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The Third Room of Preaching: A New Empirical Approach

Review by Christopher Burkett, Editor

Marianne Gaarden
Pickwick Publications, 2021 (2nd edition), £23.00. ISBN 978-1-7252-7700-7

<strong><em>The Third Room of Preaching: A New Empirical Approach</em></strong>

This is a profoundly encouraging book. Written by a bishop in the Danish Lutheran Church it is a popularised version of her 2014 PhD dissertation, but this is no nit-picking account of some abstruse academic point. Instead, it is a work of intense practicality born of a rigorous and thoroughly practice-based piece of empirical research. Any preacher who has been troubled by apparently shallow responses like ‘Thank you for your message’ with no further elucidation forthcoming, will find here reason to think again more positively about what is being said. Similarly, if you have been troubled by listeners not being able to report back to you any significant points from one of your recent sermons, Gaarden provides reassurance that your efforts have not been in vain.

Our discomfort lies, according to Gaarden, in the dominance of the transfer model of communication where the speaker is thought of as active and the listener as passive, as if the speaker determines what the hearer hears. Using that idea, we fall into the trap of thinking we preachers determine what churchgoers receive. Our measure of effective preaching becomes how good we are at transferring knowledge between ourselves and listeners. Disillusionment follows with the realisation of how weak that transfer is. Gaarden’s study – listening to the listeners – demonstrates a more fruitful way, and interestingly a way more obviously open to the movement of God within worship.

Gaarden found that listeners use elements of the sermon as suits them and build those things into their own pre-understandings in ways that meet their needs as situated persons. None of this is determined by the preacher and may be inconsistent with the preacher’s intention(s). Nevertheless, a surplus of meaning is created in the sermon event, even if the listener only utilises a small fragment of what the preacher offers. The meaning created neither ‘belongs’ to the preacher nor the listener, but rather emerges in the varied dialogues and inter-relationships created in the ‘third room’ (as it were) of preaching. The implications of such intersubjectivity are spelt out in both practical and theoretical terms.

Gaarden urges preachers to acknowledge that we are tools in this process, not its creators or designers. Something larger than ourselves (and our listeners) is happening. Does this let preachers off the hook in terms of effort and preparation? Far from it, according to Gaarden, since a proper sympathy between preacher and listeners is a precondition for the emergence of meaning. If anything, the significance of the ethos (in classical rhetorical terms) of the preacher is more important than ever. The widely heard call for obvious authenticity and engagement from preachers is reinforced by Gaarden’s findings.

If you have become a little jaded in the preaching task, this book will restore your purpose. If you are an encourager of new preachers, Gaarden’s findings and thoughts about learning will fuel new enthusiasms and developments. If you are tempted towards some research in your own or others’ preaching practice, Gaarden’s thoughtful reflection on methodological issues will be a spur to taking the plunge. Or, if you are simply a preacher keen to think deeply about where homiletics is heading in these highly contested times, then Bishop Gaarden can be trusted as a life-enhancing guide. Highly recommended.

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