Chapter 2: The Loss of Meaning

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

Chapter 2: The Loss of Meaning

During the past ten years the faculty of the Institute for Advanced Pastoral Studies has devoted much study to the communication impasse that exists within the church and between the church and the world. We have found that communication in the church is both a major frustration and a primary area of need; and that high on the list of sources of communication-frustration is preaching. As a result of these studies the author feels that something relevant may now be said about the crisis in preaching, as well as about the widespread frustration of both clergy and laity that the conversations reported in the previous chapter reflect.

One of the methods the Institute has used to diagnose this communication problem is the following. Conference clergy attend a local church on Sunday morning to worship and listen to the sermon. A group of twelve or more laymen, representing a cross-section of the membership of the local church, are also asked to attend and to remain for a postservice discussion. After the service the conferees from the Institute and the selected laymen from the local church adjourn to separate rooms to discuss the worship experience and the sermon. To help structure these discussions each group is asked to consider such questions as these:

1. What did the preacher say to you? (The question is not: What did the preacher say?)

2. What difference, if any, do you think the message you heard will make to you in your relationships?

3. In what ways did the preacher’s method, language, illustrations, and delivery help or hinder your hearing of his message?

4. What relation did you see between the worship and the preaching?

5. Did you help the preacher preach his sermon? Explain.

The laymen’s discussion is taped in order that the conferees may listen to it and hear what the laymen think in comparison with their own reactions. Later in the day the conferees and the laymen meet together to discuss with each other their respective responses to the service and the sermon. Out of these discussions have come the statements about preaching which this chapter will consider.

The attitude of ministers toward preaching is mixed. On the one hand, they love preaching and return to it again and again with enthusiasm. On the other hand, they tend to be discouraged about its results as the conversation of the young clergymen in the first chapter dramatized. Some ministers work hard on their sermons; others only worry and procrastinate about preparation. All are dismayed at how little they are understood, how confused the people’s responses are, and how irrelevant their sermons seem to be. They are baffled by the glazed, bewildered look that they often see in the eyes of their hearers as they deliver their message. The comments preachers hear after the service too often tell them that they were not understood. ‘They frequently feel that they have worked out a good illustration or simile, only to discover that the congregation did not understand it. Some are dismayed at how secularized people are, how seldom biblical concepts and language are understood, and how rarely sermons seem to be able to touch the living reality of people’s lives.

Disabling Images

Discussion with these ministers and many laymen has revealed that part of the difficulty seems to be the images that both have of the preacher and of preaching. These images stifle especially the efforts of ministers. They approach their task, sometimes consciously but mostly unconsciously, with the model of some great preacher in the back of their minds. Many of them have attempted to use in their own sermons the preaching methods of some of the famous preachers, but without profit to themselves or their people. As one minister said, "I wish I could find some way to be my own kind of preacher, even the kind that God might want me to be, rather than trying to be a preacher that fits the image someone else has given me." Similarly, young preachers often measure their sermons by standards derived from the great sermons which they studied in courses on preaching. Such comparisons have intimidating effects on them and cause them to be frustrated imitators, instead of being creative in their own way.

Another disabling image that both entertain is the image of the preacher as a performer who has to appear at least once a week, forty-eight times a year, and produce a masterpiece of communication. No artist in any other field is faced with such a demand. It is an impossible one, and many men feel the terrible burden of it. Under the influence of this image of the preacher as performer, the sermon becomes simply a performance and the congregation becomes an audience. The sermon as performance makes the Word aloof from the concerns of men and is unmet by the meanings of their lives. Its thought is exhibited but not participated in. Thus the performing word is a lonely word. One young preacher said, "I sometimes feel that when I am in the pulpit I am all alone, that no one is hearing me, and that no one cares that I am not heard. They want me to keep talking for the sake of appearances, but they do not want to hear."

On the other hand, the congregation that has been reduced to the state of an audience at a performance tends to become critical, passive, or irresponsible. They expect to be inspired, entertained, or to have their thinking done for them. In the last case, they tend to reject the thinking if they are in any way disturbed by what is said or by other concerns that compete for their attention.

The performer image of the preacher produces at least two responses in preachers that have a disastrous effect on their preaching of the gospel. One is a response of exhibitionism, which seeks to exploit the preaching situation; and the other is a response of paralysis that renders the effort of the preacher more and more impotent and ineffective.

The exhibitionist says that if preaching is a performance, let’s make it a good one -- and his performance becomes an end in itself. He exploits his talents; he exploits the needs of his people; he exploits the drama of the human situation; he exploits the dramatic qualities of the gospel. Everything is said and done for the wrong reasons. Of course, there is a place for the dramatic and for good acting when a preacher makes his use of the dramatic as part of his offering to God and his people.

The second and more disabling response to the performer image is one of paralysis. In this case ministers are so frightened by the demands preaching makes on them that it is hard for them to get down to effective preparation for it. One of the things that I have discovered at the Institute is how many ministers really cannot produce anything for minimum presentation until the late hours of Saturday or early Sunday morning. They may have conscientiously begun their preparation on the previous Monday, yet on Sunday morning, exhausted, anxious, and full of self-disgust, they finally crawl into their pulpits to deliver a sermon poorly focused, inadequately expressed, and unrelated to anything but the preacher’s desperation. They are like bakers who have mixed the ingredients for bread, worked it into the shape of a loaf, but are forced to deliver the bread before it is baked because the customers have arrived and demand immediate delivery. Under these circumstances the homiletical loaf is either unbaked or half baked. I do not say this harshly or unkindly. The anxieties provoked by the loneliness and demands of preaching can so paralyze preachers’ efforts that they cannot assemble their thoughts in time to assimilate them and relate them to the contemporary context out of which they have to be heard.

The theology of ministry implicit in this kind of preaching, in which the preacher sees himself as solely responsible, contradicts the doctrine of ministry that we profess. We profess that all ministries are the ministry of the church. Since the church is made up of clergy and laity, it follows that both have responsibilities in all ministries, and this is no less true for preaching. It is my belief that some of the weakness of preaching stems from the fact that it has been thoroughly clericalized and made the exclusive responsibility of the ordained minister. The alternative to the clericalization of preaching is the recovery of preaching as exemplified in our Lord’s preaching. He preached for the most part in response to the needs and questions of people. He made use of what people already knew and understood, and employed symbols already familiar to them, such as seeds and sowers, sheep and shepherd, vineyard and wine. The loss of meaning to contemporary man of biblical and theological language, and the problems resulting from the accelerated process of secularization and technological advance, present special problems to contemporary preachers that make the recovery of our Lord’s kind of preaching more than ever imperative. It is increasingly obvious that a traditionally oriented preacher will stand helpless in the face of a world which less and less needs either God as a working hypothesis or the rites and ceremonies that are traditionally associated with him.