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The Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock The Rev. Dr. Fred Craddock

The Rev. Dr. Fred B. Craddock is the Bandy Distinguished Professor of Preaching and New Testament, Emeritus, at Candler School of Theology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA. He is an ordained minister of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).

Member of:

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

Representative of:

Craddock Center


Year 2000 Special: Discussion on Preaching

January 02, 2000

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
Greetings and all God's blessings in this wonderful new year and new millennium as we begin this great new chapter in the history of the Protestant Hour. We have today a very special edition of our program, a unique opportunity to take a little bit of a different twist to look at that which is the subject of all our programs, the sermon. We have with us today two very special guests, Dr. Fred Craddock, retired Professor of New Testament and Preaching at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, and Dr. Douglas Oldenburg, President of the Columbia Theological Seminary, also in Atlanta, and the former moderator of the Presbyterian Church, USA. Well, Happy New Year to both of you gentlemen and welcome to this new millennium. We've made it over the hump.

We're looking at preaching, the subject that for you both in theological work and in theological education is something that is central to what you do in your ministries. And I know that both of you have had experience in pastoral work. I guess, let's start with this question. In your experience and your vision for the future of mainline Christianity in this country today, is the sermon still a viable medium for the proclamation of the gospel?

Dr. Oldenburg:
My response to that is, yes, definitely. It has been, it is, and it will remain throughout the new millennium. In spite of the fact that we're living increasingly in a visual culture, I still happen to believe that the preached word is very central to the proclamation of the gospel, and in my judgment, while its form may change, and while a lot of the stylistic part of it may change, it will remain central to the church in the future.

Dr. Craddock:
Yeah, I agree. I think there's nothing that replaces the human voice in a room of people. And the atmosphere of expectation is still there. We're in kind of a strange spot at this point in preaching. Most preachers are overwhelmed by the resources available and, therefore, have not figured out criteria by which to evaluate them and by which to share them with the congregation. There are so many seminars and workshops and journals and books and television resources available to them, they don't know what to do and I think the availability and the facility of new technology is still a little overwhelming to many ministers and some are seduced into thinking that there must be a machine somewhere that will replace what I'm doing.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
Dr. Craddock, as one of this country's foremost teachers of preaching, do you believe that it is within that variety of resources, and perhaps even within new technology, that lies the real important place to turn for preparation of the sermon?

Dr. Craddock:
No, no, I really don't. The technology is extraordinary. The opportunities for quick dissemination of what is to be said is there. What the minister needs to do in my judgment is to pause and ask first of all, "Is what I'm saying important?" Because these people are flooded with words from every direction. "What am I contributing to the sounds of this particular time? Is what I'm saying important?" As a young woman said to me recently in a church in downtown Atlanta, "The reason I go to church is it's the only thing in which I think they're talking about something important." And she says, "That's a bit frightening, but I go back." Now, if the minister lets the facility of resources and ease of putting things out to everybody seduce the minister into thinking that I'm really getting something done, actually the sermon itself may have shrunk in its importance and in its content and it's easy to be seduced by that.

Dr. Oldenburg:
I think the best sermons come when the minister struggles with the text, wrestles with the text, and I get rather apprehensive when it becomes too easy. The amount of material that's available, various commentaries and the lexionary text--they're tremendous but that does not replace the preacher's own personal struggle with the text--how does this text relate to the life of my people. What is it saying in the first place? How does it relate to the life of my people?

Dr. Craddock:
And that's it. The life of my people. Those to whom I speak and for whom I have some responsibility. For instance, Socrates, I believe it was, who talked about the first law of good communication is appropriateness. Is it the word for this group and that which I may gather from all over the country, to whom it may concern, is not what I want to say. I want to speak to this group in front of me.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
Many people think back over the history of the country and the history of religious institutions in America and want to go back to an earlier time as a more glorious day not sometimes realizing that at an earlier time in the history of this country, sermons were often quite lengthy. People would go to church and sit for hours and hear sermons that would be preached for an hour or more. Today, as an assistant of mine once said, "No souls are saved after ten minutes." Things are quick, and we live in an era of sound bites. Can we do it in ten minutes?

