Chapter 8: Preaching and Listening Dialogically

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

Chapter 8: Preaching and Listening Dialogically

At this stage in our developing thought it will, perhaps, be helpful to underscore certain of our insights into preaching and listening dialogically.

Early in the discussion with the industrialist he was asked what resource enabled him to endure the strenuousness of his life without destructive effects. He responded that this was the first time such a question had been asked him. The raising of such a searching question should be one of the purposes of preaching. Men should be asked by what principles they live; who are their gods. They should be given opportunity and assistance to formulate their convictions, to make their own interpretations of their experience, in order that its meaning may be the basis of further learning and growth. That, it will be recalled, was the method commonly used by our Lord. He asked men questions that gave them opportunity to formulate their meanings: Of the smart young lawyer: "Who was neighbor to him that fell among the thieves?" Of the disciples: "Who do you say that I am?" Or, "Where shall we buy bread that these shall eat?" I believe that one of the first responsibilities of the Christian teacher is to help men raise the theological question on the basis of which they may hope to understand the relevance of the gospel. A well-asked question can often do more than lengthy advice. And question-raising is a ministry in which the laity can participate, too.

The Principle of Inclusion

A second insight to be underscored is that dialogical preaching requires the employment of the principle of inclusion. I am indebted to Martin Buber for my understanding of this principle. It means that when we address another we do so in ways that include their meanings (See diagram, p. 72. Inclusion is represented by the intersecting lines from each side.) A part of our preparation for speaking should be to find out what people bring to us in the way of questions, hypotheses, affirmations, and doubts; and our communication, whether formal like a sermon or informal like a conversation, should include these as part of its content. The preacher’s sermon in our illustration gave no evidence that he knew anything about or understood contemporary human life. He did not draw on the recognizable experiences of his people in order to provide a context for his explication of a traditional doctrine, that is, he did not preach inclusively. He preached exclusively. Had he, through accident or design, known of the industrialist’s faith and practice, he could have used it to promote dialogue between the doctrine and the man’s experience, and through these have also reached other men. Use of the man’s faith and practice could have served two purposes: It could have provided an illustration of what was meant by love; and the preacher could have used the Scripture to affirm and illumine the faith of a man in whose experience was evidence of God’s presence. For an important purpose of preaching is to identify the presence and activity of God in secular life.

Preaching that employs inclusion also has the ability to lay open the meaning of the contemporary so that it can recognize and respond to the larger, timeless meanings that often come to us out of the tradition and even be completed by them. To return to our illustration, the industrialist was excited when he discovered that his insight about keeping people in focus as persons was a part of the Christian way of life. Thus the partial meanings that emerge out of our own experience can be joined to the larger meanings that have been accumulating through the centuries as a result of each generation’s participation in the dialogue between God and man.

Contemporary meanings have for both the preacher and his listeners more importance today than ever before because man’s contemporary search for meaning confronts so much new data that has never been properly related to the traditional sources of meaning. The preacher, therefore, faces a different kind of congregation from one he would have fifty years ago, but because of the situation we are discussing, he has one of history’s greatest opportunities to preach the gospel. He must learn to look for the values in what people value, and help them to affirm their truth, power, and need so that with it they may move into greater truth.

Preaching as a Cooperative Activity

A third insight to be noted is that preaching is a cooperative activity on the part of congregation and preacher. The dialogical preacher knows that he cannot preach the gospel by himself. Some preachers have learned this lesson. They would not think of preaching without first having drawn on some congregational assistance. It could be through a group’s study of a passage of Scripture from which the text was to be selected. The relevance of the passage to the lives of the people would become apparent in the course of the group discussion: the questions that it raised, the insights that it activated, the blocks to understanding that existed would all become known to the preacher who would stand in the pulpit and speak not so much to the people but for the people of God whose thought and experience constituted a part of the authenticity of the sermon.

For example, when a murderer is executed and the question of capital punishment is raised, about which there is such divided opinion, the preacher should bring the meanings of the gospel and the meanings of the issue together in order that members of the congregation will think more about it and be better able to express their views with conviction and effect. The preacher thus speaks not to, but for and with the community of God.

The occasion for a sermon may come also from a chance remark. A minister was visiting a parishioner who was a sculptress and who was doing a figure of a mother and child. The work was at the stage where the figure of the child, looking up into the mother’s face, was beginning to emerge clearly from the surrounding stone. It was an exciting time. The sculptress, in the ecstasy of the moment, exclaimed, "I am so happy, it’s sinful!" As she proceeded with her work the minister asked her why she had referred to her happiness as sinful.

