On Preaching

From December 2011 through June 2012, Grtace's Senior Pastor, Bruce Modahl, published a series of articles on the art of preaching in the congregation's newsletter, Grace Notes. Here are all six articles collected on one page.

1. The Classical Tradition

I begin the series on the art of preaching with Augustine (A.D. 354-430).
Before Augustine became a Christian, he occupied the imperial chair in rhetoric at the University of Milan. The church was suspicious of classical rhetoric because it was closely associated with apologists for anti-Christian philosophies. The general opinion was that rhetoric depended on verbal tricks and flourishes to persuade an audience. What role did the Holy Spirit have to play in such contrived speech?

Augustine titled the introduction to Book IV of his work De Doctrina “The value of rhetorical skills; but this will not be a text book of rhetoric.” He acknowledged that rhetoric is “the art of persuading people to accept something, whether it is true or false,” but he added, “Would anyone dare to maintain that truth should stand there without any weapons in the hands of its defenders against falsehood?” His book subjected all facets of rhetoric to the authority of Scripture. He may not have intended to write a textbook of rhetoric, but he did produce a style manual for the Christian preacher.

According to Augustine, the purpose of a sermon is to teach, to delight, and to persuade. The first has to do with what is said; the second and third with how it is said. He gave his own example. “I was once in Caesarea of Mauritania, trying to dissuade the people from their local civil war…. I did not consider I had achieved anything when I heard them applauding me, but only when I saw them weeping. Their applause only showed they were being instructed and delighted, while their tears indicated that they were being swayed.”  Eight years later he reported there had been no new outbreaks of violence.

2. Martin Luther

In Luther’s day, preaching was almost an afterthought. The main event in the worship service was the Eucharist and not necessarily participating in the meal but watching the elevation of the bread and cup as the priest intoned, “Hoc est corpus meum” (This is my body). Say the Latin often enough and fast enough and you will know where we got the term hocus pocus. Luther sought to restore a balance between Word and Sacrament in the Sunday service.

For Luther the purpose of preaching is to comfort troubled consciences and to press Christ. For the first part, Luther understood he might first have to discomfort complacent consciences by convincing us of how we fall short of God’s expectations. For the second part the phrase Luther used was “was Christum treibet,” (“what pushes Christ”). So it is that the question at the center of my preparation for every sermon is “Why do I need a crucified and risen Savior?”

Martin Luther in 1533 by Lucas Cranach the ElderLuther was critical of moralistic sermons which made Jesus nothing more than a new Moses. He understood that the law demands hearts that are obedient to God. He also understood that the law cannot create obedient hearts. He said, “When the hangman comes he can chop off a finger, but the heart remains a rogue.” Only the gospel of Jesus Christ can create the obedient hearts demanded by the law.

In one sermon Luther said, “The wiseacres, anti-sacramentalists, sectarians, and Anabaptists say, ‘The gospel in Wittenberg is nothing, because it does not make people holy,’….

“We preach something better… that Jesus Christ has come for your sake and taken your sins upon himself. There you hear, not what you should do, but what God is doing through Christ, which means, of course, that he works faith and bestows the Holy Spirit.” Luther argued that what flows as a matter of course from Christ’s work in us is that Jesus becomes the example for how we live our lives in loving service for our neighbor.

3. From Deductive to Inductive Preaching           

Until the last generation, sermons in congregations populated primarily by European-Americans were constructed much like lectures. As preacher and theologian Tom Long caricatures the process, the preacher worked away in his or her study, reading commentaries, translating from the original languages, and looking for points of connection between the world of the text and the people of the congregation. Along about Wednesday afternoon those passing in the hallway could hear the preacher exclaim, “Hallelujah! That will preach.” The preacher had discovered the thesis statement for the sermon. She or he then constructed an outline often with three major points, sub-points under each of the major points and some animating and illustrative material for these points. This is a deductive sermon. From the thesis one deduces the points that follow. Barbara Brown Taylor quipped that those following this approach often seemed like they had tied the Biblical text to a chair and were trying to beat a sermon out of it.

In 1958 H. Grady Davis published a book called “Design for Preaching” which served as a turning point. Davis, who taught what was then called Functional Theology at the Chicago Lutheran Theological Seminary in Maywood, called for an organic, bottom up, inductive approach to preaching rather than the top down, deductive style more at home in the classroom. In the inductive model, the preacher takes the congregation on the same journey of discovery that led to his or her Wednesday afternoon eureka moment. Typically in an inductive sermon, the thesis statement comes at the end of the sermon rather than the beginning.

A review of Davis’s book in the journal “The Pulpit” said, “The field of homiletics soars beyond its traditional stereotypes in this unusual book, and we come to see a good sermon as something that grows rather than as something pounded together.” By 1970 it was the preaching text most used in Protestant seminaries. Nevertheless, in the 1970s, seminarians were still taught to construct an outline in the old deductive manner. To effect the change it would take some more time and a preacher named Fred Craddock about whom I will write next month.

