.

        The liturgy additionally serves as a means of protecting the service from the ocassional bad sermon, and it helps alleviate some of the pressure on the preacher who now doesn’t have to feel like he needs to fill an hour time-slot with fodder.

  4. I’ll throw in a thought that i dont think has been said yet – that preaching is for encounter. If our ‘proclamation’ or our ‘prayer’ in front of this particular congregation which the Spirit has gathered together on a particular Sunday does not have the expectation and aim and awe of an encounter with Father, Son and Spirit, then we might as well talk to ourselves in front of the bathroom mirror.

    While the preaching event itself might not be dialogue on the surface, it surely is dialogue underneath as preacher and preachees are confronted by a God who is Subject and Self-proclaiming in and through the words that the preacher speaks.

    In other words, i’m tired of preaching that calls me to turn to Christ without Christ. I’m not good (free) enough to do that, and i dont think our people are either – even though they are used to trying.

  5. Kyle, I just discovered your blog and am now reading the archives. The best preaching books from a theological perspective are by James Stewart: Heralds of God, A Faith to Proclaim and A Man in Christ. Unlike most homiletical books that deal with sermon preparation and delivery technique, Stewart emphasizes that we need to offer Good News vs. good advice.

    Other books that have been helpful to me have been: Telling the Truth: The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy & Fairy Tale by Frederick Buechner, The Homiletical Plot by Eugene Lowry, Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell, A Primer for Preachers by Ian Pitt Watson and Worship, Community and the Triune God of Grace by James Torrance.

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