The Renaissance and Demise of the Listener: Empowering Laity Through Preaching
by Robert Kysar (November / December 1997 • Volume 13 • Number 6)
How do we preach so that those who listen will also "participate" in the Word's proclamation?
Radical changes in the nature of preaching are occurring. Not the least of them is the new attention paid to the listeners. Contemporary homiletical theory has rediscovered listeners and urges preachers to honor and respect them.
Moreover, many homileticians now increasingly construe the preacher's role as that of a sojourner with the laity, the congregation's representative when interpreting the biblical text, and the one who speaks for rather than to them.
Consequently, preaching is becoming conversation between preacher and congregation.
These trends in the "new homiletic," combined with the cultural changes influencing all of us, necessitate new theologies of the proclamation of the Word that give recipients of the message a more participatory role. Such a theology should not neglect the power of the Word in itself nor the role of the Spirit in proclamation. But it needs more carefully to analyze the recipients' part in the proclamation event.
The purpose of this article is to describe briefly the general nature of the homiletic renaissance of the listeners and to begin rethinking the theology of proclamation in terms of the Word's contextual nature. Along the way I hope to show how preaching can and will become a more significant source of empowerment of the laity for their ministries. Ironically, the renaissance of the listeners seeks to make them more than mere listeners!
Preaching in the 21st century will become increasingly conversational in nature, although the exact form it will take is at present far from clear.
Fred Craddock's seminal work launched the new concern for the listener.1 Currently African American homileticians draw attention to the call and response character of preaching in their tradition. John McClure proposes a "collaborative" effort on the part of the preacher and the congregation. Lucy Rose argues for a community understanding of conversational preaching.2 Of course, for better or for worst, some of us remember experiments with dialogical preaching in the 1960's and 1970's in which laity took part in sermons with their own comments and questions.
While it is difficult to discern the future direction of conversational preaching, some of the reasons for the turn in this direction are clear. First among them is the fact that listeners are less and less willing to be "talked at" for 15 minutes. The media is becoming increasingly interactive. The adult, raised on interactive computer games, will hardly be interested in a sermonic monologue.
A second reason is the desire to communicate without the hierarchial structure of the traditional sermon. At present, Lucy Rose's provocative book, Sharing the Word, is the best example of a proposal for preaching within the context of a Christian community free of hierarchy. In general, the feminist influence in preaching calls into question traditional understandings of the preacher's authority in relationship to lay believers.
Third, preaching has sought to empower listeners for Christian life and faith. But the gap between clergy and laity tends to minimize the latter's conviction that they are responsible ministers in their own right. From the clergy's presumed status, the laity sometimes (properly or not) infer that their pastor is their surrogate minister.
|Preaching in the 21st century will become increasingly conversational in nature, although the exact form it will take is at present far from clear.|
Conversational preaching, however, attempts to model the laity's role as full participants in preaching. As a result, they are more likely to gain both a sense of their own baptismal ministries and empowerment for them.
Conversational preaching may prove to be a bridge over the gulf between clergy and laity and promises to enlist the unordained in ministry.
Word in Context
Conversational preaching challenges us to rethink the theology of the Word and how that reconceptualization might be practiced in the sermon. This is not the place for a theological treatise on the Word. But I suggest such a theology begins with an understanding of the contextual nature of the Word itself. Preaching is the interpretation of a biblical text for a particular people at a specific time and place.
The contextual nature of the preached Word arises first of all from the nature of the biblical text. Historical critical studies of Scripture have persuasively demonstrated that the canonical documents were written for very specific communities and in the light of their situations. To be sure, this is true in varying degrees among the types of biblical literature. But even Romans (which we tend to read as Paul's most systematic and general theological statement) has a very specific congregation of Christians in view and addresses their situation.3
But more importantly, the contextual nature of the Word is clear in the incarnation. The Christ-Word becomes flesh at one specific time and place in a single human being. This scandalous, but basic Christian affirmation implies God's Word is always historical — an event within a temporal and spacial setting. The "Word of the Lord" came to the prophets in their historical situations and for the people of Israel at particular times.
If by its very nature the Word is contextual, several features of preaching emerge. First, preaching is not the announcement of universal truth but the Word's truth for the congregation at this time and this place.
Secondly, the preacher studies the text on behalf of the congregation. The listeners figure prominently in the preachers' efforts to listen to the text. Preachers move from exegesis to proclamation with the congregation in mind.4
Thirdly, the preacher then interprets the living Word of any text for a new context, namely, that of the congregation at a particular time. The biblical text is "recontextualized," this time for a contemporary community of faith. As the original text was written to speak to and for a particular community, the preacher sets the text down within the midst of another community and explores its message for that group.5
Fourthly, if the proclamation of the Word is contextual, the sermon invites listeners to explore the text along with the preacher. The preacher is less the expert who tells the laity what the text "means" for them and much more their colleague in seeking the text's living Word for Christian life and faith today.
Of course, preachers offer insights into the sense of the text. But they refuse to take the role of the biblical expert and thereby force a specific meaning on the listeners. Hence, sermons facilitate the congregation's own recontextualizing of the biblical Word-setting the text within their own historical peculiarities.
A final feature is that the sermon empowers the laity as readers in their own right. By the way we use biblical texts in sermons, we may sometimes unintentionally imply that laity are not capable of reading and interpreting the Bible for themselves and that we learn-ed preachers must do it for them. The tendency toward such a misappropriation of interpretative rights is understandably more seductive in an era of general biblical illiteracy. But in fact to imply that laity cannot read and understand a biblical text only contributes to such illiteracy.
On the other hand, the invitation to explore the text with the preacher encourages lay engagement with the biblical message.
