Thoughts on Preaching and Relevance

Nearly every preacher makes it a priority to make his sermon “relevant” to his audience. The difficulty with this aim is that it often assumes that “relevant” and “interesting” are synonymous. In other words, a sermon must be relevant in the sense that it must capture the audience’s attention and imagination, leaving them with a concrete take away for practical living.

I have two serious criticisms of this approach. First, that something is “interesting” has as much to do with the character of the receiver as to do with the qualities of that thing. The job of a teacher, for example, is not only to pass on a body of “information” to his hearers, but also to persuade the hearer to see this bit of cultural tradition as vital both to self-understanding and to a broader understanding of the world. The teacher is working on the affections of the students, seeking to bring about interest in important areas that our tradition has always though ought to hold our interest because of their tremendous value in culture making. When my students say that the material is “boring” I hear the following: 

“I am unable to connect this material with any part of my regular patterns of thought in any way which I perceive to be interesting. In other words, it just might be the case that this material is so far above my understanding that I don’t even have a conceptual grasp about what it might be saying. Or I might be saying, that I am unable to connect this material with any real basis from which I make decisions, either due to inexperience or ineptitude in my decision making faculties.”

I understand the very fact that they find it “boring” is owing largely to a deficiency on their part. Now, granted, it is incumbent upon me as a teacher to find ways to convince the students of this. But it is also incumbent upon students to deny their intellectual vice, which is the cause of their finding the world boring. They have a responsibility to be amateurs (French for “lovers”) in a radically interesting world.

Second, this approach assumes that “practical take-aways” are the most necessary part of change. Important to my critique of the discussion above is that an significant problem with American culture is that it finds really crucial things boring and really insignificant things exciting. How does one correct this with five steps? While personal and very practical changes are a part of what makes something “interesting,” this is only part of a larger pedagogical aim, to give the student (or congregant) ordered affections which flow from a proper understanding of the world and result in proper behavior. To skip to behavior is to truncate personal formation and to create mindless congregants. This is very far from Paul’s aim in Romans 12:1-2 where he sought to renew minds. The doctrine, for Paul, led to a proper assessment of self, others, and the world, which, in turn, led to proper activity in the world.

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5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Preaching and Relevance

  1. I agree that the student is responsible for his or her learning. I feel like tweeting your comment about American culture: “Important to my critique of the discussion above is that an significant problem with American culture is that it finds really crucial things boring and really insignificant things exciting. “

  2. Hey Matt, My brother, Jonathan, said that you are going to be moving this way. Look me up when you are in town! I did not realize how close TEDS is to where we live. If you need a place to stay for any visit, you are more than welcome here.

    I saw the link to this on LinkedIn. I have some thoughts…

    At the heart of the questions of relevance and interest seem to me to be a few important factors. The first is a deep seated awareness on the part of the preacher that what they are doing does not have real meaning in the life of the congregation. I am guessing that this is actually subconscious for most preachers grappling with relevance and interest. The sad fact is that many are employing homiletical structures that contradict the context into which they are speaking. Deductive preaching will always lead to the precise applications of which you speak. If the form is not changed, the result will not change. In a sense, “relevance” and “interest” become the desperate coat of new paint trying to restore a collapsing building. (I say this without judging preachers, because most are sticking to a homiletical system that has been long instilled in them by their tradition and professors. They really do not know a better way.)

    The second is that the sermon is treated as a lesson, as a “didache” instead of a “kerygma.” One person is trying to reach a bunch of other people in a profound way that will shape their lives. This method leaves little room for anything supernatural to occur.

    The third factor is a utilitarian understanding of the sermon. There is a lack of concern for beauty and the sermon as art.

    Fourth, I would note that preaching, which primarily focuses on creating change, has consistently been plagued by moralistic or legalistic tendencies.

    Fifth and final, I would say that I am leery of any homiletic that requires someone to alter their cultural sensitivities in order to be able to receive the Word. Obviously, an awareness of particular cultural weaknesses is necessary on the part of the preacher, and perhaps these weaknesses will be altered in the average congregational participant over time. However, effective Gospel preaching must be accessible to those who are not trained to listen.

