Contemporary Styles of Preaching

Chapter Five

Impact, event, and context in contemporary preaching

5.1 Mapping the commonalities.

The diversity of the trends identified in the earlier review (sections 2.4 to 2.8) presents a particular challenge to the analysis of justifiable generalizations about homiletic theory and practice in the last half-century. As Edwards observes, ‘there seem to be more forms of preaching today than in all previous Christian centuries put together’ (2004: 835). Furthermore, Edwards judges that ‘preachers during the late-twentieth century tried to accomplish a greater variety of things through their sermons than any of their predecessors attempted’ (2004: 663). Allen, Blaisdell and Johnston similarly describe the current homiletical scene as a ‘smorgasboard of approaches’ and cite no less than eleven identifiable contemporary styles of preaching (1997: 171).

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According to Edwards two developments account for this diversity: namely, the sheer number of people who designate themselves as Christians (in the 20th century Christianity became the most extensive and universal religion in history (Barratt, 2001: 3)), and the huge proliferation of organizational bodies within which preachers are operative (2004: 835). The work of the statisticians Barratt, Kurian and Johnson supports Edwards’ judgement; in their World Christian Encyclopedia (2001) they estimate that in the year 2000 Christians of all kinds numbered 2 billion people in 33,820 distinct denominations (2001: 10). They observe that ‘there are today Christians and organized Christian churches in every inhabited country on earth’ (2001: 3). The impact of this globalization is significant even in the much narrower geographical confines of this thesis, and it is inconceivable that an accurate appraisal of preaching practice and theory could be made apart from a ready acknowledgement of the forces and influences that are properly termed global. The indicators of institutional decline apparent in the churches of the Western world have to be set against rapid and continuing growth in other parts of the globe. This shift of numerical strength inevitably has consequences for preaching as for other aspects of church practice and faith. The presence in the UK of Christian personnel from the southern parts of the world, increased congregation to congregation contact made possible by cheap air travel, and the development of Internet usage, all offer new understandings and strategies from elsewhere in the global church in ways much more directly influential than even in the immediate past. The practice of preaching, like most other human endeavours in the early twenty-first century, takes place within a pluriform social environment in which many and diverse influences from the widest possible arenas of human activity have a bearing. That said, preaching, in social terms, remains predominantly a locally-focused activity, and sermon style and content are usually closely related to the specifics of the sub-cultural frames in which the life and self-understanding of the congregation is set. Consequently, the power of the local context is another factor underlying Edwards’ observation of the immense diversity of contemporary sermon styles. As Edwards puts it, such diversity shows ‘how radically ad hoc all Christian preaching is’ (2004: 835). That is not to say, however, that such enormous diversity denies the possibility of any sensible generalization. In particular, as was suggested in the earlier review, three aspects are identifiable within contemporary preaching practices that have particular significance for collective memory-namely, awareness of a sermon’s psychological engagement, communicative salience and contextual pertinence. In other words, those aspects of preaching that deal with a sermon’s impact on the hearer; its purposefulness as an event in its own terms; and its relationship to the context in which it is delivered and heard.

In order to establish an analytical framework that is not too unwieldy three texts that are in some sense representative documents will be analysed closely. Other texts that develop, challenge, or amplify the issues disclosed will be added to the discussion as the argument requires. The representative texts have been selected as indicative of three prominent strands in the ongoing discussion of homiletic practice: firstly, continuity in terms of issues of concern and of practice methodology; secondly, change in practice and the philosophical and technical components that undergird it; and thirdly, reorientation that aims to subtly change the locus of practice itself. The first text will utilize a perspective from prior to the 1955 to 2005 period under review that still has currency, albeit in terms significantly altered from earlier years. The second will analyse a perspective of more recent origin that signifies contemporary concerns with philosophy and communications theory and the technical practice that flows from them. And the third will examine a perspective that sees the local context of preaching as fundamental to homiletic activity rather than just the arena in which it takes place.

The first text is Phillips Brooks’ Lyman Beecher Lectures of 1877, last reissued in book form as recently as 1987, and described by Killinger as ‘one of the most readable and inspiring volumes on preaching ever penned’ (1985: 207). The version used here will be the 1904 edition, published in London under the title Lectures on Preaching. No attempt will be made to alter the gender specificity of Brooks’ words since, although this study readily acknowledges that the preaching task belongs as much to women as to men, the assumptions of his text in this area are a clear marker of changes that have taken place even under the cover of longstanding common concerns.

David Buttrick’s 1987 book Homiletic: Moves and Structures is the second focus. At more than 500 pages, this is a monumental work in size, as well as scope and influence. Edwards (2004: 806) describes Buttrick’s work as being as influential and significant as Fred Craddock’s pioneering of the New Homiletic, and Lischer (2002: 337) credits him with the first homiletic in theory and practice ‘geared to our [present day] culture of images’.

The final representative text is Leonora Tisdale’s 1997 work Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, which asks preachers to become ethnographers of their congregations in order to understand the ‘human nature’ of their hearers from the inside as it were. Tisdale is one of a new movement of homiletic practitioners and theoreticians at home with anthropological and sociological models in Christian ministry and alert to cultural-linguistic issues. Her work provides a way into the insights of those who acknowledge that preaching’s former authority has all but evaporated, but who see a radical social re-encounter as being a real possibility for a reshaped sermon practice.

5.2 Continuities of concerns and practice: Brooks and contemporary preaching.

As was noted earlier (Section 2.5), Brooks’ Lyman Beecher Lectures remained much used as a guide to homiletic practice well into the period under review. Indeed such has been the influence of his insistence on preaching as ‘the bringing of truth through personality’ (1904: 5) that Brooks’ expression continues to be repeated in exactly the same terms in contemporary works, such as those of Day (1998: 6) and Killinger (1985: 8). In dwelling on the preacher’s personality Brooks managed to encapsulate what, in the 1870s, was a new and burgeoning interest in the human psyche. It was hardly coincidence that his lectures were delivered in the same decade in which William James became America’s first professorial-level teacher of psychology (Harvard in 1875) and G. Stanley Hall the country’s first PhD in psychology. Unwittingly no doubt, Brooks reflected on novel intellectual ideas of his own day and, in doing so, identified within preaching practice what was to become a major preoccupation in many areas of discourse in the twentieth-century: namely, the human psyche and its relationship to action and truth. It is pertinent, therefore, to examine what Brooks understood by personality and its relationship to Christian truth in order to appreciate how his ideas were developed by homiletic practitioners in the period under review. What might appropriately be termed personalist (i.e. an emphasis in preaching on the personal religious experience of the hearer somehow addressed very directly by the preacher) has been, and continues to be, a major component in sermon delivery and design. Brooks’ concept of preaching as ‘truth through personality’ became a kind of slogan for many preachers in the twentieth-century, and indeed remains a very influential mantra for many practitioners to this day. In Brooks’ lectures that sloganized thought had a rather more nuanced definition:

Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men. It has in it two essential elements, truth and personality. Neither of those can it spare and still be preaching. The truest truth, the most authoritative statement of God’s, communicated in any other way than through the personality of brother man to men is not preached truth. Suppose it written on the sky, suppose it embodied in a book which has been so long held in reverence as the direct utterance of God that the vivid personality of the men who wrote its pages has well-nigh faded out of it; in neither of these cases is there any preaching. And on the other hand, if men speak to other men that which they do not claim for truth, if they use their powers of persuasion or of entertainment to make other men listen to their speculations, or do their will, or applaud their cleverness, that is not preaching either. The first lacks personality. The second lacks truth. And preaching is the bringing of truth through personality. (1904: 5)

For Brooks, the two components of truth and personality had to stand together, since their meeting was the point at which the universal and the particular met. It would be an exaggeration to say that Brooks viewed religious truth as essentially something that can only be known in personal experience; but he did believe that truth was at its most effective and powerful when known and expressed in personal terms. He understood the truth of the Christian faith to be universal and invariable, with personality as the site where it was ‘realized’ through variable and particular understanding and appropriation (1904: 15). Thus although he was clear gospel truth was a message to be transmitted, he insisted that it could only be transmitted via the voice of a witness, i.e. someone for whom it had become an indispensable part of that person’s own experience (14). In terms of memory maintenance, Brooks’ approach assumes that the preacher is deeply cognizant of the Christian tradition and is, as it were, a bearer of it in his or her own person.

5.2.1 The personal characteristics of the preacher.

Being such a bearer of the tradition required of the preacher exacting personal characteristics. The rigour Brooks brought to the personal qualities required of the preaching ‘witness’ continues to be challenging reading for anyone pursuing such a role. Alongside a deep personal piety (1904: 38), Brooks listed mental and spiritual unselfishness (39), ‘hopefulness’ as against judgmental fear (40), a vigorous commitment to physical health along with the offering of the whole of life in ministerial service (40), and an enthusiasm that made for a keen joy in preaching (42). Brooks saw the task of preaching as always needing an essential grounding in the very personhood of the preacher, by which he meant truth communicated through personality in an absolutely literal sense.

