Preaching of the people, to the people, with the people

I have just finished a short course on homiletics, a subject I always enjoy teaching on. During it, a thought crystalised, a thought that I do not recall seeing developed in any homiletics text I have read.

Discussion of the primary pronouns used by a preacher is fairly common, but it always seems related only to rhetorical style. This is of course not wrong: there is a great gulf between developing and declaring the thesis ‘you are all sinners’ and developing and declaring the thesis ‘we are all sinners’, and a preacher really should instinctively feel that difference, and make a conscious choice which voice she will adopt.

But the choice goes deeper than that; it betrays the preacher’s theological convictions about the nature of the preaching ministry. If, as the Second Helvetic Confession insisted, praedicatio verbi Dei est verbi Dei (can we take as read the learned footnote that acknowleges that this is a heading added later, but defends it as an accurate exegesis of the article?) – if the preaching of the Word of God simply is the Word of God addressing the congregation in recreative grace, then the preacher needs to know which side of that address she stands on. Do I enter the pulpit – well, no I don’t very often, but metaphorically speaking – do I enter the pulpit to speak God’s word with God’s voice to the congregation (and so say ‘you’), or am I a member of the congregation hearing and repeating God’s word which is addressed to us all (and so say ‘we’)? Do I preach to the people, or with the people?

And then what is the place of the singular ‘you’ in preaching? Is the preacher called to speak with the congregation’s voice back to God, wrestling with the word spoken (‘preaching of the people’?) or should the people receive God’s word in submissive silence?

3 Comments

  1. Aaron
    Nov 20, 2008

    Since the meeting of God’s people with God (in corporate worship) contains more elements than just ‘the preaching of the Word’, and since (or if) that entire meeting is one of dialog between God and his people, couldn’t the people respond in prayer and song when it’s actually their turn, as it were, to speak (rather than butting in while God speaks, in the form of a Minister suddenly adopting the first person plural pronoun). In other words, perhaps the Minister should adopt the first person plural pronoun when leading the congregation in prayer, but avoid it in the preaching of the Word.

    It’s an interesting question, most of all because it assumes something that most churches and many ministers, I’m afraid, don’t recognize–that corporate worship involves being addressed by God, not merely learning about him, singing about him, etc.

  2. Steve H
    Nov 20, 2008

    Hi Aaron, welcome.
    In my (British, charismatic, evangelical, Baptist) experience, churches think they meet with God in worship, and the sermon is a teaching event that happens after the worship.
    The older Reformed understanding sometimes worked the way you suggest (it was the theology behind the now-much-derided ‘hymn sandwich’: God calls in Scripture; we respond in song and prayer; God speaks again in Scripture; and so on – British Baptists can find this at least implied in the introduction to Payne and Winward’s classic Orders and Prayers).
    I guess my problem, as someone who is a preacher before I am anything else, is the notion that when I speak, God is speaking. Maybe this is a failure of courage and theology on my part, but I find it easier to believe that, as God’s Word happens, I am more on the side of those who hear and are judged, saved and recreated in the hearing, than on the side of Uncreated Grace speaking the creative Word.

  3. dancethespears
    Nov 20, 2008

    Shot in the dark….

    It seems that the preacher must use “we” when the preacher must necessarily be included in the idea. Your example of “we are all sinners” is pretty good, as saying “you” would establish, in an albeit subtle manner, some sort of differentiation between the the congregation and the preacher on the subject of a sinful nature. The preacher must say “we” in this instance, and as you said I think that simply comes naturally to many skilled homilists.

    “You” should be used in situations that do not necessarily include the preacher, whether it be in all instances or simply at that moment; or to establish a bit of authority in providing information that may (or may not) be known to the congregation.

    Doing so allows an easy transition between “we” and “you” that doesn’t subtract from the message. “We are all sinners. So you’re going to fall, you’re going to slip up. It’s what we do as humans. But I tell you today that there is hope in Jesus Christ, and you can find freedom from your sinful nature.”

    I must be missing the core of your post or the entire meaning of it, because I feel like I am simply stating the obvious.

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