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having your head in the clouds (of unseen witnesses) – john tucker


I have been reading, lately, about educational theory. It’s fascinating!

According to social learning theorists, people learn by observing and imitating those around them. What’s the easiest way to learn a second language? The way we learned out first, by immersion, by listening at great lengths to those who speak the language fluently. How do Suzuki students learn to play the violin? Immersion. Before they set bow to string, they spend hours listening to excellent performances of the music they will eventually attempt to play.

Preaching is no different, right? How do preachers learn to preach? By immersion. By watching and listening to other preachers. I like how David J. Schlafer puts it: “Anyone who has gone to church with any regularity has preaching ancestors – preachers who have modelled, for good or ill, what a sermon is supposed to sound like: how long, how loud, how laced with Scripture references, how esoteric, or how heart-rending it should be. Whenever you stand up to begin a sermon, there is a cloud of unseen witnesses behind you. . . . They are present. And they are not silent.”[1]

We preachers are shaped by the preachers we have watched and heard. For good, or for ill.

In the field of music – according to David Lose – “some theorists believe that tone deafness is not the result of a physical defect of the ear or brain but rather the result of repeated exposure to an out-of-tune musical gamut. The solution, in such a case, is to overwhelm the history of negative examples with positive ones.”[2]

This has got me thinking. Maybe the reason so many emerging preachers never really fulfil their potential is the simple fact that they have heard – and continue to hear – so much bad preaching that it overwhelms any good homiletics instruction they might once have received.

To grow as preachers, and to keep growing as preachers, we need to be exposed to a steady stream of excellent preaching. So these are the questions I’m asking myself at the moment:

  1. Who are my role models? Could I list 5 or 6 preachers who form my “cloud of unseen witnesses”?
  2. Am I regularly listening to them, watching them, or reading them? How often?
  3. Do I reflect on what I observe in them? How could I do this with my preaching colleagues? (I meet regularly with a small group of preachers to discuss a preaching book, watch each other preach, and provide feedback. I love it – and would highly recommend joining or forming a preaching cluster for your own ongoing formation.)
  4. How might I consciously – but appropriately – imitate my role models? Teachers of preaching, ever since Augustine, have recommended imitating exemplary preachers. (Didn’t John Wesley give his preachers collections of his sermons with the instruction that they should not attempt to prepare their own sermons until they had first preached their way through his?!)

If you have time, I’d love to hear who your role models are. Who are the preachers you frequently look to for inspiration?

[1] David J. Schlafer, Your Way with God’s Word (Cambridge, MA: Cowley Publications, 1995), 196.

[2] David J. Lose, “Teaching Preaching as a Christian Preaching,” in Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice: A New Approach to Homiletical Pedagogy (ed. Thomas G. Long and Leonora Tubbs Tisdale; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 41-57, 46.

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