Dr. Craddock:
There are some that can be said in ten minutes; there are some that takes 35. How new is the material? How controversial is the material? How much Christian memory is out there in front of me? Many of these people have no Christian memory.

Dr. Oldenburg:
That's right.

Dr. Craddock:
And, therefore, I have to deal with some great theme. I want the sermon to have enough size to be worth their time, but if I take as a rule of thumb I'll be through in ten minutes, I may be plowing a field that's full of stumps, if I can use that analogy. And I take--that takes time. It really takes some time. And so, I think it's a mistake, for a minister to give the impression that "I'll preach the same length of time every Sunday." That's a bad box to get in. I would say preach the length appropriate to the audience and the subject matter, their acquaintance with it, and its complexity or controversial nature.

Dr. Oldenburg:
I think a lot of ministers struggle with "What are we trying to do in preaching?" I guess that was my first crisis in the ministry. Many years ago, I would spend so much time preparing sermons and give them with great passion and people would come out and shake my hand and so forth. And then they'd go home. But I kept wondering, "Is the Word really making any difference in their lives?" I went to hear a very famous preacher in that day and afterwards I asked if we could have coffee together and I shared with him my dilemma and my questions, whether really I was going to do this for the rest of my life. What after--was it making any difference? And he shared with me something that stayed with me and still remains with me. I had been taught that the sign of a good sermon was when someone could drive by the church on Monday morning and say what the three points of the sermon were--what the theme was, what the major--and the truth of the matter is I didn't think many people could do that with my sermons and sometimes I couldn't do that with my sermons. He said that he preaches to a more subconscious level, more like an impressionistic painting, that the person may not remember the content of it, but over a period of time, it leaves an impression on that person's life. It makes a difference over a period of time; it's a cumulative rather than a one-time event. That really made a difference to me. When I look back over my own life and how did I come to understand the gospel--I can't remember virtually any sermon I ever heard. But somehow God's Spirit used all those sermons to make a difference in my life.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
Perhaps that's why we see the influence of the theme "Christian formation" in much of what we see in new forms of Christian education and programs in churches. We talk of Christian formation rather than Christian education today.

Dr. Oldenburg:
Yes.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
The sermon then, you're saying, Doug, would be part of that Christian formation.

Dr. Oldenburg:
Over a period of time from childhood on through one's life.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
I remember being on a trip at the holidays and went into a church at Christmas time and the preacher got up and said he did not think it appropriate to preach, that we had the great liturgy of the church and it sort of said it all. There is throughout mainline Christianity a renewal of liturgical forms for the advancement of worship in style and substance. Do you think that that will ever outweigh the value importance of the sermon and kind of overcome the proclamation of the Word?

Dr. Oldenburg:
I think it has to be both/and. I welcome the renewal of liturgy. It certainly has taken place in the Presbyterian Church but I don't think it's ever going to replace the preached Word. I don't think it should. I think it's part of the tradition of mainline Protestant churches. It can enrich the worship service; it DOES enrich the worship service. Preaching in and of itself, by itself is not sufficient. But liturgy by itself without the proclaimed Word is not sufficient either.

Dr. Craddock:
I agree with that. Word and Sacrament together. It takes both of them; they nourish each other; reflect on each other--reflect each other. It's saying the same thing twice in two different ways and to take one away is to leave the congregation poorer, I think.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
As we begin this new millennium, I hear many people talking about the generational differences in our culture and how increasingly difficult it is for the church as an institution comprised greatly of older members--how difficult it is to reach a younger generation, the under-30 people today. Do you think it takes a different kind of sermon and a different preaching style to reach a young person versus the average pew-sitter in our church?

