Chapter 1: The Pulpit in the Shadow
We are all aware that in countless courts of opinion, the verdict on preaching has been rendered and the sentence passed. All this slim volume asks is a stay of execution until one other witness be heard. The tardiness of this witness is not to be construed as dramatic timing. It is rather due to a cowardice born of that familiar fear of rising to defend that which has been derided by close and learned friends. And, in addition, one is painfully hesitant to speak in behalf of a defendant who is not entirely innocent of the charges brought against him.
The alarm felt by those of us still concerned about preaching is not a response solely to the noise outside in the street where public disfavor and ridicule have been heaped upon the pulpit. On the contrary, most preachers are quite skilled at translating such criticism into “crosses to be borne” and appropriating for themselves the blessing lodged in some proper text, such as “Beware when all men speak well of you”. These are not new sounds; to a large extent, the pulpit has from the first century received poor reviews (2 Cor. 10:9-10) To explain this general reaction perhaps one need not look for reasons profound; it may be simply that these critics have heard us preach!
More disturbing has been the nature and character of those who have been witnesses for the prosecution. Increasingly, the brows that frown upon the pulpit are not only intelligent, but often theologically informed, and quite often deeply concerned about the Christian mission. Their judgments about preaching cannot be regarded as reflections of a general disinterest in religion, not dismissed as the usual criticisms hurled at the familiar caricature in the pulpit, droning away in stained-glass tones with pretended convictions about matters uninteresting, unimportant, and untrue. Some of these men have themselves been preachers in the churches. In short, the major cause for alarm is not the broadside from the public, nor the sniping from classroom sharpshooters, but the increasing number who are going AWOL from the pulpit. Some of these men move into forms of the ministry that carry no expectation of a sermon, or out of the ministry altogether. In addition there are countless others who continue to preach not because they regard it as an effective instrument of the church, but because of the combined force of professional momentum and congregational demand.
It is the sober opinion of many concerned Christians, some who give the sermon and some who hear it, that preaching is an anachronism. It would be granted, of course, by all these critics that the pulpit has, in other generations, forcefully and effectively witnessed to the Gospel, initiating personal and social change. It would be regarded by them as proper, therefore, for the church to celebrate the memory of preaching in ways appropriate to her gratitude and to affix plaques on old pulpits as an aid to those who tour the churches. But the church can not live on the thin diet of fond memories. New forms of ministry are being forged and shaped overnight to meet the morning’s need. And these ministries are without pulpit.
One need only look into the seminaries to get a clear picture of the tenuous position of preaching. Some seminaries offer little, or, at best, only marginal work in homiletics. It should be said immediately, however, in defense of such lacunae, that there is, in some quarters, a serious reexamination of the wisdom of having instruction in preaching as a separate curriculum item. This re-appraisal is due in part to an appreciation for the complexity of preaching and its inextricable relation to the other disciplines. It is in this mood that Joseph Sittler has written:
And, therefore, the expectation must not be cherished that, save for modest and obvious instruction about voice, pace, organization, and such matters, preaching as a lively art of the church can be taught at all . . . Disciplines correlative to preaching can be taught, but preaching as an act of witness cannot be taught. 1
All too frequently, however, seminary education in preaching consists of training under a speech teacher or exposure to the toothless reminiscences of a kindly old pastor re-activated from retirement. In the former case, preaching is quite aside from the rest of the seminary curriculum because preaching so taught has its form defined not by the content of the Gospel nor the nature of Christian faith but by Greek rhetoric. As will be discussed later, the separation of form and content is fatal for preaching, for it fails to recognize the theology implicit in the method of communication. When a man preaches, his method of communication, the movement of his sermon, reflects his hermeneutical principles, his view of the authority of Scripture, church, and clergy, and especially his doctrine of man. This is revealed verbally and non-verbally in the point of contact made with the listeners and the freedom to respond permitted them. It is a fact that much preaching contradicts by its method the content of its message. It is not reasonable to expect a speech teacher to guide a seminarian in the method of preaching that incarnates the message. The discussion of such a method is the major burden of this book. And, of course, when preaching is taught by a pastor, retired or active, the course suffers, deservedly or not, from that particular brand of harsh laughter reserved by students and faculty for that which lacks academic respectability. As a natural consequence preaching continues for another generation as “a marginal annoyance on the record of a scientific age.” 2
This characterization of the minor role of preaching in some seminaries is not intended as an accusation of the seminaries as the source and cause of a poor pulpit. Seminaries not only create but reflect the general condition of the churches they serve and the cultures in which they live. It is in this larger context that the major reasons for the disrepute into which preaching has fallen are to be found. A brief examination of some of these reasons may function as the diagnosis that leads to recovery of health and power.