The second of his Lyman Beecher Lectures, entitled The Preacher Himself, amplified the point in this enumeration of the qualities necessary for success in preaching: purity and uprightness of character; lack of self-consciousness founded on absolute trust in God; genuine respect for those preached to; thorough enjoyment of the task; gravity of intent in all things; and courage to speak out (1904: 49-60). At first sight the list appears remote from more recent homiletic theory’s concern with techniques and philosophical issues, and therefore it might appear as less accessible and relevant to practitioners since the 1950s watershed in preaching identified earlier. Such personal qualities can seem to be more easily related to an era when the person of the preacher was regarded as carrying more authority than nowadays. Although in terms of wider social recognition the preacher is no longer a star of oratory, similar attributes are still sought after-but for rather different reasons.

Killinger (1985), for example, stresses the importance of the physical and mental health of the preacher as an aspect of communication, since troubles in those areas are signalled subconsciously to an ‘audience’ and work towards undermining the intended message. He writes:

Suppose we are preaching about wholeness and reconciliation but actually conveying a message about fragmentedness and despondency. The words may sound right, but there is something about the tune, about the look in our eyes, about the tension in our faces, that counters what we are saying. At best, people get a double message. It is very important, therefore, for the preacher to be as healthy and joyous as possible. Anything less impedes his or her message about the life-giving community of God. We are working at our preaching, for this reason, even when we are taking care of ourselves. (1985: 198-199)

Although the point is expressed in the idiom of late twentieth-century communications theory the reasoning is clearly akin to that of Brooks. For both, emphasis on the physicality of the preacher is an aspect of how the message will be received in the light of how the hearers’ perceptions of the speaker. The body of the preacher, as well as his or her mental and spiritual capabilities, is, in this sense, a tool in the preaching witness.

Contemporary women homileticians have also emphasized physicality; but from a perspective that radicalizes it by making the woman preacher’s bodily experience a site of homiletic resource. In Walton and Durber (1994), the negative, indeed destructive, consequences of a profound prejudice in the Christian tradition against women’s bodies are highlighted. They note that in the light of this shameful history and despite occasional counter-tradition movements, the advent of more widespread preaching by women with the rise of Nonconformity did not generally challenge the unembodied nature of homiletic practice. Until the rise of the Women’s Movement, women preachers, like their male counterparts, stressed a common rationality and a universal human nature that was blind to the particularities of embodied experience (Walton and Durber, 1994: 2). In more recent years, however, some women homileticians have striven to speak from their bodily experience and utilize both the negative and positive aspects of femininity, conception, pregnancy, birth, health and nurture in their theology of preaching (for example, Ward, Wild and Morley, (1995); Gjerding and Kinnamon, (1984); Riley, (1985); By Our Lives, (1985); Maitland, (1995); and Marva Dawn in Graves, (2004)). According to Walton and Durber, such efforts are part of a new emphasis that is fuelling developments across the whole spectrum of theological enquiry. They write:

Sexuality and suffering are still rarely named within a Christian tradition that prefers to speak of the spirit rather than the body, light rather than darkness and a God who creates life but bears no responsibility for pain and dying. Women who have begun to preach from their bodies are not merely redressing an existing imbalance and enriching the storehouse of Christian metaphors and symbols but are also provoking new theological debates close to the very heart of the faith. (1994: 4)

This emphasis on the body as a resource for preaching content rather than solely the necessary vehicle of delivery as it were, certainly takes Brooks’ focus on personhood further than he could possibly have imagined. That said, even here there is a certain congruence between what Brooks said and these very contemporary concerns. He did, after all, insist that the needs and preoccupations of no one sex or age should monopolize the life of the congregation, and that ‘ministrations to it must be full at once of vigour and of tenderness, the father’s and the mother’s touch at once’ (1904: 207). Brooks could not have possibly foreseen the Women’s Movement and its repercussions for preaching, but his unease with a domineering and authoritarian style in the pulpit-mediated through his lasting influence-at least readied some preachers for a message that needed to be heard.

The physical and personal qualities of the practitioner described neither in terms of communication theory nor embodied theology, but in ways even more reminiscent of Brooks’ own characterization of the preacher, have reasserted themselves through organization theory and the study of leadership. As the authority of the church, in terms of rules and obligations, has ebbed away, and the legitimacy of power based on tradition more and more questioned, it is perhaps the case that authority based on exemplary character has increased in relative importance. Certainly in the world of commerce and business the significance of the personal qualities of leaders and managers has been extensively theorized and debated. In the use of terms such as ‘sapiential authority’ and ‘referent power’, organization theorists have pointed up the crucial importance of a personal knowledge and skill that readily communicates itself to others, and a personality-based ability to influence by attracting loyalty (Rees and Porter, 2001: 82). Other theorists, e.g. Charles Handy, talk in terms of ‘the invisible but felt pull’ that is described as ‘magnetism’ (1985: 135). Handy writes:

Aspects of magnetism, the unseen drawing-power of one individual, are found all the time. Trust, respect, charm, infectious enthusiasm, these attributes all allow us to influence people without apparently imposing on them. The invisibility of magnetism is a major attraction as is its attachment to one individual. (1985: 136)

Brooks himself used the very term ‘magnetism’ and described it as:

the quality that kindles at the sight of men, that feels a keen joy at the meeting of truth and the human mind, and recognizes how God made them for each other. It is the power by which a man loses himself and becomes but the sympathetic atmosphere between the truth on one side of him and the man on the other side of him. (1904: 42)

Excluding the gender specificity, Handy might have written in very similar terms. (Comparable thoughts, although using other nomenclature, can also be found, for example in Schein, 1992: 229; Zohar and Marshall, 2000: 259; and Nelson, 1999: 76). The significance of the personal charisma of the preacher is, perhaps, in the process of rehabilitation via business practices that readily recognize the importance of personal as well as systemic qualities in the effective functioning of organizations. With the support of such an appreciation, a contemporary homiletician, such as Day, can assert, without risking suspicion and disapprobation, that ‘the hope of the sermon lies in the authenticity of the preacher’ (1998: 147). As regards the maintenance of tradition as collective memory, the resurgence of individualized authority raises the question whether organizational structures within the churches are strong enough to prevent intentional or unintentional abuse of that corporate memory bearing responsibility.

5.2.2 The preacher as learner and as pastor.

Before leaving issues associated with personhood, two of Brooks’ themes regarding the preacher’s actions are worth considering since, again, they are things that continue to be widely discussed in the literature; namely, the preacher as learner and the preacher as pastor.

After considering the dangers to the preacher’s personality of self-conceit, over-concern with failure, self-indulgence, and narrowness, Brooks brings his second lecture to a close with a vigorous plea for what would now be called lifelong learning. He writes:

In [Christian ministry] … he who is faithful must go on learning more and more for ever. His growth in learning is all bound up with his growth in character. Nowhere else do the moral and intellectual so sympathize, and lose or gain together. The minister must grow. His true growth is not necessarily a change of views. It is a change of view. It is not revolution. It is progress. It is a continual climbing which opens continually wider prospects. It repeats the experience of Christ’s disciples, of whom their Lord was always making larger men and then giving them larger truth of which their enlarged natures had become capable. (1904: 70)

What Brooks’ discerned as an essential component of the preacher’s disposition has nowadays been widened to embrace all who claim to be faithful believers. Discipleship as lifelong learning is a concept in wide contemporary currency in the churches, and is discussed, for example, in documents such as the published strategies of the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church for training, detailed in the reports Formation for Ministry within a Learning Church (2003) and Shaping the Future: New patterns of training for lay and ordained (2006). The notion of Christian leaders needing to be exemplars in this ongoing commitment to learning and personal growth figures in much of the literature on congregations and pastoral ministry, such as Mead (1994), Baumohl (1984), Hawkins (1997), and Anderson (1997); albeit these and numerous other authors, make it plain that the goal of such action is the enhancement of learning in the whole church. In the preaching literature, allied perspectives are expressed in such concepts as ‘local theology’ (Tisdale, 1997), ‘conversational preaching’ (Rose, 1997), ‘listening “to or with” sermon preparation’ (Van Harn, 2005), ’embodying the scriptures communally’ (Davis and Hays, 2003), and ‘interactive preaching’ (Hunter, 2004). Through these and other mechanisms, Brooks’ call for continuous learning on the part of the preacher finds its contemporary expression in practices that aim to widen that learning to include the whole body of people who are party to the sermon and the preacher’s and their own wider ministry. As Anderson puts it, ‘every act of ministry teaches something about God’ (1997: 8). That is a sentiment to which Brooks would have been sympathetic given his emphasis on the absolute core of preaching as the widest of concern for souls. Learning, in collective memory theory, is often associated with the changing of the meanings and understandings of memories, and the processes by which traditions are appropriated by individuals. As aspects of learning clearly related to relationships they echo contemporary concern in the church about ‘whole body’ learning.

