Saturday, September 13, 2014

What are we doing when we preach?

Back in the mists of time, sometime around May, I was at the exceptional Festival of Homiletics in Minneapolis. A five day feast of speakers, worship and making new friends that I enjoyed and felt very refreshed by.  The purpose, to talk about preaching, and to have great examples of preachers and to consider how our preaching can be improved and be stimulating and engaging.
A full Central Lutheran Church, Minneapolis (from Festival Flickr Stream https://www.flickr.com/photos/lutherseminary/sets/72157644910650154/)

We did a lot of how, I didn't pick up a lot of 'why?'.  It seemed to taken as a given that we accepted the importance of and the reasons for preaching.  It wasn't the nature of the conference.  But as I consider the possibility of taking on a course of Study - a Doctorate of Ministry in Preaching - the question of the nature and purpose of preaching is at the forefront of my thinking at the moment,

Let's start with me, though, as it is kind of obvious but needs to be said - I love preaching,  More accurately, I love the discipline of preaching, the need to break open scripture, pray through it, consider it, struggle with it and relate it to the lives of faith that I believe our discipleship of Christ calls us to.  For me, preaching is not an academic exercise, but a faithful one.  I share my own understandings (and those of others) in relating our faith and worshipping life together to our everyday walk with Christ.

In this I am assisted, inspired, and challenged by a weekly gathering called 'The Sermon Circle' - a group open to all of between five and thirteen of us that meets on the Thursdays at 10am before the Sunday I am preaching on.  We also meet on the weeks I am not preaching, and the group meets when I am unable to be there, because of the value in sharing our thoughts (and sometimes pooling our ignorance) together as we are confronted by the readings for the coming Sunday.  This is a pretty raw form of Bible Study, with each voice having it's value and it gets me away from ever feeling I might be a 'religious expert' - there's too much wisdom in the room for that!

This Sermon Circle, along with the encouragement and thoughtful response of the people of St John the Divine, Victoria - my current (and future) spiritual home - has been the liberation of my own preaching and I have felt much more than in previous situations that what I am sharing from the pulpit (or the nave) is from, for and connected to the community I serve as Parish Priest.  But that still doesn't start to answer the question - "Why preach?" or the adjunct "What is it for?"

The question is brought into sharp relief when we consider how peculiar and even anachronistic the idea of a person standing up in front of a relatively large group of people and speaking to (or at best with, and at worst, at) them.  In this world of 140 Character updates, interactive, hi-tech, graphic heavy expression - where (apparently) the average transient attention span is now down to 8 seconds and the average length of sustained selective attention is probably limited to about 10 minutes (up to forty for an engaged task) Thanks Wikipedia for the figures - interesting summary article here - just in case your attention is waning and you need a distraction...

So, what are we preachers (or homiletes) doing in sharing words for a certain amount of time, usually between 13 and 17 minutes in my case, it seems...(sermons here to prove it)?

Well, here's the start of my thoughts.  There may be more to come, though as is usually the way with blogging that may be years down the road!

I believe that with a faith rooted in scripture, no matter how we may express that, or how we approach it - from a more literal or conservative interpretative framework, or a more metaphorical or liberal one - we have a responsibility to engage with the text. Not just to read it, but to consider it's meaning, to join in the stories, to consider how they meet with us and where we are today.  There is a place for having someone lead us in that - preaching is ONE (but by no means the only) way in which we can do that.

And if we are to take the roots of our faith seriously, there is some value in making - consciously or unconsciously - the statement that we are going to talk about these things for a while. Or we are going to listen as someone shares their interpretation - not as an expression of superiority or control, though preaching is used that way.  In the same way that as priest I see my worship leading as facilitating the worship of the community, I see my role as preacher as facilitating an involvement with scripture and with the realities of faith - part of a process, not the whole of it.  A place I have been liberated to take by the Church which supports me in my role as their servant and minister.

I am also convinced that there is a calling to be counter-cultural in this!  To say that there are things worth paying attention to, and to give time to them. By this I don't mean the preacher him or herself - though a good preacher is a joy to listen to and to engage with.  I mean the idea that we feel the need to apply our faith, to get to grips with our story passed down over generations and over many centuries - to explain and explore, to recognise our part in a greater story and a greater community of faith and not just to create a faith in our own image, that idea is worth putting some effort into.

I do believe there are lots of ways in which we can think of making our preaching more engaging. I am sure there are ways in which we can facilitate a common learning together, within our acts of worship and beyond, that are creative and imaginative. I am committed to, and love using, Social Media to share, explore, consider, debate.  But after all this time (I have been ordained for 18 years) I am convinced that there is still a place for preaching, and a role for those of us who take the strands of faith and tie a few together to add to the tapestry.

But I am open to discussion.  And not always right. Feel free to comment.





1 comment:

Cannuk said...

You have hit the nail on the head. One of the reasons that I really love your preaching is that you don't just speak, you communicate. That means listening as well as talking - back and forth. You also don't limit it to Sunday in the pulpit. You blog, you write, you use social media, you chat, you do it all. In other words, you live with us not above us. Result -- we grow.

You are on the right path, Alastair. Keep it up, and so will I.