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.

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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!