Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue
by Reuel L. Howe
Chapter 4: Moving from Frustration
In addition to findings on conventional preaching presented in the preceding chapter, there are other observations about conventional preaching to be made and findings to be considered that are important to our discussion.
Conventional preaching, we have seen, is largely "one way" or monological in its concept of communication. It has become locked up in a stereotype that stifles the potential creativity of every preacher. This "performer’’ image of preaching, which is the name of the stereotype, throttles the potential power of preaching. The purpose of communication is to produce a meeting of meaning from two sides. Monologue, however, is concerned only with the imposition of meaning from one side. The monologist or "performer" does not see or hear; he only talks. And the more frustrated and anxious he becomes about his communication, the more he talks and the less he sees and hears. In fact, it comes close to the truth to say that the monological preacher believes that he has the Word and that God speaks only through him.
The idea of preaching as monological also receives expression or confirmation in the very arrangements for preaching and in the presentation of content and the manner of its delivery, with a complete lack of provision for feedback.
The Characteristics of Conventional Preaching
First, let us look at the physical arrangements for preaching: the pulpit is elevated; 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.
Second, the manner of preaching reflects the clergy’s monopolistic role. The preacher speaks, the people listen. He is active, they are passive. The preaching is usually didactic and impersonal. The power of the Word is often weakened because there is little struggle to find its meaning for men today. The concern of much preaching does not seem to extend beyond the walls of the church, or the preoccupations of institution. There are too many preachers who seem unaware that men are searching for meaning, asking questions, or involved in life-and-death struggles. They preach to give meaning to people, but are oblivious of the meanings people have already.
Third, the content of preaching, I am afraid, demonstrates an unrelatedness of the gospel to life which has been acquired by the preacher in an academic study of Christianity. In much of it the Good News of the New Creation in Christ seems to have been reduced to the dimensions of the practices of a cult. Preachers seem to be unaware that for many in the congregation, to say nothing of people who no longer go to church, the formulations of belief and interpretation of Christianity seem to be obsolete. Growing numbers of church people, too, are thoroughly secularized and find their meanings in a technological pragmatic society, and, while continuing to observe the traditional expressions of worship, teaching, and sacraments, these people find their search for meaning more and more unmet by the church’s teaching.
A fourth characteristic of conventional preaching is seen in the absence of organized response or feedback from the congregation. Lack of feedback strengthens all the stereotypes which people entertain about preaching. Preaching is frequently done to an invisible congregation because the lights have been turned down; yet the facial expressions and bodily postures and movements of the congregation are communications in response to the preacher, and he needs to see and note them as at least partial guidance for his speaking. The custom of preaching without response from the congregation is irresponsible communication and endangers, more than anything else, the preacher’s relevance. Science and industry have made phenomenal progress because they uniformly check and study the results of anything they do with the intention of changing production in the light of what has been learned. That kind of disciplined operation is not prevalent in the church. Even in this day when clergymen are raising questions about the effectiveness of their ministry, they commonly fail to test for obsolescence or effectiveness. Too many clergy are self-protective. They are afraid of honest evaluation and inclined to receive criticism not as a source of learning but as a source of personal rejection. The attitude of many clergy is expressed in the statement of one of them: "I would like to benefit from comments of my congregation, but I’m afraid of their criticism." Such ministers obviously do not hold themselves to the same kind of rigorous discipline and judgment as do laymen in their fields of endeavor.
Another reason why this lack of feedback is serious is that it removes the clergyman and the church from many of the possibilities of correction and renewal. The minister is fond of saying that God speaks to the church through the world, but how is the Word of God going to be available to the clergy if they do not listen to anybody through whom God might speak? They need to remember that the laity are the ones in whom the meanings of the gospel and the meanings of the world meet. If they do not listen to the laity, they cannot learn much about the meeting of these meanings. All clergymen, no matter what kind of ministry they are carrying on, need to ask themselves what kind of built-in feedback they have in their operation.
The prevalence of this performer-monologue stereotype of preaching among the clergy is confirmed in the responses of ministers to the question: How much time do you spend on your sermons and what resources do you regularly use?
Preparing to Preach
Their response to the first part of the question is often one of embarrassment, because the amount of time that they spend in preparation is so little. The reasons for this are mainly two: (1) the pressure of other duties makes it difficult for ministers to stake out and hold time for study; (2) their frustrations in preaching increase their ambivalence about it, and, therefore, their likelihood to procrastinate. Their answers also indicate that preparation for preaching is understood only as the time spent in their study reading books.
