What if our Assumptions about and Models for Preaching are Wrong? Part 2

Last month, I wondered in writing whether some of the basic assumptions that I have operated with as a preacher have gone the way of the buggy whip.

I wondered, “What if the limited success I have enjoyed as a teacher and preacher has been because I have adequately performed within a model that no longer is ideal?”

The school of thought I was trained in defines itself over against “decision” theology preaching–in which the goal of a sermon is moving a person to made some sort of decision– such as “for Jesus,” “against abortion,” “for recycling,” and so on.

I was schooled in an approach to preaching in which the pastor’s task was to “perform the text” or “deliver the word.” I call this the “delivery model” of preaching.

The model can be broken down as follows:
1) The preacher’s job is to determine the meaning of the text.
2) The preacher is to deliver that meaning as effectively as possible to the congregation.
3) The congregation is to receive the meaning as faithfully as possible.

But what if the delivery model does not really capture how meaning is communicated between a speaker and hearers? In response, last month I wondered:

     What if what a sermon is supposed to do is invite people into the biblical text (into its narratives, its poems, its parables, its letters and proverbs and prophecies) so that people can both  see themselves and their own lives in the Bible and also see God in their lives? What if what a sermon is supposed to do is give people eyes to see God at work in the world, to give them ears to hear God’s word when it is spoken in the workplace, to give them minds that can make sense of their daily lives in light of Jesus Christ?

In the spirit of one who is struggling along these lines, I want to explore a couple of alternate ways of preaching, ways that might seek to “invite people into the biblical text” rather than seek to “deliver” its meaning to people.

Inviting People into the Story
An experiment I have begun to try in my sermons is quite literally to invite people into the talk of the sermon by giving them opportunities to talk about the metaphors, images, questions, and characters of the biblical text. For example, here is a brief snippet from a recent sermon on Psalm 39:

     At the end of the psalm, this ancient sufferer prayed, “I am your passing guest, an alien, like all my ancestors.” In older English translations, the words translated as “passing guest” and “alien” were rendered as “sojourner” and “stranger.” But the truth is, there is no English word directly equivalent to these terms, because our society is structured so differently than ancient Israel was. Ancient Israel was a kinship-based society. Men and women lived, and moved, and had their beings within a web of familial connectedness. At the highest level of connected was the ‘am, the people, often translated “kindred.” At the next level down was the matteh, the tribe. One concentric ring closer was the mishpachah, the clan. And at the center of the structure was the bet ab, literally “house of the father,” the three-storied and three-generation Israelite home, in which a family patriarch lived under one roof with his adult children, minor grandchildren, and perhaps servants and farmhands.

      This family web of connected gave individuals their identities, it provided the economic structures within which they contributed to society and lived out their vocations, and–especially at the clan level–it was the social safety.  The clan took care of you when you were sick, worked for you when you couldn’t work, provided for you when you were destitute. If you fell behind financially and had to see your land, someone within the clan was appointed as your go’el, which is often translated as “redeemer,” and was obligated to buy your land in order to keep it in the clan and to keep you out of debt. If you fell so far behind financially that you had nothing left to sell and thus had to sell yourself into slavery, within the clan, someone was appointed as your “redeemer”–and the redeemer was obligated to pay your debt and buy you out of slavery.  The clan and its smaller unit, the “house of the father” were everything.

      Think about a time when you couldn’t provide for yourself. Maybe when you had no roof over your head and someone helped, or no money and somebody wrote you a check. In one minute, tell about that time and who it was who helped you out.

In this sermon, I actually stopped three times and gave people the chance to explore the words and images of the psalm. I recently heard ELCA Presiding Bishop Mark Hanson say that in his sermons, more and more often, he also is pausing and inviting people to talk to their neighbors about the Bible.

The purpose of such a move is to give God’s people the chance to practice “finding themselves in the text.” The opportunity to practice the basic Christian art of connecting the message of the Bible to their lives. God’s people are not being equipped in the home, the school, or the congregation to practice (and thus to learn) this basic Christian art. And if they never learn the art, how can they be expected to connect the message of the Bible to their lives?

So, along this line, when preaching about a biblical character, ask people to discuss, “When have you ever been like Jacob, with nothing but a rock for a pillow?” When preaching about a parable, invite people to wonder, “When have you have you ever been the older brother who could not join in the party for a younger brother?” When preaching on an epistle, ask, “Put yourself in the place of the Corinthians, who were squabbling because each person thought that his or her gift was most valuable to Christ’s mission? What gift do you have that you tend to think is the most important?” You get the point.


Stay tuned for Part III installment of Rolf’s article next month as he explores deploying pastoral expertise.