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


The précis that follows is of a sermon preached in a local church, and the transcribed discussion is that of a group of church members (three adults and three high school students) who gathered to discuss the service and the sermon immediately afterward. Both the sermon and the discussion are typical of many that the Institute of Advanced Pastoral Studies has recorded.

Précis of the Sermon

Text: The story of Jacob wrestling with the man. Gen. 32:2~ ff.

In this scripture story, Jacob is a man who cannot sleep because he remembers his past: his scheming with his mother against his brother Esau; his plotting to get the birthright that was his brother’s; his dishonesty and lying; the anger of his brother Esau; his flight from home. Now, twenty years later, he is confronted by all his past as he journeys back to meet his brother. And Jacob is afraid. Then, there comes a stranger, a man who wrestles with him until the breaking of day. Jacob refuses to let this stranger go until he blesses him.

It has been the experience of endless generations that man feels a restlessness in the presence of evil and is forced to battle through the night to discover what is right.

All of us wrestle in the darkness against a variety of selves: (1) the old self which shames us and still seeks to control us; (2) the sensitive self that is quick to feel slight and rejection; (3) the compromising self that says, "I am going to get along with things as they are"; (4) the anxious self that dreads insecurity -- loss of health, job, family.

But in Jacob’s case, when God had a part, and the struggle was fought with divine help, then Jacob changed -- he became Israel, the victor. And although Israel bore the mark of that struggle, the limp with which he thereafter went through life, he was a man who had respect not only from others but for himself.

No man can win a victory over the selves which pull him this way and that unless the heavenly Father takes part in the struggle. And when Jesus enters our lives, he gives us: (1) a new self for the old; (2) a new stature for the sensitive self; (3) backbone for the compromising self; and (4) presence for the anxious self.

"Even now, Christ is here; and in his presence there is power --power for all your needs."

Sermon Discussion

In the discussion group were Chuck, the leader, who works for a machine-parts producer and is the father of two children; Joyce, housewife, who has three children; Elmer, a salesman, who has two married children; and Beth, Dorothy, and John, high school students.

Afterward, the ministers from the Institute who also attended the service and heard the sermon listened to the tapes of this discussion by laymen.

What Did the Preacher Say to You?

Joyce: I feel he was saying that part of my restlessness is not just unique for me, but that all mankind faces this.

Beth: When he talked about "yourself" I connected it with pride. Maybe that is the reason I feel I can’t talk to God. This is something that is going to have to be settled between God and me.

Dorothy: I have a struggle about people’s hypocrisies. I get upset when I discover how people can say they’re Christians but when they live their life, they’re not really acting it. They may be good to other people, but in a lot of things that they control, they don’t really lead good lives. For example, I’m studying education now and in Birmingham the statistics say that we give $754 per student and only 20 miles away in Detroit, there is $300 per student. And, there really is a difference in the quality of education. I don’t think you’re giving equal opportunity to all the people and it’s our people and our church that are preventing this. They’re saying they’re Christians but they are not really giving all of themselves.

Elmer: I think what the preacher said to me was that each of us needs to be reminded periodically that there is an answer to the constant struggle which each of us has. As I listened I was reminded of the things I have been ashamed of -- not serious things, but things I would like to live over. And the thought occurred to me, "Gosh, I struggled with myself on these occasions and had I heard such a sermon as we heard today and thought of the everlasting arms, which is really what he was saying, it might have made it easier for me then." I have no doubt that I will have similar experiences in the future when thoughtlessly I will do something or say something for which I have regrets. So, this is a reminder and I expect to be reminded of these things again from time to time through contact with the church.

John: Gosh, I’m not really sure. I think I got more out of the prayer, the pastoral prayer, than anything else.

Dorothy: Me, too.

John: He examined different kinds of problems people have, like we’re afraid, we have fear, anxiety and things like that. I think the sermon went into that a little deeper and I can’t really explain it. I get the impression there’s always a solution to our problems.

Joyce: I think the preacher was saying Christians are not meant to be self-satisfied; there is a struggle, it is always going to be a struggle. Whenever you face people, you have a responsibility as a Christian, but it was never meant to be easy.

Chuck: This is really what the sermon said to me: We really have no business being self-satisfied; we have no business judging people who say they are Christians and don’t act that way; we have our own continuing struggle, and since we have our own struggles we are in no position to judge others.

