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Hallmarks of Good Preaching
We assume that many of you already know a considerable amount about preaching. It may be intuitive knowledge, things you have sensed and felt but not yet named to yourself. Through the years you have heard sermons—good, bad, and mediocre—whether in local churches or synagogues, on street corners, via television, in movies, or on the Internet. Even if you are fairly new to a faith tradition, our guess is that you have heard enough sermons to begin forming opinions about what makes them effective or not.
We have designed the exercise in this chapter to tease out some of what you already know and think about preaching. Through it, you will begin to identify some of the hallmarks of good preaching, as well as some of the things that contribute to poor or ineffectual proclamation.
Our goals are threefold: understanding the essential nature of preaching, developing criteria for evaluating sermons, and reassuring novice preachers that they have knowledge about the art and craft of sermons that can help them in their own efforts to proclaim the word of God.
First, when we talk about what makes a sermon "good" or "bad," we begin to understand the essence of preaching itself. For example, if we call a sermon "good" because it stays close to the biblical texts that are read aloud in worship, our judgment reveals that we believe preaching is supposed to be rooted in the word of God as revealed in the Scriptures. The faithful use of the Bible is a part of the essence of preaching. Or, alternatively, if we define "bad" preaching as preaching in which the preacher talks about only himself or herself, rather than focusing on the congregation and its needs and concerns, then we see that another essential hallmark of preaching is attentiveness to the listeners. The exercise in this chapter provides a way for you to carry on the process of these last few sentences about "good" and "bad" sermons, to name your own assumptions about what preaching should be and do.
Second, engaging in this exercise—especially in a group—allows for the development of criteria that can be used in the critique and evaluation of the sermons preached by ourselves, our peers, and our colleagues. When we teach our introductory homiletics course at Yale, we use this exercise to compile a list of attributes that students can then use throughout the term as they critique one another's sermons. Rather than our arbitrarily providing a list of things we are looking for, this process allows the students themselves to provide a list of criteria for evaluating the sermons they preach and hear.
Finally, engaging in this exercise reminds even the most inexperienced of preachers that they actually know far more about preaching than they might have initially thought. None of us approaches the task of learning to preach as a blank slate. Rather, we come to this endeavor with some very helpful knowledge that we have gleaned from our own experiences of preaching—knowledge that can be invaluable to us as we undertake this important task.
Our practice is to have all students hand in this exercise at the end of the class period in which they undertake it. Before the next class session, we read through all the exercises and compile a list of the most frequently cited positive and negative attributes of preaching that emerge from the exercise, grouping them into appropriate categories. We then give students a copy of the listing and encourage them to bring the list with them to preaching sections (where students actually preach their sermons) so that they can use them as criteria for the sermon critique process.
Below is a sample listing, compiled from one of our introductory classes at Yale Divinity School. Please note that we have also indicated places where students can turn in John S. McClure's book Preaching Words: 144 Key Terms in Homiletics, one of our course texts, to read further about the concepts and hallmarks identified through this exercise.CHAPTER 2
Diversity in Preaching
One of the things we have observed through our years of teaching homiletics is that student expectations vary widely regarding how preaching should look and sound. For example, should the preacher offer sermons from the pulpit while using a manuscript, or preach from the center aisle without notes? Should a sermon last no more than ten minutes, or is the preacher only getting warmed up twenty-five to thirty minutes into the message? Is the preacher expected to focus the sermon on the lectionary Gospel or Epistle reading for the day, to preach regularly as well from the Hebrew scriptures, or to create his or her own lectionary for preaching? Is the preacher expected to show a great deal of emotion in the pulpit or to be more reserved in the expression of feeling?
We believe that it is critically important that these differences in expectations regarding preaching be identified and named early in the learning-to-preach process for a variety of reasons:
First, one of the great gifts a preaching class can offer its students is the opportunity to become more deeply acquainted with the diversity of ways in which effective preaching takes place across denominations, cultures, and traditions. There is no "one right way" to preach. Indeed, there are a myriad of effective preaching styles, and for you, the reader, to become acquainted with some of them not only broadens your own understanding of what preaching can be and do; it also opens you to new possibilities for your own preaching.
