Preaching from the roundtable: Listening together for the voice of God
A growing awareness exists about a dearth of wholistic preaching that integrates the preacher, the listener, and the message in the context of a Christian community. After the presentation of the sermon on a given week, we find it not unusual to hear comments suggesting that, although “good,” the sermon did not meet the needs of the church members. At the root of this deficiency comes the firmly held view that revelation has been given to the pastor; and to him or her alone.
The prophet Isaiah was called to preach the good news to God’s people in exile, and in chapter 50 verse 4 we read:
The Sovereign Lord has given me a well-instructed tongue,
To know the word that sustains the weary.
He wakens me morning by morning,
Wakens my ear to listen like one being taught (NIV).
Isaiah’s portrait of servanthood reveals a magnificent portrayal of the life of a preacher who has been called by God and who learns to listen before he or she speaks. Collaborative preaching becomes preaching that elevates listening as an ingredient of primary importance. The preacher learns to listen to both the whisperings of the Holy Spirit and the echoes of his or her community. In short, the preacher learns to listen to both.
In this context, our church in London, England, asked a group of six to eight representatives, chosen from the church membership to reflect age, gender, culture, and educational and religious background, to participate in roundtable discussions with the pastor. What we learned shows that sermons prepared in collaboration with members of the congregation are often better able to meet the needs of the hearers.
Participants were given the pastor’s text, along with any guidance from the pastor, and allowed a reasonable time for study prior to the meeting. They were then reminded of the goals to be achieved, which were to: (a) widen the biblical interpretative process to include members of the laity; (b) engage and influence the ways in which the congregation moves forward in its drive toward becoming a Christian community; and (c) learn to listen to the voice of God and follow the will of God.
Members were informed of the hermeneutical and exegetical principles that would inform the interpretative process, as well as the listening skills that would help members comprehend the dynamics of sermon preparation and delivery.
The process of interpretation began with members reading the text from different translations. Following the reading, members divided into pairs to discuss the insights and ideas gained from the text. After the allotted time, they came together for general discussion and role play, using all their imagination. They needed to look at the text in its historical setting and to enact the text in the context of the church community in a way that accorded with the needs, expectations, and life experiences of the members.
After the sermon preparation meeting, the preacher’s task was to work with the Holy Spirit to create a sermon that would reflect the text and incorporate from the group discussion any material the preacher deemed pertinent. After the sermon was preached, the group celebrated the word together and joyfully shared personal blessings gained as well as insights received through their interaction with the rest of the membership.
Each group functioned for one year, then another group was chosen. We did this for three years and then asked church members what it had meant for them. What do you anticipate the results were? Before I share the results, permit me to give some background.
A need for self-evaluation exists, indeed, for what J. H. Oldham calls a revolution in our present outlook: “The need to restore the broken connection between the church and life as actually lived demands a radically new understanding of the place and function of the lay members of the church. . . A revolution is needed in the present outlook of the church.”1 This revolution may begin by inviting the opinions of marginalized voices into the work of sermon preparation.
The apostle Paul says, “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God” (Rom. 10:17, NKJV). Through listening, the preacher learns about not only the experiences and expectations of the members but also his or her own limitations. For this to happen, the church needs to encourage true participation—a coming together of clergy and laity in the task of ministry. One way for this to happen is to facilitate a manner of listening through which the preaching moment unites the Word, the preacher, and congregational life.
The apostle Peter says, “knowing this first, that no prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation” (2 Pet. 1:20, KJV). Conversation between clergy and laity can help to bring about a common language of faith and the building of a closer and stronger community. As this is done, the community learns and develops a wealth of metaphors, images of faith, and a language of the heart that accords with the Word of God and the experiences of its members.
Fred Craddock discusses the essential role of the preacher.2 He suggests that the preacher should above all be “a listener to the Word of God” seeking to experience the Word as “an event” or a happening. In addition, the preacher should “really be a member of the congregation,” “able to be vulnerable” and to live and preach in “relationship with the people.” Craddock further characterizes the new relationship as “listening by the speaker” coupled with “contributing by the hearer.”