Dorothy: It’s not so much the judgment -- it’s our lack of progress. It almost seems like we’re being useless.

Chuck: I believe it would be well to point out here that all three of these youths are senior high youngsters, and I think they have something to say.

Dorothy: I think youth is trying to find a big answer to the whole problem.

Chuck: Right now!

Dorothy: Yes, you want an answer. You know there’s something wrong and you want something done about it, but the adults have lived through it and they know there isn’t anything to do about it, so . . .

From the Background: Change is slow.

Chuck: On the other hand, Dorothy, this is one of the things that perhaps is wrong. The preacher said this morning that adults are too satisfied with the "old self" and the "old ways" and we just said, "Well, there isn’t anything you can do about it." And, here we sit!

Joyce: The Christian compromise. You do this many times a day.

Chuck: The portion of the sermon concerning Christian compromise, Dorothy; is that what you’re pointing your remarks to?

Dorothy: I don’t really know.

Chuck: I’m wondering if you are saying, "I wish he had talked on a different subject; namely, the union of the church." [prayed for in the pastoral prayer]

Dorothy: I liked that part of the prayer. It meant something to me. As far as the sermon, I don’t think he hit on the real problem. Maybe if he had talked more about that it would have come closer to the problem.

Joyce: But he has to talk on the personal problem. This union with the church will be with people and until we can settle some of the struggles we have, there is not going to be a really true union.

Chuck: Dorothy, when you speak of union of the church, what are you referring to?

Dorothy: So that all people are in fellowship with God and we don’t have individual . . .

Chuck: The sects? Is that what you’re talking about?

Dorothy: Yes. We’re so different now; if we’re all for the fellowship and love of God, why do we have to be so different?

Joyce: These differences are changing, though. Would you want them to be completely erased? You do have the fellowship with God. All people have this but some people are more comfortable worshipping in a service where there is more ritual and some are not. Do you think this should all be abolished?

Dorothy: No.

Chuck: Don’t you feel, Dorothy, that really if in spirit we could find ourselves unified, whether we call ourselves Methodist, Presbyterian, or whatever, it’s not all that important? And I think now again the preacher speaks of this when he says, "Certainly let us not let the difference in a worship service or doctrine be all that important in our lives. Let us clear these things away from between us and God and then unity comes, whatever you call yourself."

Elmer: I think the subject of today’s sermon is one that might have been given in any Christian church you can think of, because I don’t know of any church denomination which wouldn’t recognize precisely what the preacher said -- the internal struggle. The one thing all Christian churches have in common is God and Christ and the everlasting arms, which is what he was talking about. The form of the service is the main difference between churches. I attribute less importance to the form than to the content of the service. The content among all the churches I have attended is essentially the same.

What Difference Do You Think the Message

Will Make in Your Life, and Where Did

It Touch You and How?

Elmer: I think some of us partially answered question two as we discussed question one. I stated how it touched me -- it was a reminder of what I have been told many times. I don’t think it will make any difference in my life at my age. This isn’t new, but it’s a refreshing reminder of a source of help which is always present if I think of it.

Beth: I think the kind of discussion we are having helps us.

Chuck: Perhaps this is something we should do more often -- tie together morning worship service with evening MYF or church school or something.

Dorothy: The questions and the discussions help us find answers. If I had gone home right after the service, I would have gone home with the same ideas and same questions.

Chuck: I think Dorothy has a very good point. And the church in my lifetime, and I’m almost sixty, does not provide this interchange of ideas between the young and the adults. I think this is real important. I’ve never heard anyone say it just like Dorothy has.

Dorothy: I think it’s better for us, too, to discuss it with adults. We have basically the same questions, and when we (youth) discuss it we agree on questions, but we don’t find any answers.

Chuck: You must remember that this is good for adults, too. Communicating is a two-way street. You just can’t sit there and listen to us. There must be an interchange or it’s meaningless.

Beth: If they did that, though, it would have to be in small groups like this, because if I was in a large group, I would clam up.

Dorothy: Especially our Sunday school class. There’s so many people. If we did this, it would have to be on a much more voluntary basis if people were interested. Even if we really are sincere and believe something, it’s hard to say it and know people are sitting there laughing at you.