In Brooks’ description of the preacher as pastor this analysis reaches very familiar territory, in that such a description probably remains the pre-eminent designation of the homiletician within the churches. Brooks’ thought on this matter was absolutely unequivocal:

The preacher needs to be pastor, that he may preach to real men. The pastor must be preacher, that he may keep the dignity of his work alive. The preacher, who is not a pastor, grows remote. The pastor, who is not a preacher, grows petty. Never be content to let men truthfully say of you, ‘He is a preacher, but no pastor;’ or, ‘He is a pastor, but no preacher.’ Be both; for you cannot really be one unless you also are the other. (1904: 77)

The conviction remains no less powerful more than a century after Brooks’ lectures: for example, Eric Devenport writing in 1986 could assert, without fear that his opinion would be controversial:

Preaching and pastoral work go hand in hand. This is one of those truths that has to be proclaimed time after time, for unless it is heard, then most preaching will not only be dull but dead. (in Hunter, 2004: 145)

Clearly, at different times and in different church structures, the nature of pastoral practice has been viewed in a variety of ways. Sometimes it has been mutual support in discipleship, and at other times psychotherapeutic intervention. In some circumstances it has been ad hoc care and conversation, and in others programmatic structures of community creation. Amongst these and many other activities, those who would preach have frequently seen such pastoral practice as a fundamental adjunct to the homiletic task. Although the influence of the problem centred preaching method of Henry Emerson Fosdick, mentioned above (section 2.5), has waned in recent decades, the notion that preaching must somehow relate to the felt life-concerns of those in the congregation is still the key to good practice for many preachers. Whether the emphasis is Tisdale’s (1997) preacher as the caretaker of local theology, Willimon’s (1979) or Long’s (1989) straightforward emphasis on the role of pastor, Pasquarello’s (2005) preaching as the development of communal wisdom, Buechner’s (1977) telling the truth in love, or Van Harn’s (2005) insistence on listening in preaching, the overarching perspective is that of pastoral care to individuals and groups. The tradition as collective memory must, in these circumstances, serve pastoral needs. Here the link to the presentist character of collective memory appears strong.

5.2.3 Preaching’s first purpose and the style appropriate to it. Returning to the issue of preaching as art.

From Brooks’ paramount concern with personhood and themes that flow from it, this discussion now turns to two other aspects of his lectures that remain significant concerns in homiletic literature: style of language, and preaching’s first purpose. In his emphasis on preaching as witness, Brooks made a distinction that continues to figure prominently in homiletic texts to this day: namely, the difference between preaching about Christ and preaching Christ (1904: 20). Preachers, Brooks insisted, should announce Christianity as a message and proclaim Christ as a Saviour not-discuss Christianity as a problem (1904: 21). He asserted:

Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ. (1904: 21)

This distinction continues to be vigorously promoted, particularly amongst the New Homiletic advocates of an inductive sermon methodology. From the distinction there comes an emphasis in sermonic style on a demonstrably engaging, emotionally affective, and inclusivist presentation, rather than a detached, analytical or objective stance. Brooks would have undoubtedly concurred with David Bartlett’s worries about sermon style that appears to make sin more interesting than grace, and ‘evil more lively than goodness’ (in Graves, 2004: 25). Bartlett suggests that sermons too often misdirect their hearers by putting active or abstract language and thoughts in the wrong places. He writes, ‘For the most part we show evil and then tell about goodness. We show judgment and then talk about the doctrine of mercy’ (in Graves, 2004: 25). Yet again, Brooks’ lectures were extraordinary prescient of a concern that has become commonplace these many years later.

Likewise, Brooks’ conviction that a sermon is essentially a tool and not an end in itself is also a perspective that continues to be vigorously debated (Brooks, 1904: 110). Unlike Browne (1958), Brooks was insistent that preaching is not an art form. He wrote:

The definition and immediate purpose which a sermon has set before it makes it impossible to consider it as a work of art, and every attempt to consider it so works injury to the purpose for which the sermon was created. Many of the ineffective sermons that are made owe their failure to a blind and fruitless effort to produce something which shall be a work of art, conforming to some type or pattern which is not clearly understood but is supposed to be essential and eternal. (1904: 109)

In many ways, Browne’s advocacy of the sermon as art-form (1958: 76) was a reaction to those who had taken Brooks’ evident pragmatism and utilitarianism as regards technique and turned it into a bald instructionalism that claimed too much for itself and was simply tedious. That was not Brooks’ intention, however, as his aim was an absolute focus on ‘the tumultuous eagerness of earnest purpose’ (1904: 110). His overriding concern was that sermons should engage and communicate in such a way as to affect and mark personalities at their most profound level. As such, his understanding of the nature of sermonic engagement serves the purposes of collective memory.

His objection to preaching as an art-form was the tendency he saw for art to be an end in itself-over concerned with pure forms and the abstractions of principles (see, for example, pages 110 and 267 of the 1904 edition). These many years later, art operates, and is applied within immensely diverse environments wholly unknown when Brooks lectured: so his criticism is, perhaps, no longer apposite. On the other hand, how far and in what ways artistic expression relates to and uses tradition is a question rather more vexed now than in Brooks’ day. The one aspect of artistic endeavour Brooks’ was willing to concede was art in the sense of an awesome appreciation of the mysteriousness of life. This was something Brooks regarded as an essential component of the preacher’s outlook, and was the reason for his advocacy of the preacher as, at least in some measure, a poet (1904: 262).

Preaching as art form brings to the forefront of homiletic awareness the sermon’s place in the imaginative construal of engaging gospel alternatives to commonplace understandings and outlooks. Collective memory theory suggests that affiliation to group identity is an essential element in the continuity of memory. What the emphasis on preaching as art form does is alert the preacher to the need to create in preaching that sense of engagement, creativity and exploration that aims beyond utilitarian instruction. Here, preaching is seen as genuinely performative. Like the repeated performances of a classic drama, a sermon hearer can become intensively engaged again and again with material that, although familiar, becomes in the engagement surprisingly new. Likewise the preacher as performer or artist, works with familiar texts in order to render then creatively new in a sermon. From both sides of the sermon event collective memory is supported via the performative interaction.

The discussion of art related issues in contemporary homiletic literature largely supports this assessment. Morris, in his Raising the Dead: The Art of the preacher as Public Performer, makes performance the guiding principle of all homiletics and insists that preaching should delight and enrich in ways similar to other mediums (1996: 19). Gilmore, in his Preaching as Theatre (1996) shares the same concern with performance, and designates preaching as a dramatic event that happens. He writes:

As long as preaching is seen as lecturing or teaching, then, in order for it to be effective, listeners have to go away and do something about it. If it is art, they don’t. By the time it is over something has happened, or has failed to happen. This is what makes preaching as an art distinctive, more exciting and satisfying when it works, more depressing and worrying when it doesn’t. (1996: 7)

Other homileticians are a little more reserved and tend to use the idea of art or artistic endeavour as but one tool the preacher can employ. For example, in Allen (1998), the appreciation of works of art and artistic frames for sermons are advocated as ways to create spheres of perception into which hearers are invited; in Troeger (1999), there is a plea for preaching as a way to revitalize faith through the enlargement and stimulation of imagination, with frequent appeals to poetry as evidence of the process he wishes to invoke; in Schlafer (2004), there is a recasting of preaching through the poetic strategies of metaphor; and in Jensen (2005), a case is made for thinking in pictures, although he is unwilling to wholly abandon conceptual and narrative frames.

Those who advocate art as a tool in preaching present a methodology that always brings with it the risk of serving a social memory other than the one Christian preaching seeks to support. The painting, poem, novel or whatever, may in itself be such a powerful expression of a particular tradition that the focus shifts to it rather than the gospel tradition it was meant to serve. Of course, the problem of the secondary aspects of a sermon out-weighing its primary purpose is widely recognized, and the skill to manage such components so as not to have that effect is a required preacher competency. A focus on collective memory, however, makes the problem all the more significant. In an amnesic social environment memories of a tradition that can be strongly evoked may be all the more powerfully attractive than in an environment where social memories are relatively distinct and stronger. Introducing an associated but extraneous tradition within the sermon may, in that circumstance, not only divert attention from the core faith tradition but actually promote an alternative. Hervieu-Léger’s noting of how in contemporary European societies symbols are interchangeable and transposable needs to be constantly kept in mind. In order to maintain the chain of memory, the preacher needs competence in recognizing what may support sturdy links and what might snap those links.

Preaching as art form, as distinct from art as a tool of preaching, puts the performance of the Christian tradition at the core of what is seeks to create. The sermon itself is a gospel event through which participants are drawn again, and yet anew, into the ongoing stream of Christian tradition. It seeks to identify listeners as themselves already belonging; and yet incorporates them again and again as if they are coming anew to the good news. Like any artistic creation, it presents form and content that may be very familiar and, somehow, changes it to another way of seeing, engaging or understanding that comes as something fresh.

5.3 Preaching as word event and more: Buttrick’s phenomenology.

David Buttrick’s (1987) text, although lengthy and immensely detailed in its argument, is essentially concerned only with sermon design procedure, and broader matters, like the place of preaching in worship and congregational psychology, are not discussed. Buttrick, in marked contrast to Brooks’ lectures, offers no comment at all on the character of the preacher. Instead, he focuses exclusively on a phenomenological analysis of preaching that aims to describe ‘how sermons happen in consciousness’ both during their production and their hearing (1987: xii). From that analysis he formulates the sermon design strategies that he believes should be adopted to most effectively advance such happenings.