    Are you familiar with the New Homiletic? This is a movement which emerged in the eighties the most noticeable result of which has been the emergence of narrative as a prominent sermon form. Applying new understandings of the importance and formative power of the medium in communicating, several leading preachers of the late twentieth century began to rethink how they constructed their sermons. The experience of the listener became of great importance, and the language of sermons became a means of helping the congregants enter into a profound experience.

    From the New Homiletic emerged the narrative and inductive sermon as a dominant preaching form. This move away from deductive sermons also served to empower the congregants to enter into the task of visualizing and embodying the Word in their own unique context. Another major contribution of the New Homiletic was in viewing the sermon as an event in which the participants enter into a mutual experience of Divine reality through vivid images and compelling narratives. In this sense, preaching itself became a transformative liturgical experience.

    The New Homiletic provided some important adaptations for the twenty-first century particularly in regard to the influence of postmodernism. In an age of diminishing religious authority and a growing understanding of the particularity of the human experience, it created room for the hearer to become an empowered participant of the sermonic process. In a complex age of globalization and diversity, the inductive form provided the sermon with a means of reaching a wide audience in a meaningful way for all of those who listen. The narrative form provided a compelling means of communicating to an increasingly post-literate society, and the narrative style quickly influenced both liberal and conservative preaching. As an inductive, narrative event the preaching of the New Homiletic opened the possibility of a unifying, transformative experience within a diverse congregation.

    In summary, I would say that neither changed behavior, changed affections, nor enhanced understanding is the goal of the New Homiletic; rather, Divine encounter is the goal. I see Divine encounter as the very heart/essence or highest purpose of worship, which is why I bring up this homiletical school in response to this article. Of course, from that preaching/worship event comes personal cognitive, spiritual and moral change, but these are by-products of the encounter with God. Also, the individual is empowered to actually play a part in the meaning-making event of preaching. In this school of preaching, “relevance” and “interesting” have little priority. Context and contextualizing becomes of huge importance. Speaking the language of a congregation is key; however, this is merely a tool for creating art and narrative which helps them encounter or enter into the Divine activity of God at work in humanity.

    Does this make sense? Thoughts, reactions? Am I fairly responding to what you have discussed?

  3. Hey Matt, Jonathan, said that you are going to be moving this way. Look me up when you are in town! I did not realize how close TEDS is to where we live. If you need a place to stay for any visit, you are more than welcome here.

    I saw the link to this on LinkedIn. I have some thoughts…

    At the heart of the questions of relevance and interest seem to me to be a few important issues. The first is a deep seated awareness on the part of the preacher that what they are doing does not have real meaning in the life of the congregation. I am guessing that this is actually subconscious for most preachers grappling with relevance and interest. The sad fact is that many are employing homiletical structures that contradict the context into which they are speaking. Deductive preaching will always lead to the precise applications of which you speak. If the form is not changed, the result will not change. In a sense, “relevance” and “interest” become the desperate coat of new paint trying to restore a collapsing building. (I say this without judging preachers, because most are sticking to a homiletical system that has been long instilled in them by their tradition and professors. They really do not know a better way.)

    The second is that the sermon is treated as a lesson, as a “didache” instead of a “kerygma.” One person is trying to reach a bunch of other people in a profound way that will shape their lives. This method leaves little room for anything supernatural to occur.

    The third issue is a utilitarian understanding of the sermon. There is a lack of concern for beauty and the sermon as art.

    Fourth, I would note that preaching, which focuses on creating change, has always been plagued by moralistic or legalistic tendencies.

    Fifth, I would say that I am leery of any homiletic that requires someone to alter their cultural sensitivities in order to be able to receive the Word. Obviously, an awareness of particular cultural weaknesses is necessary on the part of the preacher, and perhaps these weaknesses will be altered in the congregational participant over time. However, effective Gospel preaching absolutely must not require trained listeners.