It is generally recognized that many blows struck against the pulpit come not because of its peculiar faults but because it is a part of a traditional and entrenched institution, and all such institutions, religious, political, or otherwise, are being called into question. Strong winds of change blow over the land and strange new shadows fall across the comfortable hearths where we have taken long naps. Some pulpits feel threatened as the novelty of the new obscures distinctions between apparent and real values. Reactionary idealism, as the cutting edge of change, necessarily makes large room for error, but in the midst of uncertainty, it must not be overlooked that many pulpits have welcomed the interruption of triviality and are grateful for the chance to be faithful in such a time.
A primary reason, both in point of time and significance, for the general low estimate of preaching is to be found in the nature of American Christianity. Perhaps the most characteristic mark of the American church as distinguished from the church elsewhere in the world has been activism. The Social Gospel Movement was native to this soil and to that understanding of the Christian faith which is captured in the motto, “Deeds, not words.” After the churches in Europe have heatedly debated the truth claims of a theological position, the American churches appropriate that portion of it which will “work.” In critical times, the demand for relevance becomes so strong that the sole canon by which a ministry is measured is the degree of its participation in the skirmish of the day. When this atmosphere prevails, the whole Bible is reduced to Matthew 25: 31-46 and criticisms against preachers as those who “just talk” create a reaction of silent busyness. While this accent has been not only the power of the American church but its fundamental witness to the church elsewhere, it has at the same time unfairly obscured the place of the sermon. In fact, the power of the sermon to initiate and sustain movements for social change has often been overlooked because sermons were “words, words, words.” While some American pulpits have been outstanding, on the average corner on an average Sunday, preaching has been tolerated and the ministers have given sermons that were tolerable. Where the expectation is low, the fulfillment is usually lower.
Implicit in what has just been said is the minimization of the power of words to effect anything: to create or to destroy, to bind or to loose, to bless or to curse. This common denial of the efficacy of words has been with us long enough to be enshrined in a number of proverbs: “Talk is cheap”; “It is not what you say but what you do that counts” “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day”; “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words…” Obviously there is enough truth in these expressions to keep them alive. In them is some deserved judgment against a church that gives recitations, lifeless words cut off from the hearts and minds of those who speak and those who listen. Kierkegaard captured this state of affairs in his parable of the man who saw in a shop window a sign, Pants Pressed Here. He went in and immediately began removing his pants. The startled shopkeeper stopped him, explaining that he did not press pants: he painted signs. Beneath these deprecatory statements about words lies a view of speaking which, if subscribed to, is fatal for preaching. Certainly no one can preach who has no respect for words, who allows them to creep over his tongue and sneak out the corners of his mouth, self-conscious and sheepish, as though hoping to fall to the ground and steal away unheard.
That there is in our time a language crisis, a general experience of the loss of the power of words is all too evident. Needless to say, this means a crisis in preaching. The starting-point for the study of homiletics has been radically shifted. All considerations of structure, unity, movement, use of text, etc. must wait upon the prior consideration of what words are and what they do. Any young preacher who does not take time to develop for himself some grasp of the nature and meaning of words and of what happens when words are shared in communication will soon fall silent, frustrated, disenchanted, weary of the sound of his own voice, and convinced that what descended upon him was not a dove but an albatross. In these primary considerations, he will find many resources, for the study of the meaning of words is a central issue in contemporary philosophy, theology, and Biblical interpretation. This fact alone indicates the immensity of the problem, but gratefully it also holds rich prospects for the renewal of preaching.
Why in our time is man “the victim of linguistic estrangement from his tradition and linguistic confusion among his contemporaries”? 3 Why the sickness of language, the degeneration of the streets and avenues of communication into “slum districts”? 4 Some partial answers lie near at hand.