Their response to the second part of the question reveals that most preachers think of the resources available to them mainly in terms of Bible commentaries, books on the theme under consideration, and notes from the courses that they had in seminary. Their relationships and experiences with people and their reflections upon these are not consciously explored and used as resources. Ministers are not trained to reflect upon human action and events, to interpret them theologically, and to regard such reflection as important as the study of books. Preparation for preaching, therefore, should include time spent studying the human and social implications of their pastoral and community relationships; reading papers and magazines; listening to radio; watching television; attending the theater and movies in order that the church’s preaching may engage the meanings that influence people with the meanings of the gospel.
Moreover, preachers admit that they fail to make use of significant events in the lives of their people and ignore their meaning instead of making them a part of the curriculum of Christian teaching by affirming, complementing, and evaluating them. Inquiries reveal that preachers do not pay attention to people’s responses to movies, television programs, and other provocative events in the life of the community and its people. They do not ask, "What meanings have these events produced in the minds of people? What is the relation of these meanings to the gospel? What meanings can be affirmed? Which ones need to be challenged, corrected or complemented?" One minister told of seeing Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and added that he did not like it. When asked what responses the movie elicited in his people, he had to acknowledge that he did not know. Their response to the movie and the meaning they brought out of it were potentially available to the minister’s preaching, but he was oblivious of them, and to that extent he had to preach blind.
It thus seems clear that the difficulty with conventional preaching stems from an inadequate concept of communication, and that no amount of homiletical instruction will improve matters until that instruction is based on a true principle of communication. Most preachers want to be relevant and helpful to their people, but they do not know, for the most part, how to be. The majority of congregations tend in their evaluations to rate their ministers highly on their over-all ministry, but much less highly on their sermons.
Research reveals that although ministers are seen as concerned with the needs of the laity, they are not commonly perceived as "actively seeking or desiring, nor receptive to their views on, or contribution to, the sermon." Two thirds of the people regularly attending church seldom or never indicated to the minister any kind of response to his preaching. While the majority in many congregations accept monological, authoritarian preaching as ideal, there is a growing, vigorous minority who would welcome the opportunity for interaction. Several of the young people whose conversation was recorded in the first chapter expressed their desire for a chance to react out of their concerns to the church’s preaching.
Is Preaching Obsolescent?
In view of the negative findings we have been presenting, we must now consider whether preaching is obsolescent, a charge made by some critics. Before answering this question, we shall grant that changing life requires change in the forms for meeting life and that we may well expect the form of the church’s ministry to change if the truth is to be served and the meanings of life are to be met. On the other hand, we ought not to forget that obsolescence may be caused by incomplete and inefficient use of things rather than by their "dated" nature. Therefore, before we agree with the criticism and abandon preaching, we ought to test to see how well all the potential resources of preaching are being used.
The waning influence of the church has frequently been cited as evidence of the ineffectiveness of preaching. The monological, "performer" stereotype of conventional preaching, as we have seen, frustrates the clergy, impoverishes the laity, and fails to engage men who are living on the frontier of human thought and action.
Many clergymen who have listened to the laymen’s comments on our tapes are surprised by the acuteness of their perceptions. They admit that the criticisms of the laymen are both just and perceptive. They realize that they have not been trained to communicate with laymen. One spoke for many when he said, "I think I was better prepared to be a professor of theology than a preacher to businessmen." Another said that because his seminary training was so inadequate he had never been more than a communications amateur. As a theological educator it has often seemed to me that we do rather successfully educate future ministers away from the possibility of communicating with those to whom they are sent. Here is a matter that calls for corrective action.
Preaching is meant to be communication. Communication is necessary to relationship, and without it there can be no relation. The great purpose of preaching is not that the congregation shall hear the preacher, but that the dialogue between God and man be directed and informed. Preaching, therefore, is significant only when it is communication that activates and informs the dialogue between God and man. The preacher is important as the educated and skilled agent of that dialogue. His formulations are important when they stimulate people’s formulations of the meaning of their contemporary experience with man and God.
The church has always placed communication with its members and the world at large as a main task. Throughout its history it has used a variety of means to accomplish this -- preaching, teaching, music, and all the visual resources of art and architecture. From the beginning, however, the most widely used verbal means of communication in the gathered church has been the sermon. But preaching and the sermon have been thought of as the exclusive work of the clergy, and the laity has been assigned the role of passive consumer rather than active participant. In fact, theological education pays little attention in courses on preaching to communication and the principles of communication as such. A knowledge of the process of communication is assumed, and teachers then proceed to present and analyze different kinds of sermons, their structure and delivery. Furthermore, practice preaching is usually made to an audience of classmates and instructors, a most atypical congregation and one that the student may never again face in his career.
