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#PreacherProblems Pt. 2: “The Congregation as Collaborator”

This is a short blog series from me and a few of my preacher friends. Since many preachers spend Monday mornings replaying their sermons– figuratively or literally–I figured this would be a good time to reflect on the weighty and complex task we’ve agreed to undertake each Sunday. Read Part 1 on the tension between precision and simplicity HERE.

Part 2 comes from my friend in Belgium, Filip De Cavel (far right in the pic), a fellow doctoral candidate at Durham University whose research is actually on preaching as a ‘ritual act’ (anthropology terms) and the sermon as a meaning-making event.


Spoiler alert! If you read this and you’re a preacher, this post might spoil your day.

The sermon has been at the ‘heart’ of Christian worship in different churches of all kinds of traditions and denominations for centuries, no matter what the — now classic — worship song ‘The Heart of Worship’ (by Matt Redman) dictates. As a matter of fact, I’d like to believe that this wonderful song is as much a ‘preacher’s song’ as anything else.  Indulge me for a minute:

“When the commentaries fade and all is stripped away and I simply come. Longing just to bring something that’s of worth that will bless Your heart.”

“I’ll bring You more than a sermon, for a sermon in itself is not what You have required. You search much deeper within, through the way things appear, You’re looking into my heart.”

Imagine the loneliness of the one who will share profound thoughts, who will preach Jesus, the Christ, no less. In his study he sits, sweats, prays. In his mind a complex web of relationships and personalities appear as he wonders how to encourage the hearer. He crafts and delete words; maybe even rehearse them in front of the mirror or his wife, if she will endure. “Could this sermon be the game-changer for someone sitting at the back? Or even a life-changer?” Consider the post-sermon feelings a preacher suffers when the adrenaline wanes off and doubt kicks in. “Did my point come across? For all hearers, no matter what age, social background, gender, personality or intellectual capacity? Did the INTP’s get it? And how about that lady, deaf in her left-ear?”

These kinds of questions may sound inappropriate, even an unspiritual take on the proces of sermonizing, from preparation to the plopping on the couch in the afternoon. After all, dear preacher, it’s not about you and what you said, but about how the Holy Spirit guides both the speaker as well as the congregant, before, during and after ‘the talk’. The Spirit operates in ways unseen and unheard of, and so our reliance on the fruit producing results should be left to Him. Having said that, these often overly-stated ‘encouragements’ (read: clichés), true as they may be, do not help the preacher to ease his mind. So studies in the homiletical field– i.e. that domain of practical theology that deals with anything that concerns the sermon– have been about the way the preacher can become more competent in this trade of communication, especially in a communication-over saturated world. In the past the questions revolved around the question: What can the preacher “do” with the (message of the) sermon and thereby improve the effects it might have on the listener?

In the last 20 years there has been a turn to the listener. An interest developed in what listeners “do” with sermons. A considerable amount of empirical research has been conducted into the effects of the sermon and the mechanics of the listening part. If the sermon becomes more than what it says, how so and in what way?

The Dutch homiletician, Dr. Theo Pleizier researched this particular question and wrote his findings down in his book, ‘Religious Involvement in Hearing Sermons’ (2010). He observes a transition from message and preacher-centered approaches to an audience-centered approach. If the preacher is optimistic about what the sermon can do the listener, Pleizier is more expectant of what the listener does with the sermon. Both questions deal with the reception of the sermon, but the latter is about meaning-making. That should cheer up the preacher, after all, he’s into meaning-making business. The underlying concern, Plezier, confirms, remains the overall question of the ‘locus of control’ of meaning. “Is meaning controlled by the sermon, is it controlled by the listener or by both?” (Pleizier, p. 13). Pleizier elaborates on the active listening part of the hearer [bold added]:

Hence, the listener is the ‘silent partner’ in preaching. Although the preacher can disrespect the hearer’s freedom, he cannot take away this freedom. In the silence of listening the hearer ends the conversation rather than the preacher. So when preacher and audience meet in the event of preaching both have their own part in the creation of this unique conversation. Dialogue is the generic nature of preaching. (p. 48)

John McClure reflects on a study being conducted on the way listeners listen and concludes:

Listeners bring a developing theological imagination to sermon listening. They are symbol and metaphor sponges, absorbing images, turns of phrase, aphorisms, and analogies to understand how it is that God and the world are related to one another. While they are listening they are connecting stories, images, words, and symbols to their own lives at a rapid pace, and the juxtapositions that take place cannot be controlled, no matter how carefully the preacher seeks to de-narratize, de-image, or de-illustrate his or her preaching. Listeners are prone to take even single words and phrases and place them alongside some ordinary experience in their everyday lives, creating metaphors from which meaning explodes. For listeners, this imaginative process is, in many cases, at the very heart of the theological dimension of sermon listening. Sermon listeners are experimenting with theological worlds and worldviews on the spot, trying on metaphors, images, and ideas like garments, adopting some and rejecting others.

As such the preacher does well to relativize (not minimize!) assumptions of being the sole active role before, during and after the sermon. The actualization of faith in the life of hearer (i.e.when the listener’s faith becomes an actual reality or is kept alive through the preaching event) is subject to a plethora of hearer-oriented activities (Pleizier mentions among others ‘opening up to listen’, ‘experiencing, perceiving and identifying the sermon’,…). And sure enough, in this process of ‘dwelling in the sermon’, the role of preacher and the sermon should not be minimized.

But that would lead us into another post.

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