Chapter 7: How Dialogical Preaching Meets Barriers

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

Chapter 7: How Dialogical Preaching Meets Barriers

Barriers exist in every relationship, and it is tragic that clergymen who have important communication tasks are unaware of them or ignorant of what to do about them because they lack an understanding of the nature and process of communication. The monological communicator is appalled by the existence of barriers, and he will try to drive through them or pretend that they do not exist. The dialogical communicator, on the other hand, knows that they are there, accepts them as a part of the communication situation, and is confident that the barrier, if rightly dealt with, can in the end become a carrier of meaning. We shall now consider how this change is possible.

In a time of theological revolution, when the role of Christ as secular rather than "religious" man is being emphasized, when the church is having to abandon the old image of itself as the dictator of the forms of society and to accept for itself a servant role the forms of which society will influence, preaching must rediscover itself as a servant ministry. The preacher can no longer be the Sunday prima donna. His function is a more modest one, and one that depends upon the congregation. In one sense, he is an assistant to a congregation whose voice and message is to be heard in the world in terms that the world can understand.

The preacher’s congregation is in church; the laymen’s "congregation" is outside church, in the world. Because of this new situation, some in the church are asking today: How can the church organize itself in the secular world so that it does not get in the way of the encounter of God with men? The same kind of question applies to preaching: How is preaching to be understood and ordered so that it not only does not stand in the way of God and man, but promotes the dialogue between them?

The centuries have produced the forms of meeting on Sunday morning for worship, instruction, and preaching. Even if these forms continue to be maintained, they can no longer have the same role in the life of the church as they had in the past. They now require a new context that will effectively supplement the worship, witness, and service of the congregation. But the act of preaching, if it is to contribute to the development of new forms of worship and witness, must itself be open to the possibilities of change, just as an instructor cannot hope to be a teacher unless he himself is open to being a learner.

The preacher ascends his pulpit and begins to speak. Will he speak as a scribe and Pharisee or as one having authority? That is, will he strive to draw people’s attention away from the meaning of life and to interest them in a metaphysical or legalistic formulation of religion? Or, will he be the agent who will enable them to evaluate their living, to affirm and correct it, and to recommit themselves to the world as Christians through whom God will make his appeal? These are crucial questions, and how does one answer them?

Here is an illustration drawn from one of our experiences at the Institute. A group of our ministers had attended a nearby church where they listened to a sermon on love as that theme is presented in I Corinthians 13. The preacher quoted Henry Drummond to the effect that love is the greatest power in the world. "There is no situation to which the application of Christian love would not be both relevant and effective," said the preacher, but he gave no illustrations.

After the service a group of laymen met to discuss what meaning the sermon had for them. Immediately, one of the laymen, who was president of a small industry in a highly competitive field, made the comment that the practice of love as commended by the preacher was neither possible nor desirable in the workaday world. When asked why, he described part of the process by which he and his associates secured contracts for new business. He described the planning and scheming, the various competing and conflicting interests, the ulterior motives that operated behind verbal exchanges, the mixture of trust and mistrust, all of which provided, according to him, an unpromising environment for anyone who wanted to practice Christian love.

A number of things became obvious immediately. First, the preacher had not reached this man with his sermon. Second, the man had tested what he thought he heard with a situation to which he was heavily committed as a human being. Third, the preacher had failed to associate what he was saying with this man’s point of concern or, in fact, with any other human situation. Fourth, the president of the industrial firm did not recognize that the very situation the preacher was describing as loveless was one that cried aloud for the presence and action of love. In a word, barriers on both sides were operating in all the participants in the business deal. It was interesting to observe that both the clergy and the laity who were participating in this discussion were all too ready to agree with the industrialist that Christian love as delineated in the sermon would not operate in his situation. While such a presentation of the love theme sounds impressive in the pulpit, the participants felt, it does not seem to promise much when rigorously tested in what seemed to be a Godless competitive deal.

At that point in the discussion someone chanced to ask the president how he had managed to survive years of the kind of work and conflict that he had described so vividly. They wanted to know what resources he had had to meet the stresses and strains of his position. One of the ministers put the question this way: "How have you avoided an ulcer or heart attack?" "What is the secret of your survival?"

The man thought a moment and then slowly replied, "I have never been asked this question before." This observation in itself is interesting: it points to the fact that preachers should be interested in the resources that people develop for their living and learn to ask them the kinds of questions that encourage them to identify their resources. "As I think about it now," the man continued, "I would say that I am helped by remembering that my associates, competitors, and customers are persons; that I should respect them and treat them as persons." Although earlier in commenting on the sermon he had said that the practice of Christian love was impractical, he now in his own terms rather than in the theological terms of the preacher was witnessing to the power of personal regard in his business life. Far from disagreeing with the preacher, the industrialist really agreed with him. The difficulty was, however, that he did not recognize what he believed and practiced in the preacher’s terms; and the preacher had been unable to provide a secular context for his theological interpretations of love. There had been no dialogue between the preacher and this man. The preacher’s sermon lived and died without effect because there was no meeting of meaning between the traditional and the contemporary, between the religious and the secular. The barriers were not worked through.

When the man’s response was made known to his minister, the minister’s first reaction was one of impatience. He said, "Yes, the man did have some understanding of love, but it was incomplete as compared to the concept of Christian love presented in the sermon." This comment of the minister illustrated a common problem of preachers, namely, that they cannot accept the responses that people make, because of the responses they do not make. We tend to throw out what the layman brings to the sermon because of what he does not bring. Instead, the clergy need to learn to accept what people have achieved or may bring, and to affirm and use it in leading them on still further.

