Practicing the Preaching Life unites Christian practices, contextual virtues, and the best of homiletical pedagogy to pave the way to a beautiful preaching life. Preaching is best learned as a formative Christian practice embedded within a web of other Christian practices that form a way of life from which great sermons emerge. Therefore, preaching requires not only a way of speaking well, but also a way of living well. This embedded nature of preaching requires the enrollment of Christian practices in the formation of the preacher and the pursuit of contextual virtues for preaching that avoid cultural relativism on the one hand and cultural imperialism on the other. These requirements lead to a new vision for the preaching classroom, the rhythms of the preaching life, and the definition of what it means to be a good preacher.
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What Makes a Practice Good?
My children get the opportunity to live in a neighborhood with people of various racial and ethnic descents: African American, Haitian, Philippine, Caucasian, Puerto Rican, Russian, Indian, and others. What a joy that is. All of this is on one street in one neighborhood, in a relatively rural town. If the preaching of the church they go to is to reach even their single street, it will need to find ways to address a diverse context in a singular place. Certainly, a beautiful opportunity for the preaching life today is the intermingling of cultures all over the world. This opportunity also presents a question for how to preach well and how to know when we have preached well. Where do we find the standards for preaching to such diverse contexts when standards differ from place to place, community to community, and culture to culture? How do we guide preachers who will not only preach to contexts that are diverse but also need to preach in a diversity of contexts over their preaching ministry? In short, we have some difficult questions to ask of preaching, or any practice, in this season of human history.
Who gets to decide what makes preaching better? And who is it better for once the definition of "better" is decided? If you are reading a preaching book you most likely want to be a good preacher, not just craft one good sermon. That requires a practice of preaching that meets diverse contexts with consistent goodness. What makes the practice of preaching truly good across cultures and contexts? Answering the question well requires more than learning seventeen culturally specific ways to preach. Learning to preach to different but discrete cultures is important. Yet, all seventeen of those cultures may be present in the same service.
For the sake of an analogy, imagine that you want to build a neighborhood. What goes into building a good house? There are some components that will be true of any structure we deem a house. The stability, security, shelter, and unity of the dwelling will likely all come into view. However, for a good house to be a truly good house it has to be good for those who dwell in it. A portion of that will be highly culturally determined.
Preaching is a practice, but it is also like a home, a place we have to live. A clear picture of the working parts any practice has will help us make sure the most important components are all in working order. To that end this chapter outlines the most important characteristics of practices that persist in any context: aim, functions, external versus internal goods, and virtues. Think of these as building codes for constructing your preaching house. Like building codes, this chapter may be more difficult to understand than the actual building of the thing itself (such as using a sermon form in chapter 9). Yet these codes can prevent the house from being unethically constructed, unsafe, or inhospitable in coming years. The next two chapters will gather the wisdom of the ages of homiletics to describe what it looks like when these working parts are in good order for the practice of preaching. (See appendix C for an illustration of all components working together.) For now, we need to know what a practice is and how practices are culturally modified: how does a homiletics house becomes a suitable preaching home?
A violinist, a tennis player, and a chess player practice their performance. Though preachers do need to practice their skill sets in this way at times, it is not the sense of the term "practice" theologians typically intend. We are pointing toward a more holistic use of the term when we talk of practicing the preaching life. The sociological and philosophical exploration of practices and the technical meaning of the word practice was initiated primarily by two very different thinkers: Pierre Bourdieu and Alasdair MacIntyre. Both MacIntyre's After Virtue and Bourdieu's Outline of a Theory of Practice offer influential views of formation through habitual practices. Each of them offers something unique to how we understand preaching as a practice that shapes our lives.
MacIntyre helps define the aspects of practice this book prescribes for preachers: what preaching does best, how it does it well, and what kind of person is required to enjoy the preaching life. Bourdieu describes the aspects of practice against which this book warns: insensitive standards based on ignorance of class and cultural differences. Both of these poles are needed for a whole and healthy picture of the practice of preaching to emerge.
First, MacIntyre's definitions and categories help us define the important components of a well-ordered practice of preaching. MacIntyre defines a practice as a "meaningful, coherent, and complex set of actions pursued communally over time for goods internal to the practice." We pursue preaching and other practices first and foremost for the sake of the good that is possible through those practices. Though preaching can be seen in all of its complexity (performative, rhetorical, theological, exegetical, and liturgical), it is one practice pursued across the ages for the sake of the common good. The complex practice of preaching has survived for millennia because it persistently accomplishes good when we practice preaching well. Further, as we will explore below, preaching accomplishes good for preacher and listener, individual and community, through the good things that naturally emerge within and around preaching. Those good things preaching accomplishes can be divided between either internal or external goods.