No doubt the fact that we are today bombarded with words has contributed to decay of meaning. By limitless new forms, made possible primarily by electronic media, we are surrounded by words. The eyes and ears have no relief, and all the old silent haunts are now scarred with billboards and invaded by public address systems.
When language is no longer related to silence, it loses its source of refreshment and renewal and therefore something of its substance. . .By taking it away from silence we have made language an orphan.5
A second reason for the loss of power and meaning in words may lie in the nature of traditional religious language. Gerhard Ebeling has properly observed that “out of mistrust of religious words there grows contempt for words as such.” 6 But why this mistrust of religious language? It is in part, of course, due to the language-lag that has always plagued the church, a hesitation to lay aside old terms and phrases for fear of laying aside something vital to the faith itself. Hence unfortunately, the church has no retirement program for old words that fought well at Nicea, Chalcedon and Augsburg; they are kept in the line of march even if the whole mission is slowed to a snail’s pace and observers on the side are bent double in laughter.
In our time, however, the failure of the church’s language has been accelerated by the ascendancy of the language of science. By this is meant not simply the vocabulary of science but the fundamental understanding of what words are and what they can and cannot do.
Undoubtedly the modern revolution in the natural sciences has had a profound effect upon language. . .or better, upon our consciousness and conceptualization of language. Science has made us profoundly uneasy about how we can and cannot use language. It has brought on a new thirst for clarity, precision, and freedom from ambiguity, all to be construed in terms of the models of the scientific method itself. 7
One’s immediate response is favorable if this means simply that the church must do her homework, choose carefully her words, and be clear in her proclamation. But more than this is meant, for the model of the scientific method understands words as signs, as indicators pointing to information that can be verified. For language to be meaningful, it is said, it must keep itself to this task. Were the pulpit to acquiesce and promise to speak according to these rules, it would have to forfeit its evocative use of words, its use of language to create new situations, its use of the parable and the myth. Under such editorship, the church’s language would be “cleaned up,” striking all symbolic and mythological uses as pre-literate, primitive, and meaningless. The results would, of course, be tragic. While the scientific use of language to designate is an important function of words and necessary to some disciplines, to permit words only this function would be sterilizing reductionism. Words have too many other rich and full functions in all human thinking, learning, feeling, and sharing to be pulled through this small knothole.
It is a tragic fact, however, that the pulpit in many places accepted this restricted and restricting view of language. Perhaps these preachers at first felt secure in the scientific world because it reinforced their view of their task: to communicate knowledge, a special kind of knowledge, information about God and eternity. Recently, however, some pulpits have discovered that this very definition of words, that is, as signs to point to verifiable information, has made highly questionable the legitimacy of even using the word “God”. Suddenly feeling trapped, some have unwisely reacted in antiscience belligerence while others have silently tossed in the towel. On the other hand, there are signs here and there that the church is discovering it is neither anti-scientific nor anti-intellectual to refuse to abide by a single definition of the function of words. No longer overawed, the church is discovering that science also has its limitations. After all, the “schemata which science evolves in order to classify, organize, and summarize the phenomena of the real world turn out to be nothing but arbitrary schemes which express not the nature of things, but the nature of mind.” 8
In the opinion of some observers a third reason for the current word-sickness lies in the changed shape of the human sensorium as a result of television. According to this interpretation, the visual has removed the oral from the field, or at least has created a crisis between eye and ear. The pulpit has traditionally used word and story and history, but now television has re-organized the sensorium for image and picture. In the opinion of some, the success of the Christian proclamation depends upon the church’s ability to make the transition so men can see. Against such a view, however, it should be kept in mind that the Bible favors the ear over the eye in attempting to present its message about God who communicates. If it be objected that this can be explained by reference to the Bible’s primitive context, then one should remember that in the same primitive context, the Hellenists gave ascendancy to the eye. Perhaps the difference can be explained by the fact that the Hellenists were concerned with the static conditions of the nature and being of reality while the Judeo-Christian interest was in the dynamic activity of God. 9 In a way unequalled by any of the other senses, the ear receives the temporal sequence of sensations appropriate to the communication of activity and the unfolding of the history of a people. One has to raise the question whether there is involved here something so fundamental to the Christian faith that, television to the contrary, the oral must remain in the center of the field of Christian proclamation.
