The particular localism of preaching…

Preaching to the local

I am trying to carry out something of an in-depth study of Haddon Robinson’s approach to preaching. I think his style (while not my own preferred style at the level of exegesis or indeed delivery) is better than many who claim to follow it.

I have reached a part in his book when and where he talks about three worlds: the world of the Bible, the contemporary world, and significantly our own particular world of a church and congregation. 

He writes this:

“A church has a postal code and stands near Fifth and Main in some town or city. The profound issues of the Bible and the ethical, philosophical, questions of our times assume different shapes in rural villages, in middle-class communities, or in the ghettoes of crowded cities. Ultimately, we do not address everyone; we speak to a particular people and call them by name. The Bible speaks of the gift of pastor-teacher (Eph. 4:11). This implies the two functions should be joined, or else an irrelevant exposition may emerge that reflects negatively on God. As one bewildered churchgoer expressed it, ‘The trouble is that God is like our minister: we don’t see him (sic!) during the week and we don’t understand him (sic!) on Sunday. J. M. Reu was on target when he wrote, ‘Preaching is fundamentally a part of the care of souls, and the care of souls involves a thorough understanding of the congregation’.” (Biblical Preaching, p. 74).

Okay, we might not go fully with his understanding of Eph. 4 nor the language (or you may) but I think Robinson is correct to highlight that indeed the primary nature of the preaching event is “local” and “particular”. To be sure there can be preaching intended for wider audiences etc. but that is derivative of something more ‘incarnated’ as a live event in a particular space and time. 

Local pastors are not competing with the podcast starts – who are secondary – they are delivering the primary. They are doing something that the podcast preachers cannot.

This being the case, however, does not get us off the hook (terrible phrase) but puts us firmly on it to do and be the best we can in relation to our congregations in and through the preaching event. This is why time and efforts requires to constantly be invested in enhancing the practice as a local live event.

Of course, there are sermons and speeches and talks that manage to sustain interest through time and space but as with many of Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons what gives them their longevity is the knowledge of the particular context in which they took place.

So local pastors preach in context …

I want to repeat from a previous post the ‘tweets of James K Smith from 24th June who comes out of a very different context from Robinson but suspect would have got a Robinson nod of approval for these statements:

‘How beautifully inefficient the Church is, a transnational web of localist nodes we call “congregations” in which thousands of people are unleashed every Sunday to bring God’s Word to life for *these* people in *this* place at *this* time. Preaching = localism.

This should be radically different from the bland hegemony of global consumerism that simply exports Starbucks or Stella Artois to everyone. Catholicity ≠ McDonaldization. The transcendence of revelation calls for scandalous localization. The Bible is preached in place.

Pastors and priests: forget the podcast and book contract. Don’t fall prey to the generic universalism of brand. Preach to the people in front of you: their heartbreak & hurts; their fears & doubts. Your congregation exists to be *local.*’



‘Xty stands or falls by it.

Stand or Fall by Preaching

In a set of handwritten notes, for a series of lectures entitled, ‘Foundations of Preaching’ to be delivered (sometimes after 1991 I think), the late Dr John Gladstone, highly regarded minister (1965–1991) at Yorkminster Park Baptist Church in Toronto, writes that he has only agreed to give the lectures because ‘I believe that Xty [Christianity] stands or falls by it’.

This is an ‘enormous’ claim even allowing ‘hyperbole’.

Gladstone was not being naive, he is aware of the issues and writes about one ‘denial’ of its significance:

‘Boring – Dull – Irrelevant…Much of it is!’

Yet still the claim…

I guess in defense we could argue:

Jesus came preaching (something Gladstone notes) and affirmed somehow that the practice of preaching was integral to his liberative, prophetic, ministry (Luke 4: 14-31). This is, of course, a text which some radicals love while eschewing the ‘preaching’ and preachers love while eschewing the radical.

In turn, preaching is a practice when and where the Church publicly wrestles with the Scriptures and its application in a way illustrative and publicly participative of a central Church activity in any missional context.

