Wednesday, 28 July 2010

On failing to be a good preacher

I had a good discussion with some students today about preaching. If you're preparing for ministry, you'll need to develop some basic homiletical skills and techniques, and you'll need the kind of critical feedback that can help you to become a better preacher. But you don't really ever want to become a "good" preacher – the kind of trained professional who can deliver flawless, carefully calculated and perfectly executed homilies. To preach is to accept responsibility for the Word of God in the world. It is to put ourselves in an impossible position: we should speak God's word, but we can't make this happen. No amount of exegetical mastery or homiletical savviness can ensure that God will speak to the congregation. As Karl Barth famously put it: “As ministers, we ought to speak of God. We are human, however, so we cannot speak of God. We ought therefore to recognise both our obligation and our inability, and by that very recognition give God the glory.”

For me, the paradigmatic experience of preaching is not the good sermon, but the failed sermon: when you're trying to speak God's Word, but you're looking out at a sea of bored, distracted, yawning faces, people furtively glancing at their watches – when you yourself, the preacher, are glancing at your watch and wondering when it will all be over. Anyone who has to preach regularly will know this experience. It is an exemplary experience, because it's here that you encounter the real nature of preaching: the fact that it arises not from the preacher's fullness, but from an unbearable emptiness; the fact that it is always bound to fail – it has to fail – unless some miracle occurs, unless God speaks.

The most beautiful vases are often made to look unfinished; there is something incomplete about them, a kind of beautiful, beckoning lack. In the same way, I think preaching should be performed in such a way that it never seems quite finished, never perfect or complete. When you stand up and begin to speak, you are marking a vacant spot, a need, a prayer for something else, something other to occur.

As I was discussing this today with some students, I realised that this is why I tend to preach without notes, or with only a very minimal outline. At any cost, I want to resist the temptation to become a good preacher. I want to make it easier for myself to fail.

34 Comments:

Father Anonymous said...

I usually preach with a nearly-complete manuscript. But the failures occur just as often.

Paul Tyson said...

Yes, I suppose everything about the Christian life – if it is actually the life of Christ lived through us – is humanly impossible. This is where talent, ability, charisma, knowledge, skill etc can be such fatal weakness, and can make us so easily prone to idolatry. (Perhaps, even, the very idea of a B.Min may have been dreamt up in… well, not a very nice place...) This also, I suppose, is why we meet Christ in “the least of these my brethren” so powerfully, and sometimes under the slickest and most professional ministry, and at the most wondrously dazzling Christian events, not at all. I don’t quite know how to find balance on this one, for I don’t like the idea of shoddiness, and I think there is real doxological value in highly trained skill and genuinely elite knowledge, and yet… And yet, I fear that in our very pragmatic and programmatic times the balance has been lost regarding what only the Spirit of God can do. So yes Ben, it probably is the case that ‘bad preaching’, hopeless ministry skill sets etc need to be seriously recovered as we look to what God alone can do.

Buckethead Baptist said...

I don't mind it when the sermon is dry... As much as I mind it when the sermon is wrong.

William Morris said...

I want to make it easier for myself to fail.

This hardly captures Barth's point - and certainly not his own homiletical procedure. Standing in the pulpit without notes as itself a way of forcing myself into the revelatory moment of preaching - no, this is not what Barth means.

This evacuates the 'ought to speak for God' in Barth's approach. Sure, preach without notes if you want to but don't think this is doing anything important theologically one way or the other. It's just human control in reverse.

Ben Myers said...

Thanks for your comment, William. I don't mean to suggest that it would be better for everyone to preach without notes, or that this is a mechanism that can "force" divine action! (Naturally I still prepare my sermons, but I prepare a general line of thought rather than a manuscript.)

My point is that preaching, qua human word, is an event of vulnerability and lack — and my own experience of preaching without notes tends to reflect this. But the use of notes was just an incidental illustration: as the first commenter said, preachers can fail just as effectively with a full manuscript! My real point is — with or without a manuscript — we should never presume that we really know what we're doing when we stand up to speak God's Word.

Brad said...

I appreciate what you are intending here, Ben, but I wonder how much it reflects a particular social location. Since I don't know that location well enough to name it explicitly, let me speak for myself.