Dr. Craddock:
I don't think so. I think that if you deal with something of size and importance that touches life deeply whether you're 30 or 60 or 90, the contact is the same. It's easy to feel, "Well, we have this old hymnal, we have this old Bible, we have these old members, we ought to chuck that and get something new and vital." One reason that younger couples, for instance, are still coming to church is that they would like their children to be taught the Christian memory and be nourished with that memory. These young people in their 30's, well, all of us, but especially the younger people, are having to make moral and ethical decisions about matters that nobody dreamed of a few years ago and yet they don't have the resources. I think it's the fault of the educational work of the church. Just give an example--when I was beginning to teach in seminary--I taught also New Testament--I assumed my students came with a church--a Sunday School and a church and a confirmation knowledge of Scripture--and I was to kind of fine tune that, correct it, give it a little critical undergirding, call into question, all kinds of games. The student who came to seminary the last few years I taught very likely had not grown up in the church, had not been regular in Sunday School, and didn't know zilch about the Bible. So here I was trying to correct what didn't exist. So I needed to remind myself and my colleagues that we need content and then something to evaluate, and the young people that I talk with--"Why do you go to church? I notice that most of the people here today are older." And, "Well, something, I'm looking for something that my folks talked about having." I call it the Christian memory. It's embedded in the hymnbook. When I go into a worship service and they say, "Well, we don't need the hymnal, we'll just do this little gospel chorus or something like that," it's cutting me off from my ancestry, the source, the memory of the church. Same way with the neglect of Scripture. I don't want the minister to be an emcee in a program that I liked. I want to hear something extremely important.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
People tell me younger people are flocking to the independent, free, megachurches that have a different style of worship and perhaps a more evangelical approach to the proclamation in the sermon? Do you think that's been a big influence on our culture?

Dr. Craddock:
Well, I think it is a big influence. In my judgment, it is an indictment on many of the mainline churches in that some of those young people go to those churches because no demand is made on them and they're not embarrassed. If I could have been preached a sermon in which I assumed that everybody knows Saul of Tarsus and John the Baptist and Isaiah the Prophet. These young people are embarrassed because they don't know. If I did my job well, I could teach them as well as stir them, but when I don't do that, then they'll go somewhere where they're not embarrassed by their ignorance of Scripture.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
And someone will reach them at their point of entry.

Dr. Craddock:
That's right.

Dr. Oldenburg:
We can't be all things to all people. I'm convinced of that and we shouldn't try to be all things to all people. That's why I'm glad there are different denominations, there are different theological traditions and perspectives, different ways of worship and the list goes on. I do think for mainline Protestant preachers one of the big issues is Biblical illiteracy. Fred, you hammered on that. I think that's exactly right. In the old days, the preacher could get up and assume that the people listening knew the stories of Scripture, knew the Biblical memory. That cannot be assumed today, particularly with the younger generation, but even with the middle-aged generation today. It's just not--it's just not appropriate to assume that so, therefore, telling the Biblical story, both in preaching as well as in Christian education, has become increasingly important. But the other thing that--I think there are lots of young people, young adults, Louis, that are looking for thoughtful preaching, preaching that really deals with issues of faith, theological issues, issues that bother them, concern them, whether it's violence in our culture, whether it's sex-saturated society and they're worried about their children. Somehow the Word needs to relate to those issues. They want it to be thoughtful. Who was it? Douglas John Hall said only a thinking faith can survive today, and only a thinking faith can help the world survive. Mainline Protestant churches have been advocates of a thinking faith, a faith with substance. And, just briefly, the other point I'd want to make is that I think we need to engage in what we used to call apologetics. That is to say we need to give a defense, we need to give a rationale for why we are Christians. Again, Doug Hall wrote that book "Why Christian?" It's a great book in which he as a theologian responds to a young woman who's raising questions about why should I be a Christian. What's so special about Jesus? Why should I go to church? What's so special about this whole thing? I think preaching has to deal with some of those questions that more and more young people are asking.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
Dr. Craddock, you are a member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in this country, you've taught in various universities and seminaries. When did you fall in love with preaching?

