Read an Excerpt
Preaching in the Inventive Age
By Doug Pagitt
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2014 Doug Pagitt
All rights reserved.
PREACHING BEYOND SPEACHING
I am sitting at a Catholic monastery in Missouri preparing to talk with a group of clergy about preaching in the Inventive Age. I'm in the final stages of reworking this book (it was previously titled Preaching Reimagined) and my head is full of wonderings. I wonder who you are. I wonder what kinds of people will read a book about preaching in the Inventive Age. I wonder if I have anything helpful to say on the topic. I wonder if I have written a single line of any value. I not only wonder but I also worry. I worry about the opinions of people who don't think a pastor and author of a book about preaching should worry about things. I worry about people reading my sometimes-uncertain thoughts on preaching. I worry about coming across as someone who thinks of himself as an expert—someone who knows more than you and will tell you how to preach. So please, as you read, keep your worried, wondering author in mind.
I am a pastor who seeks to live in a community of people who are living out the hopes and aspirations of God in the world. Like many of you, I play a particular role in my community. As the pastor I'm often referred to as "the preacher." And frankly, this is a role I no longer relish. There was a time when I did. There was a time when I felt my ability to deliver sermons was a high calling that I sought to refine but didn't need to redefine.
Those days are gone.
NOW I FIND MYSELF REGULARLY REDEFINING MY ROLE AND THE ROLE OF PREACHING.
I find myself wanting to live life with the people of my community, where I can preach—along with the other preachers of our community—but not allow that to become an act of speech making. Instead, I want it to be a living interaction of the story of God and the story of our community being connected by our truth telling, our vulnerability, and our open minds, ears, and eyes—all brought together by the active work of the Spirit of God as we "let the message of Christ dwell among [us] richly as [we] teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in [our] hearts" (Colossians 3:16).
If I had my way, this book would be a conversation about these desires. Instead of your reading something I wrote, we would talk over a meal or in my family room or at your house. We would hear from one another and build on what each other says.
While a book cannot be a full conversation, my hope is that I will at least add to the conversation on preaching you may well be already having.
Please don't let the title of the book, Preaching in the Inventive Age, throw you. I'm not prescribing a method for all churches of the future. In fact, I'm quite sure there is no one method. However, I am suggesting some deep considerations about the function and role of preaching within our communities of faith that will lead to particular practices—but these are not one-size-fits-all prescriptions. And in no way do I mean to suggest that I speak for all who choose to engage in preaching in the Inventive Age.
Throughout the book I suggest "progressional dialogue" (a phrase I made up) as a preferable alternative to "speaching" (another new word meaning "the style of preaching that's hardly distinguishable from a oneway speech"). In the spirit of dialogue, I have designed this book to be as conversational and progressional as possible.
HOW TO READ THIS BOOK
The book isn't structured like a typical chapter book. It all begins below, where I lay out my basic premise and provide reference links to the forty chapters that make up the bulk of the book. Each chapter is designed to provide a more comprehensive discussion about the ideas in the chapter.
This section is also loaded with statements that may cause you to say, "Hang on a minute," or, "You can't just say that without supporting it in some way." That's the intent. Much like a conversation in which the participants push one another to say more on the topics in which they have an interest, the next chapter is meant to get the conversation started. That being the case, I have included reference numbers within the text. These are not footnotes but rather signposts as to where you can find more conversation about a particular point in later chapters.
From there you can either continue reading the rest of the book from start to finish, or you can jump between the points that interest you the most. For example, you might not be interested in the story of how I became a preacher but would prefer to go right to my suggestions on rethinking the role of the pastor. If so, you can skip point number five and go right to point twenty-three.
I admit that part of my desire to structure the book in this way is to justify my own reading habits. I do this with books all the time—just skip around and read the parts that interest me in the order that seems most interesting to me. Sometimes I don't even read all of it. But I feel like I'm cheating or missing out on something by not following the prescribed order.
In this book, however, not only are you not cheating but you're also encouraged to skip around. You won't miss out on something by doing so. In fact,
I HOPE YOU'LL GAIN SOMETHING BY TAKING THE CONVERSATION WHEREVER YOU WANT IT TO GO.
