Who Preaching Is Really For

By now, everyone should know the rules.  Or I should say “the rule,” singular, since there is only one: Preaching books are written for preachers by people in the field of preaching, period.  Except some of us preachers know there have been violations of the rule.  A couple of years ago, T. David Gordon wrote Why Johnny Can’t Preach (P and R Publishing, 2009), only the author is a layperson.  Who does he think he is?  Before that, David Schlafer wrote Surviving the Sermon: A Guide to Preaching for Those Who Have to Listen (Cowley, 1992).  We preachers will pretend that “surviving” and “have to” are poor word choices, but that’s not the point anyway.  The point is it’s a book about preaching written for folks other than preachers.  Who is the author kidding?

If as a preacher you are not alarmed, you should be.  Since when does preaching belong to anyone but us preachers?  If this trend keeps up, before long people in the pews will start to think the Bible belongs to them as well, that somehow they are a real part of the church.  Sure, forty years ago when Fred Craddock, the dean of contemporary preaching theory, penned his now famous As One without Authority, he based it on the role listeners should play.  He said in previous generations that listeners were on the team as “javelin catchers.”  But don’t you think he was exaggerating?  If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, who knows if it makes a sound.  Who cares?  But sermons are different, right?  What was it our parents used to remind us in church when we were little? “Be still and be quiet.”  We need listeners in the pew but mostly as part of the landscape, right?  I mean, if lay folks want to be active in church, there is an offering.

And now there are all sorts of homiletical titles being published about how we preachers should pay closer attention to listeners.  Mark Allan Powell’s What Do They Hear? (Abingdon, 2007) and Ronald J. Allen’s Hearing the Sermon (Chalice, 2004) come to mind.  Maybe we should call a business meeting of the Order of Preachers and someone make a motion about what’s to be done with these traitors.  Flogging?  Caning?  Solitary confinement?  Only that last suggestion won’t work since that’s ideal for sermon preparation, not punishment.

The homileticians doing this should know better; they are in the preaching business after all.  I suppose we could cut David Gordon some slack for writing a book addressed to us.  He’s a layperson; what does he know?  He says in the preface of his work that he wrote about preaching when he learned he had cancer.  He claims he didn’t think it would be responsible as a church person to leave this world without doing something to address the poor state of preaching these days.

Still, there is the rule, right?  Am I right, or what?

Mike Graves

William K. McElvaney Professor of Preaching

Saint Paul School of Theology

Kansas City, Missouri