On the grounds of easy style and his introductory intentions, Buttrick deliberately omits any specific reference in the text to the phenomenologists whose work provides the foundation for his argument. The omission of theoretical support for his bold assertions about the mechanics of understanding has been the grounds for vigorous criticism from some quarters, see, for example, Long (1988) and Melloh (1988). A brief annotated bibliography appended to the book implies that he has drawn inspiration from the work on language of Maurice Merleau-Ponty (1908-1961), Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), and Michel Foucault (1926-1984), but that is as far as it goes. Certainly, like those scholars, Buttrick is concerned with an examination of the intellectual processes involved in the experiencing of phenomena, and, in particular, the assumptions that undergird social knowledge and its transmission. In other words, Buttrick is keen to detail the complex mechanisms of understanding and appropriation involved in the sermon-event, and to emphasize that they go well beyond a common sense understanding of such things. This makes his analysis useful in the consideration of collective memory and preaching, since the workings of social memory also go beyond common sense understandings.

Following closely the phenomenological perspective, the perceiver’s intention, and how it operates in understanding the world, is seen by Buttrick as being as much a part of the reality of any phenomena as is that phenomena’s existence in the physical world. This consciousness, or lived experience, shapes the world in that it creates out of thought, ideas and things a particular world from all the possible worlds that could be shaped. It is this formation of a reality in consciousness, and preaching’s ability to effect that, that so excites Buttrick. He writes:

By naming, we think the world we live. For not only does language constitute the world-in-consciousness, it enables us to conceive of ourselves as selves-in-the-world. (1987: 7)

Buttrick’s catchphrase for the whole enterprise is Paul’s insistence in Romans (10:17) that ‘faith comes from hearing’. The book could well be viewed as a heartfelt attempt to restore the church’s confidence in words in the midst of a culture that he believes increasingly devalues them. Mistrust and scepticism have made the church’s words as inconsequential as the verbiage that surrounds them in popular mass culture. Accordingly, Buttrick insists that preachers have a vital task in reinstating the crucial task words have in our lives. ‘Like diapered Adam, every baby learns to name the world’ (1987: 6), and, according to Buttrick, in every person’s life ‘stories conjoin in consciousness to tell us who we are and where we are in the world’ (10). Within this naming the specific task of preaching is to ‘rename the world “God’s world” with metaphorical power’ (11), and ‘change identity by incorporating all our stories into “God’s story”‘ (11). Buttrick insists that ‘preaching constructs in consciousness a “faith-world” related to God’ (11), and it is from that conviction that his whole homiletic is derived.

Buttrick emphasizes that the construction of consciousness the preacher aims to achieve has to be directly related to how consciousness functions within the biblical texts. Accordingly, he repeatedly appeals to three scriptural characteristics that he believes should be echoed in preaching: first, that biblical texts must be set in a communal consciousness to be understood aright, since ‘virtually everything in scripture is written to a faith-community, usually in the style of communal address’ (1987: 276); second, that such consciousness in Scripture always has a double character of ‘being-saved in the world’ so it has to be read through a similar double consciousness of being-saved and being in the world (277); and third, that ‘the world in consciousness is ever-changing’ and the preacher has to find language and frameworks appropriate to current changing consciousness, not just read off first-century forms (269). These shaping characteristics mean that (in sharp contrast to Brooks) Buttrick is highly critical of American preaching’s preference for the personal. He writes:

The fact is, all preachers serve Christ in brokenness, trusting in grace alone. The Pietist error, in both conservative and liberal communities, has endorsed personality-cult preaching (‘Truth through Personality’) to the detriment of the gospel. We ourselves are never Word of God. (1987: 459)

He is similarly scathing about the ‘triumph of the therapeutic’ in preaching, which he sees as peddling a false theology and an impoverished picture of God (422).

His phenomenologist convictions about the inadequacy of an easy division of experience into subjective and objective means he is equally unhappy with preaching that dwells exclusively on the social world. He writes:

Is it conceivable that, in the name of relevance, both personalist preaching and social-gospel preaching have ended up addressing abstractions in a subjective/objective split? Personalism aims at a self-without-a-world, and social-gospel preaching views a world-without-a-self, and both are obvious unrealities. (1987: 420)

Buttrick’s insistence on the intimate relationship between the self and the social world is suggestive of the mechanisms of collective memory, since, as he puts it:

We live in a shared world construct that has been internalized and is, therefore, always with us. In consciousness, there is always a self-in-a-social-world and a social-world-within-the-self. (1987: 421)

Halbwachs’ observation-that not all the social influences that work on collective memory are readily apparent and that what works for or against remembering often goes unrecognized or hidden from view-comes to mind (Halbwachs, 1980: 45). Buttrick’s understanding of the internalized aspects of the social world his methodology aims to address lends psychological and philosophical support to Halbwachs’ perspective.

Edwards perceptively remarks that Buttrick’s book is ‘essentially a preaching rhetoric’ since its principal focus is on the ways in which language can be transformative, and, as such, it has been a force working towards the reinstatement of rhetorical skills and methods in preaching practice (2004: 809). Day notes the return to the consideration of rhetorical methods and states:

Sermons aim to do something; they are in the business of persuasion. Homiletics needs to take account of rhetoric in order to ensure that it is used skilfully, self-consciously, purposefully, responsibly and with integrity. (2005: 4)

Similar concern about the effectiveness and rectitude of appropriate rhetorical strategies is amplified in Hogan and Reid’s (1999) Connecting with the Congregation: Rhetoric and the Art of Preaching. In the contemporary social climate, in which the word rhetoric generally has a negative epithet associated with it, such renewed interest in this ancient art would have been unlikely without Buttrick’s efforts. The rehabilitation of rhetoric may be an essential component in a reassertion of the significance of memory and tradition amongst preaching practitioners who have been confined by an interminable demand for relevance. It suggests that perhaps gospel shaped sermons require as a first priority concern with the advocacy of a distinctive Christian worldview.

5.3.1 Moves and other practicalities.

In Buttrick’s terminology, preachers must develop their sermons through ‘moves’ and not ‘points’. The change is crucial since Buttrick believes that sermons must have a movement of language that is sequential because that is how oral communal language forms in the mind. This sequential movement must, therefore, be as obvious to the hearers as a plot would be to the audience of a drama. In developing a sermon, a preacher must use stock genres and repertoires so as to communicate in consciousness, in order that what is heard can be plotted scenarios for consciousness. The sequence chosen will be an act of interpretation dictated by a theology.

Buttrick describes the patterns in which ideas and structures are sequenced as ‘modes’ and he believes that three legitimate modes are identifiable: namely, immediacy, reflective and praxis. In the immediacy mode, the sermon consists of moves that follow the biblical text, usually a narrative passage, but in a way that more than simply retells the story, and which relates the biblical and contemporary worlds and generates understanding ‘through analogies of experience’ (1987: 321). In the mode of immediacy, analogies of understanding in consciousness produce shifts in consciousness now. In the reflective mode, the moves follow the movement of the preacher’s own reflection, and, therefore, imply some distance from the text in the process as fields of lived experience are aligned with meaning structures (325). In this mode, there is a standing back and considering in which the preacher and the hearers look through a structure of meaning to fields of lived experience. In the praxis mode, the plot consists of the steps needed to make a theological analysis of the topic and come to a Christian understanding that leaves the worldly construal of the issue behind and reframes it in the light of Christ. He insists that the praxis mode must not be the development of a contemporary problem with ‘The Bible says…’ as a response, but rather a genuine movement of thought (327). In the mode of praxis the sermon looks at what is being done, and what should be done.

Numerous practicalities follow from his insistence on moves, such as: preachers should never refer back, since oral language cannot bear it (1987: 75); the structure of the sermon should not be given away ahead of time in a pedantic fashion, as that will encourage boredom (85); opening sentences should be short and simple without much weight, as the hearers are only beginning to focus (87); preachers should not be casual in style, as this contradicts the urgent character of the gospel (77); sermons should never begin with a personal narrative, as this will cause split focus at the very beginning (94, 142); there should be no more than one example per move (135); ideas should never be reviewed in a sermon nor previous content brought back into the discussion, as such redundancy invites the mind to wander (164). Despite their very different perspectives, there is something reminiscent of Brooks in Buttrick’s detailed insistence on such practicalities. That his philosophy of homiletics produces what amounts to a list of rules for the act of preaching has provoked some criticism, see, for example, Long (1988: 111) and Allen (1998: 88). The assertion of so many rules reinforces the doubt that he is, perhaps, over confident in his analysis of how language and consciousness work in general, and in preaching in particular.

5.3.2 Images and language.

Buttrick is forcefully aware that the contemporary social world is one that is dominated by images, and he enjoins preachers to take full advantage of the opportunities this offers. Sermons that are too often sterile ideas must be replaced by words that make convincing images, and, ‘good preaching involves the imaging of ideas, the shaping of every conceptual notion by metaphor and image and syntax’ (1987: 27). For Buttrick, ‘homiletic thinking is always a thinking of theology toward images’ (29), since preachers do not explicate teachings, but rather they explore symbols. Buttrick’s aim is that sermons should ‘build a world, a faith-world, in consciousness’ (17) that is formed from images, metaphors, illustrations and examples. In Buttrick’s homiletic, the language of the image is itself given by the congregation in which preaching takes place. He asserts that an American theological graduate is likely to have a vocabulary of 12,000 words, whereas an average congregation member who is neither illiterate nor overly erudite will have a vocabulary of 7,500 words. When technical words associated with particular occupations and interests are taken away from the sum the common vocabulary is reduced to about 5,000 words (188). According to Buttrick, this common shared vocabulary should be the language of preaching, since the preacher must speak words so that people can see and understand, and a ‘separate in-church code of religious clichés only serves to alienate faith from life’ (216).

