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Thursday, October 31, 2013

My Interview about Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide

This week we welcome Lenny Luchetti, author of Preaching Essentials, to the blog. Lenny is associate professor of proclamation and Christian ministries at Wesley Seminary of Indiana Wesleyan University. He is an ordained minister in The Wesleyan Church and has been involved in pastoral ministry for more than fifteen years.

WPH: Thank you for joining us, Lenny. Is there a story behind your writing Preaching Essentials?

Lenny: When I was designing the preaching courses for Wesley Seminary students, I searched for a comprehensive and fresh book on homiletics written in the past five years. I couldn’t find one. While some of the foundational dynamics of preaching will never change, many things have shifted in the art and craft of preaching. I wanted to write a book for my students that helped them to think about and practice preaching in a way that is faithful to the past but aware of present shifts in homiletics. So I wrote it.

WPH: What is one thing about preaching that has been the same throughout history, and why is that important?

Lenny: The best preachers throughout the centuries have been the ones who preach as if they have "a word from God" to share with the people of God. These preachers enjoy a sacred love triangle with God, Scripture, and people. The best preachers are the best listeners. They listen long and hard to the heart of God through the text and to the heart of humanity in their context. The sermon, then, is the love bridge the preacher designs to connect God's heart with humanity's hopes. That is the essence of preaching. And that will never change.

WPH: What is one question you continually hear from students about preaching?

Lenny: They asks lots of different questions, but the one question in most of their questions has to do with the call to preach. Some of them wonder deep down whether or not they are called to preach, and those convinced of their call wonder, in their darkest moments, if preaching still matters, if it still has the power to change lives. My vocation these days is to help students to see that preaching has incredible potential and power to build the kingdom of God "on earth as it is in heaven."

WPH: What is the key message you want readers to take from Preaching Essentials?

Lenny: I prayerfully hope that readers will, as a result of digesting Preaching Essentials, fall more deeply in love with the God for whom they preach, the Bible from which they preach, and the people to whom they preach. I wrote the book with that goal in mind.

WPH: What is your next project?

Lenny: I am working on two book proposals right now. One is aimed at a wider audience than preachers and is focused on radical, risky discipleship. The other book I hope to write is for those in ministry. The book will contain ministry maxims on personal growth, congregational leadership, pastoral care, outreach, and, of course, preaching. This book will offer ancient wisdom from the biblical story and Church history to address challenges and opportunities in the contemporary ministry context.

WPH: Good luck with both of those projects, Lenny. We can't wait to hear more about them. Thank you very much for joining us today!

Check out  the table of contents and what others have said about Preaching Essentials: A Practical Guide by clicking on the following link:

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

The Preacher's Prayer Song

When we were gearing up for the Emerging Young Preachers Gathering / Festival on Preaching, Emily Vermilya and I conspired to write a song called The Preacher's Prayer. We hope it will inspire those who preach the Gospel. Check out the song by clicking on the link below:

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

An Incarnational Model for Preaching

Warning: This is a long post and for preaching geeks only!!! I welcome your thoughtful feedback on my work as I prepare to present the thoughts below at a homiletics society meeting this week.

Preaching as a Spiritual Discipline: An Incarnational Model

It is tempting for preachers to practice preaching as merely a rhetorical, technical task instead of what it is ultimately intended to be—a spiritual, devotional journey into the Christ whom the preacher proclaims. This trend in homiletic practice can detract from the preacher’s Christian ethos and preaching joy. The result is often homiletic fatigue, pastoral burnout, or, worse, moral failure. Preachers can benefit significantly from a guide to developing and delivering sermons that fosters not only exegetical and homiletical integrity, but also the spiritual intensity that nurtures intimacy with Christ. The rhetorical task of preaching is most formational when it is wed to the spiritual life of the preacher. This conviction is at the center of this paper, which contends for preaching as a spiritual discipline and explores some practices for doing so in the pulpit and the classroom.

Problem: Where We Are
An All Too Familiar Story

I was in over my head and I knew it. During my senior year of college, I was called to pastor a rural congregation fifteen minutes off campus. My senior class friends were making the most of their weekends while my Saturdays were devoted to prepping for Sunday sermons. I took a preaching course in college but barely paid attention presuming, “I don’t have to be ready to preach yet; there’s plenty of time.” If only I had taken that course seriously! The high call of preaching good news to a hope-hungry human race overwhelmed me. Most of the people in that small congregation were three times my age. What could I possibly tell them that they didn’t already know and how could I say it any differently than they had already heard it? Simply put, preaching petrified me. 

There was, however, a significant silver lining. My lack of skill and experience, coupled with my sense of inadequacy and insecurity, prompted in me a deep dependence upon God throughout the process of developing and delivering sermons. Preaching was, in the earliest days of my ministry, a spiritual discipline that increased my preaching joy and Christian ethos, which I define as authentic love for God and for the people to whom I preach.

Another dynamic soon surfaced along the homiletical highway when I learned how to preach. Invitations to be a guest speaker at retreats and special events came early in my preaching journey, too early I suppose. The affirmation made me arrogant, though I didn’t realize it at the time. I went to seminary and received A’s in every preaching course I took, and I registered for as many as I could take. During my senior year in the Master of Divinity program I was the recipient of the Biblical Studies Award. Seminary affirmed my homiletical and exegetical skills, which I erroneously assumed were all I needed for a faithful, fruitful, and fulfilling preaching ministry.

