Preaching, a Spiritual Discipline?
I was in over my head, and I knew it.
During my senior year of college, I was called to pastor a rural congregation fifteen minutes off campus. My senior class friends were making the most of their weekends while my Saturdays were devoted to prepping for Sunday sermons. I had taken a preaching course earlier in college, but barely paid attention, figuring, "I don't have to be ready to preach yet; there's plenty of time." If only I had taken that course seriously! I was overwhelmed. Most of the people in that small congregation were three times my age. What could I possibly tell them that they didn't already know? Simply put, preaching petrified me.
But there was a significant silver lining. My lack of skill and experience prompted deep dependence upon God throughout the process of developing and delivering my sermons. In the earliest days of my ministry, preaching was a spiritual discipline that heightened my connection to Christ.
But then, I lost my preaching mojo. I'm not sure that anyone really noticed this, but I did. As my congregation and young family grew, corner-cutting became my modus operandi for sermon prep. Basic exegetical and rhetorical work had to be done, so I cut the most inefficient corners I could eradicate—praying, fasting, and reflecting on my text. In time, preaching became a rhetorical chore instead of a devotional journey deeper into Christ. Preaching was no longer the adventurous devotional tightrope walk from Monday to Sunday that flung me toward divine dependence. I became more intoxicated with the craft of preaching than with the Christ I was called to preach. Preaching had gone from nourishing my soul to killing it.
Today, after many conversations with other preachers, I have come to realize that my story is more universal than unique. But what can be done to prevent us from practicing preaching just as an efficient rhetorical technique instead of what it can be—a formative spiritual discipline? First, let's explore the problem.
Let's get historical here. Christological heresies in the pre-modern Church resulted from downplaying either the divinity or the humanity of Christ. Similarly, "homiletic heresies" happen today when our process of developing and delivering sermons diminishes the role of either divinity or humanity. Don't stretch the comparison too far, but like the incarnation of Christ resulted from divinity bursting through the womb of humanity, a truly "incarnational" sermon is birthed through a homiletic process that is open to and dependent upon both divinity and humanity, both God and the preacher.
Barbara Brown Taylor wrote in The Preaching Life: "Watching the preacher climb into the pulpit is a lot like watching a tightrope walker climb onto the platform as the drum roll begins …. If they reach the other side without falling, it is skill but it is also grace … " It is impossible for the preacher to walk the fine line over the sermonic chasm from one side to the other without both divine "grace" and human "skill." Preachers fall when they ignore either one.
Some fall off the tightrope on the side of what I call homiletic Docetism by minimizing the need for human skill in preaching. Early Church Docetics emphasized the divinity of Christ, but devalued his humanity—by denying it altogether. Jesus only appeared to be human matter, they said, but was actually entirely divine spirit.
Preachers who lean this way stress the sovereignty of God in a manner that can nearly take the preacher out of the equation entirely. Homiletic Docetics are not burdened with the quest to develop and deploy exegetical, hermeneutical, or homiletical skills because, to them, preaching should be 100% divine and 0% human. They want to cut the human fat from the divine meat of preaching. They may seem spiritual, at least to themselves, but they are not skillful, according to those who hear them preach.
The other heresy (the one that knocked me into the preaching abyss) is homiletic Donatism. While homiletic Docetism minimizes the role of the preacher, homiletic Donatism marginalizes the role of God.
The Donatists of the 4th century put too much emphasis on the clergy. They believed that if the minister offering the sacrament of Communion was a spiritual weakling who sold out during persecution, then the sacrament would not be efficacious for the recipient. The Donatists put so much stock in the clergy that they devalued the presence and power of God in the sacrament.