Further, the way we think biblically, sociologically, theologically, practically, about and evaluate the practice of preaching, what it is, what we want to do with it, and how we want to make future sense of it will determine how we treat many other practices of the faith if we are going to be consistent in our critique. E.g. preaching may indeed make little sense in our contemporary media-saturated society but so does singing to an unseen God!

Like it or loathe it – preaching is a ‘theory-laden’ (Don Browning) practice and given if nothing else its historical, let alone, biblical, and theological significance, requires to treated as such in the conversations which take place.

In this respect, the tweets on the 24th June by James K. Smith landed somewhere really interesting:

‘How beautifully inefficient the Church is, a transnational web of localist nodes we call “congregations” in which thousands of people are unleashed every Sunday to bring God’s Word to life for *these* people in *this* place at *this* time. Preaching = localism.

This should be radically different from the bland hegemony of global consumerism that simply exports Starbucks or Stella Artois to everyone. Catholicity ≠ McDonaldization. The transcendence of revelation calls for scandalous localization. The Bible is preached in place.

Pastors and priests: forget the podcast and book contract. Don’t fall prey to the generic universalism of brand. Preach to the people in front of you: their heartbreak & hurts; their fears & doubts. Your congregation exists to be *local.*’

I think that preaching is in ‘essence’ a ‘live embodied event’ when and where a person shares time and space with their listeners and that indeed the primary nature is ‘local’. Of course, there are other forms but in ‘essence’ it finds its ‘divinity’ in the localism of Spirit touched fragile incarnated humanity.

More significant, however, is that Smith’s tweets have something to say not only about how we conceive ‘preaching’ but how we conceive of the Church expressed as a congregation…local.

To go back to Gladstone – questions of preaching are critical because they invariably if we are going to deal with preaching as ‘theory-laden’ practice involve not simply the practice, but also the tradition – Christianity –  in which that practice takes place, and thus at least in some senses, they will indeed stand and fall together.






Academic and Practical Subjects in Theology

academic and practical

academic and practical subjects in theology

I research and teach in the area of theology: Practical Theology.

Sometimes in theological discussions around education, I hear people refer to “academic” and “practical” subjects. Sometimes, just now and again, there appears to be the suggestion that “practical” subjects in theology are less “academic’ than academic subjects. I do not think this is the case and involves rather a sleight of hand in the use of the word “academic’.

When we talk about “academic” and “practical” subjects we are normally referring to the “content’ of the subject.

Academic = history, systematic theology, ethics, Bible.

Practical = preaching, worship, pastoral care, counseling, leadership, chaplaincy, and so on.

So far so good – but as I said, sometimes there also comes the sleight of hand. This sleight of hand is the implication that “academic” subjects require a person to be “more academic” in terms of skills and abilities than “practical” subjects require.

It seems to me regarding academic and practical subjects that:

The study of both requires some training in “practices”, internally related to the discipline, if more than descriptive knowledge is being taught.

The study of both requires some thought and interpretation regarding application unless we are dealing with “impractical” subjects.

To be sure, regarding the above, what this means will indeed differ with respect to each discipline.

That said, the study of both also requires “academic” skills and ability in learning and “academic” standards in terms of description, analysis, synthesis, and application.


Practical theology is an academic subject

Perhaps to put this somewhat differently, Practical theology is an academic subject in terms of the “academic” skills and abilities required to be learned in any process of education.

Practical theology is not simply “training” although should at its best, lead to enhanced practice as well as understanding.

Practical theology is not simply “applied” theology but the study of “practice” as a locus of historical, theological, ethical, and biblical perspectives as “operant” in the lives of people regardless of the established “formal” or “espoused” ideas by institutions and leaders.

Yes, yes, I know what people mean when we talk about “academic” and “practical” subjects insofar as it relates to the “content” of a course but do not buy the implication that somehow one lot of subjects requires greater “academic’ skills and abilities than the other…unless the case is being made of course that “practical” subjects require more…



What makes research ‘theological?’

Ethnography and Ecclesiology

What makes theological research theological?