Over the next few years, I lost my preaching mojo. I’m not sure that anyone really noticed this, but I did. As my congregation and young family grew, corner-cutting became my pattern for sermon preparation. Basic exegetical and rhetorical work had to be done, so I cut the only corner I thought I could cut. I cut out praying, fasting, and reflecting on the biblical text I was preaching. The sermons I preached still seemed, on the surface, exegetically sound and homiletically tight. Nothing much appeared to happen to the sermon, but something happened to this preacher. My Christian ethos and my preaching joy dissipated. Preaching was now a chore, a rhetorical task on my long to-do list, instead of a spiritual discipline through which I delved deep into Christ and God’s word on behalf of my congregation. Preaching was no longer the adventurous devotional tightrope walk from Monday to Sunday that plunged me headlong toward divine dependence. I was like the artist ghost in C. S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce who was more enamored with the artistic craft than what the craft was conveying.[1] I became more intoxicated with the craft of preaching than with the Christ I was called to preach. Preaching was killing my soul in the worst way.

Based upon countless conversations with ministerial colleagues and students, I have come to realize that my story is more universal than unique. What can be done to prevent this generation of preachers from forfeiting Christian ethos and preaching joy in favor of an efficient rhetorical technique? For starters, we will need to name and avoid the homiletic heresies that push their way into the practice of preaching.

Homiletic Heresies: Docetism to Donatism to Deism

Several heresies reared their ugly head in the early days of the Church as she sought to comprehend and communicate the full divinity and complete humanity of Christ. These Christological heresies form a frame through which to analyze current homiletic “heresies” that have developed around the preacher and preaching.

Docetism was one of the earliest heresies to emerge.[2] Docetics emphasized the divinity of Christ but devalued his humanity by denying it altogether. Jesus only appeared to be made of human matter, according to Docetics, but was entirely divine spirit. Homiletic Docetism underemphasizes the human side of preaching, namely the role of the preacher. Theologian Karl Barth, rightly intent on elevating the role of God in preaching, inadvertently downplayed the significance of the preacher’s character and skill to the preaching event. As long as God shows up, so the thinking goes, the presence of the preacher doesn’t matter much. Preaching happens because God shows up to speak through the preacher, regardless of the latter’s level of involvement in the process. Barth was likely trying to overcome the perception of preaching as “truth through personality” that dominated homiletics during the turn of the twentieth century.[3] The Barthian pendulum swung a bit too far for some homileticians.  

Homiletic Docetics want to cut out the human fat from the meat of the preaching event. This homiletic bent makes the development of exegetical and homiletical skills, and the professors and courses that foster them, somewhat unnecessary. Furthermore, the preacher’s spirituality doesn’t matter much either, according to homiletic Docetics, because preaching is “all about God.” Preaching is, they suppose, at its best when there is little to no flesh, blood, and bone of humanity in it. Those preachers who “wing” their sermon on Sunday morning in order to be “Spirit-led” deny the essentiality and responsibility of the preacher and become Docetic in their practice. I agree with Fred Craddock who states, “Any doctrine of the Holy Spirit that relieves me of my work and its responsibility is plainly false.”[4]

There is another homiletic heresy that seems more en vogue today; it is the one that nearly led me off the proclamation deep-end. The heresy that seems to dominate the preaching landscape today is not a homiletic Docetism that diminishes the role and responsibilities of the preacher, but a homiletic Donatism that is so exclusively enamored with the skills and methods of the human preacher that there is minimal room or need for the Spirit of God. The Donatists of the 4th century put too much emphasis on the roles and responsibilities of the clergy. They believed that if the priest administering the sacrament of Communion was a spiritual weakling, a compromiser who sold out during persecution, then the sacrament would not be efficacious for the recipient. The Donatists put so much stock in the clergy, in terms of the latter’s character and skills, that they devalued the presence and power of God that comes through the sacraments regardless of the kind of person administering them.

Homiletic Donatists are those who make preaching primarily, if not entirely, about the personality and skills of the preacher. Preaching is, to them, all about the preacher. Of course, homiletic Donatists don’t set out to be such. They preach, however, as if the impact of preaching is entirely dependent upon their rhetorical skills instead of the presence and power of the God who shows up to speak up through the preacher. Michael Pasquarello hits the proverbial “nail on the head” of homiletic Donatism when he writes:

 [T]he most unquestioned homiletic assumption of our time: that the primary task of preaching is a matter of finding the right rhetorical technique, homiletic style, and evangelistic strategy to translate and make Christianity useful, appealing, relevant and entertaining on terms dictated by a consumerist culture. This understanding of preaching… in practice, shifts the weight of dependence from the efficacy of the Spirit to an almost exclusive dependence on human personality, ingenuity, method, and skill.[5]   

The preachers who feel the full “weight” of the preaching event, as if everything depends upon their rhetorical technique and skill, lean toward Donatism. Homiletic Donatists don’t deny the importance of God’s presence in theory but put God on the back-burner in practice. They may offer a quick prayer at the beginning of sermon preparation and another just before sermon delivery, but there is no consistent and comprehensive space for God in their homiletic process. Homiletic Donatism is evidenced when the preacher practices preaching as a rhetorical technique that makes relational dependence upon and submission to God unnecessary. This homiletic crisis is really a faith crisis for the preacher. The preacher is driven solely by the pragmatism of what works, while theological and devotional convictions are relegated to the side-lines of sermon preparation.

The river of homiletic Donatism eventually flows into the lake of homiletic Deism. Once the preacher has what is needed from God, the preacher no longer needs God. Get the method that works, the Divine principle, and then God is no longer necessary. The preacher becomes, essentially, a practical Deist.[6] Some people, primarily homiletics professors like me, bemoan the current dominance of deistic sermons. A deistic sermon is one that posits a bottom line principle that can be effectively applied to finances, marriage, friendship, emotions, etc. without any relational dependence upon and submission to God. Deistic sermons seem to come from deistic preachers, those who develop and deliver sermons with relatively no relational connection to God built into the homiletic process.  

