This is the second post by Brad Boydston and me on Pagitt’s new book on preaching.
Doug Pagitt’s new book, Preaching Re-imagined, suggests that we compare two kinds of preaching: “speaching” and “progressional dialogue.” He sees big problems with the former, and great potential in the latter.
For instance, he says on p. 14: “I believe preaching to be a crucial act of the church. That’s why preaching needs to be released from the bondage of the speech making act. Our impulse to tell the story of God in our communities is the right one, but making speeches is the wrong way to do it…. This dependence on preaching as speech making has become a form of communication I call speaching.”
Pagitt offers plenty of observations about the negative impact of speaching, but the major issue is the relationship that is established by the speacher and the audience — lecture-like, standing in front and above, in total control of every word and every suggestion, and shaping the applications while the audience sits and takes it and is to listen and learn and move on with the pastor’s suggestions to a better Christian life. Pagitt sees speaching as “relational violence” (26). Preaching means proclaiming; it doesn’t mean “inarguable, one-way communication” (27). He says this started with the Enlightenment, but on this he is simply mistaken: “speaching” has its origins, at least in the Western world, in 6th Century and earlier Greece with Demosthenes and his followers, in Rome’s great orator, Cicero, in the early eastern preacher John Chrysostom, in the Italian Renaissance’s development of commonplace books for preachers and politicians to draw from… and I could go on.
Pagitt believes in the priesthood of all believers and sees progressional dialogue as a more fitting form of communication for the church. For him, even the content of the sermon should be shaped by the congregation — Bible study for him is with the congregation as they listen to the text to be preached on Sunday and Doug weaves in and out of their mutual Bible study as he preaches on Sunday. Progressional dialogue means the pastor will move within the sermon: from here to there but the movement is shaped by the congregation instead of the pastor.
I don’t agree with Pagitt about everything here, but as I said before I think he has pointed to an issue we need to consider. He says “The value of our practices — including preaching — ought to be judged by their effects [I think he means "affects" from the way the next paragraph goes] on our communities and the ways in which they help us move toward life with God.” Here, I think he has nailed it. I think Doug’s biggest issue is not so much with the speaching style as the impact that style has on everything that happens. Instead of being a servant-shaped act that leads people toward well-crafted outcomes, speaching can become (easily enough, let’s admit it) random talks about a variety of topics with no discernible long-term aims and goals. And we get what we aim for: good, random sermons that do help people.
The issue for many of us, and I’m only a visiting preacher, is the impact of our sermons. How do we preach in such a way that it makes an impact? And Pagitt is aware, though he does not develop it enough, of the educational theory called Outcome-Based Education [OBE].
Teachers are no longer tolerated who think they are teaching by simply lecturing through material — coverage is the word. We know that what a teacher says and what a student learns is different — sometimes dramatic. So, OBE (Alverno College in Milwaukee is the center of the world for this discussion) has an alternative: we don’t ask “What did I expose my students to?” but “What can students do as a result of the course?” The operative word here is “do.” What can students now “do” that they couldn’t before?
The difference is dramatic. And I think Pagitt sees this as a fundamental problem in speaching: the educational model of speaching is the old one — the preacher’s job is to inform. The new model of education goes beyond that (it is post-teaching) and becomes learning-based. We ask now, “What can people do?” And that means we become assessers as much as teachers. We are asking “where is this student in the process from where she or he was to where she or he needs to be if this [say loving others] is the outcome desired?”
So, let me make a proposal that I think Pagitt forces us to consider: what would our churches be like if we developed an “Outcome-Based Church Ministry”? First, we’d need to discuss very carefull what our desired outcomes are. I suggested in The Jesus Creed that they should be loving God and loving others. Second, and this too is just as hard, we need to develop criteria and rubrics of what loving God and loving others look like. Third, we need to develop a step-progression or a matrix of such criteria to use for assessment. Fourth, we need to develop sophisticated assessment tools to be used within churches that help us see where we are and where others we care for are in this process. And, fifth, we need to shape everything we do in our churches so that we are leading people to loving God and loving others.
There is much more to be said about Pagitt’s book, but Outcome-Based Church Ministry is one idea that Pagitt stimulated in my mind as I was working through his book. We’ll have further thoughts later in the week.