Meeting the Communication Problem
The contemporary problem of preaching is largely a communication problem. Some critics think that the problem is that men do not have anything to communicate and, therefore, that the answer is to increase a more disciplined study of Bible and theology. On the contrary, ministers already have more content than they can communicate, and if added stress was put on the subject matter of theological learning without adequate training in communication, the situation of the minister would be worse. Preaching is more than a process of transmitting ideas about Christian creed, cult, and conduct with the expectation that these ideas will be understood, accepted, and translated into action. Preaching that is concerned only with the transmission of ideas fails to communicate and convey to men the meaning of God’s action in Christ. Preaching is an encounter involving not only content but relationship, not only ideas but action, not only logic but emotion, not only understanding but commitment.
The emerging science of communication has developed a critical evaluation of preaching that allows us to diagnose the real problem and, further, has provided us with resources that may be used to solve the problem. Until ten years ago most studies on preaching were concerned with the role of the preacher. Current studies from within the church address themselves to the role of the congregation as active participants in the church’s preaching. These studies have grown out of recent research that establishes communication as a two-way or transactional process.
Both experimentation and communication theory stress, then, the importance of active lay participation in preaching. The reasons for this we shall now enumerate and examine.
Why should laymen be involved in the church’s preaching?
First, they should be participants because they are a part of the church, a part of the people of God! As such they are not meant to be passive recipients of, but active participants in, the witness of the church in the world.
Second, they should participate because, out of the data and experiences of their lives, they produce insights and points of view that must be taken into account if there is to be a true meeting of meaning between man and God.
Third, they should be participants because it is Christian belief that God speaks to men through men, especially through his people if they are open to him. If communication is two-way, then preaching should mean: (1) communication between congregation and preacher; and (2) between members of the congregation and people with whom they live and work. All of this transaction is part of the total act of preaching and has an important bearing upon our understanding of what a sermon is.
This point is particularly important and relevant because of man’s enormously increasing knowledge, the meaning of which has to be correlated with the meaning of the gospel. Ordained ministers cannot make this correlation by themselves because their knowledge and training is limited. Ministers must realize that in the task of correlation they are inescapably dependent on the laity. They must learn to accept a communication process in which the laity actively feed into the preaching of the gospel the data and insights of their lives so that the contemporary and the traditional heritage will meet. Thus, tradition will be renewed through dialogue with the contemporary; and the contemporary will be given depth and perspective through dialogue with the tradition. The relation between the contemporary and the traditional may be represented by the following diagram.
This dialogue between the meanings of the contemporary and tradition needs to occur in every individual’s life. If a person keeps them separate, his sense of values will be fragmented and his concepts disorganized. The churches are filled with people who religiously live out a tradition that is unchallenged and unrenewed. They are traditionalists, advocates of a status quo, opposed to change, and holding exclusionist attitudes toward anything new. There are also people who are only contemporary in their interest and who scoff at tradition. They are proud that their concepts are very modern but they are superficial and transitory because they lack rootage in a historical context. But the person who maintains dialogue between the historical and the contemporary has relevance and perspective, and the meanings with which he meets life will be a product of the dialogue. He will have both strength, resulting from tested convictions, and daring, because of a sense of security in relation to the possibilities of life.
The culture also needs to engage in the same dialogue between the tradition that produced it and the contemporary meanings of its life. Each generation must not only accept its heritage but also engage it with the best of its contemporary meanings. Whenever a generation fails to maintain such dialogue the tradition loses its vitality. When each age engages its tradition in honest and vigorous dialogue, the tradition grows in vitality and greatness. Our present age is exciting because there is a rich exchange between tradition and the contemporary in many fields. On the contrary, much church life, as it is lived on the local level, reveals a fear and caution that keeps "religious" meanings separated from contemporary questions and affirmations.
The church’s preaching has this engagement between the traditional and the contemporary as its task. The church preaches the Word of God in order that life may realize its meaning and promise; and the church preaches in order that the Word of God may be recognized by man out of his meanings as the true word for him to which he may respond with trust.
The crisis of preaching, therefore, exists because the meanings of the gospel are unmet by the meanings we bring out of our lives; and the meanings that emerge out of living are unmet by the timeless meanings of God’s Word for us. The performer, monological, clergy-monopolized type of preaching is incapable of meeting the crisis constructively.
Obviously, a change is needed. We shall now consider what kind of change this must be.