Chapter 5: The Preaching Situation

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

Chapter 5: The Preaching Situation

The purpose of preaching is to cause the Word of God to take flesh in the lives of men and women. When the word indwells us, we as individual Christians, and as Christians in a corporate group, may without effrontery say, "We are the message." But for preaching to be this kind of communication, it must have the quality of dialogue, otherwise it will be arrogant and untrustworthy, or remain simply a statement abstracted from life.

Dialogue is the interaction between two or more people in response to the truth; it is also the process of assimilation by which perceived truth becomes embodied in the person, becomes part of him. As we see it, dialogue provides the give and take, check and balance, test and correction, that human beings need both to understand rightly and to communicate accurately.

In Miracle of Dialogue we defined dialogue in these words:

Dialogue is that address and response between persons in which there is a flow of meaning between them in spite of all the obstacles that normally would block the relationship. It is that interaction between persons in which one of them seeks to give himself as he is to the other, and seeks also to know the other as the other is. This means that he will not attempt to impose his own truth and view on the other. Such is the relationship which characterizes dialogue and is the precondition to dialogical communication. (Reuel L Howe, The Miracle of Dialogue[New York, 1963; paper-back, 1964]).

If the dialogical process is to be an indispensable part of preaching, it will require of preacher and people that they participate as partners in order to ensure a meeting of meaning from both sides.

Here it is in order to differentiate carefully between method and principle. By method we mean the way the communication is delivered: in monologue, for example, one person addresses another; in dialogue two people exchange communication. By principle we mean the whole concern that governs the communication: when the monological principle is employed, one person tells another what he ought to know, and the communication is content-centered; when the dialogical principle governs a communication, the speaker feels responsible for and responds to the patterns of experience and understanding that his listener brings to the situation, and thus the listener is encouraged to grapple with his own meaning in relation to the speaker’s meaning.

When we make this distinction between method and principle, we can readily see that a communication which in terms of method is monologue (one speaker) may at the same time be governed by the principle of dialogue; and similarly, although two people may be addressing each other, if neither is responsible for or responsive to the meanings of the other, the communication is dialogue only in terms of method and lacks the dialogical principle.

What do these simple observations mean for preaching, which is so obviously monologue in terms of method -- that is, only one person speaks. They mean that the crucial point in relation to the sermon is the principle the preacher employs -- how he speaks. If he employs the dialogical principle, dialogue is implicit in his preparation, his delivery, and in the content of his sermon.

The listener too will quickly recognize the presence of this dialogical principle. For he finds it hard to respond to the thoroughly monological address, where the speaker seems preoccupied and not interested in the listener, and the subject merely static content.

On the other hand, when addressed dialogically, the listener knows that he is being addressed by another, and that the content is living truth which speaks to meanings coming from his own experience. He experiences an invitation to participate even though at the moment he cannot speak aloud. But because he is addressed dialogically, he will speak and act later. Such is the power of the lecture or sermon, when it serves the dialogical principle of communication. The lecture or sermon then ceases to be simply monologue, and becomes in principle dialogue.

Let us apply these observations in detail to the preaching situation with the help of the diagram opposite.

1. The Congregation. The congregation is made up of men and women who are finite, sinful human beings, yet also endowed with unrealized creativity. They are products of both the tradition from which they come and the contemporary world of which they are a part. As we have seen, there is the question whether or not there has been in their lives a dialogue between the meanings of their contemporary living and the traditions which gave them their original values and concepts. They come to the homiletical event from their respective worlds and activities: their respective homes, industries, and professions;



their own type of work and inclination for recreation, their own degree and kind of social and civic life. Out of their respective experiences, both traditional and contemporary, and influenced by their education and their vocational commitments, they bring to their listening, consciously and unconsciously, meaning in the form of questions, hypotheses, affirmations, doubts, fears, and so on. These meanings are important to the preaching situation which we are analyzing in that they provide the potential for one side of the dialogue that must characterize preaching if it is to communicate successfully. The question, then, is: Will these meanings from their respective lives and experience be summoned by the congregation to meet the meanings of the preacher; will these meanings in turn be met by his meanings so that both preacher and congregation are confronted anew and more deeply by the meanings of the gospel?