Dr. Craddock:
Well, it was not when I was in seminary. And it was not in the first few years of preaching. It was a struggle for me. It didn't make contact with myself. There were other aspects of ministry that gave me greater engagement with God and with the people. Because I found myself, and I am not alone in this, but I found myself imitating other preachers and I was not--I was not accepting the fact that if I were called to be a minister, God gave me something to say and a way of saying it. Here I was a clarinet envying and trying to imitate trumpets and drums and this and that. When I finally accepted the instrumentality of my own life, I was--I don't know, eight years maybe into preaching--and not feeling connected with it myself and not feeling that the people were connected. I accepted that. If God called me to ministry, then I was given an instrument. What is it? I'm not this person, I'm not that person, I'm this person.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
So in a sense you had to let go--

Dr. Craddock:
I had to let go.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
--of attaining some external standard and, like a poet, find your own voice?

Dr. Craddock:
Find my own voice. That's right.

Dr. Oldenburg:
That's exactly what happened to me as a matter of fact. I was taught to preach in a certain way and that there was only one way to preach. Period. And I found that I couldn't do it that way and keep my integrity as a matter of fact. And then I read an article by a professor of homiletics at Austin Seminary entitled, "Free to Preach," and that article, really years ago, set me free to let God's Word come through me, through my personality, through my experiences, in a very refreshing way. It wasn't phony anymore. I wasn't trying to fill a particular pattern; I was trying to be the best Doug Oldenburg preacher that I could be. It was marvelously liberating.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
How much of that can be taught?

Dr. Oldenburg:
Well, I think good professors of homiletics of preaching help students find their own voice--

Dr. Craddock:
Yes, I think that's true. I think that's exactly true.

Dr. Oldenburg:
And they don't tell them that there's only one way to do it. There's only one voice. You've got to--some students do well without a note up there and some do it poorly without a note. Some do it well with a manuscript. Others do it poorly with a manuscript. Everyone's got to find their own best way to be a channel of the Word of God.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
I've also wondered--for both of you--as teachers and preachers and leaders of institutions, has the role of prayer become more or less important to you in your preaching ministries?

Dr. Craddock:
Well, for me, it's become more. More important. In fact, there is with the advancing of my life, maturing I hope, a blurring of the distinctions between praying and studying. Between worshipping and preaching. A sense of the presence of God which is what I think most people expect of the sermon. But in my own case, students who ask me, "Now how much time to you spend in prayer? How much time to you spend in study?" Study becomes prayer. Prayer becomes study. You love the Lord your God with all your mind. I don't know when I'm doing which, but I think if you were to ask me in your judgment which it is, I think the preparation of the sermon has become a more extended time of prayer than it was before.

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
Dr. Oldenburg?

Dr. Oldenburg:
To be sure. I would always be in preparation. In fact, every morning I would have my own prayer and meditation and certainly would precede my work on a sermon, but prayer doesn't end when you say, "Amen." The wrestling, the struggling with the text, the struggle to communicate this in words that will resonate with people is part of the prayer. My definition of prayer is more than just what we do when we say, "Our dear heavenly Father," and close our eyes and fold our hands. In some ways all life is prayer and I don't want to make too sharp a distinction between those, but it was very, very much involved in every sermon that I prepared.

Dr. Craddock:
I would like to say with reference to our discussion about our own personal engagement in preaching and passion in preaching, a prayer I have used privately every day for 35 years, "Gracious God, I'm grateful for life and work," more important than how I happen to feel about it on any given day. Because I have learned that sometimes I think I really have a good sermon here when the ones that mean the most to the listener were those I might have regarded as clinkers. So I have to release my preparation and my prayer and my message to some larger use and larger force and let people say, "You spoke to me in a way this morning that you never had before." And I was going with my head down, saying, "Boy, I hope I get a chance to redeem myself."

The Rev. Canon Schueddig:
Well, both of you have spoken to us in new and special ways on this special edition of the Protestant Hour to begin this new year and this new millennium of Christian history. Dr. Fred Craddock, Dr. Douglas Oldenburg, thank you and God bless you both. And Happy New Year.


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