The book is also designed with more open space than usual. This is to encourage you to write your thoughts, to talk back, to not just sit there and take it. Put your ideas on the paper right next to mine; they belong there. In fact, they're needed. As part of the process of writing this book, I read a number of books about preaching. Over and over, I found myself scribbling notes in the small margins—things like, "Yes, totally!" or, "No, no, no." But I felt like a vandal writing where my words weren't wanted, as if I was somehow defacing the book. In contrast, this book should not be left in its impersonal, published form. If it is, then it hasn't done its job of engaging you in the conversation.
So I invite you to continue reading this book with your dialogue hat on, a pen in hand, and an attitude of progressional conversation ready to go.
Despite the title, this isn't really a book about preaching. It's about more. It's a book about the kinds of communities we're seeking to become and the role preaching plays in the creation of those communities. Preaching isn't an end in itself. We don't participate in Christian communities so we can produce and hear great sermons. We take part in these communities because we believe they're where we're formed and shaped to become the people of God—people who are actively living in the kingdom.
I'm writing with the assumption that most of you who are reading this book have concluded what I have: preaching doesn't work—at least not in the ways we hope. If it did, pastors wouldn't reach with such anticipation for new books about preaching; we'd already be following the established, tried-and-true methods laid out in the huge array of available preaching resources. We wouldn't have to preach anymore; we'd just replay our perfect sermons and watch our people change.
I BELIEVE PREACHING TO BE A CRUCIAL ACT OF THE CHURCH.
That's why preaching needs to be released from the bondage of the speech-making act. Our impulse to tell the story of God in our communities is the right one, but making speeches is the wrong way to do it. Our desire to be a people who are connected with the truth of God is the right one, but speeches won't get us there. This dependence on preaching as speech making has become a form of communication I call "speaching". Our desire to use our pastoral gifts of discernment, knowledge, and articulation for the benefit of our communities is the right one, but speaching will keep us from fulfilling that desire.
If you know how to listen, you can hear the rumblings that confirm that preaching, as we know it, is a tragically broken endeavor. It can be heard in the halls at every pastors' convention. It can be heard in the conversations among preachers at social gatherings. It can be heard in cars as people drive home from church. You most certainly would be able to hear it if you could crawl into the heads of most preachers during their times of preparation or as they step into the pulpit.
It seems clear that here in the Inventive Age, we are surrounded by more great preachers than at any other time in history. We also have greater access to wonderful sermons, and every week in North America, more people listen to sermons—live, on the radio or television, on CDs in their cars, and on the Internet—than at any other time in history. But if we look at how Christians continue to struggle with what it means to live in the way of Jesus, we soon realize that great preaching isn't sufficient.
Those of us who do the preaching are often the ones who recognize the problem first, not because we think we're bad preachers but because we know we're good at it. We feel it when our sermons—even those that are technically perfect, those that are relevant and relatable with clever illustrations pulled from popular culture, or those that reveal some deep insight into the text—leave us feeling isolated and ineffectual. We see it when we look at our congregations and see them diligently taking notes we know they'll never look at or watch them nod in agreement with statements they won't remember once brunch is over. We hear it when our parishioners come to us with the same problems and questions we thought we covered so beautifully during that series on the Sermon on the Mount.
WHY PREACHING FAILS
I looked through preaching books and talked to many other preachers to find out what they had to say about why preaching doesn't work. They offered four major reasons for the failure of preaching:
1. The problem is the people. There are those who suggest the reason that we aren't seeing the promised effects of preaching (the creation of communities living in harmony with God) is because the people are "hard-hearted" or refuse to listen to the truth. They seem to believe that when the Word of God is preached correctly, it does its part; but if people aren't changed, then it's because they're "the wrong kind of soil".
2. The problem is the method. Some suggest that we need to add new tricks to our preaching to make our sermons more meaningful to people living in today's culture. They contend that people are different these days and, therefore, need to have more interactive or experiential communication. We should be using visual reinforcements, fill-in outlines, dramas, well-orchestrated music, and multisensory media experiences to hold the attention and interest of those listening. Some recommend the use of discussion questions for small groups so the broad message can be brought down to a personal level in a more intimate context. In this justification it's the method—not the message—that needs work.
