Saturday, April 22, 2006

Why I Do/Not Care For Preaching

The other day I was asked by a friend if I was getting any preaching opportunities at the moment. No, not really, I replied. That must be disappointing for you, they wondered. Again, no, not really, I replied: I’m actually less-and-less satisfied with preaching as a form of communication; less comfortable with hearing only one voice; more inclined towards conversation, discussion, arriving at understanding of what God is calling a given community to be and do communally. Yes, they replied, I can see that that would fit you.

It is well documented that the monologue is an ineffective form of communication, engaging, as it does, only one of our five senses. And so preachers have added-on PowerPoint, to engage the eyes at the same time as the ears; and jokes, to warm the audience to them…essentially tinkering with the sermon format, to improve it. When perhaps it needs ditching altogether…

I know that is hard for preachers to give up preaching. Sometimes, I quite like preaching. I especially like preaching sermons that are longer than expected, so as to stretch the listeners; or shorter than expected, so as to cheat them. I might preach sermons that are so-dense-that-you-cannot-possibly-follow-the-full-address-and-are-forced-to-give-up-trying-so-that-hopefully-in-that-resignation-you-will-hear-God-speak-and-not-my-words; and sermons that are so simple that even an adult can follow them.

But there are no sermons, as we know sermons, in the Bible (though there’s this thing we call The Sermon on the Mount, that we preach sermon-series on). And there aren’t sermons as we know them today through most of the history of the Church. The sermon is a Modern, educational, form; coming to its peak, perhaps, in the celebrity preachers of the Victorian era, such as Spurgeon. There are a variety of other ways in which the Bible has been retold – in parable, in story, in stained-glass window, and art, and architecture, to name but a few. Stained-glass embraced the culture of its day, its available technology and [pre-literate] approach to interpreting the world; and we, in turn, must embrace the technology [digital?] and interpretive framework [iconic? non-linear? post-post-literate?] of our culture…

I want to be part of a community that locates itself within the history of God’s engagement with humanity; that stands in continuity with his family; that familiarises itself with its own story. I’m not convinced that we need to hear God through one or two people alone; that if we listen to more voices the Holy Spirit will get too confused to lead us into all truth. I’m not sure that, even in the bigger-sized expressions of church, things would get out-of-control – not out of the Holy Spirit’s control, at any rate. I don’t think that the sermon should be banned; but I don’t want to deliver one very often; and I don’t want to listen to someone else deliver one very often either.

Much has been written in defence of sermons, often setting-out a case that if we lose the art of the sermon we will no longer look-to the Bible or effectively communicate God’s values. But this is a doubly-flawed concept: not only are there other ways of communicating our understanding of God’s values; but, the sermon, increasingly, does not communicate what its champions intend to communicate at all. Its long-held dominance is, increasingly, an alien cultural form – and if we want to honour the great preachers of the past, and stand in continuity with them, we need to embrace and pioneer alternative means of doing what they have done.

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  1. I might preach sermons that are so-dense-that-you-cannot-possibly-follow-the-full-address-and-are-forced-to-give-up-trying-so-that-hopefully-in-that-resignation-you-will-hear-God-speak-and-not-my-words;

    what you?...surely not!

  2. Anonymous4:32 pm

    We have started a feedback style sermon/message, where response is invited after the scripture is read. This has proved very poplual, if challenging. It works in a cafe style set up 30-50 people max!

  3. "I might preach sermons that are so-dense-that-you-cannot-possibly-follow-the-full-address-and-are-forced-to-give-up-trying..."
    what, a bit like this post?

  4. only joking! um, you say there's no preaching in the bible, but what about moses? and the prophets? and whenever any leader gathered the whole assembly of israel?
    but yes, i get/agree with your general point.

  5. I think there's always a place for the monologue. Look at where Alan Bennett can take you - along trails of observation, reflection and, yes, even debate which you might never have entertained otherwise. The lone voice can stimulate internal processes, which in turn can inform the way we interact with our world.

    This kind of debate is very interesting to me. It's somewhat chicken/egg. We (postmodern Western Man) are in grave danger of bowing to a general unwillingness to apply the mind to any subject for more than 5 minutes. Most tv documentaries are now presented in 'bite-size' chunks, to make them more 'approachable'. Novelists have also adopted this style - often writing in a screenplay/episodic format that is presumably designed to keep the postmodern mind entertained.

    I think this is a huge shame. We can do better than this - it's been proven by history.

    You mention a 'peak' in the Victorian era. The implication, then, is that we have slumped! I agree - standards have fallen, and we are mentally lazy as a people. Look at our them to the great thinkers and orators of the past. Can we really call Cameron, Blair, Campbell great thinkers and orators? It's all about image, and soundbites. Shallow, shallow, shallow.