Chuck: I believe this is true. John, do you believe that -- do you find it easier to talk in a small group?

John: Yes.

Joyce: Do you really think they are laughing or do you just feel a little embarrassed, or . . .

Dorothy: Not necessarily. I wouldn’t care if it was so small, like you could have five more young people here, except they would have to be really sincere.

Chuck: Well, they probably wouldn’t be here if they weren’t.

Beth: Not necessarily, because a lot of times it is good to have someone sitting beside you to say, "I don’t even believe in a God, etc." because at least then you have to defend and know what you feel and know what you believe.

Dorothy: Yes, but they have to be able to listen and be attentive. Some of these kids -- if they just half listen then that wouldn’t be any good either.

Chuck: I don’t know if this will do any good for the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies, but it’s good for us.

Elmer: I think it will.

Chuck: I think if I were a young preacher, I would give a lot of thought to what Dorothy has said; namely, the opportunity to get an interpretation of others, including adults, to help them understand their messages.

Dorothy: When you’re listening to something you’re listening to stuff that puzzles you -- when you come into, like here, and you come to the guilt part, I didn’t really hear, I was so busy questioning what he said to me that I missed what you said. You miss something.

Chuck: The preacher is at a disadvantage because he is talking to you and he needs a feedback. That’s our job.

Beth: I went to a church a couple of Sundays ago where they had an open sermon. The preacher would give a sermon but at any time, a layman could say, "Wait a minute, I don’t understand this," or "Explain what you mean." I know I didn’t say anything because I was a guest but it really helped me a lot to have those other laymen talk. I think to have an open sermon like this once in a while would help a great deal.

Did the Preacher’s Methods, Style, Language, and

Illustrations Help or Hinder the Message?

Dorothy: I think his style has definitely improved. I went there about five times in a row. He’s always talking about his friends. I know he has many friends, but after you hear about "my dear friend from so and so" so many times -- they don’t illustrate the point. I think today he talked about what he wanted to say, but he wasn’t illustrating so many people or so many situations.

Beth: I always turn him off when he starts off with "my dear friend from some place."

Joyce: It affects me the same way.

Beth: I cry sometimes. Some of the stories are really tear jerkers, but . . .

Chuck: I think those stories are fillers and I agree with the girls. The Easter service had some and I thought they were inappropriate.

John: I think if he is trying to make a point, though, he should go into it a little deeper to what he’s trying to get at.

Joyce: . . . not so many personal references.

Beth: Right. I like him to quote poems or authors which I think means more to people than "my dear friend someplace." Many people may be familiar with quotes. Some ministers have used popular songs and have quoted them, and a lot of people say "that’s a good idea" and then they hear it’s a pop record and they get kinda flustered.

Chuck: That surprises me because the illustrations never affected me that way. How about that? Well, preachers, mark that down!

Dorothy: Some are very good and inspirational, but you know, when you get so many inspirational ones, I feel I’m uninspirational.

Chuck: Now I think his reference to Polonius’ advice to Laertes was real good and pertinent. I’m sure we all recognized that quote.

Joyce: It gives you something to think back to.

Dorothy: I don’t understand about Pontius Pilate crying forty years later, or something. Well, how would we know that?

Beth: I think he was stressing the guilt factor there.

Chuck: Did you see The Robe last Sunday? This is the kind of thing he could have used as an illustration: Richard Burton’s struggle and release. This is exactly the guilt complex, except that it was more serious than any of us will ever experience. But it’s the same kind of thing. He finally saw the light and was released from a burden which would have killed him.

Did the Sermon and Worship Work Togethe

and Reinforce Each Other?

Dorothy: I think they did.

Chuck: The prayer was marvelous and certainly tied into the sermon. As a matter of fact, I was really impressed with the entire service. The music was beautiful.

Joyce: Yes, I thought so, too. I think it would be good if we had young ministers come visit us more often. [laughter follows]

Dorothy: I couldn’t help wondering if maybe it was because of this.

Chuck: You don’t think they’re trying to put on a show, now do you? [again laughter]

Joyce: I’m not saying that at all, because I think by and large, our services are very effective. I have never failed to receive something from the music, or from the prayer, or from something. I have never felt that it’s been an hour that I haven’t received. This one question we’re coming to: In what ways did you help? I think maybe I tried to help -- I was really paying attention to every word.

