A friend of mine was recently shocked to learn that in a couple of weeks time his church is planning a panel discussion instead of the sermon.
To him, this feels like a slippery slope. It threatens to marginalise the sermon, suggesting we don’t have to have it for church to be church.
Now, although it might arouse his ire, I should mention that our congregation has been experimenting with the form of the sermon. In pursuit of the ideal of participatory learning, we’ve taken some tentative steps in the direction of a more dialogical teaching model.
In this we’re guided by our (admittedly slightly fuzzy) sense of the vision of church life reflected in 1 Corinthians 12-14. There, Christ’s rule over his church in his Spirit by the Word doesn’t seem to be expressed in the form that’s the default setting for us Sydney Anglicans — the authoritative, trained individual (usually a man) giving a 20 to 40 minute monologue. Rather, it’s expressed in a much more dynamic and unpredictable (and risky) practice of mutual edification.
Ultimately what’s needed — more than either suspicion of or enthusiasm for such experimentation — is a theology of proclamation.
I deliberately say ‘proclamation’ rather than ‘preaching’. Peter Jensen (The Revelation of God, p 38) points out that ‘When we consider how the gospel was actually transmitted by Jesus and the apostles, we see that human effort, whether physical, personal or intellectual, is not bypassed. On the contrary, in accordance with the incarnation itself, the human is regarded as fit to communicate the divine message.’ This human dimension to the transmission of God’s self-revelation explains why Luke, for example, seems so comfortable to present the apostolic activity of proclamation in a variety of ways — including but by no means limited to what we habitually think of as ‘preaching’.
In fact this human aspect of the form in which the authoritative gospel message was proclaimed finds a place in our practice of preaching if not in our theory of it. As John Stott underlines in I Believe In Preaching (pp 60-61):
[W]e need to remember the dialogical character of preaching. That is, a true sermon is not the monologue which it appears to be. ‘Monstrous ministerial monologue’ is the expression sometimes used. The Rev. R. E. O. White, Principal of the Baptist Theological College of Scotland, quotes an even ruder definition, ‘a monstrous monologue by a moron to mutes’. But I want to argue that true preaching is always dialogical.
At one end of the spectrum it can be expresses as ‘Vocal dialogue between the preacher and congregation’ — picture a raucous African-American church. At the other end, ‘It refers to the silent dialogue between the preacher and his hearers. For what he says provokes questions in their minds which he then proceeds to answer.’
What I want to do is chart the unexplored territory in between. To do so I hope to work through the following topics:
- Preach the word — why proclamation is an imperative
- As it really is — the place of human words in the divine economy
- That you may be transformed — the aims of proclamation
- Lest the cross be emptied — rhetoric, imagination and the means of proclamation
- With tears… — why those we’re speaking to need to be much more than a mere audience