"I don’t know," she replied, "except that I have always felt guilty about being as happy as I am. So many people seem unhappy with their lives bogged down in pain and sorrow. But as an artist I see and hear so much that delights me that my response to life is ecstatic." She was able to say this in spite of conditions in her life that could have discouraged her.

"I have run into this guilty reaction to joy before," commented the minister. "Implicit in it is a grim concept of God."

"Lots of people feel this way," added the sculptress. "I have friends who love their children so much that they are afraid God will take them away. If God is love, why should we feel guilty when we love so much or are happy? . . . Why don’t you preach about this? It would help me, and many others, too."

The minister agreed, but asked if he might describe at the beginning of his sermon the situation out of which the question arose.

Several weeks later he preached on the concepts of God that are implicit in people’s characteristic attitudes and behaviors, and showed how primitive these concepts are when compared with the concepts they profess of a merciful and loving God. He went on to provide some suggestions as to how his hearers might move from primitive to more Christian relationships with God and their fellows.

The response to the sermon was spectacular. The congregation’s attention was rapt. Meanings in them were being searched out, examined, formulated, and joined to new and releasing meanings. Fears that had imprisoned people for years were being unlocked. The boundaries of thought were being extended and courage was being stretched so that people began to sense a dimension in living that was new. Different members of the congregation mentioned briefly something of the relevance the sermon had for them, and several made appointments for counseling. One man in particular told of living for years with the conviction that his only son had been killed in an automobile accident because he had loved him too much.

The point of the story is that the preacher’s sermon and the church’s sermons (the messages born in each of the hearers) resulted from the minister’s having heard and responded to the theological question implicit in the sculptress’s remark, "I am so happy, it’s sinful."

Preaching for the People

Another illustration of speaking to the congregation for people comes from an experience in preparing a young couple for marriage. Their discussions together, with the aid of the minister, had meant a great deal to them; in particular they came to a vivid realization of the power of personal relations for their individual weal or woe. One of them had been the product of destructive family relationships, the effect of which threatened the well-being of the new marriage. The other had enjoyed good family relations. Between them they saw the positive and negative influence they could have on each other and their children. They resolved, too, that their relations were to be a means of grace to each other. Toward the close of the sessions, they expressed appreciation for the exciting new insights that had come to them, and also expressed the wish that they might tell other people about them. The minister asked the couple to put into their own words the thoughts they would like to share. When they had finished he explained that he could share their thoughts for them by preaching a sermon in which they would be embodied. He obtained their permission to tell the congregation the source of the sermon without revealing their names.

They were present on the Sunday morning that the minister preached the sermon on "Personal Relations -- A Means of Grace." He began by announcing to the congregation that he was preaching this sermon for a young couple who wanted to share with them some exciting new understandings that had come to them while they were preparing for marriage. He then proceeded to preach the sermon, developing their thoughts in relation to common needs that he knew existed among the members of the congregation. The congregation was breathlessly attentive, and responses afterward indicated that they heard a message that carried extra authority because it came out of the life of the community and it was the word to the community. More of this kind of preaching is possible and would be appreciated.

Or, the minister might discuss a doctrine in contemporary terms with some laymen -- for example, of grace in relation to works; or, he might check with them a theme that he planned to present and some of the crucial words that he would use in order to test for the understandings that will and will not be present in the congregation. One man I know makes it a regular practice to test with selected members of his congregation the meanings they have for certain words he is going to use in his preaching. Later, in his sermon, these meanings are identified, affirmed, or corrected and completed, and his congregation always knows that he is speaking inclusively with them. They become participants with him in the dialogue between the word of man and the Word of God. Sometimes an issue in the life of the community dictates the subject of the sermon, and the meaning of the people’s experience in relation to the issue becomes a part of the source of the preacher’s preparation. Again, he speaks not to, but for and with, the community of God.

The theological implication here is important, if we believe that God may speak to the world through the church, and to the church through the world. People who come to church are a part of the world, and sometimes more a part of the world than they are of the church. They are often unknowingly, as well as knowingly, the agents of God’s action in the world. There is no conceivable way by which the Word of God through the world can influence the church unless the preacher and other ministers are open and attentive to the word that may be spoken to them out of the contemporary context of the world.

It is my belief that we have been identifying our Lord’s own kind of preaching. He made no point of being "religious." He stood in the midst of life. He looked for the meanings of men. He employed their symbols. He helped men to identify their meanings and then demonstrated how their meanings pointed to ultimate meaning. And that is the task that we have received from his hand.