Preaching in Britain Today: Believing or Belonging? (Part 4)

27 Jun


In this final article in this series, “Preaching in Britain: Believing or Belonging?” I take up the model of indirect communication proposed by preacher Fred B. Craddock in his thought-provoking and challenging book, Overhearing the Gospel.

Instead of relying solely upon direct modes of communication, Craddock argued to the contrary that preachers should embrace what he termed “incarnational forms of communication.”

Incarnational forms of communication are based upon the example set by Christ’s coming to earth to communicate with humanity. In other words, if we view the incarnation in terms of “communication from God to humans,” the form of communication is far more indirect rather than direct. Moreover, by its very nature, the incarnation of Christ accommodated itself to humanity: by becoming human, Christ therefore put himself in a position whereby he could fully identify with humanity–on our level.

Incarnational Communication

Craddock explains that “God in human form is a paradox, an indirection, eliciting rather than overwhelming faith…because Christ was incognito, even his direct messages were indirect. The church is to use the paradox of the Incarnation as its model for word and action.”[1] Moreover, Jesus’s own rhetorical strategies largely made use of indirect forms of communication, such as parables. By concealing as much as they revealed, parables engaged the listeners, and challenged them to engage in further exploration of their meaning.

The endorsement of indirect forms of communication, however, is not intended to dispense entirely with direct communication. Craddock pointed out that direct communication certainly does provide necessary substance, both for conversation and learning.[2] However, the problem we face today is this: that since it is so deeply rooted in time-honoured church traditions, the direct mode has taken over the preaching scene virtually entirely. Therefore, the direct mode of communication has become for many preachers the only form.

Indirect Communication

By comparison, indirect forms of communication are aimed at not only enlisting the participation of the hearer, but also seek to effect an experience in the listener. Craddock maintained that the sermon structure with the greatest potential for this type of effectiveness is narrative preaching. This is because when listening to a narrative, the hearer’s posture becomes that of an over-hearer. Stories, quite simply, are incredibly engaging, and have an uncanny ability to bring about an emotional reaction in ways that direct, confrontational communication simply cannot.

When the listeners maintain a sense of distance from the actual story itself, the narrative unfolds on its own; and yet at the same time, stories invite the listener to participate and identify with, or against, characters within the story. Thus, the story brings about not only a sense of identification, but also makes inescapable demands on the listener to get involved. As mentioned earlier, Jesus, for example, modelled this type of indirect communication in his many parables.

To utilize this type of indirect communication, however, the preacher must release control over the potential outcome of the sermon. Although difficult, the preacher must avoid giving interpretative “answers” and specific applications, and trust that—with the aid of the Spirit—the hearer can finish the message on his or her own. In this type of communication, response is permitted, rather than demanded, as with more direct modes of communication.[3]

Finally, you may have noticed that this series of articles have deliberately avoided any mention of specific preaching methodology. This aim is not to develop a step-by-step, “how-to” approach to preaching, but is more about constructing a model that fosters a set of communicative values by which to operate. The aim of this entire series of articles is to stimulate thought and discussion by reflecting upon the current state of religion in Britain. It represents the attempt to foster both awareness and bring about a dialogue regarding how the church can most effectively minister to the changing world around us.

What should be clear by now is that if we continue to do the “same old things in the same old ways,” we cannot realistically expect to obtain different results. We must face the reality that we are living in a post-Christian culture today as indicated by Brown: “the culture of Christianity has gone in the Britain of the new millennium. Britain is showing the world how religion as we have known it can die.”[4]

Conclusion: “Relinquish and Receive” 

Although many will undoubtedly mourn the passing of the Christian culture in Britain, perhaps at the same time this situation heralds a new opportunity for missional engagement. In this regard, North American biblical scholar and theologian, Walter Brueggemann, calls the church to make two difficult but crucial moves: first, to relinquish its hold upon the past, which means letting go of everything known and loved about the past.[5]

The tough reality facing churches today is this: that “yesterday’s church” cannot effectively minister in the rapidly changing, increasingly multi-ethnic and globalized world of today. As it specifically relates to preaching, if we continue to try and communicate to postmodernists using a modernist model of preaching, it quite simply is outmoded and will not fit. Listeners today ask for participation, dialogue and engagement in the sermon event; they simply do not want to be told what they should believe, how they should think, and how to behave based upon the preacher’s conclusions–and applications–drawn from his or her interpretation of the biblical text.

The fact is that the worldview of Enlightenment modernism is in the process of passing away, with its beliefs in objectivity, certitude, and reason. Brueggemann comments that “we are in a season of transition, when we are watching the collapse of the world as we have known it. The political forms and economic modes of the past are increasingly ineffective. The value systems and the shapes of knowledge through which we have controlled life are now in great jeopardy.”[6]

Unfortunately, the fact that modernism has been the dominant worldview for the previous two centuries has led to many abuses by those in power—be they religious, educational, or political. The leading forces in power set the tone for the day. Now, however, that previously-dominant worldview is being replaced by postmodernism, and that makes many a Christian, whose very identity has become conflated with the former worldview, feel very uncomfortable.

Another issue Brueggemann points out concerns Western versions of church and their increasing irrelevance and loss of credibility. This is due, he claims, in large part to fear; as the Enlightenment worldview, long embraced by mainstream Christianity, fades away, the desire for theological certitude increases. This has led—in both conservative and liberal camps—to a lack of vitality in ministry, and an increasing avoidance of engaging the culture.

The second move Brueggemann calls upon churches to make is this: only when its hold on the past is relinquished, will the church be able to receive that which God has in store for the future. Only then will churches be able to move ahead with intentionality and freedom into the future, and to engage the new culture.  To paraphrase him, Brueggemann maintains that “you cannot simultaneously hold on to the past and receive what God has for you in the future.”

To believe otherwise is to live in denial, and denial leads to a lack of vitality and risk, both in ministry and in life.


[1] Fred B. Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel, 83.

[2] Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel, 84.

[3] Craddock, Overhearing the Gospel, 124.

[4] Brown, The Death of Christian Britain, 198.

[5] Walter Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination: : Prophetic Voices in Exile.  London: SCM Press, 1992: 7.

[6] Brueggemann, Hopeful Imagination, 45-46.


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