As well as vocabulary, Buttrick also has strong opinions about the tense of speech in that he is insistent that blocks of past-tense language must be avoided in preaching. Again the rule is based on his understanding of consciousness, since, from his perspective past events are present in consciousness, so if preachers want to relate to that consciousness they need to work with the present tense (1987: 220). There is also here a direct correlation with the presentist character of collective memory. All those sermonic descriptions of ‘things as they were in Jesus’ day’ prompted by preachers’ training in historical-critical methods must go. In others words, the Scriptural tradition, or memory, is best expressed homiletically as current rather than past, not to avoid the acknowledged cultural distance between the text and the sermon, but rather to allow mediation through personal and communal consciousness between that pastness and present life experience. Again, a description of a process familiar in collective memory theory. Buttrick is eager to avoid ‘the pulpit’s chronic third-person-objective point-of-view’ and turn talking about God into ‘being with God in faith’ (320). Through such mediation (one of Buttrick’s preferred terms to describe preaching) a faith-world can be built in human consciousness.

The concepts of ‘mediation’ and ‘faith-world construction’ are fundamental to Buttrick’s whole homiletic system and are suggestive of the importance of memory maintenance to the expression of faith, although he does not address the issue in direct terms. For Buttrick, the authority for preaching rests neither with the Bible itself nor with the ongoing tradition, but in Christ crucified; and it is no exaggeration to say that ‘solus Christus’ is his overriding slogan. The preacher stands before Christ crucified as part of a ‘being-saved community’ within the communal faith-consciousness of the church. Hence his use of the term ‘mediation’ as his favoured characterization of preaching acts:

Preaching remembers Jesus Christ crucified in the midst of a being-saved community; thus preaching is the articulation of Christian faith-consciousness. Preaching searches the mystery of Jesus Christ crucified through scripture in the light of tradition’s grasp of being-saved. Thus, at the outset, we will define preaching as mediation. Preaching gratefully turns to scripture and speaks at table, standing before Christ crucified, God-with-us, in the midst of a being-saved community. Preaching is mediation. (1987: 249)

The preacher’s role is to interpret Christ in the light of the communal and individual experience of being-saved-in-the-world, so the hermeneutic task is always the double one of interpreting revelation in the light of being-saved and understanding being-saved in the light of revelation (258). People drift, as it were, into church with a world already constructed in consciousness, that is the world in which they live, work, play, and possess their souls. In this world-in-consciousness, Jesus Christ is simply a generalized social memory, a legendary figure from the past who founded a church. Similarly, in that world-in-consciousness the church is just one social grouping amongst the many available to any one person. The purpose of preaching, according to Buttrick, is nothing less than the transformation of that world-in-consciousness. The preacher places contemporary human stories within the story of God-with-us and, by so doing, sets the social self-images of the whole group membership reflectively before Jesus Christ, ‘the Living Symbol’ (261). He concludes:

By preaching, our lives and, indeed, our world constructs are located in a larger world, a world in God’s consciousness of us. Preaching thus builds a new faith-world in which we may live. In mediating a new world, preaching participates in the work of the Mediator, Jesus the Christ. (1987: 261)

Buttrick tantalizingly raises the issue that memory building might be a highly significant aspect of preaching, but without any further consideration of the possibility (327). Nevertheless, it is clearly the case that Buttrick’s analysis and methodology offers strong supporting evidence for the significance of the interplay between what is social and what is individual in the life of faith. As such it is suggestive of ways in which preaching can better serve that interplay which is so vital in collective memory.

5.3.3 Preaching as craft not art.

Unlike Browne (1976), Buttrick insists that preaching is not an art, but in that insistence he is not prepared to go as far as Brooks (1904) in his total refusal to countenance any methodology that might obscure a single-minded determination of purpose. Instead, Buttrick describes preaching as an artful craft; and in an aside, perhaps aimed at those who have taken Brooks’ words about the preacher’s personal character too far, he writes:

The odd idea that preachers whose hearts have been strangely warmed will spill out sermons, instantly compelling and exquisitely formed, is, of course, nonsense. Just as a carpenter must learn to use tools in order to make a box, so preachers must acquire basic skills to preach. Though some preachers may be unusually gifted, preachers are not born, they are trained. We learn our homiletic skills. (1987: 37, italics in original)

To the charge that close attention to words and language structures requires preachers to be verbal artists, he responds with the assertion that he is actually advocating a considered craft not an artistic ability (193).

Buttrick’s text ends with a brief chapter that addresses the question: ‘Why do preachers preach?’ The chapter title – ‘A Brief Theology of Preaching’ – is especially significant since it is the only one out of 26 similar headings that uses the word ‘theology’. After 450 pages dominated by rhetorical concerns, Buttrick is at pains to make it absolutely clear that, despite his profoundly action-based philosophy and his focus on practicalities, his is not a functionalist perception of preaching. He asserts that, from a social perspective, ‘preaching may be superfluous’ and that ‘reasons for preaching can only be found in faith’ (1987: 449). Given his earlier insistence on a close relationship between consciousness and social construction, the point seems strangely overstated. It might have been expected that he would conclude, in part at least, with a rather more nuanced appreciation of preaching’s place in the creation of that faith-consciousness of being-saved-in-the-(social)-world implied by his homiletic. Nevertheless, his wholly theological answers to the question ‘Why do preachers preach?’ are insightful and need to be considered since they potentially provide avenues towards the consideration of collective memory and preaching not countenanced in Buttrick’s own discussion.

Buttrick presents five reasons for preaching. First, he says that our preaching, commissioned by the resurrection, is a continuation of the preaching of Jesus Christ, and out of it we become ‘a joined-to-Jesus-Christ community’ (1987: 451); a thought to which this thesis will return (section 7.4). Second, that ‘in our preaching, Christ continues to speak to the church, and through the church to the world’ (451) and, as such, it is not concerned with institutional survival or seeking members but only with Christ’s use of our words for salvific work. Third, preaching’s only purpose is ‘the purpose of God in Christ’, that is, the reconciliation of the world (452). Fourth, preaching is for response, and that response is a response to Jesus Christ (453). Fifth, participating in God’s purpose, initiated by Christ and supported by the Spirit in community, preaching is the ‘Word of God’ (457, quotation marks original). This last point he makes as a ‘modest claim’ about Christ’s grace in using broken vessels, and not as an appeal to authoritarian fundamentalism, nor as a naïve claim of absolute Spirit empowerment, nor an insistence on the power of the preacher’s personality. All five reasons, as theological as they are, are also likely to have profoundly social consequences in terms of collective memory. The issues raised by this kind of reasoning will be examined in the next chapter.

At the time of writing this thesis, Buttrick’s Homiletic had been in print continuously for just over twenty years-an amazing feat for such a technical book, and a clear indication of its influential nature. Whether Buttrick’s strategy is the method for preaching in an image dominated world is arguable; but that every preacher must address the power of the image in her or his methodology and presentation style is no longer argued. Undoubtedly, Buttrick’s work, in its rigour and range, has been a key factor in the widespread recognition of that profound shift. If imagery, thinking in images, and the ramifications of visual culture in preaching are now conceded in most schools of homiletic thought, the same cannot be said of rhetoric, which remains a contentious issue.

Similarly, although Buttrick’s presentational methodology of moves, plots, and sequence, is widely emulated (for example, amongst those who claim the title New Homileticians), its reverse side-i.e. how the Biblical text is actually used-is not. Distilling portions of Scripture to propositional points, extracting ideas and conceptual themes from narratives, and isolating texts without regard to context, remain principal methods for many preachers (Eslinger, 2002: 194). Buttrick, from his phenomenological perspective insists that the objective/subjective divide is unreal and therefore, in the use of Scripture as much as in the actual presentation of the sermon, the double consciousness of being-saved-in-the-world must always be addressed. The idea that content can be objectively separated from words, or be translated from one time-language to another without being fundamentally changed, or that content can exist as objective truth apart from datable words, is simply nonsense according to Buttrick (1987: 265). Few preachers have been ready to concede those points in practice.

Buttrick’s ideas on preaching and the formation of consciousness go some way towards providing an answer to the question of how tradition is communicated by sermons. His is a profound plea for clear acknowledgement by preachers and the congregations they serve of the importance of words. It is hard not to be moved by words such these:

In a halting way, we have begun to rehabilitate the ‘house of language,’ to reinstate the miracle of speaking. Words beckon the world into consciousness. Words give us our storied identity. Preachers use words. So preaching can reshape the world in consciousness and transform identity: Preaching can build a faith-world in human consciousness. If preaching speaks boldly then, perhaps, like astonished Adam, once more we may walk God’s mysterious world, name it good, and see ourselves with tender wonderment as characters in God’s great story of salvation. (Buttrick, 1987: 20).

And yet it is perhaps the case that, despite Buttrick’s observation that what the individual internalizes has its origins in the social, ultimately he places rather too much emphasis on the cognitive abilities of the individual.

5.4 Towards the sermon as a congregational event.

In terms of a general homiletic, the methodology advocated by Brooks is much more strongly individually focussed than that of Buttrick. For Buttrick the advocacy of a distinctive Christian worldview is only possible via a close attention to wider processes of social consciousness. Of course such a difference could be little more than a reflection of the social plurality of the 1980s as against the more easily assumed social uniformity of the 1870s. The continued use of Brooks in contemporary homiletic debate noted earlier suggests, however, that more than the social circumstances of writing per se underlie this difference. In relation to social memory the difference of focus represents two distinctively contrasting approaches to the mechanisms of social memory maintenance and the way individuals are incorporated into the ongoing tradition.