Although we find ourselves in a Postmodern context, homiletics is still reeling from the impact of Modernity. The empiricism of the Modern era led naturally to a worldview in which truth could only be discovered through the detached objectivity mandated by the scientific method. Modernity sought to free itself from the Premodern proclivity toward spirituality and subjectivism in the quest for truth. The detached objectivity of Modernity flooded the field of biblical criticism and flowed into the field of homiletics. The result is that many preachers over the past century were taught to never mix their devotional reading of Scripture, designed for spiritual growth, with their exegetical reading of Scripture, designated for the sermon. The underlying, often unstated, assumption of Modern homiletics, with a few refreshing exceptions, is that the only or best way for the preacher to mine a text for the sermon is from a posture of detached and objective pragmatism. One can easily see how such a posture would inhibit the spiritually formative potential of preaching upon preachers.

The miserable irony here is overt; if the preacher is going to ascertain and appropriate the truth of God’s word, all the preacher really needs is a tried and true method, not the tried and true God. In time, the homiletics course became chiefly concerned with rhetorical methodology and rarely devoted adequate time and space to an exploration of the theology, anthropology and spirituality of preaching.   The “what” (sermon) and “how” (rhetoric) dominated the “who” (God and the preacher) and “why” (call). The development and delivery of gifted preachers and good sermons became more methodological than formational, more technical than spiritual.

The literature on homiletics over the past generation corroborates the impact of Modernity’s infatuation with methodology over spirituality. Some of the most popular books on preaching, the ones that have prevailed in the homiletics course and the pastor’s study, offer virtually no guidance on practicing preaching as a spiritual discipline. 

Biblical Preaching, written by Haddon Robinson and published in 1980, is one of the most widely read and helpful books in preaching produced within the past forty years. Robinson’s main aim was to help preachers “rightly divide the word of truth,” to get the biblical text right. This was a vital concern during the rise of the pop-psychological topical sermon that dominated the preaching scene during the last half of the 20th century. Perhaps as a cautious reaction to biblical shallowness and subjectivity in the pulpit, Robinson prescribes no explicit practical steps for incorporating spiritual disciplines into the homiletic venture.          

Fred Craddock’s Preaching, while beneficial in helping the preacher develop a theologically sound and practically astute ministry of preaching, says very little about perceiving and practicing preaching as a spiritual discipline. In Part II of the book, the section that deals with the nuts and bolts of developing a sermon that is faithful to the text and the context, the reader receives no practical prescription for the wedding of spiritual disciplines with the homiletic task. Craddock does assert his conviction that both the Spirit and the preacher are necessary to the preaching event,[7] but there is almost no exploration of practical ways to consciously and consistently deploy his conviction.  

David Buttrick’s Homiletic provides many valuable insights for preachers in its 500 pages. The nearly 10 page index, however, does not even include the topic of “prayer.” Buttrick says almost nothing about the important intersection between homiletics and the preacher’s dependence upon God throughout the homiletic enterprise. He even comes close to demeaning the notion that such an intersection even exists.[8]

One of the more recent books to have a wide ranging impact on a new generation of preachers is Andy Stanley and Lane Jones’ Communicating for a Change, published in 2006. There is much to appreciate and appropriate from this readable volume. However, it is almost entirely consumed with methodology and only includes a sprinkling of spirituality and theology. The primary admonition to include prayer in the preaching process comes at the end of the book, and only then in the context of the preacher being “stuck.”[9]    

The masterful books cited above have positively influenced the way I preach sermons and teach preaching. These works are worth their homiletic weight in gold. All of them, nevertheless, present a methodological framework that makes virtually no room for the infusion of spiritual disciplines. Maybe these books were written to combat the homiletic Docetism that was still lingering from 19th century revivalism, which appears to have led to a devaluing of the education and skills required for faithful and fruitful preaching. These popular preaching texts swing the pendulum the other way. They say almost nothing about how to develop and deliver sermons in a manner that intentionally forms Christ, his love and joy, in the preacher. A couple of these influential works encourage a godly life and even stress the importance of the preacher’s devotional life outside of the homiletic process. Yet none of them include practical ways to consistently engage preaching as a spiritual discipline. In failing to do so, these works neglect a key element in the homiletic process. Perhaps they assumed their preaching readership, without admonition and guidance, would intuitively merge spiritual disciplines with the homiletic process. The lack of deep and abiding joy in clergy is one point of evidence that this merger can no longer be assumed.

According to an article from the New York Times published in 2010, there is an alarming lack of vocational joy among clergy. The article begins:

The findings have surfaced with ominous regularity over the last few years, and with little notice: Members of the clergy now suffer from obesity, hypertension and depression at rates higher than most Americans. In the last decade, their use of antidepressants has risen, while their life expectancy has fallen. Many would change jobs if they could.

 Public health experts who have led the studies caution that there is no simple explanation of why so many members of a profession once associated with rosy-cheeked longevity have become so unhealthy and unhappy.[10]

The article, titled Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work, goes on to suggest that burn-out is caused by the busyness of doing the Lord’s work. According to the piece, pastors simply need a break from their work by taking vacation, a day of rest each week, and extended sabbaticals. While I am fully supportive of pastors taking a break from the Lord’s work, there is not necessarily a direct connection between busyness and burnout. I know dozens of pastors, many of them serving in rigorous third world contexts, who are extremely busy but not at all on the verge of burning out. They are full of joy. Could it be that clergy burnout, fatigue, and moral failure are caused not by the busyness and challenge of ministry but by trying to do the work of the Lord without the Lord of the work? Practical Deism causes burnout among clergy.

