Preaching Needs to be Relational
One of the drawbacks of writing about any given subject is that some who read it are going to (very understandably) assume that you are setting yourself up as an expert on that subject. For this reason I have hesitated a great deal before putting finger to keypad on the topic of relational preaching. It would simply not be honest for me to give the impression that I have mastered the practice of relational preaching. But what I have done is thought a great deal about how to apply what I have learned about relating to others to the activity of preaching.
The thought that preaching needs to be relational in its character arises from the fact that when God speaks he does so relationally. Jesus is God’s message to the human race. As the incarnate Word of God he is God’s embodied and interpersonal expression. When God declares his message to his creation he does so, therefore, in the most relational manner conceivable. It also arises from the understanding that whenever we speak to others, if our speaking is to be ethical then we must look to engage with them in a way that respects their personhood, which, after all, is the image of God.
The truth remains however, that the relationship between the preacher and the congregation is peculiar one in that it is not mutual. In spite of post modern attempts to strip preaching of its non-mutuality, it has a built-in imbalance where one person is being given a degree of power by others. Because the act of preaching entails, among other things, teaching, urging and persuading power is shifted from the listeners into the hands of the preacher. It is, however, in vogue at the moment for the preacher to shed the mantle of being an expert. Experts are no longer wanted in our post-truth society, and so the preacher, we are told, must learn from the congregation and not teach; the preacher must be changed by the act of preaching and not try to effect change etc. I don’t want to dismiss this out of hand, but it does go too far in its quest for an egalitarian church culture. If we believe in truth then we must not be embarrassed by the notion of experts, people who have been able to dedicate their time to the study of a particular area of truth in a way that others have not. The question is not how can preachers divest themselves of the power of the expert so as to pander to post modernity’s demands for a structureless church, but how can preachers best use this power and responsibility to serve those who have entrusted it to them.
I think we are helped in finding an answer to this question by the paradoxical consideration that at a more fundamental level the flow of non-mutuality between preacher and congregation is reversed. In delivering a sermon to the church the preacher is standing up to be judged by his listeners. I don’t mean that the performance of the preacher is being judged, but that the preacher is exposed in the pulpit to the ethical demands of the act of preaching. He stands before people whom he cannot possibly know or measure, people who transcend him and he stands beforethem as someone who is responsible to them for how he relates to their transcendence. There is something here of the pattern of leadership that Christ presents us with, that whoever would be a leader must become a slave (Matt 20:27). This exposure of our own limitations is, I believe, why so many of us preachers retreat from this judgement and the sense of shame it provokes to hide behind the fig leaf of a persona or the bush of a performance.
So let me try to outline some thoughts on what I think are the distinctive features of relational preaching.
1. Preaching relationally demands that I am fully engaged with the congregation. It would be easy to escape from the challenge presented to me by the congregation by hiding in amongst the myriad of words on my sermon notes. It would also be easy to switch off my own experiences, to escape my own humanity in order to be the automaton who delivers the planned words in the programmed way. But if I am to relate to others through my preaching then I need to be be aware not only of the demand to deliver my message, but also with the requirement to deliver it to the specific people who are listening to me. Relational preaching requires me to be aware of the congregation, alert to their personhood and to their experience. Not to unthinkingly categorise them as ‘anybodies’ as though the only real concern is the message and how I convey it, but to give due regard to the image of God within them and so to give due attention to them as persons. To preach relationally I need to be fully present with and towards the congregation.
2. I need also to allow space for the congregation to feel what they feel. Often preachers will try to impose an emotion on a congregation, just because that’s the emotion they feel in response to the subject of their sermon. But that cannot mean that the congregation must be encouraged or manipulated into having that same feeling. Every individual will respond in their own way to any particular truth or experience; some, being overloaded with feelings from other experiences unrelated to the worship, may even be unable to feel anything at all. I am convinced that space needs to be allowed for each member of the congregation to respond in a way that is authentic to them and their current circumstances for preaching to be genuinely relational.
3. Another feature of relational preaching is that it is emotionally sensitive to the congregation. If I am to allow the congregation to respond in their own way to the sermon then I need in some sense to be attuned to those responses. To put it another way, preaching has to be empathic. There will, however, be any number of emotions being experienced by the congregation at any given time, how then can I be attuned to them all? This is clearly not possible. What is needed, I believe is for me to be able to have some general sense of what is going on for the individuals in the congregation, and for this to then influence me as I continue to preach. Rather than my emotions being imposed on the congregation then, empathic preaching requires me to be affected by the emotions the congregation are bringing into the worship.
4. Finally, to preach relationally I need to be my true self and to not retreat behind a persona, to wear the actor’s mask in order to deliver a performance. What causes any of us to seek the protection of a persona is a fear of having our vulnerability exposed, and I struggle to think of any more threatening situation to our vulnerability than that of facing a congregation as a preacher. If I succumb to this temptation then I will be able to deliver a perfectly good sermon, but I will have failed to relate to the congregation. I need, therefore, to have the courage to acknowledge my own vulnerability even as I step before the church in order to preach. I don’t mean to suggest that I should burden the congregation with an exposition of all my troubles and self-doubts in the name of authenticity. What I mean is that I am, while preaching, not projecting a persona of invulnerability, but that I am someone who acknowledges the existence of my own vulnerability , is OK with it whilst, for that time, setting it aside, so that it doesn’t become the centrepiece of the act of worship.
As I glance over what I have written here I am struck by just how aspirational these reflections are. The battles with psychological defence mechanisms as well as self-centred instincts that must be fought for preaching to be genuinely relational are huge. But it is this very fact that does as much as anything else to persuade me that this is the direction in which I need to travel,