It was the discussion after the sermon that showed the industrialist the relation between his own belief and the truth in I Corinthians 13. He was filled with immense excitement. He had been living by his "creed" for a long time without realizing its great significance. Because of the discussion he not only became aware of the significance of what he had said, but he also saw its meaning in relation to the meaning of the gospel theme that he had always considered impractical. The barrier about the impracticality of Christianity was worked through so that a meeting of meaning was accomplished.

In this instance the discussion had to accomplish what the sermon had failed to do. The sermon could have done the same thing if it had taken the live issues of this man’s life or some other man’s life, and used them dialogically in relation to the passage from Corinthians. Observations the industrialist made about how he practiced respect for persons sounded like the Corinthian passage; and the discussion participants listening to these remarks thought they were listening to a paraphrase of the biblical text. For example, love is "patient" -- "You have to give the other guy a chance. I try not to chop him off short." Or, love "is not boastful or arrogant or rude, doesn’t insist on its own way, is not irritable or resentful"--"It isn’t fair to be braggy. The other guy’s usually got something going for himself, and it isn’t fair to take it away from him by tooting your own horn so loud that he knows you don’t think much of him. Sure, I get angry, but you only make matters worse if you take your feelings out on him. I’d make him angry, and what right have I to do that?"

Although the preacher did not know it, he had an ally for his preaching in his congregation; and how wonderful it would have been had he been able to use the insights of his ally to make clear the truth about Christian love to others.

We now raise the question: How shall the preacher prepare himself for dialogical preaching? The illustration suggests that he should study the theological resources of Scripture, history, and doctrine; and study also, with equal seriousness, what he knows of the related meanings from his own authority of both traditional and contemporary experience; and how to recognize the authenticity of the dialogue, both historical and contemporary, be- tween God and man and the dependence of each on the other. His purpose is to bring these dialogues together in order that the historical dialogue may be challenged and judged in the light of the contemporary; and the contemporary dialogue be challenged and given perspective by the historical.

The dialogical preacher knows that to accomplish these tasks he needs the participation of his congregation. The formation and delivery of his sermon is not the goal of his preaching. He recognizes that his sermon is only part of a total process. To use a modern analogy, we may think of the preacher’s sermon as being like the rocket that starts orbital flight. The purpose of the sermon is to get meaning off the ground and in movement. The minister preaches his sermon in order that other sermons may be brought into being in the congregation, sermons that will be the joint products of both his and the congregation’s effort. The following diagram helps to illuminate this.



This sermon which is the church’s sermon, the joint product of the preacher’s message and the congregation’s meanings expressed through their listening, is represented in the diagram by the intersection of the two megaphones. We call it the "church’s sermon" because it is the joint creation of the preacher and members of the congregation. In this concept of preaching the preacher’s sermon has a limited purpose and existence. Having put the thought of the congregation into orbit, that is, having activated the thought of the congregation into some form which will inevitably travel with them wherever they go, the minister’s sermon, once it is preached, has served its usefulness and is destined for oblivion. It continues to live only insofar as it lives in the fruit of the meeting of meaning between minister and congregation. It is hard for ministers to accept the fact that their sermons as preached never go beyond the church walls, and that the role of the preacher is not exclusively central in the church’s preaching. No, the Word must finally live in the lives of people who, when they leave the church, take it with them into the world for which the Word was intended. This will not happen unless the members of the congregation, out of the validity of the meaning of their own experience, are led by the preaching to engage the meaning of the gospel with the meaning of living. In other words, preaching must produce a Word-world dialogue, and it must take place within the people, for it is they who are mainly responsible for taking the Word into the world. The ministry of the ordained is always dependent for implementation on the ministry of the laity. It is becoming increasingly clear with respect to not only the ministry of preaching but all other ministries. The indispensability and centrality of the ministry of laity is indisputable.

But some may be puzzled by this because there will be as many church’s sermons as there are persons in the congregation. And others will protest that much of the meeting of meaning may not be as correct -- that is, orthodox and complete -- as we are accustomed to think it should be. These observations may be true, but that is a part of the risk of communication, and without risk there can be no communication. Perhaps preaching has not had more power because preachers have been afraid to speak and let their message go. Instead, they try to ensure its purity by their precise theological formulations, but these forms of thought may not be appropriate for their people -- with the result that the Word is not able to inform the decisions and actions of the laity. But the Word will inform the decisions and actions of the laity if preachers help laymen to think through in their own as well as in traditional terms the meanings of the contemporary dialogue between God and man. This is the task of dialogical preaching.

The diagram also illustrates that the meeting of meaning between preacher and congregation embraces the barriers. Referring to our illustration, we now recognize that part of the process of understanding Christian love from both the traditional and the contemporary points of view includes dealing with some barriers that block understanding. In this instance there were the barriers of language, including the phrase "Christian love." There were the image barriers having to do with ministers, church, Bible, from the layman’s side; and with images of laymen, of nonreligious, of preacher, from the preacher’s side. There were the barriers of anxiety and defensiveness on the part of both. Most of these in this case were worked through casually without particular design and method, and mostly by the layman because the preacher seemed defensive and never did directly engage him.

The main point of this chapter is that preaching that engages people’s meanings dialogically will be able to deal with the resistances caused by ambivalence and all the barriers that occur in communication. Sometimes this kind of preaching has to deal directly and consciously with the barriers; sometimes it overcomes them incidentally.