What if the 10-15 hours typically designated for sermon preparation were conceived as a spiritual discipline designed to foster intimacy between the preacher and Christ? What if sound exegesis and skillful rhetoric were fostered and deployed not through detached objectivity or pragmatic methodology but as a spiritual discipline?  Imagine what might happen to the preacher whose homiletic paradigm shifts from preaching as a rhetorical task in order to get a sermon toward preaching as a spiritual discipline in order to get Christ? How can the preacher preach in a way that forms Christ in them through the process of developing and delivering sermons? The union between the preacher and Christ is the only proven path through which ethos and joy flow into and from the preacher. Preaching as a spiritual discipline is an incarnational approach that unites the human preacher with the divine Christ in the homiletic voyage.

Homiletic heresy happens when the process of developing and delivering sermons diminishes either the role of God or the role of the preacher. It seems to me that, somehow, the Church must live between the extremes of homiletic Donatism, an over-reliance on the preacher that squeezes out the need for the presence and power of God, and homiletic Docetism, a complete denial of the importance of the preacher that makes God responsible for doing the preacher’s work.

God does his most outstanding work through the wedding together of divinity and humanity. Consider the Scriptures, God’s divine Word reflected through human words. Consider Jesus Christ, true God and true man. Consider the Church, divine treasure in human jars of clay. And consider the Christian sermon, divine grace and truth bursting through a human agent we call preacher. An incarnational sermon, then, is bound to be birthed through a homiletic process that is incarnational, that is open to, dependent upon, and requiring the full participation of both God and the preacher. The Church longs for an incarnational homiletic.   

Resolution: Where We Have Been 
How can the practice of preaching spiritually form preachers so that their Christian ethos and preaching joy are heightened? This question has been asked and addressed before. One is wise to look back upon the historical horizon in order to move forward. C. S. Lewis insightfully asserts:

Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books. All contemporary writers share to some extent the contemporary outlook- even those, like myself, who seem most opposed to it.[11]

A brief glance into the rearview mirror of history can inform a thoughtful response to the current preaching crisis.

Aristotle (384-322 BC) is worthy of consideration in the scope of this paper for two reasons. First, he was one of the earliest pioneers in teaching and writing about rhetoric. His work influences how we communicate and think about communication to this day. Second, he elevated ethos, the character of the speaker, above logos, the content of the speech, and pathos, the connection to the listener. Aristotle asserted that the ethos of the speaker, which he described as “good sense, good moral character, and goodwill,”[12] is the most important factor in convincing and persuading listeners.

Few homileticians, if any, would disagree with Aristotle’s emphasis on the ethos of the speaker, but most would not affirm all of his conceptions. Aristotle wrote that “persuasion is achieved by the speaker’s personal character when the speech is so spoken as to make us think him credible….his character may almost be called the most effective means of persuasion he possesses.”[13] Notice the pragmatic language Aristotle uses here. If one reads between the lines it appears that this ancient rhetorician taught students that it’s quite possible, and even advisable, to fake ethos so that the listener thinks more highly of the speaker than he ought. Perceived ethos, then, matters as much as or more than real ethos to Aristotle. Ethos is important in so far as it is an “effective means” of persuading the listener.       

Aristotle’s version of ethos may elicit listener persuasion but it does not cultivate the kind of character in the speaker that is real, marked by love and joy. Perceived ethos, so conceived, might positively impact the listener but not the speaker. While perceived ethos is purely anthropological and can, therefore, be manufactured through methodological pragmatism, real ethos is cultivated in the preacher who yields to God through the practice of spiritual disciplines.

Aristotle’s notion of ethos conflicts with Christian ethos in other noteworthy ways. Aristotle advises those who speak to seek self-glorification through the derogation of others. “Having shown your own truthfulness and the untruthfulness of your opponent, the natural thing is to commend yourself….you must make yourself out a good man and him a bad one either in yourselves or in relation to your hearers,”[14] suggests Aristotle. Christian ethos, on the contrary, is revealed in the preacher who seeks the glory of God, as opposed to self-glory, and the well-being, not the belittling, of others. The premise of this paper is that the preacher who genuinely incorporates spiritual disciplines throughout the homiletic process will experience a heightened level of love for God and for people that cultivates a more authentic sort of ethos in the preacher than Aristotle conceived.    

Apostle Paul

The Apostle Paul counters Aristotelian rhetorical aims in that he refused to preach for his own ovation in place of God’s glorification. Paul reveals this goal in his words from 1 Corinthians 2:1-5, the most explicit description of his homiletic theology. Paul’s writing here has rhetorical eloquence,[15] though he tries his best not to showcase it in his preaching. He even notes the lack of rhetorical eloquence in his preaching when he was previously with the Corinthians for eighteen months of ministry.[16] It is counter-intuitive for someone who is trying to develop his credibility as an apostle to downplay his rhetorical ability. Paul reveals in 2:5 why he puts his ineloquence on display. In climactic fashion he writes, “so that your faith should not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.” Paul’s intentional lack of eloquence in speaking prevents people from putting more faith in him than in God. He was more concerned with God’s glory and the spiritual nurture of the listener than with arrogantly impressing people through his rhetorical skill. This humble love for God and people heightened the Apostle’s Christian ethos in preaching.

The Corinthians, steeped in the Greco-Roman idolization of rhetoric, often exalted the messenger over the message. Perhaps for this reason Paul is quick to embrace the weakness of his preaching (v. 1) and his own emotional state (v. 3). Eventually, he moves from weakness to strength in this pericope by praising the Spirit and power of God (vv. 4-5). The internal development of the passage moves from a focus on Paul’s weakness to a focus on God’s power. This shift represents the transition that Paul wants to see take place in the hearts of the Corinthian believers, a move away from an anthropocentric focus to a theocentric focus in the preaching event.[17] Paul is, it seems, advocating a spiritual homiletic that places more emphasis on the power of God than the technique of the preacher without denying the role of the latter. Paul would, no doubt, advocate an incarnational model of preaching that avoids the homiletic heresies described previously.