Pagitt’s historical understanding of “speeching” is way off. But in spite of that he raises some valid issues — which you (Scot) have done a good job summarizing. Your introduction of OBE into the discussion is helpful.
All of this has me asking questions about why I do what I do. So I started making lists. There’s not enough space to flesh everything out but here is a summary.
Why do I preach?
1. I’ve been positively affected by preachers in my own life. (Even speeching preachers)
2. I’ve been negatively affected by preachers in my own life. Occasionally as a kid I remember thinking, “He gets PAID to do that? I could do that and say it a lot more clearly and to the point than he does.”
3. Even though I never aspired to be a preacher the church kept nudging me in that direction.
4. I promised that I would be faithful in doing so.
5. I seem to have a certain knack for it — giftedness — or so they say. I have to take their word for it. (I’ve never been terribly impressed with my sermons. I feel that I’m pretty average — not bad but certainly not spectacular. And average isn’t bad.)
6. There is something energizing about working with the scripture and with the people day-in and day-out that has changed my life.
7. I see people change. It doesn’t happen very often with just one sermon or even in a short period of time. Over the years I have seen growth in lots of people. Some of them have attributed it to what happens on Sunday mornings. I always want to see more — and more quickly. (There are people who never seem to get it.)
8. Preaching is an adventure. I’m never quite sure what is going to happen in that moment. Whatever it is that God is doing I want to be a part of it.
9. I’m not yet fully able to articulate it but there is something objectively valuable about simply proclaiming God’s Word. Even if no one were to listen or there was no one else to listen — it would still be honoring to God to repeat the story and the good news aloud.
10. It keeps me humble. I trip over my words enough and agonize when things don’t come easily to realize that this whole thing is a whole lot bigger than I am.
11. I love these people.
What do I hope to accomplish in my preaching?
There are the broad answers such as making sure the gospel is proclaimed and that I am faithful to what God has said and continues to say through ancient inspired words. However, more precisely there are three things I want to do in each message/sermon — Encourage, Educate, and Reorient.
(Sorry, I couldn’t find another E word for the third point).
To encourage means to give people the boost they need to step out and trust Christ on a daily basis. Sometimes it means telling them that they’re doing something wrong, but more often it’s about reminding them that God’s grace and mercy is sufficient and that there is hope and that they can move forward — cheerleading through the ups and downs of life.
To educate is about biblical content. I want people to be biblically literate so that they can go out and study the scriptures on their own and so that their crap detectors are finely honed. I do this by modeling solid exegesis. The structure of the sermon provides a template that they can use on their own.
To reorient is to get people to look at life from God’s perspective.
Sometimes this means that sermons will not have anything more tangible than asking them to adjust their vantage point. Such ultimately leads to worship.
What do I struggle with?
1. Sometimes I like words too much. I’m a writer before I am a speaker and I can become very attached to a certain way of articulating something.
2. Sometimes I struggle to get things focused. I don’t have the same level of emotional energy every week. But I feel that I should.
3. Sometimes I don’t have enough time to prepare. Generally, speaking those are the Sundays that I speak longer and ramble more.
4. Sometimes I wish that people would be more responsive. I would feel much more freedom to make things more interactive if I there was greater response — more nods, more smiles, more comments, more laughter (I realize that I have a warped sense of humor). I’ve on occasion turned things into more of a chat when people seem more engaged. (I personally prefer a more interactive sermon — even in the delivery — as I think Pagitt would like
— but there are years of social conditioning at work). About seven years ago I started an online sermon preparation group with over 100 people subscribed to the emails. Over two years or so people lost interest — didn’t have enough time to contribute their input — and I closed it down.
But I loved the interaction.
5. Sometimes I struggle with the whole event and performance mentality that goes with being church. High churches and low churches both get stuck here
— just with different criteria. In order to keep people engaged (and
coming) you always have to come up with something newer and more novel than what you’ve done before. It never seems to be enough to simply enjoy the routine and the cycle of hearing the story over and over again. Everything has to “be fresh” — as though you’re re-inventing the gospel just for them. And there is something unhealthy about that.