Chuck: You knew you were going to discuss the sermon, though.

Joyce: I’m sure I was helping him.

Dorothy: By being attentive. You were really listening and helping.

Joyce: Right. And in the right frame of mind!

Dorothy: Right. Sometimes I’m not.

Joyce: Sometimes you go with your problems and you don’t leave them, and you’re not receptive to what he’s saying, and you leave thinking, "I didn’t get anything" but this is not the preacher’s fault. This is my fault, I feel.

Chuck: I think that’s the answer. We were attentive. Lots of times I have left the service and said to myself, "I wonder what he said." Maybe he didn’t say anything to me, but chances are my mind was on something the day before, or what I’m going to do Monday -- that meeting at 9:30 is going to be a tough one. Or, have you got your homework done for tonight?

Dorothy: Right. I don’t think I have ever gone to a sermon where I haven’t concentrated through the whole thing, but I don’t concentrate through the prayers, I know, a lot of times.

Chuck: I think that the prayers are the most meaningful. It makes a difference who is praying. Some do a real fine job. I’d like to ask the young people how they feel about this responsive reading. I know how I feel about it -- it annoys me! It just seems like you drag it in by the heels and say, "Now we have responsive reading."

Dorothy: You have to stand up through this whole thing.

Joyce: Maybe if we were more aware of what it was supposed to mean to us and why we do it, it might be more helpful.

Chuck & Dorothy: It’s the Scripture.

Joyce: Didn’t the early Christians go to church singing, and didn’t the priests chant something and they would sing back, and this is where our responsive reading comes from?

Chuck: The Lutherans do this. They sing.

Joyce: But I think in our church we have the carry over in our responsive readings.

Chuck: In our service, aside from the text of the sermon, we get no Scripture except through the responsive reading. I think responsive reading is probably the least meaningful part of the service. My point is, does it contribute really to what you get out of the service? It doesn’t for me and it never has. I have often wondered if this is something that’s carried over traditionally --and since we’re talking to young preachers, maybe they should give this some thought and find out whether their membership really wants it. Does it do anything for the members? I’d rather hear the choir sing a second song.

Dorothy: My problem is that even though I have a very large vocabulary, I find it a challenge to pronounce the words and I can’t understand what a lot of them mean -- not necessarily the Psalms, but in our old hymnal . . .

Beth: They’re better in the new hymnal, but still many of them don’t mean anything to me. I kind of repeat what I’m supposed to.

Elmer: We follow these readings week after week, but there is no real tie-in between them and the Scripture and the sermon. At least, I’ve found it to be so. Beth’s problem and my problem is that you’re saying words and you don’t have time to assimilate what the words are trying to say. I’ve stopped sometimes and thought, "What does this say?" and he’s on the next verse and then it’s my turn and I never get back to answer my own question.

Chuck: Are you suggesting that instead of the responsive reading, the Scripture that is to be used in the service would be more meaningful?

Dorothy: Yeah. Then you’ve got it in context and it means something.

Joyce: How about following along with your Bible?

Dorothy: Right. I think that would be good.

Beth: I think it would be helpful if they gave us time to get to the thing before they start reading.

Dorothy: One thing more about this. We’ve had guest preachers during Lenten services who asked if we would like to follow along in the Bible, and then they say "the verse is such and such." Quite a few of them do, and, I’m there without a Bible!

Chuck: Why would you? Today, for example, he read the text: "Jacob was left alone, etc." so you could follow that from the Bible, but you don’t have to because you’ve got it right here.

Joyce: This would be in place of the responsive reading.

Dorothy: So you would correlate more into the sermon.

Elmer: I wish the minister had read the whole story of Jacob wrestling with the angel so I could have had a background for understanding the sermon.

Chuck: That’s a good point.

Elmer: You had to know the story to know why Jacob was wrestling with himself. You probably knew the story, but I imagine there were a lot of people who didn’t.

Beth: I didn’t know the story.

Dorothy: I didn’t, either.

Joyce: See, this is where the background would have helped out.

What Advice Do Any of You Have for Preachers?

and Their Communication,

Dorothy: One thing: find a style between the very informal and very formal, something that’s a lot closer to what the people are used to. Have it free. Say a lot in it -- have it informal, but not too informal, because it’s religious.

