Retooling the Purposes of Preaching: Getting in Touch with Your Inner Homiletician Part 3

Tools(Creative Commons Image by J on Flickr)

This is the third article in the series. See Part 2.

What do we imagine we are about when we set out to preach? What do we think happens, or should happen, in the sermon or through the sermon? How might we identify the “fruits” of a faithful preaching life?

Robert Dykstra of Princeton Seminary once asked a younger version of myself, “What do you hope to change through your sermonic efforts?”

I didn’t imagine a particular purpose, I said. Only that was not true. What I really should have said was that when I preach, I hope to achieve world peace; end hunger, reverse man’s inhumanity to man; and, while I’m at it, raise the dead, all in about twenty minutes … or so.

While you might not fault my ambition, you might question its practical utility as a purpose.

Dykstra’s question runs in a different direction as well: it may urge us to refresh and renew our commitment to preaching that rises slightly higher than the church rafters.

We might compare a “purpose of preaching” to having a destination on a day long walk: without a destination, you’re simply out wandering and there may or may not be any wonder. Wonder may not depend on a known destination, but it is more easily recognized when we have an assurance of where we will rest our weary bodies at the end of the day.

Now, before you begin rifling through your by now in storage seminary papers looking for your Intro to Preaching “purpose of preaching” paper (I’m sure we wrote one of these for preaching class!), bear in mind that this exercise is less seminary redux and more theological education reimagined and retooled within and on behalf of a congregational context.

Gordon S. Mikoski names an experience common among pastors: Seminary, he says, gave him perspective and tools, but it was the parish experience that invited him to “retool” the way he imagined theological education, particularly the practical arts of ministry.1

He goes on to describe the massive paradigm shift this retooling entailed by contrasting two images: an archer practicing to achieve accuracy and an interdisciplinary medical health team that “aims” for the “full functioning or flourishing of life … ” According to Mikoski, the archer’s task is essentially to knock the arrow (the sermon), apply the force of the limbs (historical, biblical, and pastoral studies), and, once that potential energy has been maximized, execute a clean release so that the arrow hits its intended target (a passive congregation).

Archery, he continues, depends on the monotonous practice of an individual with an exceedingly narrow goal or criterion for success. A better image, he argues, would be the medical health care team: while trained medical practitioners play a central role, their expertise is joined to the gifts and abilities of ethicists, nurses, psychologists, and, yes, the chaplain.2

Shift our gaze in the direction of a congregational worship, and we may recognize the utility of this metaphor. Among other things, it underlines a collaborative model of theological practice, one that fits with the varied and baptized identity of the entire witnessing community; it also suggest that we measure “success” using the criteria of faith, namely the increase of peace, joy, wholeness, wisdom, reconciliation (i.e., the flourishing of life as represented in the idiom of scripture and tradition).

Jana Childers reminds us that articulating a purpose of preaching is less a definition (and thus in danger of becoming an abstraction) and more a restatement of God’s saving action.3 Not unlike the way Matthew conceives the Great Commission being accomplished through small acts — like the work of yeast, salt, and light — done with great faith. All of these “intensify” our sense of God’s reign drawing near.

So how would you form your “interdisciplinary congregational witness team”? Who would best assist your formation as a preacher? And the flourishing of the church? How might varied perspectives, meeting in the place called the sermon, name the “salt, yeast, and light” of the preaching moment? The next blog will “salt” or “leaven” your imagination as you seek to retool your homiletical knowledge with pastoral wisdom.


1 Gordon S. Mikoski, “Neo-Protestant Practical Theology” in Kathleen A. Cahalan and Gordon S. Mikoski, eds., Opening the Field of Practical Theology: An Introduction (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2014), 169.

2 Ibid., 174.

3 Jana Childers, “Seeing Jesus: Preaching as Incarnational Act” in Jana Childers, ed., Purposes of Preaching (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2004), 46-7.