Second, when preachers present their sermons to others in a class or group setting, they are not speaking out of a vacuum. Rather, they are coming to proclamation with a whole set of assumptions and expectations regarding what a sermon should be and do—expectations that significantly influence how they proclaim the Gospel. Naming those expectations enables us to hear the preaching of our peers more empathetically and also with greater understanding of the contexts for which their sermons have been prepared.
Third, many pastors will be invited over the course of their careers to preach in a variety of settings other than their own denominations, such as for interfaith or ecumenical worship services, within the worship spaces of other traditions, or in environments other than the sanctuary. Opening ourselves to the practices of others also assists us in becoming more flexible and "ambidextrous" in our own approach to preaching.
Finally, we live in a world where there is a great deal of misunderstanding and miscommunication among and between faith traditions of various kinds. The more we open ourselves to one another and to the new learning we can gain by respecting preaching differences, the more we also break down the dividing walls of hostility that have all too often pitted us against one another in contentious and destructive ways. In dealing with homiletical diversity, we gain insight into the larger theological issue of engaging diversity in the world that God has created. This is hard but important work to do because, as Eleazar S. Fernandez has pointed out, there is a tendency in our society to cover over diversity:
When confronted with diversity, it is a common pulpit discourse in the United States to project a universal (e.g., equality in the sight of God), which is most often a particular dominant perspective masquerading as universal. This kind of discourse is "assimilationist" and "melting pot" in its intent and consequences.
An Asian Indian way of thinking, on the other hand, provides an approach that is useful for preachers. Diversity is not reduced to a common denominator or to a universal abstraction.... God's love is not a monotonous uniformity, but has multiple expressions in response to the plight of a people, and this, for Asian Americans, is shaped by their experience.
Our honoring and learning from our homiletical diversity is, therefore, a way of developing our ability to present in our sermons God's love not as "a monotonous uniformity" but rather in its "multiple expressions."
What follows is an exercise that invites you to tease out your own pre-understandings and expectations of what preaching should be and do, and then to share your results with one another. While some of you will readily be able to name the faith tradition that is primary for you, others of you will have difficulty with this task, having been a part of a number of diverse traditions yourself. Still others of you may have difficulty because you consider yourself to be in transition between traditions, or a seeker who has not yet settled on any one. For purposes of the exercise, we encourage you to choose one tradition or perspective from which to address the questions, even if it may not be the one where you ultimately find yourself. This will help you be more specific and definitive in your answers. Choose the tradition with which you currently feel most at home, the style of preaching that most effectively engages your heart and mind.CHAPTER 3
Creative Biblical Study for Preaching
In this chapter we will introduce you to a creative Bible study method for sermon preparation that can be used by anyone, whether theologically trained or not. The method is not a substitute for historical-critical exegesis, which we will discuss in the next chapter; it is, however, a creative way to gain a first entry into a text and to view it in a manner that is especially provocative for preaching. The method was developed and introduced by biblical scholar Walter Wink in his book Transforming Bible Study: A Leader's Guide. Although we are heavily indebted to Wink, we have revised and adapted his method for the creation of sermons in ways that can be used by either individuals or groups.
In our own teaching, we have used this method effectively in large group classroom settings with the class divided in half and seated in chairs facing one another across a center aisle. The two of us stand on either ends of the room, walking students through the process. We take turns reading the texts and questions to be discussed.
