Why do we preach? Thoughts from the thinking fellows

I recently listened to the Why Do We Preach? episode from the Thinking Fellows 1517 podcast. In brief, these Lutheran friends argue that the purposes of preaching include:

  • Give hope to your audience. (They shared a hypothetical of someone who might be suicidal and hoping for one reason not to go through with it. Or assume that at least someone in your audience “screwed up royal that week.” How can they find forgiveness and peace?)
  • You’re speaking prophetically, on behalf of God, not just about God. Your job is to “put them to death” metaphorically so they can be “resurrected” metaphorically. You put whatever needs to be put to death so that only Christ remains in them.
  • Second order discourse is preaching about the scriptural text. First order discourse is speaking on God’s behalf. Often second order is needed to set the stage for first order, but first order is the ultimate objective.
  • Preaching is not about behavioral change on the part of the audience. It’s about salvation. You can persuade to do something good through preaching but that’s not salvation. Your job is to preach to awaken them to the knowledge of their own salvation in Christ.
  • Preaching the law doesn’t save. Preaching the gospel does. This means not preaching on obedience to legal commandments, but preaching on grace, hope, forgiveness, and salvation. They drew parallels between that and the themes of Jesus’ ministry and preaching.

This was thought-provoking for me, especially as I’m about to embark on an “introduction to preaching” seminary course this January. The key sticking point for me was about the priority of first order discourse (preaching salvation on God’s behalf) over second order discourse (preaching about the scriptural text). While of course both are important, these folks argued that at the end of the day it has to be about fostering a spiritual experience with God as opposed to a cerebral/intellectual one.

I remember one of the things that initially drew me to the Episcopal Church was that the preachers included a good deal of scholarly/intellectual material in their sermons. This approach to theology was embraced and lauded. I came from a tradition that often emphasized spiritual experiences and simplistic theological cliches in worship services that were (in my view) poorer for their lack of curiosity and engagement with scholarly and intellectual material. It was a breath of fresh air to hear, upon my first visit to a Eucharist service, the preacher discuss the historical and cultural context of the book of Isaiah at length before applying it to the sermon’s key “take-away.”

That said, I realize that I’m very, very likely the minority. I’m a nerd and most folks probably yawn at extended dives into scholarly theories about Isaiahn authorship. Nonetheless, it was what I needed at that time in my life and what I continue to appreciate in the Episcopal community.

I hope to learn more in my upcoming course regarding different views of the proper balance between first and second order discourse in contemporary sermonizing.

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