Internal goods are those goods that reside within the practice itself. These goods are accomplished by pursuing the practice over time according to its appropriate standards. When we practice well, good things happen naturally and intrinsically. Part of what distinguishes practices from other activities is the shared nature of their internal goods. As MacIntyre puts it, "It is characteristic of [practices] that their achievement is a good for the whole community who participate in the practice." Inspiration toward love and good deeds through a preaching life is a communally shared good; the pastor's expense fund or paycheck is not. The opportunity to give witness to the goodness of God is an internal good; the preacher's national reputation is not. The enjoyment of God through the worshipful description of God's character is an internal good; the building of a larger church is not. The internal goods are good in an intrinsic way. There is good in receiving a paycheck, a good reputation, and a growing church if all things are in balance. These are simply a different kind of good: external.
External goods are those goods that are attached to practices from the outside by social convention or social accident. Salaries, positions, bonuses, products held in hand, winning or losing, status, prestige, or power are all external goods. External goods can degrade a practice when the practice is pursued primarily for their sake. External goods are goods only inasmuch as they are seen as peripheral, and secondary to the internal goods of the practice. At the same time, a sensible balance between external and internal goods is required for practices to endure.
When things get out of balance it affects our sense of the goodness of the practice, can diminish the community's enjoyment of the goods attached to the practice, and often calls the practice into question as a whole. If the external goods are ignored, the core practitioners (preachers in this case) can feel used and even abused. If the external goods become central, the community can feel used and even abused.
For example, preaching's goodness is not primarily bound up in pay, reputation, or even influence. Still, preaching must give attention to these things with a degree of wisdom and communal concern. These things are not evil, but necessary and good when in right perspective. Preachers do well to always remember that a salary is an external good (therefore not the focus) but still good (therefore not to be demeaned, dismissed, or denied). A worker is worth his wages (1 Tim 5:18). Bivocational ministry is to be affirmed but not required or idealized. It is good for a preacher to decide to preach for free on occasion or for good reason; it is not good for a community with resources to ask him to do so. In short, it is best when external goods serve internal goods but do not become the primary motive.
Particularly in Protestant preaching traditions, preaching has been recognized to have a particular kind of good nature given to it by God. It is not merely a practice with internal goods we enjoy and external goods that sustain it. All practices can be described this way. Preaching is also sacramental insofar as God has ordained it, graced it, and brings grace through it. The practice of preaching is good not just because it makes sense. Paul names preaching foolishness, after all. The practice of preaching is good because God in God's sovereign grace makes it so.
As a result, prayer is not a footnote for preaching. Prayerful engagement with the sacramental nature of preaching is the only authentic way for preaching to be practiced. Preaching is one way of practicing prayer, and prayer is life-giving to all stages of preaching. Even poor preaching can accomplish good when God wills it. Truth be told, prayer-less preaching can accomplish good as well. It simply is not as good for the preacher.
Praying for preaching need not be anxious or fearful. God is merciful and will bring a living word. The communal experience of this answer to prayer is an internal good. A congregation's affirmation of the preacher because of God's faithfulness through preaching is an external good. Distinguishing between internal and external goods helps us avoid self-inflicted martyrdom on the one hand and self-serving vices on the other.
How we relate to preaching's external goods, internal goods, and other preachers can be habitually praiseworthy or habitually lamentable as well. Certain habitual ways of being, most often called virtues, are both required for and formed by the healthy enjoyment of internal goods of a practice. MacIntyre's explicit definition of virtue reads this way: "A virtue is an acquired human quality the possession and the exercise of which tends to enable us to achieve those goods which are internal to practices and the lack of which effectively prevents us from achieving any such goods."
A practice is not an ultimate cause of attitudes and virtues. It is possible to engage in a practice in such a way that the practitioner is not more virtuous but more vicious. Consider the prejudiced preacher proclaiming hatred or the nationalistic preacher prioritizing a nation's prosperity over justice for the poor. However, pursuing a practice in the right way turns attitudes into actions, actions into habits, and habitual attitudes and habitual actions into what many call virtues.
If we named the internal goods, external goods, and virtues of the preaching life we would miss something very crucial. What is the aim or purpose of it all? Does preaching exist simply to help worshipping communities enjoy being good and the good things that come from being good? This is a rather small and self-obsessed view for preaching to hold. All of the above elements are necessary to carry the practitioner along in the quest for the ultimate aim of the practice that points to something outside of preaching itself. In a central statement for his work MacIntyre claims these virtues enable the practice and the lifelong pursuit of the greater good through the practices:
The virtues therefore are to be understood as those dispositions which will not only sustain practices and enable us to achieve the goods internal to practice, but which will also sustain us in the relevant kind of quest for the good, by enabling us to overcome the harms, dangers, temptations and distractions which we encounter and which will furnish us with increasing self-knowledge and increasing knowledge of the good.
