Preaching Re-imagined

A review of Doug Pagitt, Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith, Zondervan, 2005. purchase from Amazon UK purchase from Amazon US

Yesterday I reviewed The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, edited by Haddon Robinson and Craig Brian Larson. In reality The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching is a book on sermons which just one chapter on dialogue (chapter 34).  So today we look at a book which questions the central role of sermons in the life of the church – Preaching Re-Imagined by Doug Pagitt, pastor of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis and part of the leadership of Emergent.

‘There was a time when I felt my ability to deliver sermons was a high calling that I sought to refine but didn’t need to redefine. Those days are gone. Now I find myself regularly redefining my role and the role of preaching. I find myself wanting to live life with the people of my community where I can preach  – along with the other preachers of our community – but not allow that to become an act of speech making’ (10).

That’s the essential message of Preaching Re-Imagined. Pagitt is keen to emphasise that ‘I believe preaching to be a crucial act of the church’ (18). He doesn’t wish to question the necessity of preaching, but to release it ‘from the bondage of the speech making act’ (18). Instead he wants to reframe preaching as a ‘progressional dialogue’ (11)

The problem, he argues, doesn’t lie with the people, method, preacher or content. ‘The problem is that preaching, as we know it, suffers from a relationship problem’. (21) Pagitt is concerned that one man, the preacher, is in control of the sermon. ‘As a pastor I want to be part of a community where the workings of God are embedded in all, where the roles of teaching and learning aren’t mine alone but instead are something intrinsic to who we are as a people’ (23).

Pagitt is a weaker on positive proposals, perhaps because he assumes a large church gathering in which dialogue will always feel artificial. He talks about the need for ‘new skills’ so meetings don’t turn into ‘a bad version of a Brethren meeting’. (I think that’s a bit harsh on Brethren churches – most of the biblically literate students coming to university in my day were from Brethren churches.) But the real difficulty is Pagitt falls a bit short when it comes to skilling us up!

He has some useful ideas along the way. He suggests submitting a sermon to a small group for their response. (In our context those who teach, or who are training to teach, routinely work on the passage together before it is taught.) ‘Many of us quote experts or famous people who are rarely part of our community. But the people who are in the midst of our communities often have as much to say about how we pursue the life of God as do famous and brilliant strangers.’ (40) He suggests a café-style room layout and warns against the overuse of microphones: ‘an amplified voice creates the situation where the recipients are powerless to speak back.’

Pagitt suspects the reason we’re reluctant to change has to do with fear and control. Possibly. I suspect it’s more of an identity issue – some people’s identity is based on their ability to deliver sermons and they don’t want this challenged.

There’s much in Preaching Re-Imagined with which I agree. I love sermons – both delivering them and listening to them – and I think exhortation has an important role to play in the way the word is communicated within the life of the church. But I do question the privileged status of sermons. I don’t think they’re the only way to teach and preach, nor need they be the main way. (Indeed they’re somewhat misnamed since the word ‘sermon’ is a Latin word meaning ‘dialogue’ and at least as late as Augustine most early so-called sermons included dialogue.)

But still I feel a sense of unease with Preaching Re-Imagined. There’s a relativist tinge to Pagitt. Ironically this hampers arguments for alternative ways of engaging people with God’s word. The main argument for the privileged status of monologue seems to be that sermons declare God’s word in an authoritative manner because they are uninterrupted. Personally I think a better measure of the authority of the word is one in which God’ people live in obedience to his word. This means we need teaching that applies the word to the specifics of individual’s lives, something often best done through dialogue. The problem with Preaching Re-Imagined is that Pagitt is probably going to confirm the worst suspicions of my sermon-oriented friends. He talks, for example, about ‘pastors who do all the studying, all the talking, and even have the gall to think they can apply the messages they create to the lives of other people’ (123) Well, I for one plead guilty to thinking I can apply the Bible to people’s lives!

