Homiletics Notes #1 “My Problem with Preaching”

I supposed I should qualify that title by acknowledging the existence of a lot of amazing problems with preaching (including my own failures that I enjoy ruminating on), but what follows is the particular problem bothering me at the moment.

My friend Shawn has been struggling with the practice of preaching on his social media platform, critiquing it as a contemporary church practice. He cites articles that note preaching, especially among millennials, is at its “lowest value in history” and makes mention of EGW quotes such as:

As we approach the end, I have seen that . . . there will be less preaching, and more Bible study. There will be little groups all over . . . with their Bibles in their hands, and different ones leading out in a free, conversational study of the Scriptures…This was the method that Christ taught His disciples (GW 408).

This isn’t to say that he is against preaching ; being a biblical and historical tradition it can’t be written off as wrong, evil, or unscriptural. Plus speech communication, whether it’s a critical presentation at work, a simple (albeit terrifying) speech for a high school class, lines in a play, or a YouTube vlog, won’t go out of style for a long time. People talk and will continue to talk publicly. To me the issue isn’t public speaking or it’s homiletical (preaching) form, it’s more questioning a communicative reality.

People just don’t seem to connect with sermons. Honestly, I don’t blame them.

Is it the content?

Kind of?  There are cringe worthy messages reflecting either the presumption that the Spirit blesses a lack of study or unrecognized personal issues the preacher takes to the pulpit to beat his or her people over the head with. Also, every preacher has sermons that are the tragic victims of hasty exegesis or poor hermeneutics (biblical interpretation).

However the problem goes deeper than that…

Many sermons have decent content; but often it’s the sequence of a speaker’s thoughts moving from head to paper to oral presentation that get choppy. Instead, I wonder if part of preaching’s problem is a cluelessness among ministers regarding communication dynamics in general.

I ran across an article last year that launched two papers, this blog post, and who knows how many other things in the future. The article asks the question, “Why we don’t integrate communication studies into the teaching of preaching?” The author’s answer has fascinated me and made me not a little angry at our current homiletical pedagogies (teaching methods).

Nichols (1983) writes that homiletics “has traditionally been a nurturing rather than an investigative endeavor.” He states, “We have been in the business of trying to make more effective preaching and preachers, but all too often at the expense of trying to understand the myriad dimensions of the preaching phenomenon itself” (Ibid, 2). Nicholas accuses homiletical pedagogy of “consumerism” that becomes “impatient with thinking and research,” due to the “press for effectiveness” (Ibid, 3). An Amazon book search for “effective preaching” revealed numerous titles bearing the adjective. By neglecting communication theory, Nicholas says, “we are trying to reach home plate without running the bases” (Ibid, 3).

This press for “effective” preaching led another homiletics professor, Dickson (2008), to write an peer reviewed lamentation (which is hilarious by the way. What did his editor say, “You need more sad here, and less whine here…”)  about tension in teaching homiletics. He includes communication theory in a lengthy list of elements needed for class, and says, “I feel a pressure to give out a few quick how-to workshops, like pruning apple trees and then let them go into the rest of their lives thinking they know how to do it” (303).

I have sat through homiletics classes, read homiletics texts, and did an ethnography (studying the lived experience of others…resulting in a countless pages of interview transcripts and obscenely huge 60 page single-spaced rough draft paper) and I have noticed the emphasis on technique over theory.

My theologian friends would like to interject here that what is needed is a greater emphasis on the theology of preaching. No, that exists in every single textbook and classroom and it doesn’t help. Why? According to one of the students I interviewed, a graduate of an Adventist university, the author felt like they were defending the reason for their job as a preacher to exist.

I remember this experience. As I sat in a class I paid thousands of dollars for, in a theology major I felt called into, I was lectured about the importance of preaching. Since I shelled out a wad of student loan action to be there, and had already committed to a career that required the weekly sermon, it baffled me that I needed more convincing. I also don’t think a sermon on the importance of sermons would bless most congregants.

True, an emphasis on the art itself as a means for change may help inspire more time in the pastoral study–another issue minister’s often fail to prioritize (though some spend all their time in the study); but convincing someone to do it still doesn’t necessarily give them ways to think about how to do it. So an emphasis on technique takes place, however the mimetic (mimicking) approach of learning methods also robs ministerial students of their preaching capacity.

