How to Preach with Authority and Sensitivity
How to Preach with Authority and Sensitivity
My daughter and I had a disturbing conversation a few months ago. She wanted to do something I thought might be inappropriate, and I said so with all the fatherly tenderness and respect I thought necessary for such an occasion. She was quick, however, to sense the nature of my rebuke. "Dad, I don't need to hear a sermon," she said as she turned her back on me and walked away. She was 9-years-old.
Her response stung, given that I make my living preparing and delivering sermons. Unfortunately, it is not only my daughter who has decided that listening to sermons has become unnecessary. Sometimes it seems the whole culture has concluded that preaching is a relic of bygone times.
I have concluded that preaching in these days might demand some fresh thinking and an alternate form.
Authority: "Oh yeah? Who says?"
There are two primary issues relevant to the task of preaching. The first is the matter of authority. Those who wish to persuade must provide warrant for their claim. Listeners have one finger on their mental remote controls, challenging the preacher to prove that this sermon is worth the investment of their time and energy.
"Love one another, " the preacher says. "Be good to your enemies. "
"Oh yeah? " the listener responds, "Who says? "
"Well, God says, " the preacher answers. It is a good answer, but for many it may not be enough. Listeners today come ready-built with their own authority. They could choose to daydream or close their mind. They could get up and walk out. The listener has power in the transaction known as preaching, and they are not afraid to use it. In the minds of some, the preacher, then, must make an authority level choice between text and today, between divine authority and human authority.
On the one hand, the case is made on the basis of God's revealed Word. "Thus saith the Lord " settles the question.
On the other hand, the point is established upon the foundation of the listeners own preset assumptions and experiences. "Sounds about right, " listeners say, processing the message through their inborn authority system.
Apprehension: "Okay, how can I help you? "
The second primary concern for the preacher is to discover the most effective means of helping the listener own the truth. Apprehension is the taking hold of a truth, like a policeman apprehending a suspect or a student taking hold of a book. The preacher's job is to help the listener take hold of the message offered.
There are two primary approaches a preacher could choose. The first is by means of explanation, and the second is by means of experience.
Traditionally preachers have emphasized the cognitive path, explaining the propositions of the text and sermon, making things clear and orderly. The idea is that if the truth is made comprehensible to the mind, the listener will be compelled to respond, and we will have done our job.
More recently, preachers have been rediscovering intuitive experience as an avenue to listener apprehension. Gripping stories and emotional appeal compel a listener to want to respond to the message.
Integration: "Refuse to Choose. "
The recent history of homiletics has tended to describe a spasmodic lurching from pole to pole in the struggle between text and today, explanation and experience. Cognitive forms of exposition square off against more intuitive, narrative-sermon forms. Text-based authority structures stand against listener-based "seeker " forms. In the end, however, such polarized approaches might not be helpful.
Integration describes the bringing together of seemingly contrary options in such a way that the integrity of each substance remains uncompromised. Is it possible that preachers could integrate text and today, explanation and experience? Is it possible that preachers could refuse to choose?
Overlaying the two continuums, authority and apprehension, creates an interesting opportunity for preachers to integrate these seemingly opposing concerns. Integration results from the following sermon moves:
Experience (apprehension) of the text (authority)
Explanation (apprehension) of the text (authority)
Explanation (apprehension) of today (authority)
Experience (apprehension) of today (authority)
God endorsed integration as a means of communication in the incarnation of his son, Jesus Christ. The Word become flesh is more than just an analogy of the preaching task. It is the substance of the preacher's message.
Let me elaborate on these four moves.
As we prepare a sermon, the four moves above can be uncovered by asking four questions.
Move 1: What's the Story? (Experience of the Text)
Even in the Book of Romans, there is always a story. There really were Romans. They lived in Rome. They had lives much like the lives of people today. For example, when I preached from Romans 8:18-25 (Read this sermon at preaching.org/groaning.htm), I noticed the text set up the present "groaning" of the people with the "glory" that would one day be revealed in them. I found it helpful, then, to help my listeners identify with the Roman Christians, who were groaning just like we groan over many of the same things. Identifying the story of the original audience can help the listener see the humanity in the text, creating an experiential encounter with the message that will not easily be shaken off.
Move 2: What's the Point? (Explanation of the Text)
The Bible, while not exclusively propositional, is conceptual in its makeup. The Bible offers truth that can be examined, detailed, ordered, and for the most part, understood. The preacher need not shy away from offering points, well explained and carefully put. This was a key component of my Romans 8 sermon. The problem I had, however, was that the passage was almost too rich. There were many aspects that could have been developed for the profit of the listeners. I decided to focus on the big idea, "We won't groan forever. " Focusing my explanation around this simple idea allowed me to help the people understand that pain and suffering is temporary and of little consequence when weighed against the glory that God has made available to us in Christ.
Move 3: What's the Problem? (Explanation of Today)
The problem with biblical propositions is they are not always easily accepted. The Bible is profoundly countercultural. If a preacher offers biblical truth with integrity, there will be inherent conflict in the engagement with contemporary listener presuppositions. Acknowledging the problem from the perspective of the hearer will be important if we care about listener comprehension and assent. In my Romans sermon, I was able to focus on the innate aversion humans have to suffering. Deferred gratification is not a value today's listeners hold dear. Acknowledging that reality and struggling with it in the sermon helped my listeners see the credibility of the message and deepened their receptivity to the truth of the text.
Move 4: What's the Difference? (Experience of Today)
Of course, head knowledge without heart response is hardly worth the effort. Every text intends a response from the listener as they grow in obedience to the God who created them.
In my sermon from Romans 8, my challenge was simple. I was counseling patience. I was concerned to help the listener hold on, despite the discouragement that inevitably comes. My goal, then, was less to educate at this point as it was to inspire. I was looking to instill a measure of hope and confidence in God's promise. This hope would play itself out in specific responses to the challenges of the listener's daily life.
These four questions will help us organize our notes into a form that can integrate the concern for text and today, explanation and experience. They can help the preacher speak to a variety of cognitive styles. They can help the preacher help the people hear from God.
This article is adapted with the author's permission from the first appendix of his book, Preaching with Conviction: Connecting with Postmodern Listeners (Kregel, 2001).
Kenton C. Anderson is dean and associate professor of applied theology at ACTS Seminaries (Northwest) in Langley, British Columbia. He is author of several books, including Choosing to Preach (Zondervan).