Whatever conclusion one reaches on this point, no one could be more affected than the preacher by the changes in the structure of the human psyche and the shifts in the areas of sensitivity within modern man’s sensorium. If man’s capacity for receptivity is no longer polarized around sound and person but rather around sight and object, the difficulties for the preaching task, are all too obvious. Perhaps the expression “God is silent” really is a reference to the deafness of modern man. 10
That changes in the human sensorium have taken place in the past is well documented in Western civilization. Consider, for instance, the effect of the invention of alphabetic script and movable type upon man’s relation to his world and to his fellows.
Writing and print created the isolated thinker, the man with the book, and downgraded the network of personal loyalties which oral cultures favor as matrices of communication and as principles of social unity. . .Inevitably record keeping enhanced the sense of individual as against communal property and the sense of individual rights. With printing, even words themselves could become property, as the principle of copyright came into being and was finally taken for granted. 11
With the minimization of the socializing effects in voice and sound, individualism came into its own. The universe grew silent with the development of a literal culture. The spoken word came to be regarded as a modification of the written rather than vice versa. The understanding of the Bible, coming as it does out of long oral tradition, was radically altered. Words fixed in space by print tended to create the idea that the meanings of these words were fixed also. As a result, the written word was more authoritative than the spoken. What was read in a book was accepted as true while serious attention to spoken words waned. If a speaker is really serious about what he is saying, let him “put it in writing”.
The question is, of course, where does an oral presentation fit into a civilization that has moved from oral to literal and now perhaps to aural receptivity? Or does it? Is there reason to believe that the human voice, with its personalizing and socializing effects, has never really lost its place in our culture, and now in a mechanized and impersonal world, is more than ever needed and longed for? To this question we will return in a later chapter.
We have been considering possible causes of the present degeneration of language, a fact which is a contributor to the decline of the pulpit. Perhaps our discussion of the sickness of words should conclude by hesitantly entertaining the possibility that the reason is more profound, transcending all our analyses. This may be a time in which God has actually grown silent, weary with so many empty and careless uses of his name. If so, surely healing and recovery of meaning will come out of such silence. But man keeps talking, and “when God is silent, man becomes a gossip”. 12
A fourth cause back of the current sag in the pulpit is the loss of certainty and the increase of tentativeness on the part of the preacher. Rarely, if ever, in the history of the church have so many firm periods slumped into commas and so many triumphant exclamation points curled into question marks. Those who speak with strong conviction on a topic are suspected of the heresy of premature finality. Permanent temples are to be abandoned as houses of idolatry; the true people of God are in tents again. It is the age of journalistic theology; even the Bible is out in paperback. The transient and the contingent have moved to the center of consciousness.
Basic to this feeling of temporariness and the attendant loss of certainty (whether it be cause or effect in relation to other factors is not of consequence here) is the shift of the church’s concern from space to time. The traditional space-consciousness was fundamental to the church’s proclamation, its evangelism, and its relation to culture. The church saw her task as that of increasing her place, her territory in the world. Now the church is more and more concerned with time. Pulpits are announcing what time it is — “the time is fulfilled”. 13 The entrance of time, change, flexibility means the exit of old forms of certainty and fixity.
This almost frightening awareness in our time of the contingency and creatureliness of all things pervades every serious grappling with reality and meaning. Philosophical studies have experienced a radical shift from considerations of Substance to those of Being and Time. The process philosophy of A. N. Whitehead and the natural evolutionary eschatology of Teilhard de Chardin not only create but reflect the thought of our age. The most significant recent theological formulations have been to some extent structured on existentialism which insists that the only path from thought to reality is through existence, my existence, with all the variables of my experiences coloring the picture. In view of this, many have thought it most honest if they spoke only of that which was verified in experience and remained neutral and silent about metaphysics. If God is mentioned, it is either in the passive voice or only in terms, not of his being, but of our experience of his “toward manness”.
