Why Preach? Ten things that together make preaching distinctive in the contemporary world
1. It’s unusual.
One voice speaking at some length to a group of people is a style of presentation often now discouraged. Teachers are urged to make teaching sessions ‘interactive,’ business presenters use the ubiquitous PowerPoint, and the barkers once commonplace in large stores have been replaced by endless loops of video on small screens at aisle-ends. That said, I did encounter a traditional barker selling something in a shop last Christmas, but he was dressed in the uniform of a Star Wars Stormtrooper, which perhaps makes the point: the unaided voice is often assumed not to make much impact nowadays. Could it not be, however, the case that the comparative rarity of a lone voice actually works to the speaker’s advantage? That an authoritative lone voice is unusual can be the very quality that draws people’s attention.
2. It’s prepared.
Anyone who has attended the recording of a TV or radio show will have seen the very careful and well-prepared nature of that which comes across on being broadcast as extemporaneous. That witty and spontaneous façade that is so engaging is just that: a façade. By contrast the ‘vox pop’ comments from people on the streets that are inserted into some shows are kept incredibly short because it is so hard to make an off-the-cuff comment engagingly. Yet somehow the character of broadcast media has fooled into thinking that spontaneous response is easy and generally preferable to more studied planning. Preparation isn’t the enemy of engaging speech, but its greatest ally. Whatever else marks the sermon as a unique form, preparation has to be one aspect. By its dependence on scripture and the spirituality of preacher and church, it cannot but be prepared.
3. It’s contextual.
According to popular opinion a certain famous and international fast food chain has an operations manual that applies to procedures in every outlet, no matter where. Unsurprisingly that manual, it is said, is called ‘the bible’ by the company’s staff. In every country, in every circumstance, and in spite of local customs, every procedure is the same. No matter where the company’s food is eaten, it will be essentially the same. Whether this is admirable standardisation or consumerist imperialism, is a matter of opinion. What it most certainly is not is contextualisation.
By contrast, every preacher knows that sermons must not be a-cultural. Every sermon must be both an exposition of the scriptures and in some sense an exposition of the community of people to whom it is preached. The preacher’s role is to connect those two expositions in such a way that the universal Word of God is heard afresh as applicable and understandable. Sermons are never generic; they are always specific and directed.
4. It’s focussed.
This follows directly from the contextual character of preaching. The segmentation of audiences is now a common theme in how the media are accessed. Different channels and different styles cater for differing audiences. To the familiar demarcations of nationality, culture and age have been added innumerable other ‘niches audiences’ and content has been subtly designed to be attractive to its target audience.
What has new power in the world of mass media is something that preaching has long recognised. The sermon aims to be God’s Word from this text for these people in this place at this time. In that sense, preaching has always been ‘niche’ – words directed to particular people framed by what is particular to their time and circumstances. The dimensions of a sermon are always measured by its particularity as much as its universality. Yes, preacher’s must speak of God’s universal grace but in a way that focusses it in the needs and longings of those who are being addressed.
5. It’s personal.
It was in his 1877 Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching at the Theology School of Yale University that the famous Episcopalian Preacher (and author of the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem), Phillips Brooks, described preaching as the ‘communication of truth through personality.’ In the years since, that phrase has become almost a truism amongst preachers. That Brooks came up with it when psychology was being established as a serious field of study is no coincidence. A new emphasis on the significance of human emotions and an eagerness to take very seriously the operation of the human mind, were clearly things of which the preacher must take account.
All preachers must work from a very personal and heartfelt engagement with what they are preaching about. Preaching can never have the distance and formality of rote speech. Preachers speak from their passion; from what has touched and moved them; from their own pre-occupation with what a living faith really is. Sermons are not and should not be dispassionate communication. Preachers speak from the depths of a personal encounter with God in Christ and speak to similar depths within their hearers. A sermon can never be less than personal.
6. It’s aimed but not pitched.
We all know when a salesman or woman is keen for a sale: there is an insistence that is hard to get away from and a determined edge to the speech that’s hard to get the better of. That the spiel is accompanied by an apparently irrepressible delight in your company only adds to the sense of pressure. There are some individuals so skilled in pitching that they can persuade buyers that ‘eau de cow pat’ is the newest and most sought-after scent, with an expensive price tag that only reinforces its attractiveness. The seller must come across with conviction and unwavering resolve. Their approach must convince that this is just the product you need, at a price that’s a bargain, and with many advantages over similar products.