4. Fred B. Craddock,  A New Homiletic

It is impossible to overstate the contribution Fred Craddock has made to preaching in this country. Until his retirement in 1993, Craddock taught New Testament and Preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA. He is often credited as the key thinker, preacher and writer leading to the New Homiletic.

In 1971, Fred Craddock published his first book on preaching with the controversial title “As One Without Authority.” Remember the times.

In 1971 all authority was suspect. Craddock calls for the preacher to consider those hearing and to speak from their midst as opposed to the authority standing above them. (This does not mean wandering around the chancel while preaching. Craddock honors the pulpit.) The New Homiletic he advocates follows an inductive structure for the sermon. This inductive or organic method was first proposed by H. Grady Davis, who was the subject of this column last month. The inductive structure caught hold with Craddock. A third characteristic of the New Homiletic is narrative style. Telling stories to illustrate a point is not the same as narrative style. Craddock is famous for his stories; however, a sermon may be a narrative without containing a single story. A narrative builds to a climax. Sometimes Craddock’s sermons end at the climax, leaving the listeners stunned. Sometimes Craddock will provide some denouement. However, he never ties up his sermons in a nice bow leaving his listeners sitting back and satisfied. He always leaves his hearers unsettled and groping for their response to the Gospel they have heard.

Richard Lischer in his book “The Company of Preachers,” writes of Craddock, “In a culture desensitized to the Christian message, urgent proclamation or the proving of propositions will alienate rather than communicate. Only the less-invasive, narrative genre offers listeners the aesthetic and religious distance they need. When the preacher crafts narratives that reflect the dynamic of the biblical story, his or her listeners overhear the good news. In the moment of overhearing, they re-experience or re-recognize a truth that, at some level, they already know.”

5. The New Homiletic

In my last article about preaching I introduced the term “the new homiletic,” which encompasses changes in preaching over the last generation. The new homiletic uses an inductive structure, rather than a deductive style. Classroom lectures and term papers are usually deductive. The author states the thesis at the beginning and develops an argument from the thesis. An inductive structure is more like a narrative and carries the listener or reader along until the main point is reached at the close.
The method a preacher uses to prepare and deliver a sermon is part and parcel of the sermon’s content. An apt analogy is the way a hymn text and tune must work together. The Lenten hymn  “Alas! and Did My Savior Bleed” (LBW 98) fits the tune for “Joy to the World” (LBW 39), but combining these two results in a warped proclamation.
Will Willimon taught preaching at the divinity school at Duke University and was dean of the chapel before he was elected a bishop in the United Methodist Church. He is the first one I heard make the point that for sermon style and content to work together it is important for the preacher to ask not only what does the text mean but also what does the text do. Willimon urges preachers to craft our sermon to do to our hearers what the Biblical text did to those who heard it for the first time.
That task is made a bit easier for preachers in the 21st century. A generation ago the Biblical texts were familiar even to those who did not attend church. The Biblical language and stories were part of the larger culture. That is no longer the case. A preacher can no longer assume that a reference to the rooster’s crow will evoke the story of Peter’s denial of Jesus. This provides both opportunity and challenge.

6. Crossing the Word of God with Our Lives

Those who teach preaching provide students with a roadmap of sorts to take them into the text and back out to a sermon. For Richard Caemmerer, who taught several generations of Lutheran preachers at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis and then Seminex, the signposts for the map were goal, malady, and means. What is the goal for our lives the scripture text puts before us? What is the malady that keeps us from reaching the goal? What is the means God provides to overcome the malady and reach the goal?

Another teacher laid out a similar map with the signposts of point, problem, and power. Still another states it more simply as judgment and grace. Lutheran theologians Robert Bertram and Ed Schroeder mapped a route into the text that keeps the cross at the center. They called it Crossings. It provides a map for crossing the Word of God with our lives. It begins with diagnosis. What is the problem according to the text? At first glance the problem is something palpable, something external, on the surface. The external symptoms cause us to look for an underlying cause. Diagnosis literally means to see through. The law of God sees through us to the heart problem beneath what we see on the surface. Push deeper for the eternal problem, what God has to say about it, an eternal and deadly prognosis.
However, Jesus death and resurrection provide a new prognosis for us, a prognosis of forgiveness and the abundant life in Christ. That good news transforms us and causes us to hang our hearts on the promises of God. With our eternal future secure and our hearts transformed our words and deeds are likewise transformed and we conduct our lives as part of God’s new creation.

This is the map I use in preparation for every sermon. You will seldom hear the sermon progress in the same stages. That would be too formulaic and not true to the roundabout way of our lives. You nevertheless will always hear me proclaim why we need a crucified and risen Lord and the difference this Lord makes in our lives.