The situation is not hopeless. In the history of the church, those times when she has prospered are those times when, in the midst of a low point, she has engaged in reflection and self-criticism (95). What is needed here is to “cultivate those pre-homiletical sensibilities that are necessary to preach well.” The first thing preachers need to learn to do is to read texts closely. Before one preaches the Word, one must be able to read it well. The next skill is that of “carefully or thoughtfully composed speech” (96).
Preachers should not assume that, because they have an audience or a congregation that, therefore, they are doing a good job as a preacher. It doesn’t follow. “Many people, myself included, consider it a Christian duty to attend the worship of God on the first day of the week” (97). Those who take this view attend to worship whether the preaching is excellent or wretched. One can test 5/6 of Dabney’s “cardinal requisites” for preaching by calling members of the congregation randomly mid-week to ask them what the sermon was about. If folk don’t recall or if they all have different ideas of what the sermon was, then the sermon failed. Another step might be to list the various ministerial tasks (counseling, visitation, teaching, preaching etc) on a form and ask the congregation to rank them “in order of their perception of the minister’s competence” (98). Perhaps a sermono or two could be submitted annual to presbytery for review (the submissions being anonymous) for annual review. There are ways of beginning a regular process of evaluation which might lead to the improvement of preaching.
One step preachers may take to improve their ability to read texts is to begin to study poetry or verse (100). Prose texts may be read for information but not so poetry or verse. Gordon cites the example James Montgomery Boice, who pursued the study of English literature at Harvard for his undergraduate training. This was great preparation for analyzing sacred texts (101). Pre-seminary students should not major in religion before seminary. They should major in English lit. (Gordon notes that no one ever heeds this advice but he keeps pitching. It all sounds strangely familiar). Read C. S. Lewis’ An Experiment in Criticism (102). Read anthologies of pre-World-War II poetry. These sorts of resources help to cultivate the humane, literary sensibilities necessary to good preaching (102).
One way to cultivate the skills and sensibilities needed for composed speech is write letters by hand. It takes time. it requires deliberation. There is no “delete” key and no emoticons “to compensate for lack of clarity” (103). When praying for one’s congregation, keep letterhead nearby. “Often, while praying, one will get an inclination to write a brief personal note” (103). Such communiques not only encourage the congregant but cultivate “the habit of thoughtful composition, which will ultimately spill over into sermons.”
Write. It “matters not at all whether any” of what you write gets published” (103). Writing forces one to organize one’s thoughts. This is why Samuel Miller recommended that ministers write out their devotional prayers. This helps facilitate the skill of public prayer. Take a “nonreligious” course on public speaking (104). “Once religious texts are involved, too many complicating factors enter the picture.” In a nonreligious speech class, the focus would be on the act and art of public speaking (104-05). Organizations such as Rotary International help improve public speaking. Meet with another minister with whom to share ideas and discuss sermons.
“[H]uman sensibilties can be cultivated….” One may learn to appreciate Brahms or Shakespeare with a moderate degree of effort (106), but this won’t happen so long as a congregation continues to “run its minister ragged with clerical, administrative, and other duties; and as long as a congregation expects the minister to be out five or six nights a week visiting or at meetings, the minsiter will not have time in his schedule to read, write, or reflect” (106-07). One place to challenge and change congregational expectations is in the calling process. Most calling committees have no idea what they actually expect of the minister. Were one to add up the expectations it may run to 75 hours a week.
Our current media culture will not develop the sensibilities necessary for good preaching. Congregations also will likely have to be taught what it is necessary. Johnny is an image-bearer and can preach better but he will “cultivate them only if he makes some self-conscious and deliberately counter-cultural choices about how he wishes his sensibilities to be shaped” (108).
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I’ve surveyed this volume with relatively little comment. It’s brief and I hope that all pastors and congregations will take the time to read it carefully and consider what Gordon is saying. At least one review of the book that I read recently did what reviewers often do: criticized the book for not being the book the reviewer would have written. This review also claimed that Gordon has completely missed the problem, to wit: that most who are in the pulpit today are not spiritually qualified. Gordon can defend himself but the second of these criticisms is wrongheaded but I suppose he speaks for a good lot of people. First of all, it’s not a binary choice. We must insist on having both sets of qualities: spiritual qualification for ministryand literacy. To set them against each other is a false choice. The Apostle Paul did not commend himself on the basis of his literacy and persuasive speech. True enough, but the context of those remarks was a culture that valued rhetoric for its own sake, for entertainment. Does that describe our setting? Further, the Apostle who downplayed his rhetorical abilities was a highly trained, most literate, and a most careful reader and expositor of texts. The power of preaching is the work of the Holy Spirit and he is quite capable of using bad preaching but this is no recommendation of bad preaching! Yes, the Spirt is capable of using Balaam’s ass, (and he still does) but we ought not to make this a goal. Rather, our goal ought to be that ministers should be both spiritually mature and literate. We’re not gnostics. We’re not dualists. The ministry comes to us embodied in humans speaking to and communicating with other humans. “Good letters” or “humane letters” is not mere artifice, it’s an act of charity by the minister toward the congregation. It’s a mercy to the people whom God has entrusted into his care to take the time to learn to read and speak well.
Gordon is right. We cannot expect the broader culture to help us. The ugly truth is that our primary and secondary educational systems are collapsing and they have been imploding for decades. The rate of decay increases with the speed of electronic communication. As the new dark ages descend upon us, as the volume and frequency of electronic Babble increases, we must take it upon ourselves to be sure to preserve learning and, in that way, our humanity is preachers, as readers, and as expositors of the Word. In our Medieval-Reformation course, one of the sub-themes I pursue is that the Renaissance did “drop out of the sky,” All the great teachers in the church were not only theologians but they were also students of the arts and letters. They all studied the Trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and most of them studied the Quadrivium (math, astronomy, music, and geometry). During the darkest intellectual periods of the west, the church kept learning alive, not merely for the sake of learning, but because it reflects our nature as image bearers, as rational creatures, and for the sake of the ministry. If it was possible to keep alive the liberal arts and to put them to the service of the kingdom in the 6th century, how much more so now?
I’m grateful to David for writing this book. It took courage to tell the truth, but truth-telling is the first step toward Reformation. I hope all our students at WSC will read it and I hope that seminarians and pastors everywhere will read it and take it to heart.