Such passion, conviction, and determination can too readily be associated with similar qualities in the earnest preacher. We do preach to convict and persuade, but not as a sales pitch.
7. It’s urgent.
Standing under the departure boards at a mainline rail terminus I’ve noticed there is a marked difference in atmosphere between an ordinary day when everything is running smoothly and a day when there is major disruption to services. Normally public announcements over the tannoy compete with the general hubbub of a busy station, but when there is major disruption announcements are met with quiet attention. When everyone’s journey has a question mark over it, announcements take on a new attention-grabbing significance. There is an urgency to the listening that is more generally missing. Preaching has about it a similar urgency that requires of its audience careful listening. And that kind of listening is just what most preaching receives.
Time and again, when worshippers are asked what they hope for from a service, ‘a good sermon’ is placed high amongst what is anticipated. It is too easy for a certain kind of diffidence and false modesty to mar what the preacher attempts. Great things are being expected and the urgency of those great things is what must colour the preacher’s words. We speak as those with something urgent to say. So, forget the often-repeated cynicism about ‘just words,’ and instead speak with words that address ultimate concerns. Preaching that attends to the literal and metaphorical end of humanity is always urgent.
8. It’s select and selectable.
This characteristic has two dimensions: the select nature of what is being said and the opportunity it offers for listeners to select to assent or not to what is being said.
Preachers cannot say anything they chose to say, nor can they say it in any way they chose to say it. The parameters of what is said are set by the Bible and the inheritance of faith that is ours. The boundaries of what a preacher may say are in this sense ‘fixed,’ we are not free to draw any conclusion that takes our fancy. As preachers we take our stand alongside those who have preached before us, those others who preach now, and those who will preach in the future. That does not mean that we are constricted to endless repeats of what has been said before and what will be said again. Rather it is that we add a distinctive contribution to an ongoing stream that isn’t of our own devising. Part of our learning as preachers is to discover the banks, as it were, of that stream. We must preach good news, not good olds, but not anything goes! We offer select words because they relate to the truth of God in Christ.
In their turn, those who listen to sermons select what they take from what they hear. Our hearers are not tabulae rasae, blank tablets, on which preachers write what they determine. We speak from faith to faith for faith. The preached word becomes the lived word through an interplay of the preacher, the preached-amongst, the ongoing life of the Church, and the words of scripture. Choices and selections are made again and again, hopefully as the Spirit directs, in order that the Word may be enfleshed again.
Far from being, as the stereotype has it, words ‘six feet above contradiction,’ the sermon always, but always has within it both selection and selectability.
9. It’s criticised.
Last year, I attended our publishers great Festival of Preaching at Christ Church Cathedral in Oxford. Easy access to our accommodation required the wearing of a large badge that stated just what the conference was about. With some embarrassment I admit that I took the badge off when walking the streets of the city. I didn’t want to have to respond to the criticisms the claim of ‘Preacher’ was likely to provoke. A colleague was much less bashful and wore the badge continuously for all to see. On entering a sandwich shop one lunch time, she was greeted from behind the till with, ‘Are you a preacher?’ When she answered in the affirmative, she was warmly thanked by the shop assistant who said hearing good sermons had been life-saving for her. On hearing of that incident, I felt duly chastised for my own reticence.
It’s all too easy to become overly defensive about preaching. After all the very term is so often used in popular discourse as a put-down. No one wants to be known as ‘preachy’. And yet there is perhaps within the negativity a concealed awareness of better possibilities. Criticism is more than indifference. That preaching is the butt of jokes and worse, is an indication of at least a hidden expectation of preaching’s significance. Being alert to direct criticism and to a wider critical environment directs the preacher repeatedly to the question, ‘Is my preaching good enough?’ Surely a thought that should be in every preacher’s mind – often.
10. It’s oral.
By the end of the 1950s there were more homes in the UK with a television than those with a radio alone; so began what we’ve come to know as the ‘tele-visual age.’ In the generations since we have become familiar with the idea that words must be associated with pictures to gain their fullest impact. As smartphones, tablet computers, and subscription services have challenged the hegemony of TV channels, the quality of the picture reproduced on the screen, large or small, has assumed new prominence.
With so much multi-coloured enticement available the simple spoken word seems puny. And yet the poet, the storyteller, the comic, and the speech-maker dare to stand and just speak. And they are heard. We preachers should take pride in standing in such company. By words, just words, hearts are still moved, minds still informed, wills still stirred, and laughter still spread. Let our words be the ‘Amen’ to God’s creative Word.
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