Several contrasts and comparisons are going on in this brief passage which are vital to its interpretation. Paul contrasts his “message and preaching” (v. 4) with the “superiority of speech or of wisdom” (v. 1) and “persuasive words of wisdom” (v. 4) that many in the Greek culture idolized. Paul’s refusal to showcase his rhetorical eloquence and power by “determining to know nothing among them except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified” (v. 2), actually, and ironically, invited and enabled the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (v. 4). Paul’s preaching when he was with the Corinthians illustrates what he has been trying to communicate in 1 Corinthians 1:17-31, that what appears to be foolish, weak and ineloquent from a human standpoint is actually the wisdom, power, and eloquence of God. Paul wants God to get the credit the latter deserves for our salvation and ministry.[18] Paul is essentially saying that if the impact of preaching rested on the preacher’s ability, and not God’s power, it would be a vain rhetorical exercise. Yet many preachers have been prepared to practice preaching as principally a rhetorical exercise dependent on human presence and power instead of a spiritual discipline that opens the homiletic process to God’s presence and power. Many preachers profess reliance upon God but deny that profession in the process of developing and delivering sermons.

Paul states strongly in 1 Corinthians 2:2 that he intentionally decided to “know nothing” when he preached except “Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”  “By placing proper emphasis on the crucifixion, Paul ensured that no one could mistake his message for a kind of crowd-pleasing rhetorical stunt, convincing at the time but making no lasting impression.[19] Paul is using a bit of sarcasm to challenge those who claim to know everything. He resolves to distinguish himself from “wandering sophists and orators,[20] who showcased their knowledge and skill in an arrogant and boastful manner. He refuses to get lost in the philosophical minutia of the day in order to keep his focus on the cross. The bottom line of Paul’s claim in verse 2, in light of the entire pericope, is that “the cross not only establishes what we are to preach, but how we are to preach.[21] Paul’s “policy on rhetoric”[22] was informed by his identification with the cross of Christ. This cross-shaped identification is what the Christian spiritual disciplines are designed to cultivate, as Paul’s life so plainly illustrated. 

Paul cites the “Spirit” (v. 4) as the primary power for his proclamation. First Corinthians employs various forms of pneuma (“Spirit”) thirty-two times, which is more than is found in any other letter from Paul. The inclusion of Paul’s homiletic theology in a letter that focuses prominently on the work of the Holy Spirit would imply a deep and intimate connection for Paul between pneumatology and homiletics, a connection that has too often been severed in practice, if not in theory.

Paul’s preaching manifested a “demonstration of the Spirit and “power.”   avpodei,xei,, translated “demonstration,” literally means “a clear proof” and was a technical rhetorical term.[23] Paul is likely employing a sarcastic play on words here as he denigrates rhetorical demonstration by comparing it to the even greater demonstration of duna,mij, the Greek word for “power, which Paul includes on verses 4 and 5. The question the reader is forced to ask at this point in the passage is, how was the Spirit and power demonstrated through Paul’s preaching?  Paul never answers this question directly, but he does describe the evidence of his Spirit-empowered preaching in the following verse.  

2:5 is Paul’s climactic conclusion about his spiritual homiletic, a homiletic that embraces the incarnational intersection between the preacher’s presence and God’s power. His preaching was not powerful from a rhetorical standpoint but was, nonetheless, a display of Spirit and power because of the inward result of “faith” it produced in the hearts of listeners, a faith that “would not rest on the wisdom of men, but on the power of God.”  What might have been cryptic to readers up to this point, Paul now makes crystal clear. His preaching style and content, like the cross of Christ, is intended to elicit peoples’ faith, not in human ability and the conventional wisdom of the day, but in God. Paul wants his preaching, and the response to his preaching, not to rest on the limited capacity of humanity, but the limitless ability of God. Rhetorical eloquence takes a backseat to the kerygma of Christ crucified. In Paul’s estimation, what makes good preaching good is that it will cause people to put more faith in the Christ who is preached than in the preacher who is preaching. Gordon D. Fee reinforces Paul’s emphasis:

What [Paul] is rejecting is not preaching, not even persuasive preaching; rather, it is the real danger in all preaching- self-reliance. The danger always lies in letting the form and content get in the way of what should be the single concern: the gospel proclaimed through human weakness but accompanied by the powerful work of the Spirit so that lives are changed through a divine-human encounter. That is hard to teach in a course on homiletics, but it still stands as the true need in genuinely Christian preaching.[24]

Ultimately, the God-dependent preacher is the one who experiences the fullness of God’s power in and through the preaching event.

For Paul, preaching was a spiritual discipline that, like all spiritual disciplines, depends upon the power of God and not merely upon human wisdom and ability. This dependence does not negate the importance of human ability and experience in the homiletic process. That would lead to homiletic Docetism. The preacher’s skill and effort can be important elements through which the power of God is made manifest. However, what is even more important than the preacher’s ability is the willingness of the preacher to cultivate and maintain identification and intimacy with the crucified and risen Christ throughout the homiletic process. This intimate identification is fostered through authentic engagement in spiritual disciplines. Paul made a conscious decision to focus more on alignment with Christ than with the rhetorical devices of his day. Union with Christ is the spiritual homiletic that enabled Paul’s preaching to realize the power of God to a greater degree than it would have if it rested solely “on the wisdom of men” (1 Cor. 2:5b).

