Last week I wrote a bit about preaching styles (manuscripts vs outline vs more free form) and today I want to chat a bit about the form or content of a sermon.
First, a note about the above photograph. This is a shot of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis, a community that Doug Pagitt helped to form. I love so many things about the photo above, but I think this gives you a bit of an idea about what preaching “in the round” or having a dialogical type of sermon could look like.
I think most would agree that the church is one of the last places around that you’ll still see the primary/sole mode of teaching/transformation be a lecture-style sermon, monological preaching. Folks in education have been experimenting with different forms of pedagogy for years, and have moved past the “talking head” format for quite awhile now. Sure, there are times in a large lecture-format course where it still makes sense to give information that way – but most students would probably tell you there are more engaging ways to learn and actually have the information stick, than listening to a lecture.
Yet, it’s a safe bet that you can show up at church on a Sunday morning at your typical church, and expect, for the most part, to sit back, listen, hear and be a passive recipient of a worship service, particularly during the sermon.
And yet, there are other folks who argue for a more interactive and participatory. Doug Pagitt is one of those persons, and has referred to the traditional model of preaching as “speaching.”
Let me say that if I look at all of my preaching experience, the majority of it has been the more traditional format. I get up. Preach what I feel God is calling me to say. Say AMEN, and that’s the end of it.
But there have been some times here at Ashland where I have tried to find ways to incorporate discussion and sharing both at the end of the sermon, and during the middle of a sermon. I’ve always received very positive feedback from folks who have experienced that form of preaching. I’ve also thought about trying something like a flipped sermon.
Tony Jones is another person who values a more participatory style of preaching, and wrote the following about a year ago while he and Doug spoke at the Festival of Homiletics in Atlanta:
We live in the most highly educated society and the most highly participatory culture in the history of humankind. Everything around us has changed: the clothes we wear, the way we transport ourselves, how we communicate. And yet, 99% of preachers stand up on Sunday morning and deliver a monologue. A soliloquy. And their churches decline. And they wring their hands. There is another way. There is a way of participation and inclusion and dialogue and conversation.
And so, my question has to do with the purpose of preaching. Do we still have a view of the preacher as the educated one who should be “dispensing” the word of God to the congregation? The Presbyterian Church (USA) did recently change the title of our ordained ministers from Ministers of Word and Sacrament to Teaching Elders (not a change that everyone loves), so according to our polity and view of ministers, we are called to be “teachers.”
Although I would still point to the vast array of educational theory and methods out there today that differ from the “talking head” approach of teaching and learning. Ministers can be teachers, but that doesn’t mean that we need to only deliver sermons that are “speaching” or one-way communication.
Or is preaching not as much about dispelling information, as it is to take our sacred text, and help bring it to life amidst a community of followers in the way of Jesus. To take a text, and allow others to bring their vast array of knowledge and life experiences to the text, and join together to have a discussion about the text and how it can be meaningful in our lives today.
Again, I feel I should say that I’m not trying to say that I do this well. For me, I think it’s easier to sit down and write my manuscript sermon, as opposed to thinking how I can engage the congregation and invite them into the process. But I still say that when I take the time to do that, I am more engaged in that time of reflection, and I think the congregation is as well.
And I do still like to hear good monological preaching. I have heard Barbara Brown Taylor preach a few times, and I could listen to her every week! And there are some preachers who are amazing storytellers and are able to really bring a text to life. And as a preacher myself, there are times, I think, that call for a more straight-forward, old-school style of preaching.
But I don’t really foresee that style or preaching being what’s going to be part of the future church. I think it’s time to really live into this reality of the priesthood of all believers, and really buy into the idea that we all have unique gifts and experiences and insights to bring to a text, and our communities would be richer in hearing a multitude of voices, as opposed to only one, single voice, Sunday after Sunday after Sunday.
Now, I could be wrong. I’ve never belonged to, or served, a community of faith that actively lived into this style of preaching. So, who knows? Maybe I’d get bored by it. Maybe it would take too much time to try and craft a participatory sermon every week. But, I think it’s something that more preachers ought to try more often.
What about you? What do you feel the essential role and purpose of preaching is? And do our methods today (the methods that have been used for years…) still connect with our people and culture of today in such a way that it’s really allowing us to bring about the most transformation in the people belonging to our communities?
Photo Credit: Courtney Perry