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Preaching Pictures

Ben Quant, Connexion Trustee, writes about four different approaches to preaching, inspired by Thomas Long, author of The Witness of Preaching:

At a pre-pandemic minister's gathering some years ago at Heigh Leigh, we discussed what it was that attracted us to The Connexion, what made it special. Various responses were given, one of which was our commitment to the Bible and preaching.

Across our churches, on almost all Sundays, we will either sit down and listen to a sermon or stand up to preach it. The length may differ, as may its style and language, but the fact that there will be one is something that we take for granted and have in common. I wonder, though, how many of us have actually thought about what a sermon is? What is the point of a sermon? How do they work? Why do we listen to them? I suspect that for most of us, although we may have enjoyed or endured more than we can remember, bizarrely, the answer will be no. Perhaps you think that it's obvious what's going on, and that everyone sees it the same way. If that's so, you may be surprised to discover that this is not the case! In fact there is a whole academic field devoted to the topic of preaching, exploring what preaching is, how God speaks through a sermon, and the different ways or forms of preaching: the field of homiletics. 

Thomas Long, an American preacher, is one of the leading figures in homiletics over the recent decades. In The Witness of Preaching  he describes the main approaches to preaching through a series of pictures: the preacher as the herald, the pastor, the storyteller/poet, and the witness.

The Herald

This is the traditional understanding of preaching in evangelical circles. Here the preacher is seen as like a herald or town-crier declaring important news to those around them. They are given the task of announcing the good news of Jesus Christ as found in scripture to those to whom they are sent, believing that when the scriptures are faithfully preached, God will speak through its words to the congregation. This model of preaching emphasises the careful study of the biblical text and proclaiming it clearly, so that its meaning is conveyed to the congregation. Sermons are usually made up of a linear series of points, for example the classic 'three point sermon', with most of the focus on education rather than entertainment (although there might be humorous alliteration in the titles, or a story or joke to help make the point clear).

 the herald

The Pastor

Another common image is the pastor. This shouldn't be surprising, after all throughout the Bible religious leaders are compared to shepherds, those with the job of caring for the sheep. Jesus, of course, described himself as the Good Shepherd. With this emphasis on caring for others, inevitably some leaders bring this pastoral role into their preaching. This subtly shifts the focus from faithfully delivering the message of scripture, to discerning and meeting the needs of the flock; the purpose of preaching is to communicate the message of the Bible in such a way that it addresses people's situations and needs to help them live lives that glorify God.

So what do pastoral sermons look like? Although they are often expository like those under the herald model, they usually require more thought about communication techniques and the way the sermon is constructed (its form), because they're seeking to bring about change in their hearers, not just a greater understanding.


The Storyteller/Poet

Once upon a time... There's nothing l like better than being told a story or reading a gripping novel. A good story has the power to transport you, to move you, to talk to you at a level deeper than words. Think of the difference between listening to a story and being told what a story is about. These are two completely different experiences aren't they! The first is full of life, and the second, even if it is accurate, totally lacks the punch or emotional impact of the story itself. 

Long's third image is that over the preacher as storyteller or poet. This approach seeks to take seriously the suggestion that most of the Bible is either a narrative, a story, or grows out of a narrative, the story of God's creation and salvation. As an approach it encompasses a wide range of forms.

When preaching, such preachers may try to pay attention to what the Bible is seeking to do to us on an emotional level as well as what it is seeking to tell us on an intellectual level, and reflect that in their sermons. They may craft their sermons not as a series of static points, but with a sense of flow or movement.

Others, rather than presenting the conclusions they reached in the study in preparing for the sermon, might recreate that journey, so that they too experience the whole 'story' rather than just the final page of conclusions. Often, just as a story might leave its listeners to work out for themselves what it means, these sermons are open-ended, encouraging and leaving room for their listeners to think through their own conclusions and responses.

Sometimes the sermon is a story, but it doesn't need to be, the key thing is that the preacher takes seriously the narrative nature of the Bible, the power of narrative, and the experiential aspect of a sermon.


The Witness

Probably the most common form of storytelling is one that starts not 'once upon a time' but 'you'll never guess what happened to me today...' This final approach to preaching argues that this is the story the Bible tells. It is not simply a story amongst other stories, it is a very specific story, the account of God's dealings with his people as told by them. His people witnessed him and his acts and the Bible is their testimony.

The witness model of preaching says that as we read the eyewitness accounts of God, we open ourselves to encountering him for ourselves in their accounts. The preacher is sent by the congregation to scripture to have such an encounter on their behalf, and then to come back and share what they experienced and belief about that, 'you'll never guess what happened to me today...'  They can tell it in whatever form best fits, the important thing is that the sermon grows out of their encounter with God in the text.

An interesting aspect of this approach is that it allows for us to tell different sermons based on the same passage. Different witnesses of an event will always tell different stories because they have different points of view - for example the winner of a race will retell the story of the race differently from the person behind them who came second, or someone in the crowd watching them. You can see this of course in the Bible where we have four different testimonies to Jesus in the Gospels. This may feel risky, how do I know I've got it right, but allows and calls us to be honest in our preaching, this was my encounter with God and this is what I believe he said. 

Four different understandings and approaches to preaching, all with their strengths and weaknesses. I wonder if you recognised the preachers in your church? It may be that working out how they see themselves will help you to understand what they're trying to do so you can get the most out of their talks. If you're a preacher, which do you see yourself as being? Perhaps there might be value in trying on a different outfit sometime and seeing what it's like.

Ben Quant