Preachers and preaching have changed dramatically over the past few decades. While we don’t refer to the categories of “Modern” and “Postmodern” as often as we used to, all of us have been primarily shaped by one or the other. I’ve written the playful dialogue below for my Narrative Preaching elective course. I play the part of the interviewer and invite two students to play either the part of the Modern Preacher or the Postmodern Preacher. The sketch below presents a generalized, maybe even stereotyped, caricature of the two sides. The goal is to playfully get at distinct preaching trends in each category. Read the interview and consider the one with whom you identify most.
Interviewer: Hi, I am going to be interviewing two preachers who represent two very different approaches to preaching God’s word. I invite them to introduce themselves.
Modern Preacher: Hello, I am a preacher whose ministry style and convictions have been shaped mostly by Modernity. You can call me Mo.
Postmodern Preacher: You can call me Po. I have been shaped mostly by the Postmodern context in which I live.
Interviewer: My first question is, How do you view Scripture? Mo, why don’t you start.
MO: That’s easy. Scripture is God’s timeless word to temporal people. It is inspired and inerrant. The bible is full of objective and absolute principles for living. If people would just learn to live by biblical principles, their lives and relationships with God and others would be much healthier.
PO: I view scripture not as a bunch of principles detached from each other but as a unified account that tells one grand story. Once one begins to see her story in light of the biblical story, life becomes meaningful and worth living. The Bible is a story book not a proposition or principle book.
Int: Isn’t the bible full of both principles and stories? Aren’t there principles derived from the story, and stories that are behind and lead to the principles? It seems to me the bible does tell one grand story, but throughout the biblical story there are principles that can be applied to life as long as those principles are not disconnected from relationship with God. In other words, the principles don’t work unless a relationship with God is at the center. Okay, next question, what makes a sermon biblical?
PO: If the sermon is authentic and faithful to the biblical text and to the contemporary context, it is biblical. Even if the preacher never opens the bible, the sermon could be more biblical than the sermon that strings together 10 different passages, cut and paste style.
MO: Hold on! You’re telling me that a sermon could be biblical without a passage being read. That’s not true. People need to know that the word of the preacher is coming from the word of God. A biblical sermon will have at least one or, preferably, more passages read during the sermon and, even better, the preacher will work word by word, phrase by phrase, verse by verse through the passage that is read.
PO: That sounds like bible-olotry. The bible in and of itself doesn’t have power apart from relationship with God. I can preach a sermon without reading any scripture at all that is more biblical than the sermon where the preacher quotes 9 passages, assuming that what I am saying aligns with the contours of the biblical story.
MO: You can’t have a sermon without a bible passage. That’s just a talk or a devotional or a speech. You need a text to have a sermon.
PO: Nope, you need a relationship with God to have a sermon. And your sermon must align with the contours of the biblical meta-narrative.
Int: Well, maybe we need both a biblical text and a relationship with God to be able to preach a sermon. Next question…how do you typically structure your sermon?
MO: I structure my sermon around the main points of the text. For some reason, I usually end up with three points. These points are the bridge between the bible and my people, they are propositional truths that grow out of the text but connect in relevant ways to my context. People can leave the sermon event with something to apply to their life situations. I also give my people an outline so they can write down the points, usually fill-in-the-blanks. The sermon structure is neat, linear, and logical. I want the sermon to inform and make sense to people.
PO: I want my sermon to inspire people, even if it doesn’t make sense. I try not to give into the temptation to tidy everything up in a neat sermonic package. I want people to feel the angst and disequilibrium that may come from the biblical story. For this reason, I don’t structure my sermon into linear points, which seem good at information but not inspiration. Instead I structure my preaching of a text (yes, I do use the bible) around the elements of narrative like setting, problem, climax, and resolution. This seems to draw people in so that they experience the powerful plot of the text in the preaching moment, instead of merely going home with their outline filled in. To me, the inspirational experience listeners have during the sermon matters more than the information they take away after the sermon.
Int: I wonder if both kinds of sermons are needed. Aren’t there times when a sermon needs to be more didactic and logical? And aren’t there other times when a sermon should inspire change instead of simply inform? And, shouldn’t the genre and flow of the passage being preached determine, at least to some extent, whether the sermon uses a linear or narrative structure? I can see I’m upsetting you, so I will get to the next question. Let’s talk about important but secondary issues such as delivery style. How would you describe your preaching style?
PO: I try to be conversational, since I don’t see myself as the ultimate authority on God or his word. I simply talk to people and try to create a sense of dialogue with them. I invite them to be participants with me in discovery. I often develop sermons that raise more questions than the sermon answers. Sometimes, I think we preachers try to answer more questions than we have answers for. I want the sermon to be crafted, in a sense, communally not authoritatively. I want it to feel like a dialogue not a monologue.
MO: But you are the authority, anointed by God and trained to interpret the scriptures and proclaim good news. You are not called to “talk” to people; you are called to prophetically challenge people to conform to the image of Christ! The bible does have answers! What do you mean when you say your sermon raises more questions than it may answer? Are you a relativist or a proclaimer of truth?
PO: Of course I proclaim truth but I also invite listeners to be participants with me in the construction of truth. I believe we get at truth best when we invite multiple voices and considerations into the dialogue. Narrative presents just as much truth as propositions; but narrative invites people into the process of discovering truth instead of simply sitting back and filling in blanks.
MO: Are you saying that even nonbelievers can help the church get at truth? Can’t you see how this could lead the church off-track-if any Tom, Dick, or Harry is helping to craft truth? Are you an advocate of relativism and pluralism?
PO: Easy there, narrow-minded one! I believe the truth of the Gospel can stand up and shine even when less than perfectly reliable sources are engaged in getting at the truth. God even used Balaam’s donkey in the bible to speak truth.
Int: Can’t the preacher be both a prophetic authority and a communal conversationalist? Don’t you think that the preacher who is sensitive to congregational voices might actually increase his/her authority as a proclaimer? And, doesn’t your congregational context determine, to some extent, how you preach?
PO: I am preaching mostly to people ages 20-45. Many of them don’t even believe in the validity of the bible, but all of them are willing to explore a relationship with Christ. They are more interested in encounter with God than an encounter with principles. In my opinion, narrative sermons are better at creating an experience through which young adults encounter God.
MO: Most of the people in my congregation are between 45-70. We are mostly Boomers who want to know how the Bible works in real life. We want life-application. Our lives are complicated enough. We don’t want more tension and questions; we want clarity and answers. My people don’t want me beating around the bush. They want me to be clear and concise about the bottom line.
INT: You guys would make a great teaching team at an inter-generational church full of people with a diversity of needs when it comes to the preaching event. MO, young adults need to hear linear sermons that are clear and full of life-application from time to time. And PO, the Boomers and Builders need to explore the Gospel tensions that they may have uncritically assumed for far too long. Plus, there are multiple learning styles within each generation. Therefore, mixing up preaching styles is helpful. If you didn’t feel led to leave your present ministry positions, I wonder if each of you would be willing to explore the possibility of preaching like the other person from time to time. What do you say?