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!