I wholly agree with the critique of contexts in which the "success" of the sermon is why people show up, or how people judge a "quality" service, etc. And the very notion of "professional" preachers who, however sincere, just always are "great speakers," even (the dreaded!) inspiration -- it is all a sad state of affairs indeed.

But this is not the only context in which the sermon comes to bear on the life of the community, not the only time men and women are called to speak the word to God's people. Moreover, there are struggling and persecuted and beat-down communities whose very life is gathering to hear the word. As an American in the south, the tradition of worship in African American communities is inescapably poignant: all there is to do is to listen to God's good news proclaimed, and proclaimed, and proclaimed, until finally, together, the people remember that the surrounding hordes of violence categorically do not determine their existence -- for they are children of God by God's own decree.

In such a context, what does it mean to say, "I want to make it easier for myself to fail"? There can be no failure here -- this is life and death! To be sure, there can be and shall be no failure only because God is faithful and will speak his word through the preacher -- but no less does that dependence mean an openness or willingness (much less an eagerness!) to fail.

That is the opposite extreme, but it is my personal judgment that most congregations and contexts are somewhere between the two (privileged and persecuted) -- and, more to the point, most gatherings have people from the entire spectrum present. As someone called to preach from time to time (and this upcoming Sunday!), I keep those people in my mind when considering "success": the single mothers in recovery, whose faces speak an expectation to hear God's gospel and whose Amen's are not validation of my expert skills, but affirmation that I took the call seriously.

Anonymous said...

Preaching is teaching; except even more ossified.
The so-called preaching of Barth's era should be long dead by now, just like long-winded college lectures should also be dead. They don't work.

Teaching is an enormous professional field that has undergone some revolutions recently. Doug Lemov, for example, could teach preachers some amazing things. First, you need learning objectives (and these should probably be based on the needs and concerns of your congregation, either for knowledge or for skills).

Are people not praying? Are there common sins in the congregation? Are people having trouble dealing with job loss, or do they misunderstand the story of Cain and Abel - as applied to their own lives? This is where practical pastoring requires intimacy with the congregation.

Second, you need assessments of learning. If you have identified a problem, you need to monitor it for improvement as you teach how to overcome it.

Third, you should use every reasonable tool at your disposal to reach those objectives and measure that by congregational progress against assessments. You can't manage what you can't measure. Overheads? Videos? Exercises? Homework? Quizzes? Tests? Whatever you need. Even parables, object lessons and miracles, things that no preacher would ever do...

Peter K. said...

Maybe we can say that the real failure is not to be in the church but in the world. That is, the preacher should aim so to speak such that her words deliver the congregation over to a way of life in the world that is itself a petition for and waiting on an act that only God can do. The church is faithful when it "fails" in the world, when its acts are not of themselves attractive or successful, when they can only be made sense of as themselves petitions for something else than the church to happen, namely, the Kingdom.

JKnott said...

"human control in reverse"--nice way of putting what Barth meant by "a certain kind of kierkegaardianism" ("Nein!") And, if I may be so bold, what separates Barth's hip new would-be followers from Barth himself.

shaneclifton said...

Ben, i think i know what you are saying. But as someone who has to listen to a sermon more often then preach one, success is NOT when i am bored and distracted. Since human knowing is as much emotional as it is rational, please try to keep me awake, even to entertain me. I suspect I am more receptive to something God might be saying through a preacher when i am enjoying the experience.

Doug Harink said...

I'm with William Morris in thinking this may be "just human control in reverse." The human word is, to be sure, only human--and therefore vulnerable and lacking--and God can speak through the mouth of an ass. But I don't think humans should try to be asses (not suggesting, Ben, that you are trying to be one!) so that God can speak. Consider the various texts of scripture as sermons and preaching (Paul's letters are fairly explicit about this): there is all kind of attention to form, structure, language, rhetoric, etc. We can recognize many forms of "genius" there. And while we must acknowledge the fundamental, qualitative difference between a genius and an apostle, there is no indication that these need to be seen as mutually exclusive. Your point, I think, is that only God makes the prophet or the apostle, and not all prophets or apostles are geniuses. But not being smart and skilful (or trying not to be) is not itself a precondition for apostleship or preaching the word. There is no precondition, only God's act.

Peter said...