Paul operates under the conviction that if the presence and power of God is going to come through the preaching event, then the preacher must resist blind acceptance of the rhetorical conventions of the day. Furthermore, the faithful preacher will adopt a spiritual homiletic that opens the preacher up to the Spirit of God while engaging in exegesis, hermeneutics, and rhetoric. If one reads between the lines of Paul one might hear the apostle asking, how can the preacher ask people to put their trust in God not “man,” if the preacher is unwilling to do so in the practice of preaching?  


Augustine is the earliest and, arguably, best example of a rhetorician turned preacher who found a way to walk the fine line of incarnation between homiletic Docetism and homiletic Donatism. He seems to have merged the best of Pauline spiritual theology and Aristotelian rhetorical philosophy into a homiletic that diminished neither the role of God nor the role of the preacher.

Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD), like Aristotle, not only practiced but taught and wrote about his rhetorical philosophy or, more accurately, homiletic theology.  In On Christian Teaching, Augustine placed the highest value on the ethos of the speaker. Though he lived hundreds of years after Aristotle, Augustine was likely trained under the tutelage of the Greek philosopher’s writings. When Augustine converted to Christ he, along with many in the Church, tried to grasp and teach the uniqueness of Christian rhetoric and the role of the Holy Spirit in Christian speech. The church agonized over its use of rhetorical strategies and forms, encumbered as the classical tradition was with pagan associations. Where was the Holy Spirit in the rhetoric of preaching? ....Augustine helped relieve the church’s problem for well over a millennium by codifying a Christian approach to the rhetoric of preaching.[25] Augustine conveyed a nuanced view of rhetoric that is really more akin to what I am describing as the Christian ethos that results from spiritual disciplines.

Abiding in Christ was important to Augustine because he “knew well the enchanting power of human speech and its capacity for harm when separated from God’s truth and goodness.[26] Augustine taught that a person’s relationship with God enabled the “affirmation of human institutions and the discernment of what needs to be redeemed and rejected in them.[27] Something greater and more influential than mere rhetorical technique was available to Christian preachers and Augustine knew it. While Augustine did not ignore the importance of rhetorical skills, he realized that the power of God’s Spirit was both necessary and available for Christian preaching to reach its potential and hit its mark. He “offered an alternative way by encouraging pastors to take up a life of prayerful attention to the Word with the love bestowed by the Spirit.[28] Unlike so much of the literature and practice in preaching today, Augustine did not want to put the cart of the preacher’s rhetorical technique before the horse of the preacher’s spiritual vitality.   

Augustine’s theology of preaching comes out most profoundly in Book IV of his On Christian Teaching. Here he has much to say about the difference between rhetorical eloquence and Christian ethos, stressing the latter without entirely negating the need for the former. He writes, “More important than any amount of grandeur of style to those of us who seek to be listened to with obedience is the life of the speaker.[29] Simply put, ethos is more important than eloquence for the proclaimer of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  And this ethos, according to Augustine and a long line of others in the tradition of Christian preaching, is not developed by technique, but by God in the context of spiritual disciplines.

In the following quote from Augustine about the preacher, one can easily sense the overall thrust of his homiletic approach:   

He should be in no doubt that any ability he has and however much he has derives more from his devotion to prayer than his dedication to oratory; and so, by praying for himself and for those he is about to address, he must become a man of prayer before becoming a man of words. As the hour of his address approaches, before he opens his thrusting lips he should lift his thirsting soul to God so that he may utter what he has drunk in and pour out what has filled him.[30]

Augustine asserts here that the preaching life is one that marinates in prayer, for both the task of preaching and those to whom it is addressed. Just as he believes that genuine ethos enhances preaching, its lack detracts from the potential impact of the preached message upon hearers. This conviction surfaces in his description of those who preach what they do not practice when he writes “they benefit many people by preaching what they do not practice, but they would benefit more people if they practiced what they preached.[31] In this quote, Augustine masterfully avoids both homiletic Donatism, which overemphasizes the person of the preacher and underemphasizes the presence of God, and homiletic Docetism, which undervalues the importance of the preacher’s ethos to the preaching event.  

Augustine hints at the connection between ethos and joy that this paper seeks to establish. He tackles the issue of depression among preachers because he recognizes “we are given a much more appreciative hearing when we ourselves enjoy performing our task.[32] The bottom line is that joy in preaching appears to enhance proclamation’s fruitfulness, not to mention the preacher’s sense of fulfillment. Of course, this joy comes from abiding in Christ through the spiritual disciplines. For preachers, joy ultimately comes not from effectiveness or commendation, but from the realization that, at the end of the sermon’s day, we are “in harmony with God’s will to relieve that feeling of depression, and then we may greatly rejoice in the fire of the Spirit.[33] The joy derived from being intimately connected to Christ can sustain the life and work of the preacher for the longevity of ministry, overturning the gloomy trend among clergy cited in the New York Times article above.

Application: Where We are Going

Preaching as a spiritual discipline reflects the incarnational way of God in the world. Preaching is spiritual in that its efficacy relies primarily on the power of God’s divine Spirit. Yet preaching is also a discipline that requires the full engagement of the human preacher with the disciplines of devotion, exegesis, hermeneutics, and rhetoric. When preaching is perceived and practiced as an incarnational reality, a divine and human venture, the preacher avoids falling off the tightrope on either the side of homiletic Donatism or homiletic Docetism.

Preaching as a spiritual discipline, integrating spiritual disciplines with the homiletic process, is not only valuable because of its congruence with God’s incarnational modus operandi; it has some other major benefits as well.

