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when the congregation preaches the sermon – reuben munn


Preaching is always a dialogue. Just because you may be the only one speaking, that doesn’t mean it’s a monologue. As Tom Long says: “The hearer is not at all passive in the listening process. The space between pulpit and pew bristles with energy and activity. As the preacher speaks, the hearer races ahead in anticipation of what might be said next, ranges back over what has already been said, debates with the preacher, rearranges the material, adds to the message, wanders away and returns (sometimes!). In short, the hearer is a co-creator of the sermon.”

I love the thought that as I am preaching, I am making something together with my hearers, and that the delivered sermon is the shared creation of preacher, congregation and Spirit. That also explains why sermons don’t tend to date very well. A message that seemed like a winner in one context falls flat in another. Why? Because its success depended partly on one of the co-creators of the message—the congregation.

This growing awareness of the congregation as co-creators of the sermon is leading me to place a greater emphasis on the role and responsibility of my hearers during preaching. I want them to know I’m not going to do all the hard work for them, at least not up front. A few weeks ago I did an introductory message to a series in Exodus, in which I explored how Exodus imagery is found throughout Scripture, particularly in relation to Israel’s return from exile, the life and death of Jesus, and the new creation. As we read various texts from the prophets, Psalms and gospels, I asked the congregation to listen for echoes of the Exodus story. I pointed out bits and pieces in these texts and asked (rhetorically) where they had heard these words and phrases before. Eventually I explained the various connections but first I tried to send the congregation down the path ahead of me to make these discoveries for themselves.

Emphasising the active role of the hearer in preaching lends itself to a more inductive style of preaching in which questions and tensions are raised by the text(s) and provoked by the preacher. Don’t give the answers too quickly…make your hearers answer the questions themselves first by wrestling with the text. Don’t resolve all the tension for them…let them sweat it out for a while! And don’t always give away the whole structure of your message up front…let them piece it together as you go along. Tom Long’s comment that the audience even rearranges our material in their heads can be an invitation to give our hearers ‘off-ramps’ and ‘on-ramps’ during the message where they may detour to another part of the sermon in their minds. In practical terms, this may be as simple as saying to your hearers, “let’s park that question for now and we’ll come back to it later,” or “we saw this same pattern earlier in the text.” That signals to the hearer that they might want to mentally re-organise some of the content of your message. Of course this can all become very muddy and confused if we’re not careful…there is no substitute for simplicity and clarity (and I can’t resolve that tension for you!).

I want to expect more of my hearers in preaching. I want to call them to a greater level of mental and emotional participation in the sermon and a greater level of responsibility for the final creation. In what other ways can we facilitate the role of our hearers as co-creators of our sermons?

One Comment

  1. Dr. iris. G. R. Paul. says:

    I stand with you — God Bless what you do is my prayer. Iris.

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