When I first felt called to pastoral ministry, part of the fear I felt was about standing in front of a congregation to preach. I couldn’t imagine creating a sermon, nor could I imagine anyone listening to me deliver one. I am the daughter of a United Methodist preacher who was and still is a fabulous storyteller and preacher. That was the second thing that struck fear in my heart: how would I live up to his exceptional style and content? I think I’ve made him proud in that department—but that’s owed, in part, to the wonderful preaching professors I had during my theological and graduate training.
I took a speech class in college and was taught the basic elements of public speaking: content, delivery and structure. But when I started learning about preaching in seminary, this baseline wasn’t enough. I was then taught about exegesis (interpretation) and engagement; these hallmarks framed my learning then and my teaching now.
Preaching always starts with the text, whether it comes from the lectionary, sermon series or topical sermon. The core of the Christian faith is the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s quite literally one of the greatest stories in all of human history. And for many who populate our pews in churches across the world, as well as those who have walked away from the church, we have lost our passion and ability to tell the story well. The importance of preaching isn’t lost in modern culture, but ours is an evolving culture that needs to hear the story differently.
In the 25 years that I’ve been teaching preaching, I’ve learned that every preacher starts out with some anxiety and with different skill levels. I believe every preacher ought to have some level of anxiety because the world may be at stake for someone in the pews when pastors enter the pulpit. It might be the queer teenager terrified to tell their parents about their gender identity. It might be the recently widowed mother of four who has no idea how her life will move forward. It might be the 85-year-old having to make decisions about paying the gas bill or getting his heart medication filled this month. Or it might be an entire community traumatized by a natural disaster, a terrorist act or a mass shooting incident.
It might be the queer teenager terrified to tell their parents about their gender identity. It might be the recently widowed mother of four who has no idea how her life will move forward. It might be the 85-year-old having to make decisions about paying the gas bill or getting his heart medication filled this month.
That’s a lot to deal with. But Christian preaching at its very core is about a gospel of grace, forgiveness and love—about the life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ, who loved us all the way to the cross and back again.
So what’s happening in preaching courses today (especially mine)? We are tackling the hard work of preaching in what some call a post-Christian world. We are finding new ways to share the gospel narrative and engage a world that’s becoming less and less biblically literate. We are embracing the embodied and multidimensional realities of today’s church. And we are looking at several key changes in preaching from years past.
First, as we think about the listeners, we’re working to get further away from the sermon manuscript writing-and-delivery process. Research and anecdotal data is clear—people want to be in a more conversational and relational preaching modality. Using less notes is being taught in many seminaries. Listeners assume greater authenticity, sincerity and credence to preachers who engage them through a relational preaching style, which can be achieved, in part, through using less notes. Listeners also love the additional eye contact and more natural presence of a paperless pulpit.
Second, as we think about the preacher, we’re working on the total preaching experience. I’ve added the concept of embodiment to the other elements from my speech and seminary classes (content, delivery, structure, exegesis and engagement). The preaching moment is a lived experience. It is an encounter between the speaker and the community, but it is more than speaking and listening. We must be fully, bodily present in the interchange.
Finally, as we think about the wider audience, we’re exploring the options of social media as a means of collaboration and engagement with more conversation partners. Technology has become a major source of connection, and we’re looking at ways to harness that for positive good in the world and the church.
We’re not assuming these elements aren’t present when preachers use a manuscript. We are also not assuming that preachers can’t preach conversationally with a manuscript. What we are assuming is that many people in our pews today are different from those in times past. We are assuming that we need to tell this ancient story in new and engaging ways to bring the gospel alive for the 21st century.