Christine Smith suggests that the preacher and the worship committee are not separate and distinct realities.3 She asserts that preaching is not grounded in the preacher’s “special rights, power, knowledge, and capacity to influence or transform.” Rather, it is an understanding of preaching that is grounded in a mutuality and solidarity between the preacher and the community.
In order to evangelize the whole world, Christ shifted the responsibility for teaching and healing from Himself to ordinary people who would be empowered by the Holy Spirit. A similar shift becomes necessary between the clergy and laity in all areas of ministry, including sermon preparation. For this to take place, the procedures and structures of the church will need to be simplified and new priorities adopted.
In general, preachers have systematically followed the pastoral form or what Bernard Swain calls the “sovereign style”of leadership.4 This style is modeled after the prophets who interpreted and mediated God’s word for the community. In the sovereign style of preaching, the pastor determines and embodies the final word on God’s will for the members. The preacher, however, may be enriched by listening to the heartbeat of the congregation as well as the vibrations of the text. Without the former the sermon may become a positivistic restatement of a scriptural truth without being true biblical preaching.5
John McClure regards preaching as a collaborative process in which leaders
create roundtable conversations that give the laity opportunities to interpret the gospel in the context of their own lives.6 It involves members of the congregation in sermonic brainstorming. In this way the sermon becomes what David Hesselgrave calls the “rhetoric of listening”:a form of communication between preacher and hearer that allows the theological insights of the preacher to penetrate the congregation and also permits the biblical interpretations of the congregation to find a voice in the pulpit. 7
Lucy Atkinson Rose contends that the preacher and the congregation are colleagues exploring the world as it relates to their lives, the congregation at large, and society in general.8 All Christians, irrespective of their station in life, have a unique experience with God, and all should be invited into the process of interpretation.
I contend that a collaborative effort involving planned, structured interaction between the preacher and members of the congregation will not only widen the process of interpretation but will also lead to deeper spiritual lives and better relationships among members. The experience of the group will, ideally, mirror that of the pastor. However, in listening to the sermon, the group finds themselves also in a position to dialogue together to increase understanding and facilitate change. Dialogue can be considered a tool for bringing about reflection and change.
Though I recognized the need for increased relevance and more balance in my preaching, it was not until seminary that I realized how one-sided my sermons had been. The seminary enabled me to preach more evenhanded sermons and to make the preaching moment an event that enables the hearers to experience the assurance of grace so that they will “never quit praisin’ God.”9 However, I was also introduced to the deeper process of dialogue, which enables the body of Christ to have an encounter with God, one that leaves them with a stronger faith and deeper commitment to do His work.
Most churches have what we consider to be a shared ministry. Deacons and deaconesses participate in the communion service, and elders are given opportunities to preach; yet its hierarchal structure creates a gap between the pastor and the laity. There exists some dialogue, but the sovereign style does not permit or allow for dialogue in the early stages of sermon preparation.10 Preaching is often conducted through a closed-door process that, by its very nature, is exclusive.
The need for change has long been recognized. The distribution of spiritual gifts was, and is, for the building up of the church as the body of Christ, and it provides ample proof that the early church was led by the laity (1 Cor. 12:3–10). In contrast, we have established a two-tier system where the professional pastor leads and the laity follows. Rose is convinced that “the preacher and the congregation are not separate entities, but a community of faith.”11 Because traditional homiletical theory presupposes a gap separating the preacher from the worshippers, it may be difficult to take seriously alternative experiences that are rooted in dialogue.
If the church is to model the example of the early believers, the members must engage in varying forms of ongoing collaboration between pastor and laity. The collaborative process refutes the lone ranger model by listening to those who share our perspectives as well as to those who disagree; but whose perspectives we nevertheless take into account.
