For my preaching class, we’ve been trying to get at what this weird thing called “preaching” really is. It’s not a lecture, it’s a not a conversation, it’s not a debate. So what is it? Here are some of my random thinking on this. But I’d love to hear yours.
As much as I want something far more profound and original, I have not been able to find anything simpler and clearer than Alan of Lille‘s definition: “Preaching is an open and public instruction in faith and behavior, whose purpose is the forming of men [sic].”
Sure, more could go into someone’s definition, but this is the best distillation I’ve ever heard; and honestly, the “more” that some one could add to that definition is often in the realm of theological and stylistic preference and conviction more than some eternal truths handed from on high. But, within that freedom for preference and conviction, here is how I would expand my idea of preaching:
Preaching is a an expression of intimacy, rather than mainly power.
A lot of people begin their talk about preaching by going to Genesis and showing how before there was anything, there was God speaking. My current preaching class even calls Creation “The First Sermon”. Now, when many people see the “spokenness” of Creation, they tend to focus on the Power aspects of this. They say things like, “Can you believe that–with a word!–God could bring everything into existence!”.
And this is true. But starting here tends to emphasize the the transcendence and power of Preaching. And yet, God could have just as easily simply thought everything into existence. And so, when I read the Creation account, I see this “speech” as deeply incarnational and emphasizing his intimacy, tenderness, and imminence in Creation.
I don’t see it so much as an authoritative word bursting from the darkness to be spoken “over us” in a sense, but rather a tender (yet still authoritative) word counter-intuitively arising from our midst, through the Preacher who also comes from the People’s midst. God’s creative power “is not” a voice, but rather it “takes on” voice, in order to be close to us and let us in on what he is doing.
Preaching as an institution is an act of loving intimacy by God to his world and his people. It isn’t primarily an act of Power and Might, but an act of Tender Intimacy and Humble Grace.
And yet, there still is an authoritative, creational aspect to preaching.
It establishes the Christian Church. Those that sit under preaching sit under their own “being in becoming” as the Church. Same with the Bible. Again, my conviction is that the Scriptures in a sense “become” the “Word” as it is preached and united by faith to the believer by the Holy Spirit.
In that vein, preaching is–again, in a sense–the Word (Jesus) come among us, clothed in human speech. Preaching is not a “thing” that is a symbol for some other “thing” that might or might not be happening. It is the thing itself. It is the Happening.
And so, by preaching (and, I’d argue, the Sacraments), the people become the Church, the Scriptures become the Word, the rebels become the Adopted Ones, and the Powers give way to the Kingdom.
But what that means is that the Preacher (and the Spirit) is in the words as well.
Preachers are not the neutral conduit by which the Christ is known. They come bearing within themselves the very Word they have to deliver. This Word is for them and from them all at once. Which means the Preacher musat fully inhabit our common humanity in all its reality and brokenness.
Looking at Genesis again, we see that before God speaks, his “breath” (the Spirit) hovers amidst the chaos of reality. Before we feel we can speak God’s authoritative word, we also must spend time letting our nearness and our very spirit reside in the midst of the world’s chaos, before we can speak God’s answer to it. This is what the Spirit did in the person of Jesus, and still does in sermons today.
Preaching is human speech more than action.
I know a lot of people mention that ol’ (supposed) Francis of Assisi line: “preach the Gospel always; if necessary, use words”. In my personal opinion, this isn’t “preaching”. Whatever “preaching” is, I’m pretty dogmatic that it is human speech. It must be. It always is. It is proclamation. Yes, our lives matter. Yes, they testify to our deepest held beliefs. Yes, they invite people into the community of faith. But they are not preaching.
As happens within the Trinity, so happens behind the pulpit: Preaching is “Trialogue“. It is God’s Word and Trinitarian Presence offered through the preacher to his people who then respond to this Word and Presence.
But enough of my thoughts. What are some of your thoughts on Preaching? What is it? How is it different from other human speech?