It is an error to blame theology for the powerlessness of the traditional pulpit language; we preach in a radically changed situation. “The traditional metaphysical understanding of reality is being replaced by the historical understanding of reality.” 14 Sermons that respond to this change simply by turning up the volume fall fruitless to the ground. “The resultant anxiety and underlying insincerity show that faith has been disastrously changed into the work of appropriating the incredible.” 15 On the other hand some have sought to avoid the difficulties for preaching that have come with the radical historicization of man by trying to secure an area for faith free from the contingencies of historical investigation. The call to live “by faith alone” seems at first to capture the essence of perfect trust since it does not depend upon the authentication of historical evidence. As a matter of fact, however, this position is a high and beautiful nest, for while it is not dependent on historical verification, neither is it threatened by any new discovery.
Lest any one feel that the conditions just mentioned are confined to the university world of discourse, let him look at modern art. Whatever may be the aesthetic judgment, this art reflects the break up of old perspectives with their confident delineations of reality and captures the fragmentation that accompanies rapid change. Or look at modern architecture. Churches do not look like churches any more! Church architecture captures the flexibility and changing structures of our world while celebrating trust in a God of the present. Within such buildings, a neat three-point sermon is highly suspect. In a world such as this, what right has the preacher to impose a symmetry that he alone can see. Or does he? Every work of art, music, or literature of our time has suffered the loss of neat and isolated beauty because the shadows of once remote cruelties and injustices are brought by modern communication media to fall across every page and every easel. While these shadows remain, and while the reality we experience continues in transit, the old art forms will be inappropriate and inadequate.
In this sense modern music is the product of a radical tentativeness become audible. The available acoustical possibility of sound and rhythm are used, not to declare one man’s variations on an agreed consensus about the world, but to work out in sound and rhythm one man’s behavior in a world without form. 16
Amid all this, the sermons of our time have, with few exceptions, kept the same form. What message does such constancy of method convey? Either the preacher has access to a world that is neat, orderly, and unified which gives his sermon its form, or he is out of date and out of touch with the way it is. In either case, he doesn’t communicate.
As a rule, younger ministers are keenly aware of the factors discussed above, and their preaching reflects it. Their predecessors ascended the pulpit to speak of the eternal certainties, truths etched forever in the granite of absolute reality, matters framed for proclamation, not for discussion. But where have all the absolutes gone? The old thunderbolts rust in the attic while the minister tries to lead his people through the morass of relativities and proximate possibilities. And the difficulties involved in finding and articulating a faith are not the congregation’s alone: they are the minister’s as well. How can he preach with a changing mind? How can he, facing new situations by the hour, speak the appropriate word? He wants to speak and yet he needs more time for more certainty before speaking. His is often the misery of one who is always pregnant but never ready to give birth. Is not every sermon delivered too soon or too late and hence a compromise of his commitment to speak the right word at the right time? Does not the fact that each sermon can in the nature of its limitations, say only one thing and hence be partial in its content, make the preacher a heretic every Sunday, under judgment for all he did not say? Does the fact that his own faith is in process, always becoming but never fully and finally arrived, disqualify him from the pulpit? Not really feeling he is a member of the congregation he serves, he is hesitant to let it be known when his own faith is crippled for fear of causing the whole congregation to limp. It is this painful conflict between the traditional expectation of him and honesty with himself, a conflict so dramatically heightened in our time, that gives the minister pause and often frightens him from the pulpit.
A fifth reason for the current decline of the strong pulpit has already been touched upon: the completely new relationship between speaker and hearer. There are many ways to look at this. One hears a great deal these days about the fall of Christendom, a fact sometimes lamented, sometimes celebrated. Whatever else it may mean, the collapse of Christendom means the church’s loss of the scaffolding of a supporting culture. No longer can the preacher presuppose the general recognition of his authority as a clergyman, or the authority of his institution, or the authority of Scripture. An examination of great evangelistic sermons of the past makes it clear that the speaker assumed at the outset that the hearers were part of a culture that was Christian and the appeal to them was simply not to be “holdouts”. This condition is rapidly disappearing and the claim of the Gospel must be presented on its own terms with the understanding that the hearers stand amid several alternatives. In this respect, the fall of Christendom is to be welcomed by the preacher, for when assumptions give way, faith can be born. Unless there is room to say NO there is no room for a genuine YES. And yet it is apparent that the new situation in which preaching occurs is critical, and unless recognized by the minister and met with a new format, his sermons will at best seem museum pieces.