The personalist approach of Brooks understands the preacher to be in his or her own person the carrier of the tradition and the means by which other individuals are incorporated into it, or encouraged in their continuing loyalty to its ongoing existence. As noted above, Brooks applies psychological categories in his account of what preaching achieves to emphasize his understanding of the way truth is embodied, as it were, in order that it may be effective. The implication is that the preacher is, in a straightforward way, both a bearer of the church’s memory and the mediator of that memory to others.

Buttrick employs phenomenological categories in order to make plain his conviction that lived experience goes beyond common sense understandings. For Buttrick analysis of any phenomenon must take account of socially constructed ideas and the personal intentions that flow from them, as well as the event itself, in a complex dynamic of actions and the ‘world in consciousness’. Here, like Brooks, preaching is a mediation; but the nature of that mediation is radically different. For Buttrick, that mediation must be from within a being-saved community (i.e. a group of people being-saved-in-the-world) and any easy division of experience into subjective and objective aspects is suspect. The immediacy of belonging to a being-saved community requires of preaching a voice that speaks principally in the present tense. Buttrick’s methodology applied to the idea of collective memory seems to reinforce the notion that such memory always serves present social needs. What is less clear is whether he thinks that beyond Scripture itself there are mechanisms that provide the preacher with coherent boundaries for this transforming world-in-consciousness building. It is to just this kind of issue that the third representative text is addressed.

eonora Tubbs Tisdale’s Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art (1997) quotes, approvingly, Buttrick’s assertion that ‘Biblical preaching that will not name God out of narrative and into the world is simply unbiblical’ (Buttrick, 1987: 18), but goes on to insist that such naming requires homiletical effort that engages deeply with congregational subculture (Tisdale, 1997: 97). Like other practitioners of the New Homiletic, Tisdale is insistent that the particular is the only sermonic way to communicate the universal. What she adds to that insistence is a new appreciation of congregations as primary sites of particular identities and understandings. She writes:

Our quest, then, is for preaching that is more intentionally contextual in nature-that is, preaching which not only gives serious attention to the interpretation of biblical texts, but which gives equally serious attention to the interpretation of congregations and their sociocultural contexts; preaching which not only aims towards greater ‘faithfulness’ to the gospel of Jesus Christ, but which also aims toward greater ‘fittingness’ (in content, form and style) for a particular congregational gathering of hearers. (Tisdale, 1997: 32)

Tisdale’s book is a work born from a relatively new field of study. From the early 1980s ‘Congregational Studies’ began to be used in the USA as a term for a distinctive area of study and research. Two books were of immense influence in the advancement of this subject area: a volume, edited by Carl Dudley, entitled Building Effective Ministry (1983), and James Hopewell’s posthumously published Congregation: Stories and Structures, (1987).

The title of Dudley’s book inadequately discloses its content. It is, in fact, a wide-ranging analysis by an interdisciplinary team of scholars of the life of the congregation of one Protestant church in a town in the Northeastern USA. The congregation is examined from the perspectives of sociology, psychology, anthropology, history and theology in order to ‘provide new routes into the social and spiritual dynamics of the local church’ (Dudley, 1983: xii). Similar cultural analysis is at the heart of Tisdale’s homiletical method.

Hopewell’s book uses narratives as a way to understand congregational life. Employing the narrative genres identified by the scholar Northrop Frye, and research methods from anthropology and sociology, Hopewell analyses congregations as story bearing and creating entities by which people identify themselves. He asserts that the ‘we’ of a congregation is primarily established and maintained by the story of themselves, and themselves and God, to which people adhere (Hopewell, 1988: 29). Again, such an understanding correlates well with the identity and belonging aspects of collective memory. Tisdale draws extensively, though not uncritically, on Hopewell as she argues the case for preaching as a bipolar hermeneutical enterprise that must interpret not only the texts of the inherited Christian tradition but also the ‘text’ of congregational life and activity. Tisdale can properly been seen as a work of practical theology that aims to apply to preaching some of the insights of the burgeoning field of congregational studies in the American academic world (see, for example: Holmes (1978), Carroll, Dudley and McKinney (1986), Fowler (1991), Browning (1991), Wind and Lewis (1994), and Ammerman, Carroll, Dudley and McKinney (1998), amongst many other published texts). It might be objected that Tisdale’s very clear location in this highly specific American field of research makes her work unsuitable as a representative text in this study. It is certainly the case in the UK that her book has neither the currency of Buttrick’s volume, nor is it likely to have the ongoing influence of the lectures of Phillips Brooks. Nonetheless, the broader perspective of her efforts to use social scientific methods in the practice of preaching does find some echoes in the British scene.

5.4.1 Tisdale’s relevance to the British context.

The publication of the British edition of Hopewell’s book in 1988 catalyzed a UK interest in congregational studies as a distinct field of research that brought together a range of influential concerns. In theological circles the popularity of the so-called ‘Pastoral Cycle’ as a way of doing theology that constantly moves between action and reflection (see for example, Green (1987) and (1990), Kinast (1996), Holland and Henriot (1983), Whitehead and Whitehead (1995), Northcott (1998), and Mudge and Poling (1987)) is suggestive of congregations as fitting arenas of such enquiry. Similarly organizational theory that sees organizations as possessing distinctive cultures (for example Brown, 1998) provides a justification for a closer examination of the life of congregations. If all organizations are viewed, as Brown puts it, ‘like miniature societies with unique configurations of heroes, myths, beliefs and values’ (Brown, 1998: 5) then why not apply such analysis to local churches? Like organizational theory itself, congregational studies from this perspective are often about gaining evidence to determine the leadership and management styles most appropriate to a given situation. Malcolm Grundy’s Understanding Congregations (1998) is a text that attempts to do just that. Alongside organizational and theological methods, contemporary interest in local history also reinforces the notion that congregations are worthy of close examination. Works like Ronald Blythe’s (1969) portrait of village life in his book Akenfield and James Obelkevich’s (1976) Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsay 1825-1875 raised the awareness of the value of personal recollection, and how local particularities can provide crucial evidence of the consequences of larger-scale trends and changes, and have prompted much local research. Historical methods applied in congregational studies are something of a foil to the predominance of current programmes and structures in social science based analysis. Alongside these concerns, mention should also be made of the influence of the British tradition of community studies; exemplified in this context by the anthropological approach of Timothy Jenkins’ Religion in English Everyday Life (1999). Likewise the ongoing vigour of sociological studies of religion in the UK (for example, Wilson, (1990); Martin, (2002) and (2005); Davie, (2000b); Bruce, (2002); Gill, (1999); and Davie, Heelas and Woodhead, (2003)) that bear on congregational studies even though they do not directly examine individual local churches also produces a fertile environment for the style of analysis Tisdale advocates.

For all these reasons Tisdale’s approach, whilst profoundly related to her American context, does provide a way into models that correlate to British developments and experiences. The publication of Congregational Studies in the UK: Christianity in a Post-Christian Context (Guest, Tusting and Woodhead, 2004), and Studying Local Church: A Handbook (Cameron, Richter, Davies and Ward, 2005) adds weight to the contention that Tisdale’s approach of heightened contextual awareness in the practice of preaching is appropriate on both sides of the Atlantic. Whatever else Tisdale’s book represents, it offers a clear appreciation that preaching as process demands an engagement that cannot rest solely on the authority of the preacher alone and must somehow address the culture/subculture in which it takes place. As Day points out in a chapter about recent trends in preaching (Day, 2005: 5), this is about more than just a contemporary appreciation of the mechanics of effective communication; it is also about empowerment, ethics and the way sermons actually achieve their ends. In this latter area, Tisdale is a good example of a much wider concern-signified by works such as Lucy Atkinson Rose’s Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (1997), John S. McClure’s Other-Wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics (2001), Mary Catherine Hilkert’s Naming Grace: Preaching and the Sacramental Imagination (1997), and Charles L. Campbell’s The Word before the Powers: An Ethic of Preaching (2002).

5.4.2 Tisdale on the preacher as ethnographer.

Following Hopewell (1988), Tisdale treats congregations as subcultures in themselves, and adopts a symbolic or semiotic approach in her analysis for homiletic purposes. This social semiotic perspective requires the preacher to ‘get under the skin’ of a congregation-in her terms, to become an ethnographer-and to discover, beyond any propositional categories, the integrity of the way congregational members ‘look-on’ themselves, others, and the world. Accordingly, she sees a congregation as primarily a place where people express their deepest longings and understandings through the medium of symbolic construction. Often these constructions do not use explicit religious language; but they, nevertheless, relate to people’s profoundest understandings of God and humanity. Analysing the particularities of the subculture of a congregation can allow these motifs to surface so that they can be fruitfully worked with: ignoring them leads to dispute and dysfunction. This approach presupposes that congregations are not accidental accumulations but have a coherency about them that goes beyond formal theological, ecclesiological and geographical categories. For Tisdale (here following Hopewell) this coherency can be uncovered by identifying the symbolic constructions people use to ‘think’ themselves into belonging.

