Repeat Performance: Making Preaching Come Alive

By Lischer, Richard | The Christian Century, August 28, 2002 | Go to article overview

Repeat Performance: Making Preaching Come Alive


Lischer, Richard, The Christian Century


PREACHERS ARE LIKE comedians. They are always looking for new material. If the recent spate of articles on preachers plagiarizing in their sermons is any indication, the production of the weekly sermon in the face of limited time and a challenged imagination has become the overriding issue for busy ministers.

Many preachers feel overmatched not by the competing messages around them but by the sensorium itself, the technological and economic atmosphere in which all messages are communicated. With its worship of electronic images, no culture has proved less hospitable to the spoken word than our own. Our predecessors faced their distinctive challenges, to be sure, but at least Augustine, Chrysostom, Luther and Spurgeon did not have to justify the effectiveness of public speech or, worse, deal with its obsolescence.

Preachers have always worried about where the next sermon is coming from. A young Reinhold Niebuhr confided to his diary, "Now that I have preached about a dozen sermons I find I am repeating myself. A different text simply means a different pretext for saying the same thing over again. The few ideas that I had worked into sermons at the seminary have all been used, and now what?"

Preachers today worry about the effectiveness of the homily and their own powers of imagination, too. They wonder where they will find the necessary time for study and quiet reflection. As Niebuhr's comments reveal, earlier generations of preachers were plagued by similar questions, but they also confronted the theological elements of preaching with a seriousness that is rarely seen in the over-programmed minister of today.

Indeed, the homiletical tradition speaks more about the spiritual condition of the preacher than any other subject. For more than a millennium, the most frequently voiced homiletical issue was not the number of points a sermon should have but the character and holiness of the one who preaches it. This concern was in part derived from the rhetorical ideal of "the good person speaking well" but was even more an outgrowth of Augustinian and early medieval spirituality. Most homiletical treatises after Augustine and through the Middle Ages expound on the authority, formation and sanctity of the one appointed to preach, topics almost universally ignored by contemporary homiletical textbooks. Those same concerns are evident in later pastoral texts, whether by Baxter, Herbert, Spener or Schleiermacher. They eventually gave way to 19th- and 20th-century discussions of the "personality" of the preacher.

Despite the wave of spirituality in both the church and popular culture today, we are not seeing a corresponding revival of interest in the holiness of the preacher. The spotlight on "my story" notwithstanding, Protestant homiletics has avoided the larger issue of the spiritual formation of preachers. Ironically, the recent expose of widespread plagiarism in the pulpit seems to be reviving the character question by examining the role of the minister's faith and intelligence in the practice of preaching.

If there is a connection between spirituality and preaching, it lies in the preacher's devotional reading of scripture. Yet it is precisely there, in the study of the Bible, that many preachers feel their historical-critical training has failed to build a bridge toward proclamation. Many were never trained to pray the text, to meditate on its images or to seek its spiritual power, but only to excavate it for its most important ideas. We did not read the Bible as the poet Adrienne Rich counseled all serious readers: "as if your life depended on it."

MORE AND MORE preachers are engaged in the spiritual reading of the Bible using methods taught by the fathers, mothers and mystics of the church. One such method is the use of allegory, which, instead of constricting the interpreter's options, celebrates the divine abundance within the biblical text. The church "settled" the matter of allegory twice, repudiating it first during the Reformation and a second time in the heyday of historical criticism. …

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