Communication that Builds Community

20 Feb

Why do people return to Church, week after week on Sunday mornings, only to endure what the preacher continually serves up? Why do people sit in hard chairs in front of dull pulpits? Why does preaching many times have to be tolerated or suffered through? Do people truly come to church on a Sunday morning with the vague hope that this particular morning, they might actually hear a word from God? And finally, why is there still such a massive gap between the pulpit and pew, with a major sense of disconnect on so many levels?

Deductive Preaching Forms

North American homiletician Fred B. Craddock, in his landmark 1971 book As One Without Authority, spoke to these issues and more. He stated that in typical sermons one endures in most churches today, the style of preaching is largely a deductive model. This is how the deductive process and model functions: the preacher arrives in the pulpit with a prepackaged conclusion in his or her mind about what the text being preached from already says.

How did the preacher arrive at such a prepackaged conclusion? Through personal study during the week, the preacher has (hopefully) done her study of the text, and has therefore already arrived at some interpretative conclusion about the text to be preached. This conclusion, reached in the privacy of her study (and most typically without engaging in discussion about the text or sermon with anybody else), must now be shared with the audience.

The deductive sermon typically proceeds by means of an outline-type format. Following a (hopefully) suitably catchy introduction, the preacher then usually states the main point at the beginning. The sermon then moves forward, as the preacher breaks down the main point into sub points (typically no more than 3) The irony of such outline-format movement, Craddock argued, is that each point actually moves further away from the main idea. Preachers will agree that the most difficult part of their sermon involves the transition between points, all the while somehow trying to keep the “main idea” in view so the listeners don’t forget the point! Thus the trajectory, or overall movement of the sermon, is downward and one-way: from pulpit to pew. At the same time, such a monologic communication model also (in not-so-subtle ways at times) displays the authoritarian nature of the preacher, of the Scripture, and of the church itself as an institution.

Even though this process is completely undemocratic, and increasingly is less and less appropriate for postmodern listeners who desire participation, nonetheless many preachers currently continue to cling stubbornly to this deductive method. There is oftentimes a desire for preachers to “play it safe,” and stick to the “old tried and true methods” that (hopefully) worked in the past, says Mike Quicke in his book 360-Degree Preaching. Newer models are scary because they tend to challenge the preacher’s skills and also that of the status quo of the congregation’s expectations.

Critique

The deductive approach has two inherent problems that have been identified: on the one hand, says Craddock, it is all about making a case, by presenting a logical argument that must be supported in a point-by-point fashion. On the other hand, the audience listening to deductive sermons are presented with a stark either/or dilemma: the choice they face is either to agree or disagree, with no middle ground. This reflects in many ways the simple dichotomy the church seems to have of breaking down all of life into two categories: right and wrong, black and white. But why reduce all of life into two categories? Who wants to live in that world, when there is a world of color out there?

Craddock makes a very important point about this entire process and communication model employed by many churches. He stated that the form of the sermon in turns shapes the form of the faith of the listeners. In other words, sermons that proceed in a linear, deductive, argumentative fashion will tend to produce Christians who are convinced that their faith is correspondingly a matter or principles, bullet-points and formulas. In many ways, the evangelism strategies embraced by many churches follow this mindset: we must argue or convince non-believers of the rational validity of the faith. All of that evidence must demand a verdict, correct? And that verdict is that Christianity is the one true religion, based on the unassailable facts.

Moreover, an additional critique is this: by constantly explaining and even applying the text of Scripture regularly for the listeners, they are basically spoon-fed. The hearers are kept in a state of spiritual infancy, since the preacher is doing all of the hard work. This also reinforces the notion that the preacher is the “expert,” who alone (since they’ve studied the original languages and theology at seminary), can interpret and apply the text of Scripture for the congregation.

My question, however, is this: what would happen if preachers stopped viewing audiences as merely passive recipients of their profound and expert words? What if, instead of seeking to “drive listeners to the wall” with unassailable logic, preachers started exploring sermon forms that left important decisions in the hands of the listeners? Does the preacher really trust that the listeners can interpret–and apply–the text of Scripture for themselves, with the aid of the Spirit? And what would happen if sermons were more open-ended and dialogical, with space built in for feedback and discussion? Why can’t it be more of a two-way street instead of a monologue? To begin the journey toward these concepts would, I suspect, involve a major paradigm shift for many preachers and congregations alike. Although it is certainly risky, the risks of maintaining the status quo must surely be greater.

In order to process these questions, I believe one must examine the relationship between preaching and leadership. A preacher/pastor is first and foremost a leader. What is leadership? Take, for example, the time-honored definition by John Maxwell: “Leadership is influence.” It may be a cliché, but it also happens to be a truism. Preachers hope that their words in sermons will influence their listeners to act in certain ways, to stop acting in certain ways, or to change attitudes, values and belief systems.

But preaching is only a small part of the overall picture of church ministry, and not the other way around. Quite simply, preaching isn’t everything. Rather than the “hub around which the church revolves,” as some would have it, preaching is but one part of the overall culture of the church, and its various ministries and sense of mission.

It is my conviction that the primary job of pastors, as leaders, is to create—and to maintain—an intentional culture of health. Why is this such an important goal at which to aim? Because, if the major focus of church leadership is thus to create and to maintain a place of safety and health, it is in such a context whereby believers can experience true, biblical community and life transformation. So what does preaching have to do with this?

The preacher may in fact lament the loss of prestige in switching over to a more dialogical, inductive, process-oriented sermon style, says Craddock. But if he laments that loss, he has greater reason to celebrate the recovery of the church as a community. That loss of clerical prestige, said Craddock, is more than offset by the gains in building community. This shift toward “communication that builds community” takes an incredible amount of humility on the part of the preacher. But it is also a shift that cannot be made in an unhealthy culture either. The potential payoff, however, must surely be worth it.

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