In recent years,  there appears to have been an increase in theological students wishing to do ‘ethnographic’, or at least qualitative research, as part of their research projects. I think there are a variety of reasons for this. One reason, I conjecture, is that in a context of Church decline (Global North), researchers want to go beyond surface description and anecdote.

The turn to social scientific methods, however, is not straight forward. I have sat in more than one context, when and where a student has presented their research proposal with a strong social scientific method in order to get a ‘thick’ description and some supervisor asks – but what makes this ‘theological’ research and not simply a social scientific study.? I suspect, (because I can be suspicious), that at times this question is asked because the supervisor does not know either and hopes (in vain) that someone will answer the question.

This question remained hanging over the recent Ecclesiology and Ethnography conference I attended at Canadian Mennonite University, the first of its type in Canada.

This of course is not the only way to do theology and tends to refer to the stream called ‘Practical Theology’ – (in contrast to impractical) rather than in contrast to ‘academic’?

The question, however, is more general.

So – as I asked on Facebook – what makes research ‘theological’? (My explicit concern – Christian theological)…and not the same question as what to makes ‘good’ or ‘bad’ theology.

In light of various comments and thoughts…

It seems to me that this question involves a discussion about the intersection between the stance of the researcher, the content, the purpose, and the methodology adopted. each of these can be further delineated e.g. the implicit and explicit stance of the researcher. Here are some initial options.

One: All research into all ideas, practices, people, and places, regardless of the stance of the researcher is theological – because ‘the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it’.

The problem with this is that this is itself a theological position and in practice ignores the content, implicit or explicit stance of the researcher, the ethic of the purpose, and the specific methodology chosen. If a researcher with no owned faith commitment wishes to to engage in Scientific research to devise new processes of nerve gas – do we want to claim that such is theological?

Two: All research into ideas, practices, people, and places is theological if the researcher is a Christian.

Okay so here, at best we assume that the Christian’s faith position may impact their perspective implicitly. Be this as it may, the explicit position, purpose, content, and methodology may be nothing to do with their faith. The claim to being theological is surely tenuous and may indeed not be welcomed by the researcher in that context even if they see their activity as vocational.

On the other hand, if the stance of the researcher is explicitly Christian and their methodology involves bringing what is discovered and described into a critical correlation (or some such process) with Scripture and tradition (including Christian doctrine etc) with at least the purpose of better understanding the way things are – then I think I would call this theological research. Here the content is not determinative but the stance, purpose, and methodology of the researcher.

Three: Research into the ideas, practices, people, and places of the Christian faith, irrespective of the implicit or explicit stance of the researcher, is theological.

Here one could argue that what is being explored is theological content – operant theology. Yet, if the stance of the researcher is not faith based, and the methodology social scientific, and the purpose to simply describe – is this theological rather than simply an outsiders study of ‘lived religion’? I am not sure, but lean on the no side. It gets muddier if the researcher claims no faith commitment but explores the ideas, practices, people and places of the faith, bringing their discoveries into at least critical correlation (or some such process) with Scripture and tradition. Perhaps this is theological – the theology of the outsider, however, rather than the insider. Maybe a necessary (Corinthian) perspective.

Four: Research into the ideas, practices, people, and places of the Christian faith by a researcher who claims that faith and brings their discoveries (social scientific, historical, theoretical etc) into at least critical correlation (or some such process) with Scripture and tradition with the purpose for at least understanding and maybe enhanced practice.

The purist in me says this is theological research – faith seeking understanding (with a goal to enhanced lived faith) – person, content, purpose, method coming together..

My conclusion – sometimes it is clear and at other times not – but these various dimensions – person, content, purpose and methodology – are part of the conversation with the stance of the person, methodology adopted (Scripture and tradition) and purpose more important than explicit faith based ‘content’ of that being explored.

Preaching is a joke!

