Preaching As A Social Act: Theology and Practice
by Arthur Van Seters (ed.)


In order to assist the pastor, teacher, or student to become more conscious of the social nature and responsibility of preaching, I have formulated five sets of questions. These generally follow the order of the preceding chapters and, in the main, are drawn from their contents.(1) This order is roughly similar to Fred Craddock's approach in his book, Preaching,(2) where reflection on life comes before the interpretation of a text and is followed by the formation and language of the sermon. The process of "shaping the message into a sermon" that Craddock outlines so lucidly can be a practical companion piece to the questions listed below. In view of what has been said over and over again in this present work about the corporate nature of the preaching process, questions are primarily in the "we" form and can be shared with the parish or congregation.(3) In developing these questions I am also making a few assumptions:

• that preaching is a dynamic event in which we seek to discern the grace and will of God for us, for our church, and for God's world.

• that the process of developing a sermon extends over enough time to allow for careful study of the text(s), theological reflection beyond the text(s), and direct influence from the life of the world and from the life of the congregation.(4)

  • that sermons are partial and limited statements, primarily selections for the moment, and that they benefit from some form of reflection and feedback.

As noted in the introduction, I am also making another, different kind of assumption that readers will make use of these questions in whatever way seems most helpful. Taken all together, this list could be rather overwhelming. Some people may want to focus on one section of questions at a time; others may select one or more question(s) from each section. In all likelihood, some questions will be more stimulating than others for any given person or group at any particular time.

The Wider Context

1.What is happening in the world as this sermon is being prepared?

2.Which news reports are we talking about most?

3.Which issues or events are we avoiding?

4.How do we as a congregation/parish view the world and what are our attitudes toward change?

5.On which views of what is going on around us do we find a consensus and which are controversial?

6.What is the general mood of life in our community as this sermon is being preached?

7. What forces of evil in the world do we specifically identify as needing to be addressed by preaching?

Congregational Context

1.How diverse is the congregation/parish and how are minorities viewed and treated?

2.How is this congregation/parish organized, who gives leadership (officially and unofficially) and who is left out of decision-making processes?

3.What are our present preoccupations as a faith community and where is this sermon coming in the movement of our corporate life?

4.What spectrum of theological viewpoints is represented among us, how are they respected, and what sense of mission do we, together, hold?

5.How do we as a congregation/parish view preaching and how do we see it related to our lives?

6.Who do I, as preacher, tend to think of in the congregation as I prepare my sermon and why?

Personal Socialization of the Preacher

1.What in my own life journey is influencing me in the preparation and delivery of this sermon?

2.How have my "peak experiences" of faith shaped my theology and the expression of my faith?

3.What negative life experiences, circumstances, or influences have a bearing on my preaching and how?

4. How has my socialization influenced the way I involve (or am reluctant to involve) the congregation/parish in the preaching process?

5.How has my socialization shaped my views about preaching on social or political issues?

Biblical Interpretation

1.Why has this text (these texts) been chosen for this sermon?

2.How has this Scripture been shaped by and for its social setting?

3.How is the theological thrust and social strategy of the text(s) related?

4.How does the text affirm and/or confront us in our present social setting?

5.What vested interests of ours prevent us from hearing what this text is saying?

6.With whom or what in this text do we identify and how does this reflect our socialization?

7. What genre, language, symbols, or metaphors have shaped the text and how do they affect the fabric of the sermon?


1. What is the language of the congregation/parish? How has it been influenced by the media and how does it reflect our view of social relationships (race, gender, class)?

2. When do we find helpful language that explains and clarifies, and when do we prefer imaginative language that is open to multiple meanings?

3. When and how do poetic and narrative elements in preaching create a new openness to God and to the world?

4. How does the sermon combine exhortation, information, and illustration to enable the hearing of the gospel in its societal scope?

5. How does the use of adjectives and adverbs, as well as the voice modulation of the speaker, affect a social hearing of the Word of God?

A Final Question

How is God calling us to respond -- quite concretely in our situation -- to our hearing this sermon today and are we willing to pay the cost?



1.1 have also been impressed by the excellent sets of questions focusing social aspects of biblical preaching listed by Forbes, "Social Transformation," 51, and Ronald J. Allen, "Sociological Exegesis: Text and Social Reality," Contemporary Biblical Interpretation for Preaching (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1984), 91-93.

2. Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985).

3. Ideally, this social reflection on preaching is part of a larger congregational process using such resources as Holland and Henriot, Social Wino try, especially 95-112; Hessel, Social Ministry, especially 121 -23; Carroll, Dudley and McKinney, Handbook for Congregational Studies, especially chapter 6, "Methods for Congregational Studies," 153-78. See further, Jackson W. Carroll, William McKinney, and Wade Clark Roof, "From the Outside In and the Inside Out," Building Effective Ministry, Theory and Practice in the Local Church, ed. Carl S. Dudley (New York: Harper & Row, 1983), 84-111.

4. Long-range planning for preaching can be assisted by formulating an annual grid listing the months of the year along one side and three sets of factors along the other: (1) human factors (personal and public) relating to the seasons of the year beginning with spring; (2) congregational factors relating to the church life cycle usually beginning in September; (3) theological factors relating to the Christian Year, to lectionary selections or lectia continua, and to spiritual and theological themes needed by the church in its life and mission beginning with Advent. A second grid of five years can focus on the larger movement of the church. Sermons are then seen as the expression of an integration of theology, church life and mission, and human life in its various dimensions.