Preaching as a spiritual discipline produces Christ-formed preachers. Preachers too often complain about being so busy writing sermons that benefit others they do not have time for practices that cultivate their own soul. The model presented in this paper (see Appendix A) requires the preacher to engage the homiletic process in a devotional manner. The preacher comes away from the process not only with a sermon in hand but with the Spirit in the soul. Dallas Willard is on to something when he suggests that the best preachers are the ones who find their deepest satisfaction in Christ. He asserts that the deeply satisfied preacher brings something to the preaching event that is more significant than words.[34] Those who listen to sermons hunger for a preacher who embodies integrity and intimacy with God, not merely energy and eloquence. Preachers are starving for devotional encounters with God. Preaching as a spiritual discipline has the potential to satisfy the hunger of listeners and preachers.

Preaching as a spiritual discipline fosters quality sermons. The sermons preached with the most passionate conviction are the ones in which the preacher engages the “angel” of the text in a devotional wrestling match. The preacher comes away limping under the weight of a sermon that contains a “word from the Lord.” When the homiletic process does something to the preacher, it often produces something through the preacher- namely a quality sermon that is dripping with profound theological substance.

Preaching as a spiritual discipline enhances preaching joy. More than a few preachers admit to a gradually diminishing joy in preaching. They are either bored or tired or both. There is another way. Devotional submission to God through the careful and prayerful reading of the biblical text leads the preacher into an experience of delightful surprise and adventure. Preachers, especially though not exclusively those in midlife, crave this reinfusion of preaching joy. Preaching as a spiritual discipline puts the preacher in a position to rely on God for both the revelation and inspiration that lead to boundless joy.

While many preachers may articulate a view of preaching as a spiritual discipline in theory, few seem to employ their theoretical convictions in practice. How can we turn the preaching tide? How can we practice and teach preaching as a spiritual discipline, so that godly preachers are formed along with good sermons?

The Pulpit 

The model for preaching presented in this paper (see Appendix A) is designed to put the preacher in a posture to embrace and embody the “mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:16). Engagement in Christian spiritual disciplines is a major means through which the ethos of Christ is cultivated in persons. A spiritual discipline is any activity within our power that we engage in to enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort.[35] This definition may sound as if “Christ in us” is a work we accomplish through discipline rather than a work God accomplishes through grace. Richard Foster insightfully addresses how God’s grace and the human will work together in spiritual disciplines that form Christ in people:

A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain. He cultivates the ground, he plants the seed, he waters the plants, and then the natural forces of the earth take over and up comes the grain. This is the way it is with the Spiritual Disciplines—they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. The Disciplines are God’s way of getting us into the ground; they put us where He can work with us and transform us. By themselves the Spiritual Disciplines can do nothing; they can only get us to the place where something can be done. They are God’s means of grace….God has ordained the Disciplines of the spiritual life as the means by which we place ourselves where he can bless us.[36]

Only God can work the miracle of enabling the character of Christ to flow into and through the preacher’s life and ministry. “He invites us to become channels through which He can work.[37] However, this does not happen unless the preacher places himself “into the ground” of the spiritual disciplines with consistency and authenticity.

Christians have engaged in a variety of spiritual disciplines for nearly two thousand years. Most of them can, however, fit into three major categories of disciplines. This three-legged stool includes Scripture, prayer and fellowship. Eugene Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity is basically structured in the form of the three-legged stool of spiritual disciplines that my model incorporates. The only difference is that Peterson incorporates fellowship as spiritual direction, and my model integrates fellowship in the context of prayer and discussion groups. All of the spiritual disciplines listed by Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the Disciplines, and Richard Foster, in Celebration of Discipline, fit nicely in the rubric of Scripture, prayer, or fellowship. What is more, the disciplines Jesus practiced in the Gospels fit within this rubric.

My contention, though one that is shared with others, is that when the preacher is intimately connected on a regular basis to the three loves most important to the homiletic process, namely God through prayer, the Bible through study, and people through fellowship, the preacher will be in the best possible spiritual shape to preach. “As preachers we ought to take care not to discard the grace that God offers us through the practice of spiritual disciplines. By practicing these disciplines we grow in godliness. By growing in godliness our preaching grows in power.[38] Therefore, a model that infuses the development and delivery of sermons with the spiritual disciplines that incorporate Scripture, prayer, and fellowship is a dire necessity for preaching today. Without these disciplines in the life of the pastor “the best of talents and best of intentions cannot prevent a thinning out into a life that becomes mostly impersonation.[39]

The incarnational model for preaching as a spiritual discipline does not at all ignore the importance of sound exegetical, hermeneutical, and rhetorical methods, but it views these practices through a spiritual lens that invites God’s Spirit to have the first and the last word in the homiletic enterprise. Skill development for preaching is important but it must neither eradicate nor overshadow the vital need for the preacher to be developed spiritually. Skill development without the spiritual development of the preacher will, in the long run, damage the preacher and the Church. “We must be traffickers in the Holy Spirit more than traffickers in biblical knowledge and the skills of oratorical suasion.[40] Simply put, “The spiritual life is the foundation for preaching.[41]

The Classroom

Homiletics professors have a weighty role to play in the liberation of pastors from the wretched realities described in the NY Times article above. Students need space in the curriculum to explore the possibility and practice of preaching as a spiritual discipline. This curricular focus is typically delegated to the spiritual formation professors who are tasked with teaching students a full orbed life-approach to devotional engagement. Formation professors focus on the devotional life while homiletics professors concentrate on the preaching life. The disintegration of these two disciplines, formation and homiletics, assumes that students will somehow, someday make the connection between the devotional life and the preaching life, so that the “two become one.” Some students, down the ministry road, connect the dots but too many do not. The homiletics classroom is a well-suited environment for the immediate integration of the devotional life with the preaching life. There are several practical ways to facilitate this integration of disciplines which have, for too long, been “torn asunder.”  

