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Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue by Reuel L. Howe


Reuel L. Howe was professor of pastoral theology, first at Philadelphia Divinity School, then at the Protestant Episcopal Theological Seminary in Virginia. He founded the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and is the author of a number of books on pastoral studies. This material was edited for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


Chapter 9: Implications of Dialogue for Preacher and Listener


This concept of preaching immediately raises questions about practice: How is the church to replace stereotypes of preaching with the dialogical practice that will free the Word from religious imprisonment for its work in the world into which it was born in the first place?

The Preacher’s Role

It is the preacher’s responsibility, as we have seen, to study the Scriptures, the teaching and experience of the church, in order that he may speak out of them the Word of God to his own day. We have said that if he is to be a dialogical preacher it is necessary that he make himself familiar with the meanings that his people will bring to the homiletical encounter out of their experiences. This means that he must become responsive to what they bring, and devise ways in which he can hear and use the laity’s potential contribution.

Furthermore, the preacher must be responsive to the needs and contributions of all his people. He must be attentive not only to women and children, but to men; and not only to the sick and needy, but to the strong and influential. Too large a share of the ministry of the ordained clergy has been confined to those who are more readily dependent upon it. Many ministers admit that they are intimidated by people who do not show an obvious need for their services. Ministers also have to learn to relate to people who think they are unnecessary and have nothing to say that is relevant to the contemporary situation. The preacher must combine in himself both confidence in the Word and anxiety that it might not be heard. And he should learn to do this not only to defend the Christian position, but to understand and stand with his people as they take their place in the world, even though standing with them will sometimes have to be out of his weakness and lack of answers for the profound questions they are raising. He must learn to preach out of the weakness of his understanding of the gospel and of life as well as out of his strengths. Then people who are not predisposed toward him may find him to be more authentic. Many people find the pretensions, assumed power, and answers of preachers laughable. They might take the preacher more seriously if he would be honest about what he has to offer, namely, that sometimes he has little to offer, and can only stand humbly before the human question with the hope that God will be able to speak and act out of his honest weakness.

The clergyman’s preparation should also be concerned with the study of the secular publications. Too much of the reading of clergy is religious and theological. There is need not only to read theology for theology’s sake, but to read other things theologically, such as newspapers, magazines, journals; to look for the correlatable meanings of movies, plays, television, and radio programs. It is important for the preacher to be informed about the things that most of his people are doing, seeing, and thinking outside of church. He should try to find out from his people what their activities or reactions mean to them, whether it be a television program or a state fair or an international crisis or an episode of racial tension. How appalling it is that significant events in the life of the world are ignored in the worship and preaching of the church. Only preparation that is based on both traditional and contemporary meaning will produce a sermon that will be an adequate instrument to activate the dialogue between man and God.

In considering the preacher’s delivery of his sermon, we must remember that the purpose of his sermon is to activate a partnership with the hearer that will produce the church’s sermon which, in turn, will become an orbiting message in the world. If the preacher believes that he is preaching with his people, he is more apt to address them directly. In direct address one looks at people and is guided by their response. Verbal response from the congregation is not possible or desirable during the sermon, even though there have been some experiments in overt dialogue between preacher and congregation. In my opinion these have occasional value but are not likely to become normative.

Anyone who is at all observant, however, is aware of how much people respond nonverbally, especially if they are interiorly free to do so. There are always certain people in the congregation upon whom a preacher depends because, in various nonverbal ways, they indicate that they are hearing and responding to him. So real is their help that when they are not present he misses them. When he tells these people how much the quality of their attention and response assists him, they are often surprised that he has been aware of or assisted by them. The imperceptible nod or shake of the head, the smile, the puckered brow, the stillness of concentration, the restlessness of inattention are all meaningful statements about their participation in the act of preaching. A congregation can be trained to improve its communicative responsiveness and provide their preacher unusual assistance. My experience reveals that when people are made aware of their potential powers of communication in even the "audience" role, communication occurs both more readily and more profoundly. Congregations can be helped to realize that they have a responsibility to help the preacher preach his sermon. The story is told of a church in Philadelphia which at one time had a succession of great preachers and found itself with an incumbent who, after one year, had not measured up to the quality of preaching that the congregation expected. When a committee consulted with him, and he learned their evaluation, he offered to resign. The story goes that the committee -- and what a wise one it was -- refused to accept his resignation and told him that it was up to them to help him become the preacher they believed he could be. Embodied in that story is the true doctrine of the ministry. It is tragic that more ministers do not recognize their creative dependence upon their congregations and find ways to evoke that assistance.

