The aims of preaching
Preaching has been at the heart of Protestant worship since the Reformation. Against the Catholic mass, which placed at its centre the Eucharist – the words of which were incomprehensible to the faithful because the ritual was in Latin – the Reformers emphasised the importance of oral preaching, which ought to allow the biblical text to become the word of God for the faithful, in their context.
But what are the listeners’ expectations? Two surveys carried out in the 1980s in the Lutheran-Reformed environment – one in Alsace, the other in the Nord-Normandie region of the Église Réformée de France – can help us to discern them, despite their age.
These expectations seem to be mainly individual. Asked to choose no more than three answers from a list of eight, listeners wished above all to « receive spiritual comfort » through preaching and to « reflect on the major problems of life » (50% or more of respondents for each of these items, in both surveys). Preaching should also help them to « discern the commitments to which each Christian is called »; this item came in 3rd or 4th place, while a similar item, on community commitments, was only seldom selected (6th or 8th place). The request to « receive theological instruction » also comes in 3rd or 4th place. What about the relationship with the Bible? The item « to hear a commentary on the biblical text » came only in 5th position in both surveys. It seems to me that this reflects a refusal on the part of listeners of an exegetical commentary disconnected from their personal questions. The challenge of preaching is to make the text speak for today – a « today » that is more concerned with their existential questions than with external events (the answer « to reflect on contemporary events » comes only in 5th or 7th place). As far as listeners’ expectations of preachers are concerned, two attitudes can be distinguished: some (the majority) want the preacher to « lead them to ask themselves questions », while others, fewer in number (particularly in the ERF survey) would like the preacher to « say clearly what God’s will is today ».
These different expectations pose challenges for the preacher. Must s/he prioritise the personal dimension in this way – when Christian faith is not just about individuals, but also about how we live together in society? Must we rather ask questions or provide answers?
For Wilfred Monod, « the pastor, in the pulpit, […] is mandated by the congregation to express the doctrine and morals of the Church: the faith it lives by and the ideal it sets itself » (W. Monod, Notre culte). If his former students are to be believed, D. Bonhoeffer believed that that « for every good sermon, there must be a certain amount of heresy. In other words, preaching must abandon doctrinal balance, become one-sided, take sides, run the risk of crossing the boundaries of what is permissible » (quoted by A. Dumas, Une théologie de la réalité, D. Bonhoeffer).
Must we choose between these two conceptions? If preaching ought to nourish the faith of its listeners, this does not mean a closed discourse, made up of affirmations. Preaching should set them in motion, giving them something to think about, questioning their ways of seeing, so that faith remains alive.
In my opinion, it is G. Delteil and P. Keller who best express the objective of preaching: « Preaching, according to Louis Simon, is not talking, but making people talk ». Preaching awakens listeners to their own words. It breaks with a hierarchical form of communication, from master to disciple. Here, it’s the listener who counts, and the way he or she receives the word heard. To preach
is to open up a space where others can arrive at their own word, by awakening to the Word ». (G. Delteil and P. Keller, L’Église disséminée. Itinérance et enracinement)
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