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This is the first in a series of posts by Brad Boydston and me on Doug Pagitt’s new book, Preaching Re-imagined.
We will be posting these on both Brad’s site and this site, so you can go to either to read them.
Scot:
I don’t think I’ve met a pastor or an itinerant preacher who, when unguarded for a moment, doesn’t at times question the value of preaching. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about preachers who don’t believe in the Bible or about those who’d rather be doing something else for a living. In fact, most of those I’m talking about love to preach and believe preaching is central to the pastoral task.
If you are looking here for a list of problems about pastors and preaching, you may find some issues but I’m not one to complain about pastors. We need them, and we need more of them, and we need more good ones. Most pastors that I know are hard-working, godly, and caring souls who are sometimes crushed by the expectations but who get up every day and head for the church as a servant of the gospel. I love ‘em and I say, “God bless ‘em all!”
Let me begin with a creative new definition of “pastor” by Kevin Vanhoozer in his new book, The Drama of Doctrine. On p. 456, he says this: “It is the pastor’s/director’s vocation to help congregations hear (understand) and do (perform) God’s word in and for the present.” Now for Vanhoozer, the pastor is an “assistant director” to the Holy Spirit in God’s glorious “theo-drama” of redemption.
I don’t have problems with this definition, but lots of lay persons have problems with preaching, and here are the standard ones I hear about. Some preaching, they say, is boring; some preaching is irrelevant; some is too heady; some preach too long (I’ve never heard the reverse); some are too prophetic and some are too status quo; some talk about the Greek and Hebrew too much, and some not enough; some delve into politics and some don’t do that often enough. (Comment: I can’t for the life of me figure out why some think pastors should be politically neutral – have you read the prophets?)
Oddly enough, pastors see things differently. Their steady question is this: What impact do my sermons make? Why don’t people change in light of what they hear in sermons and the Bible?
It is right here that Doug Pagitt’s new book, Preaching Re-imagined enters the stage. Doug, if you know him, is not afraid to rattle cages and say we’ve done things wrong for so long we don’t know we are doing things wrongly. He’s not afraid, either, to suggest that he has a solution – even if he states that he’s not making a proposal for all. Anyone who lambasts preaching today in so many places as “speaching” is, whether he likes it or not, making a suggestion that “speaching” is wrong and his proposal, called “progressional dialogue,” is better. Doug back away from saying just this, but his book screams it anyway. And I’m glad he does, because he’s onto something, and Brad Boydston and I want to talk to one another about Pagitt’s proposal.
Brad, if you don’t know, is a parish pastor who is called to preach weekly; I’m an academic professor who sometimes gets asked to preach in local churches as a guest. There is a big difference here, and I (Scot) know it deeply. That is why I asked a parish pastor to join me in this blog about Pagitt’s Preaching Re-imagined.
Here’s what I see as the most significant problem in preaching today, and it is a problem that becomes clearer through the study of educational theory. Pagitt, I believe, is pointing at this very problem (though he doesn’t say so forcefully enough) and he is pointing at the solution educational theory proposes (which he also doesn’t say clearly enough). That theory is called “outcome-based education.” I’ll define this in the next post and show how it can help all of us in all of our churches.
BRAD:
I have mixed feelings about Preaching Re-Imagined. While I find that the questions raised are really on the mark (What’s the point of this? Are we deflating the church with so much one-way communication?) I’m troubled that it is fraught with internal inconsistencies, sweeping generalizations, and historically inaccurate statements. Pagitt says that he is addressing the philosophical assumptions behind preaching but when you boil it all down, this is just another book on methodology.
However, that might be its strength (in addition to the questions raised). It gives us a snap-shot of how someone else is doing preaching and why he thinks it is significantly better. His is an attempt to do preaching in a highly interactive way and in a manner that forces a lot of responsibility for the communication of God’s word onto the community rather than on a single individual. In other words, one of the assumptions behind Pagitt’s “progressional dialogue” (as opposed to “speeching” — “one way communication”) is an elevated community.
For Pagitt, the community interaction with the word almost seems more important than the word itself. He seems to see the process as being a major part of the goal.
Historically, though, the church has understood the focus of preaching (whether it is in a large outdoor forum or a small group teaching context) to be about speaking the mind of Christ — the message of God — in a particular moment and context. If you look at Jesus speaking in convoluted parables or the Apostle Paul speaking Eutychus to death, the primary issue isn’t whether people are bored or whether they even totally get what’s being said. The underlying issue is whether the word is spoken. I say this not to excuse boring sermons or esoteric preaching, but to move the discussion toward the context of biblical intention.
Scot sees this issue as related to “outcome based education.” I prefer to think more in terms of “outcome based worship.” The desired outcome isn’t so much that we learn something but that we effectively engage in worship. While information is delivered, that packet of content is servant to the sacramental kairos moment when we expect God to mysteriously break through (with 3-predictable points — complete with illustrations ) and make his mind known — to the community and to individuals. Sometimes that happens through speeching and sometimes through progressional dialogue (and sometimes not at all!). It isn’t an either/or kind of thing.
In the Bible preaching takes on different forms.
The OT prophets often spoke against the community and would have thought it nonsense to engage the community in the process of coming up with the word. For them, the problem WAS the community and they had a message from God that needed to be communicated to the community regardless of whether the community heard or understood. They were driven by an individual mandate from God. These were often INDIVIDUALS speaking down to the community in a society which valued community above the individual. In other words, it was quite out of sync with how the culture functioned.
At other times it was a community itself that joined together to proclaim the good news. In Acts 2:14 “Peter stood up WITH THE ELEVEN, raised his voice and addressed the crowd…”
Then further into Acts we have the example of the Apostle Paul in a dialogical approach to proclamation — “So he reasoned in the synagogue with both Jews and God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there.” (17:16) (From our limited understanding of ancient synagogue life the pattern for preaching there was not too far from the kind of thing that Pagitt advocates.)
My point is that biblically speaking, preaching seems to be about speaking God’s word, and beyond that there was no one official approach to it. Let those who are good at speeching — speech, and those who are good at fostering dialogue — dialogue. But let the end always be to bring us to the point of worship — in all its fullness.

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