Unfortunately, the physical arrangements for preaching make it difficult for the minister to implement the changed relation between speaker and hearer. The very location and elevation of the pulpit imply an authority on the part of the speaker or his message which the minister is hesitant to assume and the listeners no longer recognize. Not only this but
the preacher looks down; the people look up. Often, as the lights in the church are turned down and a spotlight turned on the preacher, the congregation disappears into an identity-hiding gloom. The elevation of the pulpit lifts the Word of God above life, and would seem to contradict the concept of its embodiment in the life of the people. The arrangement, moreover, confirms the stereotype of the relation between clergy and laity in which the Word is removed from the people and made the preacher’s exclusive sphere of responsibility. 17
Many congregations, no longer passively accepting this stereotype, refuse to listen to the Word shared under this arrangement. The vigorous processes of democracy are undermining high places, including pulpits.
The younger minister feels most acutely this changed relationship between speaker and hearer because of the nature of his own seminary education. The seminary experience has increasingly become one of seminars, discussion and participation groups where all speak and all listen. His training in education, both in and out of the church, has warned him of the sterility of a setting in which one speaks and many listen. When a minister thus educated enters a parish, he feels equipped to function as pastor, counsellor, and teacher, but he may feel awkward and ill at ease in the pulpit. He feels he appears a different man in the pulpit, a contradiction of his seminary experience and of the other aspects of his ministry. On the continent, the education of the ministry is still quite deductive with all the built-in authority structures. To the extent that American seminary education has been dependent on the European, this has also been true here. However, the development of an American educational philosophy has produced a new breed of leaders. The conflict between the two modes of thought and the two perspectives on the speaker-hearer relationship has often appeared as a conflict between a minister (deductive, authoritarian) and his educational director (inductive, democratic) , between sermons and adult education. It also appears within the young minister as a conflict within himself as preacher and teacher. 18 He seriously asks himself whether he should continue to serve up a monologue in a dialogical world.
A sixth and final reason here offered to explain what is often called “the crisis in Preaching” is not new at all but is inherent in the very nature of preaching itself. Preaching lies within the general category of communication and therefore shares the painful difficulties characteristic of that category. “Talking”, for most people, is relatively easy, but meaningful and important communication is difficult for everyone. Thus we understand husbands and wives, fathers and sons, delaying indefinitely those important conversations. Thus we understand ecumenical organizations making great strides in “Life and Work” projects long before serious conversation about “Faith and Order” can get underway. Such sharing with each other is rewarding, of course, but it is also very demanding. Saying words can belong to the deepest level of human relationships. While there are those who hesitate to preach because preaching is “only words”, there are others who hesitate because preaching is words. These are the ones who understand that any violation of preaching, however dull and insulting, is a felony of such magnitude as to justify a blanket dismissal of the pulpit. In fact, it just may be the case that the turning of some young ministers from the pulpit is strange and indirect testimony to the truth about Christian preaching: it is demanding, exhausting, painful, and for all involved, creates a crisis, a moment of truth, a decision situation of immense consequence. Quite consistently the Scriptures declare that presenting the Word of God effects a decision to accept or to reject. Read again the terms of Isaiah’s ordination. The message will be effective: hearts will be opened and hearts will be closed; men will draw near and men will turn away. So are we to understand the strange words of old Simeon at the dedication of the infant Jesus: “This child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel”, (Luke 2:34) and this is the frightening logic of the words of Jesus reported in John 15:22: “If I had not come and spoken to them, they would not have sin; now they have no excuse for their sin.”
Anyone who is a bearer of light is thereby the creator of the possibility of a new kind of darkness. He who sees himself as a bearer of the light of democracy and freedom must occasionally shudder at the realization that he is helping make room for the riot of excesses that freedom makes possible. Whoever carries the light of learning to dark minds can only hope that the new uses of the mind will be true and honest. It is possible to understand if not sympathize with Mahatma Ghandi’s rejection of Frank Laubach’s literacy program for India. He reasoned it would be better not to be able to read than to read the trash that would flood India. He was wrong, of course, because every man has the right to be fully human and this means the right to choose for himself. But it is disturbing to remember: “This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men have loved darkness rather than light.” (John 3:19)
Wherever such sensitivity about the task of the pulpit prevails, there may be fewer preachers but there will be more preaching.