So what were the results? The testimonies of the lay participants were glowing. They felt humbled, but empowered. One group member stated: “As a member of the group, working with the preacher on the sermons has been one of the highlights of the year. I now have a better under- standing of how to read and interpret a passage. It has been a learning process for me. I have learned new ways of looking at a text, visualizing the various images and metaphors that can contribute to an interpretation of the Scripture. I realize the need to read the text in a certain way, and I am more focused on what the text is saying.” Another group member said: “The idea of trying to unravel the mysteries of the Bible is itself a mystery, but one that I have come to realize can be carried out through faith and the power of the Holy Spirit. Guided by the pastor and working together with other people, all of whom are on different levels of experience and faith, was in itself a lesson in faith.” Yet another group member declared: “Although we had read the text, we still continued to look at it from the perspective of the author of Luke’s gospel. Although our interpretations were similar, because of preconceived ideas, they were nevertheless different to the pastor’s. From the subsequent dialogue with the pastor, we learned the need to focus on the text, and what it is saying to us. We were also reminded that texts have several layers and dimensions of meaning which need to be considered.”
The sermons preached over a three-year period demonstrated that the participation of the pastor with members of the congregation can strengthen clergy-laity relations and heighten awareness and listening skills among congregants. Church members reported that their biblical knowledge had increased and their spirituality and faith had been greatly enhanced.
Ellen White states, “The dissemination of the truth of God is not confined to a few ordained ministers. The truth is to be scattered by all who claim to be disciples of Christ. It must be sown beside all waters.”12 Equally upon the whole church of Christ, clergy and laity alike, the duty to minister is laid. Collaborative preaching does not usurp the place of the Holy Spirit; rather, it increases the need, for the Holy Spirit, enables the preacher to recognize and utilize the talents and gifts of the church at large, and makes our collective stories an offering to God.
Paul Scott Wilson made this point quite emphatically: “As preachers we do not stand against the people, untouched by their struggles. We stand with the people, as one of them, under the Word. The people are the church and they have set us apart for a particular kind of ministry, to bring their lives into focus before God.”13 Traditions die hard and changes often take time. If a pastor would like to introduce collaborative preaching, we suggest it be implemented for short periods, intermittently. The prophetic voice of the preacher cannot be muffled by the sensitivities of the saints. Yet if preachers are to meet the needs of our congregants, we need to know what those needs are. And what better way to know those needs than, simply, to listen?14
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1 J. H. Oldham, Life is Commitment, (New York: Association Press, 1952) 97, 98. Quoted in Rex D. Edwards, Every Believer a Minister (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 11.
2 Fred B. Craddock, As One Without Authority: Inductive Preaching (Enid. OK: Phillips University Press, 1974). 43, 35, 83. Quoted in Lucy Atkinson Rose, Sharing the Word (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 61.
3 Christine M. Smith, Weaving the Sermon. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1989), 57, 46
4 Bernard F. Swain, Liberating Leadership: Practical Styles for Pastoral Ministry (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1986). Quoted in John S. McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership and Preaching Meet (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press 1995), 31.
5 Cf. Fred Craddock, “The Inductive Method in Preaching,” in A New Hearing: Living Options in Homiletic Method, ed. Richard L. Eslinger (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1987), 123.
6 McClure, 49.
7 David J. Hesselgrave, “ ‘Gold from Egypt’: The Contribution of Rhetoric to Cross-Cultural Communication,” Missiology: An International Review 4 (1976): 95 in McClure (1995), 57.
8 Lucy Atkinson Rose, Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1997), 4.
9 Frank A. Thomas, They Like to Never Quit Praisin’ God: The Role of Celebration in Preaching (Cleveland, OH: The Pilgrim Press, 2013), 3.
10 Compare Charles E. Bradford, Preaching to the Times: The Preaching Ministry in the Seventh-day Adventist Church (Silver Spring, MD: General Conference Ministerial Association, 1995), 78–81; Vassel Kerr, The Power of Biblical Preaching (Oshawa, ON: Miracle Press, 2000), 173–182.
11 Rose, 22.
12 Ellen White, “The Salt of the Earth,” Review and Herald, August 22, 1899, par. 12.
13 Paul Scott Wilson, Imagination of the Heart: New Understandings in Preaching (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1988), 29.
14 For more information on this topic see Maurice Brown, Preaching from the Roundtable: Where Collaboration Amplifies Revelation and Facilitates Proclamation (Belleville, ON: Guardian Books, 2009).