3. The problem is the preacher. If the pastor is the right kind of vessel, some say, then his sermons will work. In other words, if we had better motives or better relationships with God, our preaching would seem fresh, attractive, and powerful.
4. The problem is the content. There are some who suggest that what we really need is to get to a pure or more authentic message of Jesus, and then we'd see preaching's real power.
Unfortunately, these reasons fail to tap into the most significant and perhaps most simple reason why speaching doesn't work.
THE PROBLEM IS THAT PREACHING, AS WE KNOW IT, SUFFERS FROM A RELATIONSHIP PROBLEM.
The issue isn't simply how we present the information but whose information it is. The issue isn't simply how we tell the story but the relationship between the teller and the hearers. The issue isn't simply the content we present but where we get that content. The crisis isn't how we preach or what we preach or to whom we preach but the act of preaching itself, which has devolved into speaching.
Speaching is not defined by the style of the presentation but by the relationship of the presenter to both the listeners and the content: the pastor uses a lecture-like format, often standing while the listeners are sitting. The speacher decides the content ahead of time, usually in a removed setting, and then offers it in such a way that the speacher is in control of the content, speed, and conclusion of the presentation.
Speaching can come in many forms. It can be narrative, didactic, inductive, deductive, or what Len Sweet and Brian McLaren call "abductive" (meaning the sermon seizes people by the imagination and helps them gain a new perspective). Regardless of its form, preaching has so uniformly been equated with speech making that any other means of sermonizing is thought to be trivial and less authoritative. What's worse, speaching is an ineffectual means of communication, one that goes against the very reason we seek to live in Christian community to begin with—so our lives can be shaped as we journey together toward God. My hope is that the conversation in this book will help us free preaching from the limitations of content and move toward a better understanding of the effect of speaching on our communities.
I don't think we've allowed preaching to become speaching out of malice or pride, but rather because we've become blind to the ways in which the act of speaching damages our people and creates a sense of powerlessness within them. I don't believe this is what we want. In fact, I believe most of us desperately want to be part of something better, something more. I know I do.
As a pastor I want to be part of a community where the workings of God are imbedded in all, where the roles of teaching and learning aren't mine alone but instead are something intrinsic to who we are as a people. The priesthood of all believers was among the greatest contributions of the Reformation and has essentially been ignored in the area of preaching in many of our churches to the point that it could be called an "unfunded mandate of the reformation".
It means we recognize the work of the Spirit of God in the lives of every human being, and God's work can play out in ways that are more meaningful than simply viewing people as a means of fulfilling the church's agenda. This concept can—and must—include God's people being the church and leading one another in every area of life together.
THE MOVE TO PROGRESSIONAL DIALOGUE
Speaching stands in contrast to what I call progressional dialogue, where the content of the presentation is established in the context of a healthy relationship between the presenter and the listeners, and substantive changes in the content are then created as a result of this relationship.
It works like this: I say something that causes another person to think something she hadn't thought before. In response, she says something that causes a third person to make a comment he wouldn't normally have made without the benefit of the second person's statement. In turn, I think something I wouldn't have thought without hearing the comments made by the other two. So now we've all ended up in a place we couldn't have come to without the input we received from each other. In a real way, the conversation has progressed.
This interaction can take place in the very moments in which the comments are made or over time. It may include one of us talking longer than the others or sharing the time more equally. The point is that we are in relationship with one another, and we are contributing—through dialogue—to one another's lives.
At Solomon's Porch, the church where I'm the pastor, progressional dialogue takes several forms. The two most obvious are the sermon preparation, which involves in-depth conversation with a group of other people from the church, and the weekly open discussion that happens during the sermon—I talk for a while and then invite others to share their ideas, input, and thoughts about what's been said.
Both speaching and progressional dialogue allow a person to have an opinion or even an agenda. But the progressional dialogue approach doesn't allow us (pastors or parishioners) to stay in one place with our opinions and agendas left unaltered. We're given the opportunity to change, refine, and reframe our ideas about God and our lives as God's people. In other words, we're asked to be the church.
Excerpted from Preaching in the Inventive Age by Doug Pagitt. Copyright © 2014 Doug Pagitt. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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