People Laughing at Preaching

I have been in a Church more than once when and where humour is directed at the sermon or preaching which is to follow. Often, this humour, is encouraged by the person who is going to preach. Normally, this humour takes the form of mocking some aspect of preaching or the nature of preaching: – often its length or its dullness or the fact that normally people hope it will be over very quickly. This sort of humour often gets a laugh. Mockery of others I am glad to say is generally not encouraged. We might laugh at funny things which happen at “sacred” events such as baptisms and funerals but seldom the thing itself, or at the thing itself, or with such regularity. Communion can be pretty boring but we do not mock that before we take the bread and wine. Of all the things in a service, preaching and preachers seem fair game.

Why is this so?

Playing off some theories of humour…

Is it because it allows us to feel a superiority over the preacher who normally is exercising a superiority over us?

Is it because of the incongruity between the important place it is given and what happens?

Is it because it allows us to safely mock a moral event without explicitly challenging it?

Is it because it is a repetitive habit that we feel we can laugh at?

Why is this so?

(Do not try any foolishness of preaching thing here – I do not think that Paul had in mind the folks laughing at the practice of “preaching” when he said that).



“Still talking about your sermon?”

PulpitThe opinions are still coming in about that sermon – yes that one (no not yours…sorry, the British Royal Wedding one).

Oh perhaps it has been a long time since the old days when a sermon could elicit such interest and controversy from the style, to the content, to the preacher. Just when we though the old preaching thing had had its day – it springs back up to surprise us as a form of public discourse and as a stimulus to such.

Of course not all sermons get such coverage or are so public, but week by week people are engaging in something that at the very least is taking up 15 – 20 – 25 … (oh my) minutes of our listening worship service time.

Reactions are not always good – some sleep Man sitting up sleeping in churchsome do not but are glad that their Church has the internet and they can enjoy some time on social media…oh yeah, of course you are just looking at an online version of the Bible. Of course others do appreciate and respond.

My thought – if we are going to do this, if it is a practice of value,let us understand it and do it to its full strangely human and divine potential with all of it rich variety of styles as appropriate for context and purpose.

Acadia Divinity College offers a long established Doctor of Ministry Program designed to allow those in ministry to enhance their practice through robust biblical, theological, and practice based thinking and research. Wherever I got it from, I still like the idea that theological education should help us think tough, feel deep, and act courageously (I think a paraphrase from MLK).

The Doctor of Ministry program at ADC does not “stream” as such into specific types of DMin (e.g. a DMin in this and a DMin in that)  rather we require all participants to engage in advanced biblical and theological courses as part of the program to provide skills and competencies that will go beyond the one DMin project you will do. This said, through reflection on one’s own ministry, Directed Studies options, certain ministry electives, and of course the “Thesis Project” where participants are encouraged to make a contribution to the understanding and practice of ministry, it is possible to focus on a particular area and aspect of ministry.  One such area can of course be preaching.

As the Associate Professor in the John Gladstone Chair of preaching and Worship I would love to see a “cohort” of people studying preaching at the same time along with the wide variety of people studying other different critical facets of ministry practice. Of course there are already Doctor of Ministry alumni that are both notable preachers and or have studied preaching as part of their DMin. A cohort, however, would mean that in addition to the regular peer and tutor support we could offer one another additional subject specific support benefiting from one another’s research and practice.

This is not an advert (yet)…but the idea…

If you are in the practice of ministry and would be eligible to do, and interested in the Doctor of Ministry program, check out the website for requirements. If this seems to fit and preaching might be your thing also feel free to get in touch with me through my College contacts to discuss ideas.

In addition to the above, if this is not quite where you are at, in the next year we will be delivering initial and advanced courses in preaching which you may wish to take either for credit or to enhance your own development.

“That sermon…”

Normally following a Royal Wedding (there was a British Royal Wedding on Saturday) people are talking about “that dress” (and some certainly are) but following this Royal wedding several are talking about “that sermon”.

Indeed as one who did not watch the Royal wedding (you see my bias) I had to watch it later as various people (yes all Christian) extolled its virtues.

Was it a good sermon?

Yes, indeed in many ways.