So Preaching Re-Imagined is all you would expect from a postmodern book: challenging the status quo, playful, concerned with authenticity – and theologically ambivalent!
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16 thoughts on “Preaching Re-imagined

  1. Tim, I am actually shocked to read the positive notes in your review. I know Doug Pagitt, studied his ministry (from afar), and he is no friend to biblical preaching. I’ve read his book(s), and find his views on preaching to be dangerous and a disservice to those who love the Word and the flock of God. (kinda strong? yup). I guess I’m now worried that many who look to you for insights will only be confused if they read this stuff by Pagitt. Please reconsider — investigate his underlying premises (you already sensed the relativisitc elements here…). I would be happy to drop you my own “review” (by email) if you’re interested….

    May God have mercy on all who would preach and lead His flock.

  2. I found your review to be very helpful and generous. O

    ne of your critiques is that he did not offer much in terms of positive proposals. I’m wondering, though, if he had set forth such “positive proposals”, if folks like you (and for full disclosure – me) would then likely take issue with Pagitt’s heremenutical approach as it relates to the nature of Biblical authority?

  3. Tim, thanks for taking time with my book.
    Hey Dave. Hope all is well with Laurel and the kids. Send my greetings (Dave and I were interns at the same church years ago and our families new each other).

    Tim, I think you got the book right. I agree that I did not do much on the “How to be a Implicatory Dialogical Preacher”. It was decision to have the book raise the issues and allow others to suggest the ways forward – like a dialog. But I do sort of regret that choice.
    I am re-releasing the book at the end of 201o in slightly different packaging and will be giving examples form communities all over the world that are using dialogical approaches. So, give it another look a year from now.

    I am not sure I am theologically ambivalent, I think I am contending for the work of the spirit among us. But that distinction is a worthwhile conversation I guess.

    I can assure your readers that our church takes the Bible and preaching very seriously, and we are quite “biblical”. But the mode matters and I can see how to some it would not appear so. But, ones opinion does not make reality. (There is a little post-modern flip for ya ;0)

    Thanks again for giving some time to the book.

  4. Doug, for the record (on what I said above), I think it *will* be helpful (in the new version) for you to set forth “positive proposals”, regardless of what I may think re: your hermeneutical approach. I think my comment above implied that it would be worthless. But I know that you’re not only writing for folks with a hermeneutical approach identical to mine. In other words, I know I’m not the center of the universe.

  5. Having read this book (though admittedly several years ago) I can agree with several of your insights and criticisms. I agree that not much is given in the way of “positive proposals” or particular patterns of establishing progressional dialog (and yes, I love alliteration.) However, for me the book has been a great catalyst for re-imagining my own approach to preaching and the homiletical process.

    I don’t remember the line about the ‘bad version of a Brethren meeting’ but maybe I blocked it out because that is the tradition from which the denomination I am a part of (the Church of the Brethren) has evolved. As such, I found many of Pagitt’s concerns about involving other voices in the preaching moment to be quite valid. The congregation I pastor is very biblically and theologically literate and has connected well with a more open-ended, dialogical form of preaching, involving others both in the sermon-creation process and in times of open response and reflection in worship. I do recognize that the ability to have such rich, meaningful conversations grounded in scripture and the ongoing work of God is not something that would come easily to every faith community, and requires a different kind of education and nurturing on the part of the pastor.

    All that being said, go easy on us Brethren, Doug, we’ve been doing this sort of biblical, dialogical, theological reflection since before it was cool ;-)


  6. That Brethren comment was meant to put the emphasis on when the meeting goes bad, not that they are inherently bad.
    I think it is a great model, I just know that at times they go bad.

  7. Doug: all is well here, thanks — and hello to Shelley…
    (are you surprised I follow Tim Chester?!)

    “But the mode matters and I can see how to some it would not appear so…”

    Mode matters dearly, but must not override biblical commands or content. What are the NT verbs for preaching? (you won’t ‘dialogue’ at the top of the list). What preachers/models has God so powerfully used over 2,000 years? Was this all just ‘speech-making’ (easier to dismiss if you give it an unpleasant name, eh)? When we will stop chasing after culturally-driven (fashionable) models? Doug, your views on “preaching” fall short.

    yours by divine mercy,

  8. As a matter of fact if you look at the NT words used to describe verbal communication then ‘dialogue’ is pretty prominent in the list. Indeed, I think you’d find it was at the top – at least among words that indicate something of the form of communication (but it was a while since I did the groundwork on this and I haven’t rechecked). In the description of the only gathering of a local church which is described in the NT the word used to describe the teaching is ‘dialogue’ (Acts 20:7). I’m all for a mix of approaches, by the way, without one being given a privileged status. And that was pretty much the situation until the ‘conversion’ of Constantine brought lots of nominal believers into the church and a dialogue among the saints was no longer possible.