Ben, this ties into my concept that I deliver a different heresy every Sunday but in spite of my errors the hope is that God's Word is present and is heard. Our understanding and control of the message and its reception is only so much in our control after which point it is simply a case of trusting that the Word will be heard. Success and failure in preaching is an interesting concept - I wonder how we measure such things when it is faithfulness to the message that is vital. Just because people walk out saying nice sermon today it does not mean I have been faithful - I have found that people love preachers that tell lots of practical anecdotes, yet I struggle to hear grace in many a sermon story. Also whilst the Spirit has been poured out on the whole church I often take heart that only a handful of people in the Scriptures actually have a theophany. I do not expect that every time I preach the eternal Word (Jesus) will be heard by individuals as a theophany but having said this I believe that Word is fully present when Christ is proclaimed. A thought provoking post especially after reading Bruce Barbers paper Lanterns after dusk which suggests we have been getting our preaching wrong for the last few hundred years!

SC said...

I am a layperson and do not preach regularly, but I have preached on occasion and am involved in the educational ministries in my congregation. I do teach regularly, out of the pulpit, both in the church and in the university.

It is surely good counsel not to congratulate oneself for the works of the Spirit in one's congregation, and to be humble both when things seem to go poorly and when they seem to go well. But as teaching and preaching are spiritual gifts given by God to the congregation, present in some of its members, there is more than merely human effort in preaching and teaching. And having been given these gifts, we must be good stewards of them--not doing my best in preparing a lesson or a sermon doesn't make the exercise more spiritual. However, I do need in my best preparation *not* to attempt to exercise complete control over the exercise. Part of this is a recognition of the work of the Spirit beyond His gifts operating in me, and part of this is a recognition of the presence of the Spirit in other members of my congregation as well. It is important not to dominate overmuch, so that we can learn together and do theology in community, rather than pretending the Spirit speaks through one individual to the congregation.

There seems to me to be a whole spectrum of views and practices on the question of the roles of the Spirit and the human being in preaching and teaching: from the "Amish bench" model, where one gets up to preach with no preparation at all (perhaps a text at most), to the other extreme, which Ben seems to regard as dangerously prideful or unspiritual.

I suspect God's gifts can manifest in teachers of all different styles.

The question is: how do we do our bests with the gifts we have been given while truly reminding ourselves and those around us that we are earthen vessels filled with God's treasures?

saint Egregious said...

I think Ben's point is obviously right. Sermons can lose all connection to the Word when they are too obviously crafted to please. One must be willing to be taken over by the Word, to stumble in order that the foolishness of God might win the day. Paul is, as Doug says, a good model--but precisely because he is willing to fail, to be knocked off his horse, to always strain toward what lies ahead, even if that means leaving us some rather loose ends, rather than endlessly battening down his hatches with iron-clad rhetoric.
Or so it seems to me.

St. Egregious

Anonymous said...

Humility in front of the Word (and word), is always the calling of the preacher - treasure in clay jars.

But CS Lewis also reminds us through the mouth of Mr Beaver that Aslan is not a tame lion - he is wild, so, like Lucy and Susan on the way to the Witch's castle, it is also a matter of holding on!; desperately seeking to hold something of this exacting and expansive Word up to the world, lest it should escape us, slip through our fingers, and we fall back into domesticated niceties which can never transform anyone, let alone inspire the heart and mind with the 'deeper magic' of the God who is love.

Mike E

thedescribe said...

Not sure Paul was willing to get knocked off his horse . . .
A woman from my church I was talking with today overheard her 14 year old son saying to her 8 year old daughter, "Didn't you hear what Pastor David said . . . " with respect to being freed from shame.
With all our education and critical engagement with the text that is enough for me, for today anyway. I'll be so bold as to call it a success . . . and give God the glory (and remind myself the next time I find myself waiting to wrap up my own sermon . . . you spoke truth there Ben!).

- DCL Driedger

Anthony said...

If preaching has become teaching, we are in trouble. Preaching is not instruction, it is proclamation. The idea that success can be 'measured' completely ignores the reality of Ben's post (as I understand it), which sees the central 'work' of preaching as being that of the Holy Spirit, making Christ present within the community of faith, enabling God's Word to (perhaps) be heard and appropriated.

