In a few weeks, my new book So Much Older Then (Energion Publications) will be released. While I did my doctoral work in the area of preaching, this is the first time I have attempted a book on this topic. In it, I reflect upon an approach to preaching I have used upon occasion in my local congregation. In writing this, I am hopeful that others might consider it and if not willing to implement it as such, might nonetheless continue to reflect upon the interaction between preacher and congregation that has traditionally gone by the name 'sermon.'
Each and every Sunday in churches throughout the world, members of local congregations sit in their seats and listen to a 'sermon.' Suffice it to say that this message is such a vital part of worship that many people evaluate the attractiveness of a particular church by the strength of the preaching one experiences within it. Throughout the course of my career as an ordained minister in both Protestant and Catholic churches, I have preached hundreds of times. On certain occasions, I have moved away from the traditional approach wherein the preacher speaks and the congregation listens. Instead, I have delivered a message on that particular morning and provided time right after it for members of the congregation to respond with questions or comments if they decided to do so. It is from an extended period of time wherein I made such a move that the idea behind this book was born. These sermons were delivered as an eight part summer sermon series in my former church, the Congregational Church of Union, Connecticut, UCC, to whom this book isdedicated. What is unique about this particular series is that my weekly message was a bit shorter than that which you might hear on most Sundays at my church. The reason for my relative brevity ( and it is relative indeed!) is that at the end of each message, I 'open up the floor' and encourage members of the congregation to react back to the sermon-to, as mentioned above, ask questions, make comments, offer feedback, and possibly even critique something I either said or didn't say!
It is important to know that I preach in the traditional style over ninety percent of the time. Yet, over the course of my pastorate in that church, I sought to develop opportunities such as the one described here for two basic reasons, one highly theological, the other what we might call pastoral.
Let's start with the theological: As Christian believers, we contend that the Word of God as contained within the Scriptures is 'living and active' and that it has the power to touch the heart and to inspire each of us who read and hear it. In the long standing tradition of homiletics within the Christian church, we have also contended that it is the task of the preacher to 'break open' the Word of God so as to facilitate this process. In simpler terms, I like to think of preaching as structuring a message in such a way that in effect the preacher actually gets out of God's way as both God and the hearer interact with one another during this time in the service in which the Word is so explicitly proclaimed.
As believers, we also affirm the reality of our shared 'priesthood'. We recognize that God works in and through each of us and that we all have a message to share. In some traditions, such as my own, this recognition forms the basis for preaching by those not ordained on days such as designated Laity Sundays as well as other occasions.
Each time a preacher preaches, things are happening inside of the minds and the spirits of each person who is listening. Here is where what we might call a pastoral understanding enters into our discussion. What you and I hear in a sermon may be highly contingent upon where we happen to be in our life situations at the very moment this sermon is preached.
All of which brings us back to the underlying theological assumptions I make. If we believe that each Christian believer has a message to share, why should we not provide opportunity to share it within the context of the local church's weekly gathering event, the service of worship? In using this approach over a period of several years, I have been deeply touched by what people have said, by the questions my words led them to ponder and how the sharing of those questions made major contributions to the spiritual lives of THEIR hearers, including me!