The ministry of the congregation during the preacher’s sermon is to listen, not passively, but actively out of their own meanings, and in their very listening to challenge and encourage the preacher in what he is trying to say. In contrast to this concept of the congregation’s ministry stands the concept of its passive role, the concept usually governing the situation. On the basis of hundreds of conversations with laymen I have to report that laymen have no awareness of responsibility toward the sermon. Many laymen, for example, are puzzled by the question, "In what ways did you or might you have helped the preacher preach his sermon?" The question obviously suggests something that is inconceivable to them. Furthermore, not many, if any, laymen ever receive instruction from the church about the role of the congregation with respect to the preacher’s sermon or how they are to listen to it.

Later I will have something to say about other parts of the congregation’s ministry, such as preparation and delivery of the church’s preaching.

2. The Preacher. A second part of the preaching situation is represented by the preacher. He, too, is a man, always finite and sinful, yet also with unrealized creative powers. He, too, is a product of some tradition, a representative of a denomination, and also of the age in which he is living. He has been professionally trained, as a rule, in the history, beliefs, and practices of the Christian church and in the Scriptures. He is both a man and an ordained trained minister. An important question here is: What is the relation between the man and the training that he has received? It is to be hoped that there is a correlation between what he is as a man and what he is as a minister. Otherwise, there is the danger that his being a minister and a preacher may pre-empt his humanity (his being as man), in which case he cannot possibly be a free partner in the dialogue that preaching ought to be.

For the preaching occasion he prepares himself to address the congregation on a subject suggested by circumstance, or dictated by liturgical calendar, or selected by him for one or more reasons. He brings to the preparation of his address all that he has learned and can formulate out of his study of Scripture, his doctrinal understandings, and his knowledge of life. His task is to present his theme in fifteen, twenty, or twenty-five minutes in such a way that he engages the meanings of his hearers with the meanings of the gospel. His image of himself and his role in this exchange, it must be noted, are crucial for what may or may not happen in the course of the sermon encounter and in the lives of the people subsequently. If his image is of himself as a performer, if he conceives of himself as the informer and his congregation as passive recipients, if he thinks of himself as answer man, and fails to address himself to the questions and insights of the people, he will fail them and the gospel, too. If, on the other hand, he sees himself as the directing agent of an exchange between the meanings his people bring out of their lives and the meanings of the gospel, exciting meetings of meaning will occur that will profoundly affect both the people and the world in which they live.

In the actual preaching encounter much, then, will depend on how well both preacher and people have used their eyes and ears prior to the encounter. This may seem a strange comment to make about an activity that is conventionally and exclusively associated with verbal articulation. Preparatory to speaking, however, the preacher must use his eyes and ears. He must learn to see as well as to hear what his people are communicating and what the world in which they both live is communicating.

In his relationships with them and with the world he must frequently let the gospel be present incognito. He cannot live and wear it like a clerical collar. Instead of talking about the gospel to men who, for the most part, are unable to hear it in its traditional forms, he must learn to listen to people and observe them in a context that has no awareness of the gospel. That means that he listens and observes with respect for what he sees and hears, with compassion and tolerance, with humility for lessons that he can learn, with a readiness to change and even to die in the sense of relinquishing some cherished belief or practice without assurance that he will soon find anything better. The preacher today may at times have simply to live with the questions and problems of human life, aware that God is dead, certainly for many people, if not for him. The preacher today must turn away from easy answers, avoid addressing himself to questions people are not asking, and strive to recognize and understand the questions people are asking and the answers or clues for which they are searching. Today men are more interested in men than they are in God; and the questions they ask concern human relations more than divine relations. Yes, the first responsibility of the modern preacher is to listen and observe. For to talk about God before listening to the individual man and his questions is useless today.