As would be expected and hoped, there have been a variety of serious efforts to meet the problems that beset the pulpit and to bring about recovery of power of preaching. These have effected varying degrees of limited success.
The most immediate and most natural response to the problem has been for some pastors and churches to call upon the seminaries for more homiletics. Surely more required hours in homiletics would correct the slippage! But where the homiletics offered was more of the same, unaware that preaching in a changed context demands something different, not just something more, the result has been the solidifying of old errors. A variation of this quantitative approach has been the demand for more Bible and more theology. But in some cases there has been the charge that preaching is too full of Bible and theology; weaken the formula. Whereas individual tastes here and there have been satisfied by adjustments in “more matter and less art” or “less matter and more art”, the general lift given the pulpit has been slight.
A more noticeable attempt to infuse life into the pulpit has been the revival of topical preaching, a form which, on the face of it, seems to allow more relevance, more contact with the daily press. Expository or Biblical preaching has been found guilty of archaism, sacrificing the present to the past. One should, according to this view, choose relevant topics for treatment. Scriptures can be read in the service for mood or atmosphere or to satisfy those who feel it should be included, but this should not be allowed to shackle the minister.
Some marked improvements have been noted, with some real Christian sermons on current issues being heard. Preachers of smaller calibre, however, have been thus lured into forgetting that they have the right to preach, not because of what they get from the newspaper but because of what they bring to it. Relevant sermons we all want and need, but what is painfully lacking is a mode of proclamation that is relevant to the present speaker-hearer relationship. Why is it that on occasion when the topic of the sermon is relevant, vital, and interesting, the listener feels a poorly defined but very real resistance to all that is being said? The young prophet in the pulpit feels this resistance, and extends his “prophetic” role to include the condemnation of those who do not go along with him. Quite often the problem is in the method of preaching, in the downward movement of the sermon with an implicit view of the hearer that is not acceptable to him. Even the angry preacher, deliberately iconoclastic and anti-clerical, preaches relevant sermons in a way no longer relevant. He is still saddled with the traditional image of preaching with its clearly discernible authoritarianism being communicated nonverbally not only in voice and manner but also in the form and movement of his sermon. He may have radically re-arranged the furniture and removed the lofty pulpit, but the distance between speaker and hearer is still successfully maintained by an arrogant, and perhaps learned, smirk. It may be that the old way of keeping the distance was easier to take.
In recent years a number of techniques have been employed to overcome a fundamental weakness in traditional preaching, its monological character. Without question, preaching increases in power when it is dialogical, when speaker and listener share in the proclamation of the Word. This fact has been understood by really effective preachers for a long time, but we have of late seen a host of new implementations. Some ministers have sharing sessions with lay people prior to the final preparation and delivery of the sermon. A number of others have feed-back following the sermon in a variety of formats. Efforts to build dialogue into the actual delivery have taken the forms of forums, dialogue between pulpit and lectern, press conference sermons, planned interruptions from the congregation, and other variations doubtless already familiar to the reader. Responses have ranged from mild enthusiasm to “at least it’s different”. Disappointments felt by preachers and listeners are probably due to the fact that dialogical methods are rather easily postured while embracing the dialogical principle requires a radical reassessment of one’s role as a preacher, one’s view of the congregation as the people of God, one’s understanding of whether the sermon is the preacher’s or the church’s, and one’s theology of the Word; that is, does the Word of God occur at the lips, at the ear, or in the sharing of it? These are profound and complex issues, but they have to do not just with what is preached but how one preaches. This is the meaning of an earlier statement insisting that effective preaching calls for a method consistent with one’s theology because the method is message; form and content are of a piece. A perfectly good sermon, content-wise, on “The Priesthood of All Believers” may in effect be contradicted by the method of presentation. And here method of presentation does not refer simply to the minister’s attitude or disposition; it refers to the fact that the movement of the shared material may not allow the hearers room to be priests at all in any responsible sense.