By introducing you to this method of Bible study, we are also introducing you to several significant principles related to preaching, principles that are close in spirit to ways of interpreting the Scriptures that many rabbis have used. Alexander Deeg has written an article exploring how the rabbis blend creative imagination with meticulous attention to the smallest details in a biblical passage. The mixture of imagination and detail often produces striking insights into the life of faith and the character of God, insights that feed good preaching. Deeg observes, "Imagination and meticulousness—they do not fit so easily together. And yet I believe that imagination and meticulousness both belong together, especially when dealing with biblical interpretation and Christian preaching." One of Deeg's most memorable examples is his recounting of a rabbinic interpretation of the story of Jacob's dream in which the patriarch sees a ladder extending from earth to heaven (Genesis 28:10–22). Deeg points out that the rabbis begin not by
asking what the text originally meant or means overall, but making discoveries in the text. Because of this, they become aware of little things such as in verse 12, when Jacob sees the ladder and how the angels "ascend and descend." "Ascend and descend"—that is remarkable, say the rabbis. Shouldn't one expect the exact opposite? Shouldn't the angels come "from above," from the heavens, and then come downward to the earth? Does this detail not mean, then, that the angels were along the way with Jacob the whole time? And that the angels are now there during this flight into an unknown land? It would be an assertion not without meaning for moral blemished individuals such as ourselves! Yes, it can mean exactly this, say the rabbis.
"Making discoveries in the text" is one of the essential skills that preachers spend a lifetime developing. It is an art that requires close, meticulous reading of the text, and this is often difficult because we assume we already know the text and what it means. We have read it so often or heard it preached so many times that its twists and turns have been worn away in our consciousness. Yet it is those details that can feed our homiletical imaginations and open us to the living Spirit that breathes through the words of Scripture.
Here, for example, is another discovery the rabbis make in the story of Jacob that is rich with sermonic possibilities:
When the Hebrew text is read closely, then something quite astounding happens as Jacob dreams of the ladder that night. Namely, that evening he took some of the stones in this area and lay on them (Gen 28.11), but in the morning he took "the stone which he set at his head" (v. 18). Between verses eleven and eighteen, over the course of one night in Bethel, only one stone remains from many. "Why is this?" ask the rabbis. And they give a whole range of answers. One of them says:
"Then the stones began quarreling among themselves. One said, 'Let the righteous one put his head against me,' and the other said, 'Let him put it against me,' until finally the stones coalesced one with the other and became one stone."
Neither the special night of visions and auditions from Beth-El, nor the special nearness of God in this location can tolerate the stones' argument of who the greatest among them is. A kind of eschatological peace takes place during this night; where God speaks, there the fighting ends—and if it is an argument among stones, then creation will arrive at its peace.
Attending meticulously to one little detail in the biblical text, the shift from "stone" to "stones," stimulates the homiletical imagination with rich possibilities: when earth and heaven are connected, our fragmented creation is made whole. Making such discoveries in the text is the very thing that Walter Wink's method of Bible study encourages.
One of the additional benefits of Wink's method is that it can easily be used with church groups—both as a means for group Bible study and as a way of inviting congregants to participate in the sermon preparation process with us. In recent decades we have come to see that preaching is not something that the preacher does to a congregation, but an activity that is done with and on behalf of a congregation. Preaching arises out of the common life shared in a community of faith and often stays closer to the ground of its hearers if they are actively engaged in the process of sermon preparation. Homileticians Lucy Rose and John McClure have advocated for having a roundtable group Bible study, composed of a diverse group of congregants, become a regular part of the preacher's sermon preparation process. The Wink Bible study method could be used to initiate such a conversation.
Ground Rules for the Bible Study
1. Answer only the question most immediately asked.
2. Do not jump ahead to later verses or other passages in the Bible. Deal with only the passage you have just read or heard.
3. If you have an answer that is completely different from someone else's in the group, share it with the class. However, there is to be no argument about which is the "right" answer.
The leader must be diligent in enforcing these rules. The temptation to race ahead, and to say things like, "but later on in the story it says ..." will stifle making discoveries in the text that come only from stopping and living with each detail that the questions ask us to consider. We need to model ourselves after the rabbis, patiently living with each word and phrase.
The leader is also responsible for moderating the large group conversation, allowing a sufficient number of diverse voices to be heard, while also keeping the study moving forward so that it can be completed in the time allotted.
Excerpted from A Sermon Workbook by Thomas H. Troeger, Leonora Tubbs Tisdale. Copyright © 2013 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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