As a preacher, I hear Shane's request. I don't enjoy hearing boring/bland/dull sermons, and I don't enjoy delivering them either. But I won't accept any premise that the entertainment value of my offerings are in any way connected to their spiritual value. The only thing that gives them value is the intrusion of the Spirit, emboldening me and convicting those who hear God speak.

Saint Egregious said...

Of course he was willing! All of his life he'd been hoping (against hope) for just such an event. When it came, in a manner entirely foreign to his expectations, he, like all the prophets before and after, rejoiced that it had come.
We do indeed will to be made liars, that God may be seen as true.

William Morris said...

We should never presume that we really know what we're doing when we stand up to speak God's Word (Ben Meyers).

I want a preacher to stand up knowing exactly what they are doing when they come to speak God's Word.

This, I take it, is Barth's point.

Sandra said...

Only God can speak God's Word. I'd say Barth's point would be: God is under no obligation to speak no matter how well prepared the sermon, therefore, 'we should never presume that we really know what we're doing when we stand up to speak God's Word'(Ben Myers)

Ted Johnson said...

"If you're preparing for ministry, you'll need to develop some basic homiletical skills and techniques, and you'll need the kind of critical feedback that can help you to become a better preacher." I am completely in agreement with that.

Mark said...

Some days you preach the Word; some days you've just got words.

Having been a pew sitter and a preacher, just one other comment. I wish that highly intelligent professor people would quit encouraging impressionable young ministers to forego writing out a manuscript. I have listened to way too many 15 minute tangents that don't make sense and unprepared prepared outline sermons.

When you've got The Word, nothing you do really matters. (Cross reference the preaching style of Jonathan Edwards or St. Paul for that matter.) When all you got are words, being prepared might at least be interesting in a way that most ministers just can't be off the cuff. And the vast majority of ministers just don't have the human talents or well of teaching experience of the professors who say go with just an outline.

Sorry for the cranky voice.

Ben Myers said...

Mark, that's fair enough: and I would never discourage students from writing out a full manuscript. My remark about preaching without notes wasn't something I said in the student discussion; I just mentioned it here, in this more private setting. =)

Charles E. Whisnant said...

Ten people can read one blog and come away with ten different ideas what you meant by it in the first place.-

50 people can hear a sermon and have ten different ideas about what you were trying to say.

crookedfingers said...

What I would done if I felt inside dead inside while preaching God's Word is tell my hearers-be honest is my philosophy-be real-God's Word is powerful and does not need us to be used of the Spirit to work in the lives of our hearers-why be a fake preacher?-be a human preacher saved by grace-peace

jrschow said...

SBL San Deigo---The only thing that i can say is that after a long and dry lecture (or just way over my head) by Stanley Porter on Paul's language of pistis christou, a lively and engaging conversation followed on Barth and pistis christou, edifying my whole evening.

However you look at it, you are a gifted teacher.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the kind and comforting words, Ben. As a preacher myself I also cling to the belief that my failure is what can bring about the biggest victory, and it's obvious you need those words of comfort just as much as I do.

I've learned to live with the fact that even when I'm feeling like my sermon is "happening" (becoming the event!) and words flow from my mouth with great ease, and I feel myself smiling because I feel I'm saying exactly what needs to be proclaimed at the moment in time, even then I have really no idea if God really spoke. Even if I'm showered with complimentary comments from the congregation, and my heart swells with pride, I have no idea if God really spoke.

As such I take comfort in the fact that there are times when God will make me say things that are boring to everybody in the congregation, and irritating to many, and off-putting to some (even to me while I say them), but that will reach even just one person who will stay quiet about it, or who might not even realize it himself.
Sometimes the reading from the scripture before the sermon (done by somebody else) is the only moment God even planned to speak. (in complete disregard it seems of the fact that I put 10 hours into the sermon, and a 100 people just wasted 30 minutes of their lives having to listen to it).

Pieter

The Charismanglican said...

I preach as a lay witness every couple of months. I use a manuscript and do not deviate. My own lack and the need for something extra are obvious enough. The lack because my best homilies are those of a novice. The something extra because the homily is only a small part of the whole liturgy, and you never know how it will sound or what it will mean in context.