A preacher must also be prepared to use whatever response he may elicit. Although I have already suggested that verbal response from the congregation is not usual in most preaching occasions, it does occur; and perhaps a form of preaching may develop in which it would be more expected. When it does occur the preacher needs both courage and perspective in order to be creatively responsive. For example, during a sermon on race relations which was being preached to a large congregation, a man rose to his feet to dispute a point being made by the preacher. The preacher was startled and the congregation was stunned. Quickly, however, the preacher recovered and spoke to the man’s question and an exchange of opinions took place between them. After several moments the preacher asked the man to listen to the rest of the sermon and then they could resume their discussion after the service. When the sermon ended the congregation spontaneously rose to its feet and applauded in praise of the preacher’s acceptance of the unexpected response as a normal part of the preaching situation.

We have here an example of a speaker’s ability to transform what could have been a barrier into a carrier of communication. He demonstrated in action as well as in words the truths of relationship of which he was speaking. There was a meeting of meaning between him and the people who were listening to him; and there was born in them then a lesson that they will never forget. The preacher who sees communication as a partnership business will be resourceful in the use of whatever happens in the communication relationship.

If there were more dialogical partnership in the act of preaching, preachers would become less dependent upon their manuscripts. I do not wish this statement to be interpreted to mean that there would be less need for preparation. The kind of preaching we are thinking about calls for even greater preparation because dependence would be upon the relationship rather than upon a manuscript.

The Role of the Laity

First, the laymen’s preparation is usually thought of in terms of praying for the preacher that he may speak the truth, and praying for themselves that they may be receptive to the message. Occasionally one hears about laymen being asked to study in advance the Scripture from which the text of the sermon is to be taken. All of these activities are helpful. But we also ought to include as part of the laity’s preparation for the preaching some consideration of the kind of lives they lead between Sundays. This preparation centers on their examining their involvement in the life of the world and their commitment to its affairs, for out of such examination they will make their contribution to the dialogue. There are many church people who are so church-oriented that they do not recognize the religious significance of their secular responsibilities. The laity’s participation in the church’s preaching will depend both upon the meanings they find in their lives and upon their ability to live in the world reflectively.

People who live reflectively are people who search for and find meaning in their experience. For example, a person blind to the contradictions between what he professes and what he does can be insufferably self-righteous. Another person can be aware of such contradictions and realize that his actions are not in harmony with his profession; this person can acknowledge and confess his guilt and accept forgiveness when caught in circumstances beyond his control. The first man might not be able to hear the gospel because of his self-righteousness; the second man’s meanings may open his ears so that he begins to understand the gospel in real depth. The first man, because he is unreflective and closed to the meanings of his life, will not hear the preacher. The second man, because of his insight, will be able to hear and respond. Our studies at the Institute have revealed that the more meaning people can bring to the preaching, the more they will hear; and the more they hear the better will they be able to live reflectively. For these people the cumulative effect of the church’s preaching is the fruit of dialogue. The gospel assists them in their living, and their living assists them in their understanding of and response to the gospel.

The laymen’s preparation for the church’s preaching is also dependent upon their use of other resources. All men are looking for meaning, and some do so more effectively than others. The reflective reading of the newspaper and other secular literature, the reading of various kinds of interpretive literature that helps one sort out his values and the meanings of his life -- all constitute a part of the laymen’s preparation for hearing the Word and for witnessing to it in his world.

The church’s preaching requires this kind of reflection and study on the part of the laity, and it cannot be done for them by the minister. At times of installation or ordination of a pastor members of the congregation should be charged about their responsibilities as seriously as the minister is about his, and they should be made to realize that his ministry is dependent upon theirs. The ministry of the ordained, to be effective, requires the ministry of the lay members.

Finally, the laity have a responsibility for the delivery of the preacher’s sermon. Earlier I spoke of this matter from the point of view of the preacher’s dependence upon the laity’s response; now I write for the laity to urge them to practice active listening. In a sense it is true that laity have a responsibility to pull the preaching out of the minister by the urgency of their questions, by their sense of excitement resulting from their experience of the meeting of meaning in their lives, by their devotion to their work in the world, and by their regular participation in the worship-preaching dialogue. What is not always realized is that the quality of the hearing has a great deal to do with the quality of the speaking, and that this is a ministry of the laity. It is just as true that a hearer can project himself in his hearing as a speaker can project himself in his speaking. If the preaching of the gospel is urgent, so also is the hearing of the gospel, and an urgent hearer can make an urgent speaker. Each needs the other. Imagine what it would be like for a preacher to meet a congregation Sunday after Sunday that had been trained to be his assistants in the preaching of the gospel.

The concept of preaching ministry that we are building here is being practiced in a growing number of places. In one local church where dialogical preaching has become the norm, a layman said to his preacher after the service, "We didn’t do so well today." "What do you mean?" asked the preacher. "I mean," replied the parishioner, "your sermon was not as helpful as it might have been because I wasn’t working along with you. In fact, I think I was pushing down in me the meaning of something that happened to me this past week." This parishioner was right! Preaching is a cooperative business requiring the joint thought and action of preacher and people.

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