Chuck: Do you feel the preacher today was too formal? I couldn’t improve on his delivery or choice of words. I think he is an outstanding preacher. Some sermons are much better than others, but his batting average is better than any man I’ve ever heard.

Joyce: His sincerity comes through.

Elmer: One thing: Preachers make too many points. They come up to a point and really drive it home. I’m ready to bow my head and pray because I think we’re all through. Then, boy, they start off on another attack. I’ve had that happen to me so many times. Then you’ve lost the whole smear.

Joyce: I agree. I’ve seen it happen many, many times. They make their point, but they seem to have to go right on.

Elmer: Yes, they oversell. As a peddler, I find this is disaster. I’d like to ask the young people a question. What was your reaction when the minister waxed emotional and his voice quivered? I don’t like it.

Chuck: I don’t think he can control this. I think it really gets to him.

Dorothy: He puts himself so "into it." Like that Easter thing. I sat through it twice and there wasn’t a change in the pitch or anything.

Joyce: I have a different feeling. I think it’s an advantage to be an actor, but I guess sometimes I wonder about it in a preacher.

Chuck: I think he’s just so involved.

Joyce: I think this is true sometimes, but because of my makeup, I can’t feel it’s this way all the time.

Chuck: Then you would say to these preachers, "If you wax emotional -- watch it!" I have a question I would like to ask all of you. In our church we range all the way from what you would perhaps call the real down-to-earth fundamentalists to the other end of the scale with some rather liberal people in the congregation. From time to time, the preacher issues altar calls. What is your reaction to this?

Elmer: I’ve never seen anyone go up, and I don’t think you will in our congregation.

Beth: I don’t think it has to be a public thing. My personal feeling is that if I give my life to God, it’s between God and me. If it doesn’t show in my relationships with people I’m with, then going to the altar isn’t going to help it any because I’m not living through it anyway. I always feel that going to the altar is saying, "Hey, look at me, boy!"

Elmer: I agree with Beth one hundred percent, and I’m glad to hear a young person say this. I’ve felt this way all my life.

Dorothy: Chuck, when we had that woman evangelist, didn’t you go up?

Chuck: I went up only because my boy was up there. She called for young people and asked the parents to follow. My youngster was up there so I went. I’m kinda with Elmer. This kind of approach doesn’t really appeal to me. On the other hand, I sense that it does have meaning for some people.

Beth: I hate to say it but I think for some people it’s a crutch; this is what they need, so I think they should have it.

Chuck: I wonder if this discussion about altar calls is helpful to the ministers from the Institute.

Elmer: I think it is. It very well could be since it is an example of one kind of thing we do in church that is out of date.

Chuck: The whole thing we have agreed on here pretty much is that the sermon, of course, is just one part of the over-all worship service, and we’re striving to seek here what really is most meaningful and can be most helpful. I think this idea of dialogue after the sermon would be great if we could work something out and I don’t see any reason why we can’t.

Author’s Comment

The foregoing sermon, typical of the kind preached in many local churches, is primarily concerned with the problems of individuals to the exclusion of any consideration of their environmental involvements and responsibilities. Because it deals with individual problems abstractly and without adequate reference to specific situations, it leaves the listener undirected and disoriented. Such sermons are theologically naïve and simplistic, and they produce theologically untrained and unsophisticated laymen. Yet this sermon is a sample of what many congregations hear from week to week.

In this discussion of the sermon, the church members, both the teenagers and the adults, attempt to react to the sermon and the service of worship. Some observations on their discussion are readily made:

First, the members of the group appreciated the opportunity to react to the sermon. But observe that the sermon influenced them more because they were able to discuss it.

Second, the range of interest and subject matter covered was greater in the discussion than in the sermon. The discussants’ participation, therefore, broadened and deepened the scope of the message received as compared with the message delivered.

Third, the quality of the discussion -- the level of knowledge and understanding revealed by the group -- is not very great. Yet as such discussions go, it is average. Here is revealed the illiteracy and lack of religious depth that are to be found among a vast number of church members owing partly to the quality of the preaching and teaching in local churches and partly to lack of opportunity afforded laymen to deal responsibly with the teaching and preaching they do hear.

Fourth, both sermon and discussion reveal that there is need for more dialogue between pulpit and pew.