Stories Which Invite
The implications of the contextual nature of the Word already suggests the way in which preaching assumes and facilitates listener participation. The preacher foregoes authority in the sermonic event in favor of a shared responsibility with the laity.
Beyond the reading and interpretation of the text as a joint venture with the listener, there are other ways in which preaching as conversation might further imply the congregation's role as associates in the sermon.
One of these is in our use of story. For good reason, story has risen to prominence both in preaching and in theological reflection.6 But the way we handle stories in the sermon implies something about our posture toward the listener.
My own use of story in sermons has fallen into one of two categories, both of which are less than fully effective. Like me, perhaps you have told a story and then proceeded to tell the congregation what the story "means." Such a practice suggests that the congregation is not capable of discerning for themselves the story's relevance for their lives, and I — the preacher — must do that for them.
But the other extreme is also dangerous. We tell a story and leave entirely unsaid what, if anything, the story has to do with the rest of the sermon. Without any guidance, we leave the congregation adrift in their own individual reflections on the story.
Story has risen to prominence both in preaching and in theological reflection.
In conversational preaching, we will need to raise questions about the story's relevance for the sermon's focus. Such questions should not be simply a rhetorical disguise for telling the congregation what they should think about the story. Instead, explorations of the tale should point toward the several directions it might take us. The goal is to facilitate the listeners' reflection on the story without controlling it.7
Suppose we tell the story of the movie Spitfire Grill in the context of a sermon on Luke 4:14-21 (the Third Sunday After the Epiphany, Year C). The movie tells the story of a young woman who is released from a prison in Maine after five years. She had been imprisoned for manslaughter, and was now trying to get a new start in life by working in the Spitfire Grill, a diner in the small town of Gilead. The characters deal with issues of prejudice, resistance to change, pain-filled pasts, forgiveness, and hope.
We conclude the story with our own reflections on the relationship of the story to the "release" of captives and the freeing of "the oppressed" (verse 18). Our reflections might be framed with words like "I wonder if..." and "Do you think that..." For instance:
"I wonder about the young woman (in Spitfire Grill) who tried to find release from her past. Is her search like my own quest for liberation from my past? Is it possible that her care for the hermit who lived in the woods is her release? Do we find liberation only as we liberate others? Or, is the story really about our society's resistance to letting 'the oppressed go free?' Is the young woman's death on behalf of the hermit the means by which the villagers gain freedom from their oppression? How was she the 'balm' in this particular Gilead?"
In some such way as this, preachers point in several directions without "closing" a story's meaning. We try to stimulate congregational reflection without dictating the story's relevance. Preachers enlist listeners in the task of identifying how a story connects with their enactment of the text in our world today.
Facilitating congregational participation in preaching basically centers in the preacher's posture. We become a colleague with listeners in their Christian journey. Among other things, I think this posture requires that we honestly demonstrate we share the same kinds of struggles and weaknesses the laity experience.
But we share our lives publicly without turning the pulpit into our confessional booth! Preachers clearly need to tailor their own kind of conversational preaching to fit both themselves and their congregations. Some of us are able to make more of our personal struggles public than are others. Moreover, some congregations will need to be led gently and lovingly step by step toward a new understanding of their pastor and preaching.
The renaissance of the listeners for the sake of empowering them for ministry admittedly is risky business. We tamper with assumptions about authority, the roles of clergy and laity, and the tradition of preaching in many congregations. We may experience our own personal and theological conflicts. In many situations we will doubtless evoke congregational resistance.
But the empowerment of laity for their ministries makes the risks both necessary and worth our while. Our preaching style is one of the ways we can bridge the separation of clergy and laity, as well as begin to reconstruct popular lay understandings of both ordination and the ministry of the baptized.
The very least we can do is to begin to ask how our preaching might more effectively enlist listeners as partners in the proclamation of the gospel and end their exile as mere listeners to the sermon.
Robert Kysar is an ELCA pastor and the Bandy Professor of Preaching and New Testament at Candler School of Theology and Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia.
1. Fred Craddock, As One Without Authority (rev. ed. Enid: Phillips University Press, 1974) and On Overhearing the Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1978). A recent article by Lucy Lind Hogan, however, begins a survey of the conversational trend in preaching with Reuel Howe's Partners in Preaching: Clergy and Laity in Dialogue (New York: Seabury Press, 1967). See "Homiletos: The Never- Ending Holy Conversation," Homiletic: A Review of Publications in Religious Communication, vol. XXI, No. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 1-10.
2. Evans E. Crawford (with Thomas H. Troeger), The Hum: Call and Response in African American Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995); John McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995); and Lucy Atkinson Rose, Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997).
3. See, for example, Joseph A. Fitzmyer's introductory discussion of "Occasion and Purpose" in Romans: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary, The Anchor Bible, vol. 33 (New York: Doubleday, 1993), pp. 68-84.
4. Thomas G. Long writes, "When preachers go to the scripture, then, they must take the people with them....[T]he preacher represents the people before the text as a way of representing them before God." The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989), pp. 55-57. See also Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, Fortress Resources for Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997).
5. For a fuller discussion, see Robert Kysar, "Preaching as Biblical Theology: A Proposal for a Homiletic Method," The Promise and Practice of Biblical Theology, John Reumann, ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991), pp. 143-156.
6. For instance, Richard A. Jensen, Telling the Story: Variety and Imagination in Preaching (Minneapolis: Augsburg Publishers, 1980) and Thinking in Story: Preaching in a Post-Literate Age (Lima: C.S.S. Publishing Co., 1993).
7. A more detailed discussion of this proposal is found in Robert Hughes and Robert Kysar, Preaching Doctrine for a New Century, Fortress Resources for Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), chp. 4.