Reading the person of the preacher from the perspective of practices and virtues, the preacher will find herself as one of the "bearers of a tradition" that has its own history in the form of a quest for the good. This aim, purpose, or ultimate good takes preaching beyond itself and sends worshipping communities beyond themselves toward something greater that benefits all of humanity, not only those who enjoy the practice of preaching.
Understanding preaching as a Christian practice can help preachers realize that preaching is a virtue-sustained and virtue-sustaining practice that serves an ultimate end beyond itself. In this way, preaching's goods are not strictly internal to the practice itself. Neither are preacher's goods purely external in a material way. The ultimate aim of preaching must be something that benefits the world, not only the church.
The concepts of aim, internal goods, external goods, and virtues give us a strong framework to understand preaching as a practice. Still, something crucial is missing from the picture of practices if we are to understand them clearly. The missing component is the functions of the practice. Preaching is not a "product." A "sermon" is not the primary focus of preaching. Certainly, the text of a sermon is hardly worth calling a sermon since a sermon is a live event. Even a video of a sermon without a listener is at best a stored sermon waiting to be reopened by a listener and enlivened by God. Preaching is a practice that exists among God, the preacher, and the listening community. Yet even if we described the aim, virtues, and goods of preaching we would be left with a very important question for any preacher: "What exactly does the practice of preaching do?"
We know that preaching does something. It is hard to define and nail down, and yet most believe they know it when they have experienced it. "Now that was good preaching," we say. Or in some traditions, "Now that was church." The aim of preaching does not define what preaching does in the moment. It defines what preaching accomplishes over time. Good preaching does something. It functions in particular ways in Christian community, and the hallmarks of those functions can be defined. A function is an activity for which a thing is specially fitted. If we only discern a practice's aim (purpose or telos), and then look for its goods and virtues, there is a large gap between. This is important for discussions of preaching since disagreements on the purpose of preaching or its aim are contentious and seem to have no resolution. Part of the reason for this disagreement is the lack of distinction between the categories of aim and function. If the aim of preaching (its vision of ultimate good) and the functions of preaching (those tasks preaching is well fitted to accomplish) are distinguished from each other, then it is easier to have clear discussion regarding the aim of preaching. All practices are better understood when aims, virtues, goods, and functions are clearly in view. This holistic view defines the building codes of practices. It does not yet define the particular kind of house of homiletics. Nor does it make clear what kind of homiletics house a particular culture or context may prefer.
So far, this chapter provides a lens for understanding preaching as a Christian practice. Preachers will do well to learn the aim, functions, internal goods, external goods, and virtues of preaching. These will guide the preacher in forming a good life, not merely producing a good sermon. In other words, these are the building codes gathered by homiletics over time that we follow for our own good. It is the preaching life, the life of the congregation, and the life of the world that is always in view for good preaching, not merely the production of a single sermon. The question of diversity, contexts, cultures, and the difficulty of who decides what makes things good, better, and best remains. How can a preacher best preach to the diverse inhabitants of my street? For that, we need a new conversation partner.
Culture and the Preaching Life
There is a blindness that afflicts preachers. After years of seeing the congregation week after week, it is easy to miss the differences among the seats or even the diverse congregation that is not yet there. Preaching best reaches those whom the preacher sees and understands. As a result, it is a grave danger to preaching when a preacher is blind to others or calloused to another's world. In contrast to MacIntyre's emphasis on context-transcending descriptions of practices, Bourdieu focuses on the context-dependent nature of class, gender, ethnicity, and other contextual components of practices. Instead of discussing virtues Bourdieu discusses habitus or "systems of durable, transposable dispositions."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Practicing the Preaching Life"
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Table of Contents
Introduction Preaching for Life, Life for Preaching xi
Chapter 1 What Makes a Practice Good? 1
Chapter 2 What Preaching Does Best 17
Chapter 3 What Makes a Preacher Good? 37
Chapter 4 Courageous Justice: The Prophetic Word 61
Chapter 5 Practicing a Christian Life 79
Chapter 6 Rhythms for Preaching Practice 99
Chapter 7 Speaking Meaning to Being 121
Chapter 8 Giving Voice to Life 135
Chapter 9 Living Forms for Sermons 157
Appendix A Exercises for Practicing the Preaching Life 179
Appendix B Assessing Contextual Virtues for the Preacher 185
Appendix C One-Page Summary of the Preaching Life 187
Appendix D Summary of Historic Christian Practices 189
Appendix E Summary of a Four-Week Preaching Rhythm 191