It Can’t All Be “We”

As far as authority is concerned, there has been a shift happening over the course of a couple of generations. We have shifted from authorities being respected, to not being respected, to being distrusted and even opposed. Think of the police, or politicians. Actually, let’s think about the preacher. People may like the preacher, listen to the preacher, even appreciate the sermons, but there is a resistance to the concept of the preacher speaking with authority. One result of this is the shift in perspective and tone from preachers. Preachers often preach as fellow observers and recipients of the biblical text. The sermons are much more in the “key of we” than they used to be. There are benefits to this approach, but also some problems.

Back in the 1970’s the issue of authority was addressed in Fred Craddock’s book, As One Without Authority. This was a hugely influential book and it brought the “New Homiletic” into the consciousness of many in the preaching community. While there is plenty to learn from writer’s like Craddock, there is an underlying issue that needs to be faced. The New Homiletic, built on an underlying New Hermeneutic, is strongly emphasizing a reader-response approach to the biblical text. While we should think about what we, as readers, bring to our understanding of any passage we are reading, we must never lose sight of the author and his/His intent in the text.

If we believe a(A)uthorial intent matters, which it surely must if there is to be any correspondence between truth and reality, then it would be inappropriate to preach completely in “we.” As a preacher, you prayerfully study the text in order to determine the author’s intended meaning as closely as possible. Then you prayerfully consider how to preach that text to your listeners so that they can relevantly hear the truth of God’s word in the tone of God’s heart.

Your crafting of the sermon should never obliterate your study of the text, or else you preach a message stripped of the authority of God’s Word. Your authority is not the concern. His is. So when you preach, there should be a humble (you) and yet authoritative (His) explanation of the meaning of that biblical text and its implications for your listeners.

Humble but authoritative does not mean we have to jettison the “we” completely and become bombastic, haranguing, nagging, drill sergeants (remember the “humble”). However, humble but authoritative cannot be merely suggestive, reactive, passive and soft, either. There may be nobody in the room who consciously considers your role as a preacher to be authoritative, but everyone should sense that what you say is more than a suggestion.

If “we” is at home anywhere in the sermon, perhaps it is in the more applicational elements. After all, a strong division between clergy and laity has far less biblical argument in its favour than the role of authorial intent. You speak as one who needs to respond to God’s Word as much as anyone else. You speak as a priest to priests.

So there must be plenty of “we” in a message – we need to hear from God, we need His grace, we need His instruction, we all have gone astray, etc. But make sure you don’t infect the explanation of the text and the declaration of biblical truth with the subtle yeast of “we” . . . if it loses its anchor point in authorial intent then we all drift together. Understand and explain the meaning of the text with humble authority, and then take a lead as one of the “we” responding to His authoritative Word!

It Can’t All Be “We”

Cultures shift.  In the west we are living in an age when people no longer respect authority, including the authority of a preacher.  People may like the preacher, and listen to the preacher, but there is some resistance to the concept of a preacher speaking with authority.  Consequently, many preachers will try to use “we” throughout the sermon.  In effect, preaching as a fellow observer and recipient of the text.  This may be a good idea, but there are limits.

The notion of preaching without authority came to the fore in the 1970’s, with books like As One Without Authority by Fred Craddock.  This hugely influential book placed the “New Homiletic” into the consciousness of many.  Much of what Craddock wrote is well worth taking onboard, but there is an underlying issue we need to recognize.  The New Homiletic, even in its more conservative forms, is strongly influenced by the New Hermeneutic.  Here we find strong emphasis on a reader-response approach to the text, but the author seems to have been lost along the way.

If we hold to the importance of authorial intent in our hermeneutics, then a total “we” approach seems inappropriate.  As preachers, we study the text, hopefully with some degree of skill, in order to determine the author’s meaning.  Consequently, there should be a humble but authoritative explanation of the meaning of the text for the benefit of our listeners.  This “humble but authoritative explanation” may not require a “you” approach in contrast to “we,” but it does carry some authority.