Like many others engaged in the academic study of congregations (for example, Stromberg (1986), Bennison (1999), and Jenkins (1999)), Tisdale is heavily influenced by the work of the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In his 1973 collection of essays called The Interpretation of Cultures, Geertz detailed a semiotic understanding of culture, and advocated a process of ‘thick description’ for its analysis. According to Geertz, all social interaction is essentially the transaction of meanings. Every ‘transaction’ hangs on other ‘transactions’ like the strands of a spider’s web. The various positions of transactions in the web determine the meanings that operate. For example, what is meant and understood by the expression ‘you fool’ is dependent on a host of factors besides the words themselves. If it is said between friends after something humorous it is likely to be received rather differently than if shouted from behind the steering wheel of a car to another driver. Neither instance, of course, may apply since the speaker might in reality be talking to herself because she has just stubbed her toe. All kinds of other factors, like voice tone, social circumstances, inherited traditions, and social conventions etc. might also be utilized to understand the expression. Geertz believed that cultural analysis is essentially interpretative in that it must always be about seeking out the meanings that apply. Through participant observation and reflection the researcher produces a ‘thick description’, an account of a culture that aims to examine the many different levels, symbolic components, structures and drives that are involved. Those who, like Tisdale, apply Geertz to local churches aim to ‘read’ a congregation, as it were, in order to disclose the rich variety and depth of meanings important to its people. Hence, in Tisdale’s terms the analysis required is always a hermeneutical task since it is constantly looking for what things mean.

Just what kind of data is appropriate to such analysis is a constant issue. The symbolic constructions involved are often expressed in narratives, but are also discernible in numerous other things including patterns of behaviour, use of artefacts, styles of organization, and the importance given to certain festivals and actions. Tisdale admits such analysis involves a great deal of guesswork on the part of the researcher. She writes:

Such interpretations of meaning by those who are not native to a culture are always imaginative acts and are ‘fictions’ … in the sense that they are ‘something made,’ ‘something fashioned’ (not in the sense that they are false or unfactual). (1997: 59)

Anyone familiar with enthnographic methodology will immediately recognize in Tisdale’s justification of the interpretative process long familiar dilemmas about the differing perspectives of ‘insiders’ and ‘outsiders’. At the beginning of the book Tisdale acknowledges that a prime motivator in her search for a subcultural basis for preaching was her experience of local church ministry in four predominantly rural congregations in central Virginia. In those churches she was surprised as a so-called mainstream Protestant American minister to find she experienced a sense of ‘culture shock’ similar to that she had undergone whilst serving overseas. From that she began to wonder about the significance of cultural or subcultural realities for the preaching event (1997: 11). In terms of the perspective the minister as preacher brings to research, Tisdale assumes that this will often be the dual role of both ‘insider’ (as someone to an extent acculturated to the life and idiom of the congregation) and ‘outsider’ (as someone often acting and speaking from a worldview and value basis different from other congregation members) (51). With the Roman Catholic theologian Robert Schreiter (1985) she sees this as an advantage, since it means the preacher is likely to be more analytical and explanatory in his or her estimation of the congregational subculture, and thereby able to speak ‘tough truths’ (52). She concludes:

The contextual preacher’s stance, then, is necessarily awkward and uncomfortable. With one foot firmly planted in the congregation, and one foot firmly planted in a larger Gospel vision, the preacher straddles the abyss-striving to love and affirm the congregation, while, at the same time, prodding and stretching it toward a larger worldview and greater faithfulness to its own gospel. Out of such awkward grace, transformative proclamation is given birth. (1997: 53)

The metaphor of giving birth is particularly apposite, in that Tisdale’s methodology, like that of Brooks a century earlier, relates directly to the physicality of the preacher. Unlike Brooks, this physicality is not about how the preacher is likely to be received, in the sense of physical presence, but rather about the emotional and physical ‘load’ the preacher must in some sense carry in order to be effective. A deep appreciation of the cultural world of the congregation brings with it a ‘weigh’ of knowledge and understanding that the preacher must carry like the expectant mother must carry. The contextual preacher operates beyond conceptualism and intellectualism at a level of deep involvement and profound self-giving. Tisdale quotes approvingly Henry H. Mitchell’s conviction:

Preaching that makes meaningful impact on lives has to reach persons at gut level, and it is at this level of communally stored wisdom and cultural affinity that such access to living souls is gained. (Mitchell, 1977: 11)

In her insistence on the preacher researching the communal and subcultural nature of the congregation Tisdale is advocating a methodology distinct from, or even contrary to, the differing approaches of Brooks and Buttrick. She is suspicious of too much concern with personality and the psychological as tending towards reducing sermons to simply pastoral care and little more. And Buttrick’s focus on the commonalities of human experience making for ‘shared structures of human consciousness’ she criticises as blurring genuine cultural differences that may exist in congregations or between a minister and a congregation (1997: 20). For Tisdale, this cultural awareness is a crucial aspect of a genuinely ‘priestly’ ministry. She writes:

A focus upon the ‘cultural’ in preaching pushes the pastor toward the kind of priestly listening that moves beyond the bounds of universals and individuals to consider communal traits and characteristics that unite members with one another and with other societal and ecclesial communities of belief and practice. A focus upon the culture in preaching encourages the preacher to recognize that some of the ‘universals’ she or he assumes in preaching may not be universals at all-but beliefs and values that are interpreted through a very particular cultural lens and vision. A focus upon the cultural in preaching encourages the preacher to address the congregation as congregation-a distinctive and unique community of faith that is, itself, in certain respects ‘like no others’. (1997: 12)

Here is a thought that links directly to the particularities of collective memory. If the preacher is a maintainer of memory, as this thesis argues, then according to Tisdale that memory can only be adequately served by a profoundly localized understanding. The tradition that is Scripture can only be received as ‘my tradition’ if it is expounded through, as it were, a deep understanding of those others memories and traditions that are the particular culture of ‘this people’, that is the congregation in which the sermon happens. Tisdale is describing an engagement that Halbwachs would have recognized.

5.4.3 Preaching from a contextual awareness.

Tisdale’s reason for insisting that preachers should adopt congregational ethnography as an essential component of their homiletic is that she believes it to be the only way to ensure that sermons are genuinely indigenized, although her preferred term is that preaching must create what Robert Schreiter (1985) calls ‘local theology’. She writes:

When preaching is viewed as ‘local theology’ the goal is not only that proclamation strive toward greater faithfulness to the gospel of Jesus Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. The goal is also that preaching become-in its theology and its art-more fitting, seriously imaginable, and transformative for local congregations. (1997: 55)

That sense of the preacher achieving a better fit is suggestive of collective memory’s role in meeting the present needs of those who belong to the memory bearing group. Indigenization at this level is required for those participating in the preaching event to recognize the memories shared as indeed belonging to themselves.

Tisdale offers three reasons for the greater contextuality she is advocating and, although she does not use the terminology of collective memory, those reasons have a direct bearing on the memory mechanisms that theory suggests. Firstly, says Tisdale, this high level contextuality removes ‘false stumbling blocks’ that obscure or even contradict the proclamation offered (1997: 34). In terms of collective memory, it allows preachers to check the accuracy of their assumptions about what memories are significant in this particular place. Secondly, according to Tisdale, her method allows preachers to genuinely reflect in preaching the ‘accommodating’ way God deals with humanity in the record of Scripture (35), in other words, it provides a connection between memory of God in Scripture and this people’s memory now. And thirdly, she says that contextuality enables the gospel proclamation to be heard new and fresh as directed towards this particular people (36). In terms of collective memory, it provides a way of sermons being heard as addressing current needs and, thereby, sustaining the memory it rehearses. In her methodology and its theoretical undergirding, Tisdale stays resolutely close to the Geertzian insistence on all social interaction as essentially a transaction of meanings. She concludes:

Preaching, then, has to do with the construction of meaning. Its meaning is not ‘invented’ or created ex nihilo. Rather, meaning in preaching is forged in a metaphorical way as two things which had not previously been placed side-by-side-namely a particular biblical text (or texts) and a particular congregational context-are allowed to live together and talk together and dance with one another in the imagination of the preacher, until something new occurs through their encounter. (1997: 38)

Such preaching, she believes, will accentuate the power of the particular and celebrate the week-by-week nature of the task (40); it will be a proclamation that arises ‘out of the midst’ of the congregation and dares to speak ‘on behalf of’ that community rather than solely that which is spoken ‘to’ that fellowship (41); and it will be ‘seriously imaginable’ in that it will open up possibilities for these people in this place (43).

The goal of all such preaching, she asserts, is ‘the transformation of the imaginations of the hearers in accordance with the message of the gospel’ (1997: 46). In order to be able to do that it will always have to be a ‘hearer-orientated event’ in which all the emphasis is placed on the ability of the hearer to understand what is said within his or her own symbolic worldview (45). Since a person’s preaching has no chance of assuming such characteristics without prior profound attention being paid to the congregation’s symbolic universe, the cultural exegesis she describes is not merely a useful adjunct to homiletic endeavour but rather the very heart of it (48). Such exegesis provides a link between Tisdale’s understanding of the necessary social components of an effective homiletic and social memory theory’s insistence on the current social relevance of memories if they are to remain memories.