There comes a time, however, for the minister to stop listening and to start talking because the man-question has been heard and understood and something needs to be said about God. In our effort to correct the monologue from the church to the world, let us not fall into the trap of substituting the monologue from the world to the church -- that is, of offering it as the preacher’s sermon. Some preachers have become so man-oriented that they no longer speak about God. Dialogical preaching is the opposite of this. It is a two-way give-and-take; it is a partnership. In dialogical preaching we need the question and the answer. The question awaits the answer, and the answer needs the guidance of the question. The preacher is, so to speak, master-of-ceremonies in the dialogue between question and answer.

The responsibilities of the laity in this exchange are the same as those of the preacher. They, too, are to listen and observe as they live in order to discern the meaning of their experiences and to learn to formulate their questions and insights. The secrets and the powers of life become available to people who learn to live reflectively. They see meaning in the various issues that come up in their business and family life, in community relations, in civic and social responsibilities, even in leisure. People who live without discerning the meanings of their lives contribute little, if anything, to the preaching encounter: they bring little conscious meaning to it, they receive little in return -- and there is nothing that a preacher can do in twenty minutes to change the situation. An unreflective and, therefore, unprepared people can have as disastrous effect on a preaching encounter as an unprepared preacher, because they are not able to take their part in the church’s preaching.

People like Jack and Janet Spread and Fred and Beth Stickman would bring much to a preaching encounter if their partner, the preacher, could accept and build on their questions and their search. One reason for nurturing a dialogical relationship between pulpit and pew is that in the process people will bring more and more meanings out of their lives to bear on what they hear. The more they hear, the more reflectively they are able to live; and thus the more they will bring to the encounter both in the world and in their gatherings at church.

3. Worship. A third part of the preaching situation is worship. It is the context for the dialogue between man and God which is the primary concern of preaching. What is the relation between preaching and worship? Is preaching a part of worship, or is worship a prelude to preaching? What concept of worship in relation to preaching exists in the minds of the preacher and of the congregation? If preaching is a dialogue between the Word of God and the word of man, and worship is dialogue between the relationship with God and the relationship with man, then it should follow that preaching has to have a contextual relationship in worship. What is that contextual relationship, and how can it be realized both in worship and in preaching? I raise these questions because my observations suggest that there is little realized relationship between preaching and worship.

Our research has shown that 50 per cent of the people questioned thought the sermon was the most meaningful part of the service. They regarded the worship itself as simply a prelude to the preaching. Some even admitted to a sense of relief when the "preliminaries are out of the way so we can get down to the real business of listening to what the preacher has prepared for us."

Few church people were able to identify much connection between the service and the sermon, which leads one to believe that few ministers plan the service and sermon to be two complementary aspects of one experience.

Here is an area that awaits to be enriched jointly by liturgical renewal and church renewal. Preaching needs the dialogue of give-and-take in worship just as worship needs the give-and-take between the Word of God and the word of man.

What else does a man have to give God than the offering of himself with all of the meanings of his life that he can marshal? And with what else can he hear the Word of God than with those very meanings that are the distillations of his own responsible thought and feeling? If there is no offering of one’s self and life in worship, there can be no real speaking and hearing in preaching.

An illustration may help to make this point clear. A young lawyer, during a discussion, admitted having a troubled conscience because he was employed by a bank to represent them in a foreclosure proceeding in which there was deliberate withholding of information that prejudiced the issue. He had failed to correct the matter with those who were in charge of the case, and as a result was deeply troubled. He kept trying to justify himself by thinking that, since he was employed by the bank, he had to do what they required of him, but he continued to feel guilty.

The discussion group of which he was a part had begun the day’s program with a communion service. A general confession was a part of the service and he was asked whether he had confessed his part in the foreclosure matter. He replied, "No." Then he was asked, "What content from your life did you have for confession?" and he admitted that at the time he had not thought of anything. Here we have an example of a very common separation of life from worship. Because of the separation the young lawyer had no basis for hearing and understanding the preaching of the gospel of forgiveness and justification "by faith through grace." We must help people close the gap between life and worship in order that preaching may have an enabling context. Worship that is rooted in the meanings of life opens the person through the act of offering and thanksgiving to the possibility of dialogue between himself and God.