Thursday, June 16, 2011

Preaching to preachers

I spent the last few days at a onference on preaching. The following is a short article that the organisers asked me to write about the event.

Christians in the 21st Century are looking for a relationship with God and an experience of him. This is the pastoral need that preachers in the modern age must meet. To do so they have to move away from the kind of preaching which aims to teach people  about God and instead help them encounter him.

This was the message that the legendary Herbie O'Driscoll had for the group of preachers attending a three-day workshop in the newly opened St Luke's Home Education Centre in Cork. Herbie is a Cork native who was ordained in the Church of Ireland but spent most of his ministry in Canada. There he served not only as Dean of Christ Church Cathedral, Vancouver, but also as Warden of the College of Preachers in Washington DC. Over the years he has gained an international reputation as a preacher, teacher, lecturer and story teller and in retirement remains in huge demand as a speaker.

Herbie warned those who had gathered from all over Ireland and beyond that the model of preaching used by many today was based on assumptions that were no longer true. It came from a time when it could be taken for granted that almost everyone sitting in the pew had an intimate knowledge of scripture and would be there Sunday after Sunday without fail. This is no longer true and preachers must adapt if they are to pastor to those sitting in the pews today.

Herbie pointed out that the old model advocated what today could be seen as a 'talking head' in the pulpit, with many barriers between the preacher and the people: distance, height, and a wall of wood or stone. The modern preacher needs to remove as many barriers as possible and come down into the congregation and create a space of 'intimate eloquence.' Language can be a barrier also; the preacher must never forget that the only person who will read the sermon is them – all others will hear it and so the preacher must strive to achieve the informality of language appropriate to the spoken word. Indeed, the page itself can become a barrier and he encouraged everyone to move away from it as far as possible and to minimise notes to the essentials.

With that in mind, he challenged his listeners to imaginatively engage with the Biblical texts and to use image and story to engage and teach their congregations. He stressed that the Bible for the most part used image and story to convey its message and encouraged those attending to try to do the same. Storytelling reduces the need for notes and at the same time draws the listener deeper into the inexhaustible riches available to us in scripture.

Using story also allows the preacher to 'fill in the gaps' that the person in the pew has when it comes to the overarching narrative of scripture. For many today the events of scripture can be like a box of photographs that have fallen on the floor and then gathered up and put back in again out of sequence. Using story helps teach people the flow of what happens in the Bible without turning the sermon into a lecture. It takes practice to do it well and it may not be something that all preachers find suitable for them, but it was something that he offered to the group as a potential resource for them, as he did indeed all his many insights and suggestions.

Thanking Herbie on behalf of the the group, the Dean of Cloyne, the Very Reverend Alan Marley, said it had been a memorable few days and a true pleasure to sit at the feet of one so willing to share so generously of his time and talent with others. The tenor of the group was that it had been an exciting, energising, and encouraging time and no one, he was sure, would ever approach preaching in quite the same way again.


  1. Shar Lewis wrote:
    sounds like the approach was welcomed with open ears. As someone who is unfamiliar with most scripture the "taken from X, n - n" means absolutely nothing unless some descriptors are forthcoming. I don't often sit through sermons these days, but my experience of them are not happy ones so I welcome anyone who has a more personal approach to them. I have to admit, I've had to look up some stuff to even respond to some of your posts Fr!

  2. Thanks Shar - and of course the person sitting in the pew doesn't have the luxury of google to assist them!