Out of the Loop: The Changing Practice of Preaching Part Four: Another Kansas City Voice

In view of our ongoing discussion of the episodic character of experience, Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot can be seen in a new light.

Rather than a formula for sermons with structures that match the intuitive and native communicational capacities of listeners, Lowry’s plotted sermons can instead be understood as sermonic homework, as rather difficult and demanding tasks in narrative construction. Hearers of such sermons must be able to manage a high tolerance for ambiguity and then to track an involved five-step sequential process of resolution. They must be able to sustain attention for twenty minutes or so upon a single project from the beginning of the sermon to the end. In short, they must be able to follow, appropriate, and finally create coherent narratives.

But what if fewer and fewer people in our culture can do this? It is probably true that the O. J. Simpson jury, among other crucial factors, simply could not attend to the long and arduous process of constructing a plausible narrative out of the evidence, preferring instead to fasten their attention on arresting episodes like, “If [the gloves] don’t fit, you must acquit.” Or again, the very popular and certainly hilarious comedy news parody “The Daily Show” does not appeal to our hunger to fashion livable narratives but rather thrives on a postmodernist zinging of slightly irreverent and cynical one-liners at people who do. Oliver Sacks may still be correct “that each of us constructs and lives a ‘narrative,’ and that this narrative is us, our identities,” but we seem to be shifting into a cultural moment when people lack the requisite tools, or maybe the will, to perform this task. Are people who are watching Oprah or CSI on television, or who are randomly surfing the Internet, engaged in the hard work of constructing socially and personally viable narratives, or are they simply attending to whatever flickers across the screen until something more glittering comes along?

Little wonder, then, that the whole narrative enterprise in homiletics is under assault from the theological right, middle, and left.1  We are once again at one of those breakpoints when the cultural communicational context has shifted and a new method of preaching may develop before our very eyes. What new style of preaching will emerge? While some homileticians are predicting, and even advocating, a move toward genuinely conversational styles of preaching, approaches to preaching in which preachers freely relinquish the asymmetrical (and allegedly hierarchical) style of presentation in order to serve as facilitators of free-ranging and nonhierarchical congregational discussions, there is little evidence that such an approach is catching on. In fact, if we look at what is happening on the ground among actual practitioners, what seems to be rising up from the mist is exactly the opposite: a highly authoritative and didactic style, aimed right at episodic listeners.

A case in point is Adam Hamilton, the bright, youngish, articulate pastor of the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Kansas City. With close to 15,000 members, Church of the Resurrection is a rare example of a mainline “mega-church.” Like Eugene Lowry, Hamilton is an ordained United Methodist minister. Like Lowry, he hails from Kansas City, and he is connected (as a trustee) to Saint Paul Theological Seminary, where Lowry taught for over thirty years. Hamilton and Lowry are neighbors in so many ways. Homiletically, though, they are galaxies apart.

In his recent book on preaching, Unleashing the Word, Hamilton spends a lot of time on high-tech matters, such as selecting the right images and video clips to accompany the sermon, but when he gets around to method, he says this about sermon structure:

Preaching professors sometimes speak of two basic types of sermons. The first type begins with the human condition or the problem facing human beings and then draws the hearers toward the teaching of scripture and God’s solution to the problem. This first type of sermon starts where we itch, and then brings the scripture to bear offering God’s solution…The second type begins with the scriptures, usually with a scriptural truth, and then seeks to apply that truth to our daily lives.2

Although Lowry would probably pick different wording, Hamilton’s picture of the first type of sermon structure–from itch to scratch–sounds quite like Lowry’s description of the plotted narrative sermon. In practice, however, Hamilton is poles apart from Lowry. Hamilton says, “I use both models in preaching,”3  but in execution in Hamilton’s preaching these two approaches tend to merge into a single method. True, Hamilton’s sermons may start with a human “itch” or they may start with some scriptural truth, but, regardless of starting point, they tend to be structured in very similar ways. Hamilton creates sermons with several main points, supported by outlines he shares with the listeners with “fill in the blank” spots to help them pay attention.4  In contrast to Lowry’s five-fold sequence, where no part of the sermon could exist meaningfully apart from the other parts, where the experience of the sermon depends upon following the total flow of the sermon from beginning to end, Hamilton’s sermons consist of bursts of insights, often discrete packages of information on a theme. If Lowry draws upon the narrative genre, Hamilton has changed the genre, from narrative to wisdom. Lowry’s sermons are sequential plots; Hamilton’s tend to be strings of elaborated proverbs. Lowry’s sermons are built like short stories, Hamilton’s like Web pages.

Ironically, if we take away the fancy computer-fueled technology and the dazzling images appearing on the screen, Hamilton’s homiletical approach is straight out of the 1950s. How ironic that after nearly fifty years of our rejoicing over the death of the didactic sermon, “it’s ba-a-a-a-ck.” Only now, instead of three points and a poem, it’s six points and a video clip.

I believe that Hamilton, at least intuitively, knows his listeners well, knows the culture well, and he has recovered the point-oriented, propositional, didactic approach to preaching in response to the communicational needs of an episodic culture. Lowry’s approach assumed that the hearer was tacitly saying, “Hey, I have crafted a meaningful narrative for my life, one that gives me a satisfying identity, but there is a slight problem. Some conflict, some tension, some ambiguity, has arisen in my narrative, and I need a gospel-infused process to work this ambiguity through.”

Hamilton assumes no such need or ability. Instead, he hears his listeners saying, “I don’t have a coherent identity narrative, and I haven’t a clue how to construct one. In the meantime, though, I need to manage the day, keep my job, stay married, and raise my children. Can you provide an external set of rules and ideas that will give me what I cannot make for myself: a Christian framework and meaning to my random, episodic life?”

1See Thomas G. Long, “What Happened to Narrative Preaching?” Journal for Preachers 28, no. 4 (Pentecost, 2005): 9–14.
2Adam Hamilton, Unleashing the Word: Preaching with Relevance, Purpose, and Passion (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2003), 43.
3Ibid., 44.
4Ibid., 83.

Excerpted with permission from: What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching? (Copyright) 2008 Chalice Press.

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