What’s wrong with preaching?


We’re on a road trip, which means that within the Merritt truckster, we have thoroughly discussed everything from the virgin birth, to the definition of progressive Christianity, to the problem of modern hermeneutics. And I’ve got one thing to say about all of this: our poor daughter.

Thank God she’s patient. And before you think that we’re terrible parents, in our defense, I’d like to report that we also listened to They Might Be Giants’ “Here Come the ABCs” album all the way through. All 25 tracks….

So, here’s a question that we talked about. I often hear that our seminaries aren’t training good preachers. And I wonder, what is wrong with the way we learned to preach? Is there a better way?

In Presbyterian seminaries, we learn to preach with the Historical Critical method. It is a six-step process in which we take the text, translate it into the original Greek or Hebrew, look at the grammar, look at the historical context in which the text was written. We read what great theologians and scholars have said over the ages. We ask questions of the text, and then we think about the “hermeneutical bridge,” what links our time to the biblical time. The goal is to get to the original intention of the author.

It was an important process, because it made us interpret the Scriptures with a realistic lens. We began to see passages on slavery, ethnicity, birth control, women, and homosexuality within a culture, and we began to understand what would translate into our own. We became more honest about our tendency to be anti-Semitic. We began to understand the intricate layers of the text, the possible ways in which the words could be understood, and we realized the great number of leaps that translators make from the ancient language to our own.

But there are problems with this method as well. The biggest is that we think have the sense that we can know what the author intended. I have difficulty understanding what my husband intends on a grocery shopping list, and we’ve lived with each other for fifteen years, how can I know what John, the beloved, intended when he wrote in an ancient language two thousand years ago? There is no way to get to the author’s original intent. Instead it’s usually what we intend the author to intend.

The second is that it takes an enormous amount of time. It makes me wonder, did pastors have less other work to do back in the day? Or did pastors always lie about doing all of this study on the text? Of course, now that I’ve worked through with the lectionary the third time in my ministry, it’s a lot less difficult, but still, I don’t do every step either. If I did it by the book, I’d be swamped. And I have virtual libraries at my fingertips.

Third…well this is debatable. I’m wondering if the method just creates really bad preaching. I mean after a pastor works through all the steps, then s/he doesn’t want to disregard all of it as mere prep work. And so we hear sermons about the historical context, the original Greek, all the other theologians. But we rarely get to the point–how these great words of wisdom instruct our lives.

I’m wondering if the nature of interpretation is evolving. The historical-critical method was an important step, in order to unbind the text from some of Christianity’s most deplorable thought. But is it time to move on? What do you think? Does this method of preparation make us poor preachers? What do you do to prepare? Do you ever do all of those steps? What about in other denominations? Do you have similar methods? Would it be better to go to a liberationist model? What did you learn about preaching after you got out of seminary?

photo’s by _xtian


13 thoughts on “What’s wrong with preaching?

  1. Great questions. I’d say my Columbia Seminary preaching courses the last few years, though they included and considered the historical critical matters to be important, probably emphasized it much less than previously. Though I’m a bit scared to generalize, to a large extent the historical-critical aspect of exegesis is considered a given. It’s essential, but even more essential is moving on to where the passage really sings–to self and others.

    One very clear difference in my Columbia Seminary preaching education and those of, say, 20 years past is the emphasis in communal exegesis. Gone is pastor spending hours alone in her study. Now we’re instructed,–no required–to do exegesis in community and outside the church doors. The same passage read in one’s office can look very different in the ER or at the mall food court or at a public park. We spent much more time in preaching classes focusing on looking at the world and text through new eyes–those of an artist, or a seeker, or in light of post-modernity. That’s not to say historical-critical wasn’t covered extensively in language courses, but it was not the driving force of preaching courses.

    Finally, I’d say the church suffers not from too much bad preaching but too much mediocre preaching. Perhaps a slightly more optimistic view.

  2. I agree with Adam… it’s a given for me. And TC, I agree with something you hinted at – after all that work, it’s easy to stop and wax eloquent about greek or 2000 year old culture. It is prep work, but I think it’s important prep work, necessarily followed by speaking into people’s lives where they are here and now.

    As to doing it every week… I do. But, I don’t preach the lectionary. I think that makes that work so much more doable. If I’m preaching from Corinthians for six weeks, I basically can do the historical-critical work ONCE and then use it for six sermons. As you mentioned, it probably takes several times through the lectionary to build up the personal research to get that same benefit.

    I tend to preach blocks from consecutive passages… conserving my prep time is not the motivation for that, but one nice benefit of it.

  3. Sorry… also meant to answer another question… I use Libronix (formerly Logos) software. It has almost exclusively replaced my use of reference books in paper form. I had to purchase the reference books in the program (much cheaper than the real books), but have slowly been doing that and selling the hard copies. What took me 3-4 hours in seminary just to find now takes 5 minutes, though I still have to read it. 🙂

  4. As with many things in ministry there always seems to be a tension going on…two different ideas or sides trying to be heard.