  9. Well… it has been a while here too. It may be time for me (and you) to revisit our Greek… I’ll let you know what I find as time allow next week.

    BTW, I did just read T. David Gordon’s blunt little book, WHY JOHNNY CAN’T PREACH, and thought it was great. Definitely worth a quick survey as you look at preaching today.


  10. Quick survey (using Vines, link below):
    kerusso, “to preach it as a herald,” e.g., Matt_4:23; Gal_2:2
    laleo, “to speak,” 1_Thess_2:2;
    diamarturomai, “to testify (thoroughly),” Acts_20:24;
    euangelizo, “to preach,” e.g., 1_Cor_15:1; 2_Cor_11:7; Gal_1:11
    katangello, “to proclaim,” 1_Cor_9:14;
    douleuo eis, “to serve unto” (“in furtherance of”), Php_2:22;
    sunathleo en, “to labor with in,” Php_4:3;
    hierourgeo, “to minister,” Rom_15:16;
    pleroo, “to preach fully,” Rom_15:19;
    sunkakopatheo, “to suffer hardship with,” 2_Tim_1:8;

  11. I’m not sure what these lists are supposed to demonstrate! None of these words implies a sermon as we understood it today! Many contain the idea of declaring or heralding, but when the practice of this is described as often as not it includes dialogue, persuading, reasoning. None of them describe what takes place in a church on a Sunday morning. The only description we have of church gathering is Acts 20 and the word used there is dialogue. Or consider the teaching of Jesus. It looks nothing like what happens in most churches on a Sunday. It is story, aphorism, QandA, exhortation and dialogue. Even the word ‘sermon’ is a misnomer. It’s a Latin word meaning ‘dialogue’. Why? Because many early sermons were dialogue – including, for example, Augustine’s (as my friend who’s doing a PhD on Augustine’s preaching tells me). I’m not against monologue. I love sermons (using the term as it’s used today). I just don’t think they have a privileged status. To save me repeating myself see my previous posts on this topic here.

  12. Tim, thanks for your patience. Sorry for the info-dump on the blog; was just gathering some terms to pursue.

    I’ll read your other posts (2008 it looks like), and try to gather my thoughts (and rethink some things), and post something on my blog next week — and try to link it up.

    May the Lord speak to (and through) His people on the morrow…. db

  13. Tim –

    I read through all of your previous posts on the subject and got very excited. A lot more people can be released/feel free to “preach” when the sermon (monologue) is not given privileged status (yes, I did catch the “privileged” part ;o) ) ….

    Thanks for linking back to them.

  14. “(I think that’s a bit harsh on Brethren churches – most of the biblically literate students coming to university in my day were from Brethren churches.) ”

    A denomination that many good Christians seem to belong to is the “Ex-Brethren”. Ask around and you’ll be surprised at how many do.

  15. Forgive me if I’ve missed someone else saying this, but I think one has to be very careful when using Greek verb frequency tables to prove a point. The lists above do not actually mention ‘teaching’, so I assume that the contributor takes the word ‘preaching’ to mean ‘teaching the church’. NT ‘preaching’ can often be shown to be evangelistic, and there are no clear cut examples (to my knowledge, but I’m willing to be shown otherwise) where the term ‘preaching’ is used to describe what is clearly the teaching of the saved church for building up and edification.

    It seems to have become a catch-all term for any Christian based oratory, whether evangelistic, or didactic (a word which comes from the Greek for ‘teaching’). As a former school teacher and now working for a church in a teaching capacity, I am quite keen to explore these things further and as such follow discussions such as these with interest.


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