If I teach someone, by rote memory, to play Beethoven’s 5th on the piano they do not earn the right to be called a composer–maybe a poser–but not a composer. We have poser preachers–scrambling to sound and act like other preachers who have managed to find their unique voice. I just submitted an article to MINISTRY magazine dealing with a bit of this…hopefully they like it.

We need to ease up on teaching technique and help people think homiletically by teaching them about communication in general. Instead of developing pastoral dependance on those who understand communication theory (the ones writing the techniques in the textbooks), why not spend the time to help minsters grasp communicate nuances so they can create their own techniques. We don’t need as much a theology of preaching as we need a theology of communication…at least I think Adventists do.

Do we have one?

No.

As expansive as Adventist education is, it doesn’t appear to offer a PhD in Communication or Homiletics (though I hope someone can prove me wrong!). Those who possess those degrees don’t appear to teach those who preach (again, I am hoping I am wrong!). Most of those teaching homiletics have specializations in other areas, or have not done studies in communication or homiletics on the PhD level. Matter of fact, pre-eimenant Adventist preacher Floyd Bresee, in one of the very few (if not the first) PhD level dissertations on homiletics within my church stated, “pastoral experience is considered more important than training in speech” (p. 217) when it comes to teaching homiletics.

That was 1971.

Not much has changed.

This doesn’t mean we have no solid preachers, or all homiletics professors do a poor job, or pastoral experience isn’t important, it’s just, to me, a glaring gap in terms of expertise; and based on my interviews with ministerial students, a common source of frustration.

Even the exceptional Society of Adventist Communicators (and I have good friends there and they even gave me an award once, so I love those people, this is just an observation!) does not appear to offer a forum for presenting academic research papers in communication. I also haven’t found a journal of Adventist Communication.

This semester I am attempting a paper for class exploring Ellen White’s theology of communication and metacommunication (communicating about how we communicate) that may open up some other avenues of inquiry on theology and communication for Adventists, it’s something I find myself increasingly passionate about.

I am also beginning work on a homiletics text integrating communication theory for submission to Andrews University Press ( it’s in the very early stages–meaning I have written approximately two pages) in the hopes of opening some new discussions for preachers who want to develop unique voices that capture the attention and imagination of those in their sphere of influence.

However, if the book stinks and they pass on it, I’ll dump the content here in this blog 😉

Anyway, that’s enough for now. I am preaching tomorrow and I feel sufficiently pressured not to mess it up due to my homiletical rant.

Shalom.

REFERENCES

Bresee, F. (1971). An Analysis of Homiletical Teaching Methods Advocated by        Contemporary Homiletic Authorities in the United States. (Doctoral Dissertation     Northwestern University).

Dickson, Ian (2008). Confessions of a practitioner, creative tensions in teaching the Christian ministry of  preaching. Practical Theology, 1 (3) 299-307.

Nichols, J. R. (1983). Is homiletics a field for doctoral research? Homiletic, 8(1), 1-6.

White, Ellen (lots of dates). Gospel workers. Lots of versions to choose from.

Photo credit: Foter.com / CC0

3 thoughts on “Homiletics Notes #1 “My Problem with Preaching”

  1. I can say that the term, “preaching,” leaves me with a bad taste in my mouth. It leaves the message in a dangerous place. One of a performance, instead of sharing from the heart. Many sermons are preached at others in the same repetitious pattern. So expected. People tend to shut down, and check-out when this happens. I vote for less pomp, less choreography, and more simple sharing. Tell me what you believe to be true for yourself at that space in time, and leave me with the freedom to disagree with your degrees, ranking, and status. Preaching tends to present itself as the authority. I always have been a bit of a rebel. If somebody tries to tell me how I should believe, I walk away,… politely.

    • Hey Lori!

      You hit on one of the perennial issues of communication, the meaning of words, terms, or signs (technically called semiotics). Preaching, along with the word “lecture,” carries lot of baggage. I would argue a bit that performance is inherent in preaching, or any speech communication. While the end result is not entertainment, poor performance practice affects the quality of the message (performance in this case meaning vocal inflection, movement, timing, etc.). However, I think what you are referring to is a performance that is inauthentic, and that is my criticism of how we teach homiletics. We often teach people in a way that doesn’t help them discover their unique voice so the message feels wooden or artificial–even if the content is correct.

      Always appreciate your thoughtful and candid comments :)

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