    For me, unpacking all the cultural and historical aspects, is critical in what I say. I do try to help educated the congregation in a small way. It is important to remember that Jesus was Jewish. It is important to remember that the Gospels were written years following Jesus’ death and that we do not have complete manuscripts.

    In addition, there must be a “so what/how” to my sermon. “So why” is this important…how does it help me live and navigate in this messy world we live in. How is God working in me and most important, in my heart, to learn and model love, compassion, and justice.

    Learning to show a bit of vulnerability and being authentict has also helped my preaching.

    So, for me, it is a “both/and”.

  5. I hate to admit this…I use BibleWorks every time I write a sermon. I love the historical critical method. Carol I assume you had the same prof I did here at APTS for the Greek and exegesis stuff (JA).

    I find myself really using all of the methodological stuff to fuel my personal reflection and challenge me in my wrestling matches. I then look to the world for the hope, grace, challenge, justice, injustice, or whatever capture my heart as I prep the sermon.

    I always draw from the music, books, poems, TV, movies, or “shiny objects” that tickle my fancy as illustrations on the heart of what is ailing me. I have never preached a sermon that I did not need to hear.

    I was told to preach every time the sermon that hurts your heart and weighs on your mind. I seek to do this.

    I ask why are we placing a greater proportion of importance upon preaching and forget that the sermon is one part of the liturgy?

    Where is the call for great teachers, compassionate deacons, self-sacrificing workers, and generous givers?

    It is my opinion that there are many great preachers out there. The role of the pulpit is changing. The role of pastor is changing. The role of church is changing. Where do we go from there?

    The tribes need leaders that are vulnerable, honest, compassionate, and seek with the same passion as they profess the truth of God.

    Then again, I am an idealistic seminarian with the confidence that the world can embrace the transformative power in Christ and be awakened to a different way full of love, peace, and compassion for other absent of religious dogma and denominational boundaries (like the ones at your local bizarre). I look forward to the days I am challenged and broken. That is my prayer to live a life of brokenness and challenges. God may a day never go by that is not adventurous and full of grace.

    A good preacher is vulnerable, real, honest, and compassionate. They take us on a journey through the Word and into the arms of Christ. A good preacher holds not the truth but their truth in their life for all to see. A good preacher is not always dominate or loud. Rather, they are joyfully aware of the painful sacrifice that is their call and with lament move forward with grace.

  6. I think the “mediocre preaching” has at least as much to do with delivery as with content. Also I think it’s possible that some of the “points of connection” with congregations have changed. I read an excellent essay in word and World (Lutheran Congregation) that we are preaching “Antioch” sermons to “Athenian” audiences. I will confess that I don’t do all the steps all the time any more, but I do keep an eye to historical/critical method. But, it shouldn’t end there. One of my teachers said “You have to get Jesus from Jerusalem to North dakota.”

    Also, a problem with Historical Critical is that as often construed it has the effect of making the Bible seem inaccessible to people. Effectively taking the Bible out of the hands of the people. That’s not a preaching problem, I know, but dod we preach in such a way as to make people think, “interesting, but the Bible still doesn’t speak to me, it’s all about them”, or “Wow, this makes sense to me. It’s about ME.”

    well, this is too long, and I’m just not finishing my sunday sermon!!!argh! I have a mental block! trying to put together christmas and new year! talk about not doing the 6 steps!

  7. I was on the road again, so I haven’t been able to respond… Amazing insights from all of you.

    I think an interesting thread through this is the importance to me be authentic and vulnerable. I wonder if that’s a recent shift.

    I often speak to pastors who have been in the business for a long time, and they say that they never speak in the first person because they want the sermon to be about God and not about themselves. I always make the point that we’re intimately involved in the process…whether we admit it or not.

  8. I do think that part of our sermon has to be testimony, so we need to do some first person. but they are right, it shouldn’t only be that. but that doesn’t mean only telling “personal stories” all the time.
    the delivery — people reallly do need to know that you are speaking to them. now you’re making me want to return to those preaching articles I read before.

  9. The comments about 1st person preaching got me thinking. There are distorted patterns of preaching from each perspective:

    – the 3rd person preacher who always talks about God, but may struggle to connect with listeners

    – the 2nd person preacher who points and shouts a lot… lots of you should… you need to… etc…

    – the 1st person preacher who may wax a bit narcissistic.

    Diane’s post and plea for some testimony reminded me that all of the above need to happen in a sermon. We need to talk about God’s story (being, acting, saving, reconciling), the personal and corporate story of our congregation, and our own testimony/witness to these things.