Most preachers today fall off the tightrope toward the side of homiletic Donatism. They would never consciously dismiss the important part God plays in the preaching event, yet they practice preaching as if everything depends on human skill and ingenuity. They may toss out a prayer, a homiletic "Hail Mary" pass," every once in a while, but they see no way (or are too exhausted) to integrate rhetorical skill with spiritual devotion. They bear the entire weight of preaching on their own shoulders, thinking "I need more skill, I need that book, I need that method," when what they mostly need is God. Consistent and comprehensive space for God in their sermon preparation process is missing. Homiletic Donatists become preaching pragmatists who are more enamored with the work of the Lord than the Lord of the work.
Homiletic heresy happens when the sermon development process diminishes either the responsibility of the preacher or the role of God. But God does his best work through the wedding together of divinity and humanity. Consider the Scriptures, God's divine Word reflected through human words. Consider Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Consider the Church, divine treasure in human jars of clay. And consider the Christian sermon, which at its best is divine grace and truth delivered through the human agent we call a preacher.
Aristotle, Apostle, and Augustine
Modern Christian preaching has been significantly shaped by three men: Aristotle, the Apostle Paul and Augustine. Together, the three stress the importance of both divine grace and human skill in preaching.
The work of Aristotle (384-322 BC) influences how we communicate and think about communication to this day. In his Rhetoric he describes three elements that impact the reception of any speech: ethos (character of the speaker), logos (content of the speech) and pathos (connection to the listener). Aristotle explores ways for the communicator to develop skills that heighten the ethos, logos, and pathos of the speech, a pattern that we still follow in speech-making today.
While Aristotle's rhetoric focuses exclusively on human skill, the Apostle Paul's homiletic theology centers primarily on divine grace. Paul shows his homiletic hand most explicitly in 1 Corinthians 2:1-5. From my reading, Paul claims that his intentional lack of eloquence prevents people from putting more faith in him than in God. He preached in a way that showcased and glorified God, not his rhetorical skills. Paul advocates a spiritual homiletic that places more emphasis on the power of God than the technique of the preacher, without denying the role of the latter. He does not, however, give us practical ways to work this out in the process of developing and delivering sermons. But Augustine does.
Augustine (354-430 AD) is the earliest and, arguably, best example of a rhetorician turned preacher. He found a way to walk the fine line of incarnation between homiletic Docetism and homiletic Donatism. St. Augustine merged the best of Aristotelian rhetorical philosophy (human skill), and Pauline homiletic theology (divine grace) into a preaching practice that necessitated the abilities of the preacher and the power of God. Yet, Augustine did not want to put the cart of the preacher's rhetorical technique before the horse of the preacher's spiritual vitality.
Augustine's theology of preaching comes out most profoundly and practically in Book IV of his On Christian Teaching. He writes:
He should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words. As the hour of his address approaches, before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him.
Augustine stays on the tightrope by avoiding the homiletic Donatism that devalues the power of God and the homiletic Docetism diminishes the presence of the preacher.
Preaching as spiritual discipline
Preaching as a spiritual discipline reflects the incarnational way of God in the world. Preaching is spiritual in that its efficacy relies primarily on the power of God's divine Spirit. Yet preaching is also a discipline that requires the full engagement of the human preacher with the disciplines of devotion, exegesis, hermeneutics, and rhetoric. When preaching is perceived and practiced as an incarnational reality, a divine-human venture, the preacher avoids falling off the tightrope into the sermonic chasm.
The 8-15 hours typically designated for sermon preparation can and should be a spiritual discipline that fosters intimacy between the preacher and Christ. What if sound exegesis and skillful rhetoric were deployed not just pragmatically but devotionally? What if our paradigm changed—from preaching as a rhetorical task (to get a sermon) to preaching as a spiritual discipline (to get Christ)?
Many preachers commend preaching as a spiritual discipline in theory, but few seem to employ their theoretical convictions in practice. But how can we practice preaching so that godly preachers are formed along with good sermons? Here are a few practical ideas:
Prayerful preparation: Before you jump into sermon preparation, pray a small portion of Psalm 119 slowly and reflectively. Ask God for insight into His word. Quiet your soul by sitting before the Lord and allowing him to remind you of his love for you, and the important calling he has placed upon your life to preach Christ. Ask God to purify your preaching motives and to spiritually form you through the homiletic process so that you, along with your sermon, radiate the "fragrance of Christ."