This difference between method and principle of dialogue is extremely important. Reuel Howe has reminded us that
a communication which in terms of method is monologue (one speaker) may at the same time be governed by the principle of dialogue; and similarly, although two people may be addressing each other, if neither is responsible for or responsive to the meanings of the other, the communication is dialogue only in terms of method and lacks the dialogical principle. 19
Multiplying references to the world as such hardly succeeds as a dialogue with the secular.
In much of the “new preaching”, one can detect a longing, not just to be heard and understood, but to be accepted by a world that has been alienated by the religious jargon of a self-addressing church. The guilt for this alienation must be accepted and confessed. However, offering slang and fashionable jargon as “renewed” preaching, celebrating the secular embrace of certain Christian symbols (i.e., use of crosses as warnings at highway danger points, putting Christ in Christmas, etc.) , or reducing the Gospel to the lowest common denominator of acceptable faith and ethic will hardly be received by a serious world as adequate penance. The ease with which some ministers speak of the world’s problems today arouses suspicion. Are these problems of unrest, injustice, and violence being addressed or celebrated? Franz Kafka’s parable comes to mind:
Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers; this is repeated over and over again; finally it can be calculated in advance, and it becomes a part of the ceremony. 20
Weaving a man’s pain into the litany hardly relieves the agony. Nor is it of real consequence for the future of preaching to spend time bragging on the world for its honesty, frankness, and integrity while clubbing the church for hypocrisy and pretension. This gross oversimplification is full of error, failing to see how men pretend irreligion as well as religion. The world gets no great lift from this dubious favor of having the Pharisee back away and beat his chest awhile so the Publican can stand to boast of his pride. “In our effort to correct the monologue from the church to the world, let us not fall into the trap of substituting the monologue from the world to the church . . . that is, of offering it as the preacher’s sermon.” 21
The renewal of preaching calls for something more than a different interpretation of our world, even if that interpretation be a correct one. We will know power has returned to the pulpit when and where preaching effects transformation in the lives of men and in the structures of society. There are reasons to believe that this renewal is not far away. We turn now to examine some of the signs that arouse this expectation.
1. The Anguish of Preaching. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966) Pp. 7, 12.
2. Quotation from an address entitled Preaching is a Post-Christian Age” by Dr. John R. Killinger, Jr. at Vanderbilt University, November 3, 1964.
3. Gerhard Ebeling, God and Word. trans. Jas. w. Leitch. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1967) p.S.
4. Dallas M. High, Language, Persons and Belief. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, i967) p. 137.
5. Max Picard, The World of Silence. trans. Staley Godman. (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1952) p. 41.
6. Op. cit., p. 7.
7. High, op. cit., pp. 8-9.
8. Ernst Cassirer, Language and Myth. trans. Susanne K. Langer. (Dover Publications, Inc., 1946) P. 7.
9. Kendrick Grobel, “Revelation and Resurrection”, New Frontiers of Theology. eds. Robinson and Cobb. (New York: Harpers, 1967) Vol. III, p. 158.
10. Waiter J. Ong. The Presence of the Word. (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1967) pp. 15-i6.
11. Ibid., p. 54. Ong has persuasively developed the idea of the change in modern man’s sensorium.
12. Robert W. Funk, Language, Hermeneutic, and Word of God. (New York: Harpers, 1966) p. 9
13. Thomas Wieser, “Evangelism and the ‘Death of God’ “, The Ecumenical Review, Vol. XX, No. 2 (1968) , p. 140.
14. G. Ebeling, Theology and Proclamation. trans. John Riches. (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1966) p. 15.
15. Ibid., p. iS.
16. Sittler, op. cit., p. 50.
17. Reuel Howe, Partners in Preaching. (New York: Seabury Press, 1967) p. 35.
18. James. B. Conant, Two Modes of thought. (New York: Trident Press, 1964) Dr. Conant’s point ha been applied to this church by Locke Bowman, Jr. Straight talk About Teaching in Today’s Church. (Philadelphia: Wstminsiter Press, 1967)
19. Op. cit., p. 47.
20. Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes (New York: Schocken books, 1961), p. 93.
21. Howe, op. cit., p. 52.