    Funny I didn’t connect this with preaching as I just wrote a post on sharing faith with the same point about two hours ago!


  10. Robert,


    I preach first person sermons, in the hope that the particularities of my situation will have some universal resonance in my congregation. I just find that I don’t want to tell other people’s personal stories too much, because although I change the names, location, gender, etc, it could be an intrusion. I’ve thought about preaching my own stories in the third person… that way it’s not all about me, but I can still get to the truth of the details.

  11. Preaching is my favorite thing in ministry–to do, to study, to talk about, to teach. You really don’t want to get me started on this topic!

    We don’t use a set formula at Yale (nor did we when I was a student, for that matter.) I can say that at least half of the sermons I hear in my beginning preaching class are amazing. I feel so encouraged by students that are breathtakingly amazing on their first try!

    I wonder if anyone has done research on how sermon preparation has changed since internet became readily available? It hasn’t been that long, really–a dozen years maybe–that it’s been the type of thing in most churches and households. I find myself googling the strangest things—last week it was all sorts of technical carpentry information, for example. I know the pastors I grew up with didn’t have that option. While there’s lots of great things about the constant information feed, I also wonder if the ready availability of mediocre sermons and cheesy sermon examples has impacted the general sermon quality?

  12. Great questions. How has the Internet impacted the sermon? Does anyone know of any research?

    For me, I now preach about things that I wouldn’t have touched before. I mean, I can do a whole lot more research to get my act together before standing in front of a congregation. So I’m braver, since I have that library at my fingertips.

    I really don’t know about the state of preaching, in general. I always hear the complaints, but who knows? I often hear complaints about the quality of ministers going down. I don’t really believe them. It seems that the church needs a scapegoat for denominational decline, and we’re easy targets. And, I’m actually pretty tired of the whining….

    I think this is such a rich and exciting time for preaching. As a woman, sometimes I come to a passage from my particular context, and I wonder, Has anyone preached this sermon in a pulpit before? And then I get goose bumps. We now have access to so much thought outside of the European context informing the way we preach…it’s just an amazing time.

  13. My seminary taught me to preach very well, thank you. Yale Div School, and specifically, Berkeley at Yale. I heard some of the best preachers in the world, on a regular basis. We learned formal homiletics training, but also storytelling (thank you, Richard Ward, UCC, now at Ileff). And you have to have the heart for preaching, I believe, or it won’t be quite as good. I’m a good preacher, and I promise I’m not tooting my horn here, but it’s a passion. Not everyone is cut out to be a good preacher. I heard MOST of my seminary classmates say they thought they had a “gift for preaching,” but most of them didn’t, really. They had TONS of other pastoral gifts (that I don’t have), but not for preaching. My recent enthusiasm is to help people decide what is the “good news” for them personally. I saw someone else (in these comments) talk about first-person sermons — I don’t hesitate to spell out what the good news is, week to week, according to the lectionary readings, for me. Then they can decide if that’s good news for them, or exactly WHAT the good news is for them. If people don’t feel “good news” in their bones, they’re not going to spread it (except in that tasteful, mainline way of “proclaiming by example”). Not good enough, in my opinion. People have to be spilling over with the joyful “secret” of the good news, dying to tell their friends, family, and neighbors. That’s a lot of formation — but that’s what preachers and teachers are in church for. Anyway — I don’t think it’s a problem with the seminaries. Maybe I’m too willing to take personal responsibility and expect others to do so, too. A good preacher needs to read and write and think A LOT. I’ve always been an avid reader, and I’ve kept a journal since 1978 (Which encourages both thinking and writing. Wow, 30 continuous years, now!). Over time, you get good at it. And then, if it’s delivered with passion and love, and a certain amount of spontaneity and style, it’s good preaching. I hope I don’t sound arrogant here. But blaming it on seminaries (I’d be willing to blame inadequate ethics training, but not for preaching) is just wrong. There are also lots of continuing ed resources to improve preaching. I know this is unbearably long, but you can see that I’m passionate about preaching. I rarely do this Presbyterian, historical-critical method. I follow the lectionary, and mostly as I read and pray over it, some theme or message comes to mind. It’s much more intuitive and much less purely intellectual. Yes, sometimes I’m driven by necessity to my seminary notes, Greek NT, dictionary, etc. That’s all very stimulating. But primarily, the Spirit has whispered in my ear about what direction to take, etc. And the research I do is mostly driven by the inspiration, rather than vice-versa. Maybe that’s just Episcopalian vs. Presbyterian methodology, I don’t know. But I do find that usually the Spirit tells me what I need to say this time. And even if I struggle and write something that feels dry of inspiration to me, it hits what someone else needs to hear right on the head. I’ve heard that feedback enough times to convince me it’s more than coincidence. It’s more a God thing than a thing created by my mind and my books.

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