Playful imagination: Fast for a meal and pray 30-60 minutes for imaginative insight into the biblical text you are preaching. Read the text slowly, verse by verse, trying to imagine yourself as an observer of the original scene. Try to see, hear, smell, touch and taste the original scene. Prayerfully and playfully sense your way into the passage from the perspectives of the various characters in the biblical text.
Internalize the Word: Prayerfully memorize the preaching text, or at least a main portion of it. Let it permeate your soul by meditating on the words while in the shower, at the store, in bed, in the car.
Lectio divina: Read the preaching text utilizing lectio divina, a devotional method of Scripture reading. As you do, consider the personal implications of the text for your own life. Consider what God is saying to you. How does the text apply to your relationships with Christ and others? How does the text confirm, challenge, or comfort you?
Prayer walk: Take a prayer walk around the church campus, your neighborhood, or in a nearby park or woods looking and praying for God's glory and for His kingdom to come "on earth as it is in heaven" through the sermon. Also, keep an eye out for physical illustrations that highlight the main thrust of the biblical text. Pray for the receptivity of listeners to the word of God through the sermon.
Retro reflection: Prayerfully and honestly reflect upon why and how you chose this text to preach. What is behind your choosing of it? Are your motives for choosing this text pure? Is there some past, present or future concern that skews or enhances your reading of this text? What part did God play in your choosing of this passage?
Intense intercession: Spend 30-60 minutes praying for the people who are part of your church. Pray the sermon into the lives of specific people with the help of your church directory. Prayerful reflect on how the text might address the hopes and hurts, dreams and disappointments not only of people in your congregation but those in the community, nation, and world. Consider how God wants to guide, comfort, transform or confront people through the preaching text. List the possible sermon applications that surface from this intercessory prayer time.
Prayerful practice: Prayerfully meditate on and practice the sermon, not for the sake of eloquence but embodiment. Speak the sermon aloud several times, as if you were preaching it to yourself. Let the sermon do something to you before it does something through you. As you hear the words of the sermon consider how your voice and body can reinforce the content during delivery. Imagine the faces of the people to whom you will preach. Pray for them even as you practice. Feel and think deeply about the words God is calling you to deliver.
Develop prayer teams: Consider recruiting and empowering the following teams of people to pray: Pre-Sermon Prayer Team (to pray with the preacher before the sermon); Sermon Event Prayer Team (to pray during the sermon); Post-Sermon Prayer Team (to pray for impact after sermon delivery). Perhaps you can delegate the recruiting of these prayer teams to someone in your church who is passionate about prayer.
Preaching as a spiritual discipline cultivates Christ-formed preachers. We often lament being so busy writing sermons for others that we do not have time for our own spiritual formation. When preaching is devotional, not merely rhetorical, we come away from the process not only with a sermon in the hand but with the Spirit in the soul.
Preaching as a spiritual discipline fosters quality sermons. The sermons preached with the most passionate conviction are the ones in which we engage the "angel" of the text in a devotional wrestling match. When that happens, we come away limping under the weight of a sermon that contains a word from the Lord. When the homiletic process does something to us, it often produces something through us—a quality sermon with theological substance and contextual relevance.
Preaching as a spiritual discipline enhances preaching joy. More than a few of us admit to a gradually diminishing joy in preaching. We are either bored, or tired, or both. There is another way. Devotional submission to God through the careful and prayerful reading of the biblical text leads the preacher into an experience of surprise and adventure. Preachers, especially (though not exclusively) those in midlife, crave this reinfusion of preaching delight.
Preaching as a spiritual discipline puts the preacher in a posture to rely on God for revelation and inspiration that can lead us not to exhaustion, but to boundless joy.
1. Augustine, On Christian Teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 121.
Copyright © 2014 by the author or Christianity Today/Leadership Journal.
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