Meaning is not determined by a primarily subjective response to the text in us all as readers.  In one sense there is a mutuality as we, God’s people, discover the meaning of the text.  However, that discovery must be the meaning of the text, not a meaning we discover subjectively in experiencing the text.

Nevertheless, in the applicational features of a sermon, and there should be many, perhaps “we” should be prevalent.  We all stand under the authority of the text.  We all should be responding to what we read.  Let the “we” feature in the shared need for the message of the text (introduce appropriate vulnerability and connection early).  Let the “we” feature carefully in application throughout the message.  However, let us be careful what we might imply with “we” in the explanation of the text. Let us strive to understand and communicate the meaning of the text as those with humble authority, but let us take our position amongst the ranks of God’s people responding to His Word.

Review: The Homiletical Plot, by Eugene Lowry

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Eugene Lowry’s work sits under the broad umbrella of the New Homiletic. His work overlaps considerably with Fred Craddock. Other New Homiletic writers have been criticized for writing well, but failing to provide a clear model of what they are suggesting. This charge cannot be leveled at Lowry. The Homiletic Plot was first released in 1980, then re-released twenty-one years later. The text of the book remains unchanged, with the only significant change being an additional afterword. This addition is very helpful, clarifying elements of the book and providing an overview of the New Homiletic field.

The Homiletical Plot provides a plotline for narrative sermons which suggests the preacher might typically move through five discernible stages in a narrative sermon. Don’t confuse narrative preaching with preaching on narrative texts. The former is an organic approach to preaching that develops sermons using temporal sequencing to develop a sermonic experience, the latter could take any form, but uses a biblical story as its text. In fact, a biblical narrative contains features of plot already, so the resulting sermon might vary from the “Lowry Loop” more than non-narrative texts. However, it is important to note that Lowry is not suggesting the forcing of any text into his 5-stage loop.

Whether or not you have read much from New Homiletic writers, Lowry is well worth reading. It is relatively short (131pp) yet has many strengths. He presents a good case for thinking of sermons as horizontal rather than vertical, an event in time rather than space, progressing rather than static, organically developed rather than constructed. The opening stage of upsetting the equilibrium should be required reading for every preacher. The notion of complications and plumbing the depths of the real issues in life is very thought provoking, whether or not you agree with Lowry’s theology (which he does not push on the reader). The notion of a sudden shift is surely a powerful concept and I appreciated the positive approach to concluding the sermon.

There are three weaknesses worth noting. Even with all the explanation and helpful diagrams, the reader is still left wondering what this actually looks like in a sermon. The danger of example sermons in an appendix is that they will turn off some readers and narrow the potential readership. However, the problem of no sample sermon is that the reader is left pondering exactly how Lowry might “plumb the depths” or perform the sudden shift.

Perhaps the greatest problem with the book for those of us committed to expository preaching relates to explaining the biblical text. Lowry states that he would typically spend more time on stage 2 (analyzing the discrepancy) than the other stages put together. Does this pursuit of deeper issues in the listener leave enough time to actually explain the text itself?

The final concern relates to the “Gospel” that permeates the model. Lowry continually refers to “experiencing the gospel” (stage 4), but which gospel? At times it feels like nothing more than the good news that God has turned things upside down in Jesus. This book will appeal to a broad spectrum of Christendom, and deliberately so, but some of us may feel the need to translate some of its teaching into our paradigm.

On one hand the book is highly refreshing and challenging – it certainly contains much for us to learn. On the other hand it highlights the dividing line between New Homiletic and those of us who would hold back from being counted in that camp. If it is possible to reduce the notion of a sermon to its minimum required features, then perhaps two broad camps can become more clear. The expository preaching camp might be satisfied with Sunukjian’s trio of bare essentials: A Bible text explained + the Big Idea + Relevance = a sermon. The reader of Lowry is left with a different trio: A “Gospel” image derived a Bible text + Plot + Relevance = a sermon.

This book would benefit all of us as preachers. Some aspects of it may not fully satisfy all of us. But it gives us all plenty to think about!