    Sixth, and final for now, I believe that you are dealing with preaching heavily influenced by Rationalism. The idea that a new understanding, relevant ideas, and interesting applications change lives is decidedly abstract. My answer to this would be relationships and relational preaching, which leads me to the New Homiletic. (I would also add something about biblical interpretation as another issue, but I am having trouble quickly formulating my thoughts.)

    Are you familiar with the New Homiletic? This is a movement which emerged in the eighties the most noticeable result of which has been the emergence of narrative as a prominent sermon form. Applying new understandings of the importance and formative power of the medium in communicating, several leading preachers of the late twentieth century began to rethink how they constructed their sermons. The experience of the listener became of great importance, and the language of sermons became a means of helping the congregants enter into a profound experience.

    From the New Homiletic emerged the narrative and inductive sermon as a dominant preaching form. This move away from deductive sermons also served to empower the congregants to enter into the task of visualizing and embodying the Word in their own unique context. Another major contribution of the New Homiletic was in viewing the sermon as an event in which the participants enter into a mutual experience of Divine reality through vivid images and compelling narratives. In this sense, preaching itself became a transformative liturgical experience.

    The New Homiletic provided some important adaptations for the twenty-first century particularly in regard to the influence of postmodernism. In an age of diminishing religious authority and a growing understanding of the particularity of the human experience, it created room for the hearer to become an empowered participant of the sermonic process. In a complex age of globalization and diversity, the inductive form provided the sermon with a means of reaching a wide audience in a meaningful way for all of those who listen. The narrative form provided a compelling means of communicating to an increasingly post-literate society, and the narrative style quickly influenced both liberal and conservative preaching. As an inductive, narrative event the preaching of the New Homiletic opened the possibility of a unifying, transformative experience within a diverse congregation.

    In summary, I would say that neither changed behavior nor changed affections is/was the goal of the New Homiletic; rather, Divine encounter is/was the goal. I see Divine encounter as the very heart/essence or highest purpose of worship, which is why I believe this model is an important counterpart to what you mention here. Of course, from this preaching/worship event comes personal spiritual and moral change, but these are by-products of the encounter with God. At its heart this preaching model is decidedly more relational and dialogical than what you describe. The individual in the pew is empowered to actually play a part in the meaning-making event of preaching. This is a level of involvement, which is not afforded in the models concerned with relevance and interest. In this school of preaching, “relevance” and “interesting” have little priority. Context and contextualizing becomes of huge importance. Speaking the language of your congregation is key; however, this is merely a tool for and a gateway into creating art and narrative which helps them encounter or enter into the Divine activity of God at work in humanity.

    Does this make sense? Thoughts, reactions? Am I interpreting you fairly?

  4. Andrew, thanks for your very stimulating comment. At the very least, what you are saying makes obvious a crucial difference between pedagogy and preaching. I had never heard of the New Homiletic, but I suppose I have been influenced by it indirectly. From a cursory scan of a few articles, I have a few concerns, but also appreciation. Can you point me to the best resource on this? I look forward to being in the area. We will have to find some time to get together when we move. – m

  5. I also have concerns, but I would add that every major historical homiletical movement or system preceding this has provided me with legitimate cause for critique, i.e. human shortsightedness and weakness. I see the failings of fundamentalist and evangelical preaching systems as primarily theological problems. Unfortunately, most of them view their homiletical crises as less about theology or form and as more about method, which it primarily is not. This particular movement provides new ways of thinking in our current context, which are helpful albeit finite.

    The most accessible point of exposure would be Allen’s “The Renewed Homiletic.” If you wanted to actually get into the various perspectives, developments and intricacies of the movement, you would need to look at the individual works of the pioneers of the field, Craddock, Lowry, Rice, Buttrick, and Mitchell. I have found their works theoretically helpful for developing my own theology of preaching as a liturgical event, and many of their works are also helpful in providing practical instruction in learning the numerous forms of narrative and inductive sermons.

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