In part, therefore, I hope that it will have introduced people to the very strong “African-American” or wider “Black Preaching” tradition(s). The style and quality of the wedding sermon was not atypical but very typical of the best of this tradition in passion and power, although shorter in length!  Bishop Curry quoted Martin Luther Jr. who himself stood in this tradition, a tradition that has included, and includes, women as well as men, see for example: Daughters of Thunder: Black Women Preachers and Their Sermons, 1850-1979.

Daughters of Thunder

While much mainline preaching struggles to find a future form this is a very vibrant tradition in the world of homiletics.

Following on from the above, more generally, as someone who teaches homiletics, I hope that it may have encouraged people who preach to see what they can learn from this and other preaching styles.  The hermeneutical, as well as homiletical approach of this particular sermon is different from that practiced and indeed expected in many Church traditions. These congregational expectations, such as, “we need teaching,” whatever  that means, can be as limiting to preaching style and expression as narrow understandings on the part of the preacher. Of course not every style “fits” every context, and a one off special sermon – such as a wedding sermon – is of a different sort from the regular practice. But different preachers can learn from different traditions and appropriate in appropriate ways (deliberate repetition of word) different style suitable to sermon purpose and context.

As suggested, “context matters”. In many ways it was the context of this particular sermon with its particular style that contributed to its “power”. This was not simply a Church Service, or the marriage of two young people – it was a British Royal event in the English State Church. Bishop Curry’s sermon, the choir and the music, brought very welcome cultural and stylistic diversity into what can be seen as a largely established, institutional, and monolithic British Royal world. Despite what you would think from some of the comments, however, passionate preaching (a subject of another post) is not unknown in various pulpits. The surprise, however, was that people did not expect such preaching “here” and in this context. When it did happen, for many it was surprising, and welcome for its social as well as religious significance.

Strangely, however, and conversely, it is precisely because of the context that I found myself not quite as immediately  enthusiastic as others, about the wider impact of the sermon as a Christian witness beyond those who already have an interest in such social and religious matters.

Yes, the Royal wedding was watched by millions.

Yes, there was a great sermon.

Yes Jesus was spoken about.

Yes indeed, cultural and religious diversity was exhibited.

Yet, all of this took place in the spectacle of a much larger State Sponsored British religious event which sends its own message through words, actions, symbolism – some of which are not necessarily congruent with the radical call to love taught by Jesus and preached by King and Curry.

Sermons may challenge context but context can negate sermons.  Just as the sermon challenged the context the context worked against the sermon or at least any specific or radical application of the law of love beyond generalities.

So it is, that the “revolutionary movement” started by Jesus was spoken about in a Royal Pageant under flags that were not dedicated to King Jesus – so what message was communicated?

So it is, that justice for the poor was spoken about in the midst of a demonstration of wealth (others are writing about the famous guests, stylish clothes, cost of the event) – so what message was communicated?

So it is, that the end of conflict was spoken about in a context with explicit military symbolism – so what message was communicated?

It is not straightforward.

To reframe my concern a bit more theologically and philosophically – was this sermon a “Word before the Powers” or did it become a “Word of the Powers” when and where the radical is subsumed in the “spectacle” to the advantage rather than the transformation of the “powers”? (I should never have read Guy Deboard all those years ago!)

To put this differently again: was the sermon so implicated in the context that it could not be prophetic bur rather ended up giving the impression of challenge but actually changing nothing and supporting the status quo? (Many of us preachers find ourselves in such a situation).

The media attention given to the sermon can actually support either of the above possibilities.

It is not straightforward.

Yet for me …

In context, the sermon evidenced something of the free, improvisational, restlessness, and disruptive presence of the Holy Spirit…

In context, the sermon spoke truths prophetic that if even in the present will leave many only “almost persuaded” will in the end triumph, because indeed the arc of the moral universe may be long but it bends towards justice (Parker, King).

In context, a human voice spoke a counter narrative to the way things are – in the midst of all the technology – a convincing human voice – and in a sermon – who would have thought it…

While I am not convinced the sermon subverted the context – I do think that it rose above it with considerable passion and skill in a preaching tradition we can learn much from.