Consider the inclusion of a course textbook or two that not only emphasizes the importance of preaching as a spiritual discipline but provides practical ideas for its undertaking. Books such as Deep Preaching by Edwards, Preaching in the Spirit by Kinlaw, and Spirit-Led Preaching by Heisler are excellent resources for helping students integrate homiletics and formation.

Of course, reading a text like one of these should be followed by class discussion and written reflection. Perhaps as much as 25% of the lectures, readings, discussions, and writing assignments could focus on the spiritual development of the preacher and practices for preaching as a spiritual discipline. As I reflect on the homiletics courses I have taken at the bachelor, master, and doctoral levels, 25% would warrant a significant increase.    

The sermon feedback arena in the homiletics course can also provide a context for the exploration of preaching as a spiritual discipline. Using the “Sermon Feedback Form” below (see Appendix B) as a guide, I often ask students how their devotional interaction with God impacted the logos, pathos, and ethos, or content, connection, and character of the sermon’s development and delivery.  The following questions are raised frequently during sermon evaluation and feedback: How did God illumine that particular interpretation of the biblical text? What did you pray would happen in and through listeners as a result of hearing your sermon? How did you rely upon God as you prepared for the delivery of the sermon? While student responses to these sorts of questions are as varied and unpredictable as their preaching styles, simply inquiring holds pedagogical potential for raising the awareness of the crucial intersection between homiletics and spirituality.


Preaching is rhetoric, but it is more than that; it is sacred rhetoric. Why should preachers become starving bakers,[42] so busy baking spiritual goodies for others that they never allow themselves to enjoy the baked goods? The homiletics course is the perfect context for the obliteration of the starving baker syndrome. If we can teach preachers how to infuse the homiletic process with spiritual disciplines that drive them deeper into Christ, his love and joy, then possibly by 2020 the NY Times will publish a very different and more hopeful article related to the health of clergy.

Questions to Consider

-How do you avoid homiletic Docetism and homiletic Donatism in your preaching? How can we practice preaching as a spiritual discipline that embraces both the power of God and the person of the preacher?

-In your pedagogical practice, what Docetic or Donastic challenges surface most among your students? How can we teach preaching in a manner that leads students out of homiletic heresy and toward an incarnational model for preaching as a spiritual discipline?


[1] C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce (San Francisco: Harper, 1946), 38.
[2] Docetic foundations are challenged throughout 1 John, which the large majority of scholars agree was written in the late first century.
[3] Thomas G. Long and Leonora Tubbs Tisdale, eds., Teaching Preaching as a Christian Practice (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1989), 6-11.
[4] Fred B. Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon, 1985), 30.
[5] Michael Pasquarello, Christian Preaching (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2006), 166.
[6] John Wesley used the term “practical atheist” in his sermon titled On Living without God to describe the person whose Christian beliefs seem incongruent with that person’s behaviors. Wesley’s term may be too strong and extreme to use here, since most preachers at least pray before they jump into the homiletic process. “Practical deist,” then, is more accurate than “practical atheist.” 
[7] Craddock, Preaching, 154.
[8] David Buttrick, Homiletic: Moves and Structures (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987), 458-59.
[9] Andy Stanley and Lane Jones, Communicating for a Change (Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2006), 184-85.
[10] Paul Vitello, “Taking a Break from the Lord’s Work,” New York Times, August 1, 2010.
[11] Athanasius, “On the Incarnation,” accessed August 12, 2013,
[12] Aristotle, “Rhetoric,” Book 2: Chapter 1, accessed August 10, 2013,
[13] Ibid.
[14] Ibid., Book 3: Chapter 19.
[15] Ben Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 39.
[16] Paul admits “I did not come with eloquence” in 1 Corinthians 2:1.
[17] Gordon D. Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 90.
[18] See 1 Corinthians 1:30-31; 2:5.
[19] N. T. Wright, Paul for Everyone: 1 Corinthians (London: SPCK, 2004), 22.
[20] Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 92.
[21] D. A. Carson, The Cross and Christian Ministry (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993), 9.
[22] Ibid., 38.
[23] Witherington, Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians, 125.
[24] Fee, The New International Commentary on the New Testament: The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 96-97.
[25] Richard Lischer, The Company of Preachers (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 277.
[26] Pasquarello, Christian Preaching, 164.
[27] Telford Work, Living and Active: Scripture in the Economy of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 232.
[28] Pasquarello, Christian Preaching, 56.
[29] Augustine, On Christian Teaching (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 142.
[30] Ibid., 121.
[31] Ibid., 143.
[32] Augustine, Instructing Beginners in Faith (Hyde Park: New City, 2006), 58.
[33] Ibid., 91.
[34] Dallas Willard, Finding Satisfaction in Christ, Preaching Today Issue 251, compact disc.
[35] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy (San Francisco: Harper, 1997), 353.
[36] Richard Foster, Celebration of Discipline (San Francisco: Harper, 1978), 7-8.
[37] Dennis F. Kinlaw, Preaching in the Spirit (Grand Rapids: Francis Asbury Press, 1985), 21.
[38] Dean Shriver, Nobody’s Perfect, But You Have to Be (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2005), 111.
[39] Eugene Peterson, Working the Angles (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 15.
[40] Kinlaw, Preaching in the Spirit, 63.
[41] John H. Westerhoff, Spiritual Life: The Foundation for Preaching and Teaching (Louisville: Westminster, 1994), 15.
[42] Tim Elmore, “The Starving Baker for Teachers,” Growing Leaders, accessed August 14, 2013,