    This comment could ramble on plenty more, but I guess most people who read your blog, Andrew, are on-the-ball enough to read between the lines here & 'flesh out' (eugh- lazy, overused management-theory jargon) what I'm stabbing at for themselves.

    I would argue this though- forget dumbing down; educate up.

    Are you prickling at my accusation of dumbing down? But if you remove the Sermon - as representative of the 'requires long attention-span, further processing and proper mental application' genre of communication - from our cultural palette, you devalue Man's ability (some might argue, duty) to pursue reasoned thought and application.

    Debate, argument, reasoned thought - they don't have to happen in a hubbub of vocal activity. However unfashionable it may be to the Playstation generation, there is still a place for the linear transmission of ideas. (Whether that place is as a core element of the weekly church service...jury's out.)

    Would love to debate this, and other postmodern conundrums, with you. Shall we do lunch?!? :)

    Thanks for reading!

  6. P.S. I'm not slagging off people who are into gaming by the way. "Playstation generation" is not meant to be a judgemental term :)

  7. I think Jesus and Paul preached sermons. (I'm not referring to the sermon on the mount, which was probably delivered over several occasions, as in Luke.) But when they preached, the audience was not in passive receptive mode. People interrupted and threw out challenges. Perhaps once in a while people even shouted out support, though that isn't recorded in scripture.

    The main thing I have against preaching is this: we expect the pastor to do it, even if the pastor isn't gifted in that area. Sermons are a very difficult format to do well, no doubt for many of the reasons you mention. Pastors must have other gifts which are arguably more important if they're going to excel in the role. Few of them have the other spiritual gifts plus the ability to preach effectively. So we basically force pastors to publicly embarrass themselves every week, while the congregation is forced to sit still and listen to a sermon that doesn't edify.

    That's a pretty stupid arrangement, and it isn't necessarily tied to a shift in our cultural practices.

    A sermon that is crafted well and delivered well can be a powerful tool. But we shouldn't rely on it as the primary means of feeding God's sheep his word.

  8. Thanks for your comments. Just wanted to respond to Ruth's [btw lunch would be good; I'm currently free most lunchtimes], in particular on attention span and processing:

    There is a growing body of research suggesting that the attention-span of the younger generations has not shrunk, but widened. Whereas the sermon addresses a long-and-narrow attention-span (like driving on a B-road), the "playstation generation" can engage with several channels of information at once, even over a long period of time (like driving on a three-lane motorway; in fact, like driving on a 5-lane freeway). That is not dumbed-down. However - and I wrote about this recently - I do think that television has reduced the attention-span (length and breadth) of the 35-65 age group...

    So, it is not a matter of pandering to dumbing-down so much as learning a foreign language in order to communicate - akin to learning French to converse in France, rather than taking the if-you-speak-English-s-l-o-w-l-y-and-LOUDLY-enough-they-will-understand.

    Regarding processing, I think the sermon-every-week scenario delivers a chunk of material to process, and then another before you have possibly had time to process and implement the last lot, and then another, and another...So, rather than stimulating internal processes - or even conversation - it over-stimulates to saturation-point and beyond, resulting in switching-off and vegeing-out: sermon as entertainment.

    I agree that there is a place for the monologue; but it has been so disproportional that it has been devalued. Just as God said the soil needed Sabbath-years of rest, and, when the people ifgnored him he exiled them to give the land an accumulated rest, so perhaps we need a Sabbath rest from sermons, so that they can be enriched once more.

  9. I have to agree on this one. I'm more and more coming to the conclusion that especially young people (under 35) want to have more than just one voice. We recently taught the Lifeshapes Octagon at our church with about 12 people involved in the teaching through 3-5 min inputs.

    People loved it, the best feedback ever. And I'm (slowly) starting to come to terms with the fact that not only speakers like hearing their own voice, others do to... ;-)

  10. Hi Andrew - some helpful pieces of reflection here (ur mini-series i mean).

    The 'sermon' thing is something I've been giving some thought to for quite a while. I know that I've been heavily influenced by the concept of informal-education, what ought to be the defining characteristic of good youth work.

    I recognise the irony in recommending you a book to read, but don't just try read it straight through, read a bit, think about it, try it out, live it out, let it confuse you (you get my point I hope) - Pedagogy of the Oppressed, by Paulo Freire.

    Seriously, the ideas in this book are so potentially dangerous. imho


  11. Hi Phil.

    Care to lend me a copy?

    Want to meet up for coffee some time?


  12. yeah sure (to both)