Nevertheless, I know what you mean from my days as a worship leader at a "hip" evangelical church. I LONGED to get away from the calculation, the liturgy of excellence, the endless manipulation of people's emotions towards the kingdom. Technology at St. Alban's means having someone accompany the organ with a Glockenspiel, and I couldn't be happier.

My favorite is being a lector: I continually ask myself/pray: "What is God saying to the people?" I'm convinced that he is always whispering, and that sometimes we even hear him. Give me reading a long lesson from some obscure part of the scriptures over a guitar, microphone and spotlight.

The Charismanglican said...

I preach as a lay witness every couple of months. I use a manuscript and do not deviate. My own lack and the need for something extra are obvious enough. The lack because my best homilies are those of a novice. The something extra because the homily is only a small part of the whole liturgy, and you never know how it will sound or what it will mean in context.

Nevertheless, I know what you mean from my days as a worship leader at a "hip" evangelical church. I LONGED to get away from the calculation, the liturgy of excellence, the endless manipulation of people's emotions towards the kingdom. Technology at St. Alban's means having someone accompany the organ with a Glockenspiel, and I couldn't be happier.

My favorite is being a lector: I continually ask myself/pray: "What is God saying to the people?" I'm convinced that he is always whispering, and that sometimes we even hear him. Give me reading a long lesson from some obscure part of the scriptures over a guitar, microphone and spotlight.

Ben Myers said...

Mark, that's fair enough: and I would never discourage students from writing out a full manuscript. My remark about preaching without notes wasn't something I said in the student discussion; I just mentioned it here, in this more private setting. =)

Mark said...

Some days you preach the Word; some days you've just got words.

Having been a pew sitter and a preacher, just one other comment. I wish that highly intelligent professor people would quit encouraging impressionable young ministers to forego writing out a manuscript. I have listened to way too many 15 minute tangents that don't make sense and unprepared prepared outline sermons.

When you've got The Word, nothing you do really matters. (Cross reference the preaching style of Jonathan Edwards or St. Paul for that matter.) When all you got are words, being prepared might at least be interesting in a way that most ministers just can't be off the cuff. And the vast majority of ministers just don't have the human talents or well of teaching experience of the professors who say go with just an outline.

Sorry for the cranky voice.

William Morris said...

We should never presume that we really know what we're doing when we stand up to speak God's Word (Ben Meyers).

I want a preacher to stand up knowing exactly what they are doing when they come to speak God's Word.

This, I take it, is Barth's point.

thedescribe said...

Not sure Paul was willing to get knocked off his horse . . .
A woman from my church I was talking with today overheard her 14 year old son saying to her 8 year old daughter, "Didn't you hear what Pastor David said . . . " with respect to being freed from shame.
With all our education and critical engagement with the text that is enough for me, for today anyway. I'll be so bold as to call it a success . . . and give God the glory (and remind myself the next time I find myself waiting to wrap up my own sermon . . . you spoke truth there Ben!).

- DCL Driedger

SC said...

I am a layperson and do not preach regularly, but I have preached on occasion and am involved in the educational ministries in my congregation. I do teach regularly, out of the pulpit, both in the church and in the university.

It is surely good counsel not to congratulate oneself for the works of the Spirit in one's congregation, and to be humble both when things seem to go poorly and when they seem to go well. But as teaching and preaching are spiritual gifts given by God to the congregation, present in some of its members, there is more than merely human effort in preaching and teaching. And having been given these gifts, we must be good stewards of them--not doing my best in preparing a lesson or a sermon doesn't make the exercise more spiritual. However, I do need in my best preparation *not* to attempt to exercise complete control over the exercise. Part of this is a recognition of the work of the Spirit beyond His gifts operating in me, and part of this is a recognition of the presence of the Spirit in other members of my congregation as well. It is important not to dominate overmuch, so that we can learn together and do theology in community, rather than pretending the Spirit speaks through one individual to the congregation.

There seems to me to be a whole spectrum of views and practices on the question of the roles of the Spirit and the human being in preaching and teaching: from the "Amish bench" model, where one gets up to preach with no preparation at all (perhaps a text at most), to the other extreme, which Ben seems to regard as dangerously prideful or unspiritual.

I suspect God's gifts can manifest in teachers of all different styles.

The question is: how do we do our bests with the gifts we have been given while truly reminding ourselves and those around us that we are earthen vessels filled with God's treasures?

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