Tisdale believes that in proclamation in the local church three voices are operative: the biblical text, the preacher, and the congregation (1997: 50). In suggesting such a triangulation, Tisdale is simply adopting the concept proposed by Walter Brueggemann in an article in Theology Today published in 1990. Interestingly, Brueggemann himself was adopting a concept familiar in the clinical practice of family therapy and applying it to biblical hermeneutics. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that Tisdale’s methodology can be directly related to the social processes of collective memory. Whether the enthnographic strategies she advocates give sufficient credence to the varying memory structures operative in the differing part of her ‘triangle of voices’ is questionable; as is the high subjective nature of the conceptual analysis involved. The general question of subjectivity will be returned to in the next section. On the issue of memory structures, it should be noted that Tisdale is perhaps merely conforming to a general trend within applied social research that tends to under-play the importance of time in its analysis (see Ferrarotti (1990)).

Tisdale advocates contextual preaching as a method that avoids the pitfalls in the interpretative process of either giving too much prominence to human experience and thereby robbing the biblical canon of its primacy, or of giving it too little significance and thereby denuding the canon of its social relevance (1997: 96). She aims for a middle way between liberal and neo-orthodox theology. Her preferred metaphor for the mechanics of this contextual preaching process is that of the folk dance. She writes:

The sermon itself is a participatory act in which the preacher models a way of doing theology that meets people where they are, but that also encourages them to stretch themselves by trying new steps, new moves, new patterns of belief and action. In this dance, as in the circle dance, the leader must always be alert to what is happening in the life of the community-sometimes correcting, sometimes encouraging, sometimes guiding, sometimes pushing new vistas-as the need arises. (1997: 125)

Such preaching is fundamentally participative and, as such, the preacher is not the artist who creates for the edification of an audience, but is rather the skill-sharer who enables others to contribute to the creative process-hence the folk dance metaphor. She adds:

When preaching is viewed as folk dance, the goal is quite different: namely, that the leader model the dance of faith in such an accessible, imaginative, earthy, and encouraging way that everyone-young and old, visitor and member, old timer and newcomer-will want to put on his or her own dancing shoes and join in. (1997: 125)

Hers is an understanding of performance as group participation rather than the star performance of a prima donna. The aim is not that congregation members should leave marvelling over the abilities and skill of the preacher as lead performer, but rather that everyone should experience themselves as having a part in what has taken place. In this the community’s memories are genuinely shared, since what has been said and done is ‘ours’.

5.4.4 Assessing Tisdale’s approach.

As was acknowledged above, of the homiletic methodologies examined here, Tisdale’s ethnographic approach appears on the face of it to be the most immediately utilizable in the mechanisms of social memory. For that reason it is appropriate to examine in a little detail the objections that are made against such semiotic cultural analysis. Underlying Tisdale’s method is congregational studies’ assertion that congregations are not accidental accumulations of cultural elements but have a coherence about them that goes beyond formal theological, ecclesiological and geographical categories. This coherence can be uncovered by identifying the symbolic constructions people use to ‘think’ themselves into belonging. This uncovering is achieved by what Geertz (1973) calls a ‘thick description’ (although the term itself was first coined by Gilbert Ryle 1900-1976). This description is essentially an interpretative analysis, or, as Tisdale puts it in applying it to her own sphere of interest, ‘contextual preaching is an imaginative act of theological construction’ (1997: 121). Like most practitioners of this style of analysis, Tisdale employs the analogy of the social phenomenon under review being likened to a text so that the analysis becomes a hermeneutical task that always looks for what things mean; hence her many references to exegeting the congregation.

The analysis required is essentially situational, since understanding the signs/symbols generated by each congregation in its setting is vital. Consequently, Tisdale requires stories, rituals, artefacts, demographics, activities, buildings, archives, and events to be trawled for disclosures of underlying worldviews, values and ethos. Inevitably, such a wide ranging interpretive process raises questions about just where the boundaries of the data assessed should be and how objective the resulting evaluation can be. Criticisms of this approach invariably cluster around the concept of ‘meaning’ and how meanings are established.

First, how can Tisdale be sure that the meanings attributed in a semiotic analysis are anything other than her own subjective conjectures, after all she freely admits the fictive nature of the process (1997: 59)? One of her principal motivations is to avoid the promotion of a ‘false consciousness’ that implicitly tells people their own ways of knowing and expressing faith are inadequate yet her method might be criticized as simply replacing one imperious outsider attitude with another. Symbolic meaning presupposes a symbolizing intelligence, and that meaning cannot be independent of the person whose consciousness it is. How then can it be legitimate for a social analyst to attribute meanings to behaviours that are unfamiliar to those concerned? There cannot be a symbolic meaning of ‘its own’ which no social actor in anyway knows it to have (see Skorupski, 1976).

Second, how can Tisdale be sure the interpretation offered adequately penetrates the dense web of meaning semiotics assumes? How is it to be established that neither too much nor too little significance has been given to the symbols analysed? Geertz himself is well aware of this danger. The dilemma, he states, is between ‘reading more into things than reason permits and less into them than it demands’ (Geertz, 1983: 16). Tisdale’s methodology, like that of all those who follow Geertz closely, works with the notion that there is a pre-existing ‘interpretational reflex’ operating in sub-cultural frames, but it is difficult to establish criteria by which to analyse such reflexes. Such analysis turns the common idea of the two dimensions (practice and belief related to symbolic understanding) into three (external realities ‘in the world’ related to symbolic constructions related to mental maps and constructions ‘in our heads’). Banal over-simplification or cosy and uncritical sub-cultural parochialism are constant threats to the analyst.

Third, how can it be established that the characterization of a subculture produced by this method is anything more than a kind of storytelling? It might be objected that Tisdale’s analysis of a congregation’s worldview and ethos is literally a fiction. Furthermore, exegeting a congregation in this manner may prompt doubts about the scientific credibility of its analysis, and whether it can be productive of generalizable theories. The pathway between data and the meaning that any analyst attributes to it is far from clear. Things may be seen as symbolic by the analyst, or thought to be symbolic to the actor by the analyst, when the actor does not see them in those terms at all. It could be objected that ‘thick description’ has explanation and description so closely intertwined that nothing is generalizable (see Shankman, 1984). From such a critical perspective, the kind of analysis Tisdale advocates could be dismissed as, ultimately, nothing more than one person’s highly subjective account of one small social phenomenon.

Tisdale’s book is a decidedly practical text aimed at the preacher so although in her brief commentary on Geertz (1997: 58f) she acknowledges that there are serious conceptual issues raised by his work she makes no attempt to offer any comment on them; this discussion cannot be as sanguine. For the purposes of this study the fact that advocates of semiotic analysis insist that ‘actuality’ can only be adequately analysed by a critical realism that takes into account at one and the same time the objective and subjective nature of human knowledge is a core benefit of its application. There is no lofty vantage point from which an observer may determine what is really going on in any social phenomenon. A human being’s images of the world are more than miniature projected pictures of what our optical nerves receive; they are interpreted and categorized significations. With Tisdale, this thesis sees analysing interpretations and their symbolic vehicles as a vital component in understanding what is happening in the preaching event and how social memory operates within it.

Tisdale makes a plea for the ethnographer-preacher to adopt an ‘inside/outside perspective’ in which he or she is both an empathetic insider and a comparing outsider (for more on this perspective see the work of the missiological anthropologist Paul G Hiebert, 1994). Semiotic analysis aims to be not simply a subjective view imposed from the ‘outside’ (a so-called ‘etic’ perspective), nor an uncritical rehearsal of stories told from the ‘inside’ (an ’emic’ perspective), but the bringing together of both alongside formal categories of analysis. Far from inadequacy when compared with more apparently objective approaches, semiotic contextualism gives full weight to the reality and power of lived interpretation. Indeed, it often brings to light the shortcomings of narrower approaches, such as the challenge to structural determinism offered by symbolic constructionism. As the anthropologist Anthony Cohen writes:

The greater the pressure on communities to modify their structural forms to comply more with those elsewhere, the more are they inclined to reassert their boundaries symbolically by imbuing these modified forms with meaning and significance which belies their appearance. … as the structural bases of boundary become blurred, so the symbolic bases are strengthened. (Cohen, 1989: 44)

The semiotic contextual analysis Tisdale advocates does indeed have to be undertaken with the danger of over- or under-interpretation constantly in mind, but it can be done in a self-critical, disciplined, and self-conscious manner that takes account of the pit-falls. That said, every hermeneutic enterprise suffers the same difficulties. Tisdale’s Geertzian analysis shares the difficulty with every interpretive process. Such a criticism does not invalidate the process in other perspectives, so why should it do so for the semiotics of congregations?

Geertz always pronounced himself untroubled by the criticism that ‘thick description’ is not really analytical at all since the vital task, in his estimation, is to make ‘thick description’ possible rather than worry about, for example, valid generalizations between cases (see Geertz, 1973: 3-30). Geertz describes ‘thick description’ as a method that can be used to:

Search out and analyse symbolic forms-words, images, institutions, behaviours-in terms of which, in each place, people actually represented themselves to themselves and to one another. (Geertz, 1983: 58)

In delineating and analysing a subculture such as a congregation, reference has constantly to be made to how the social actors themselves behave and express their understandings. In order to get behind structural similarities, the analyst has to evaluate what is presented. The analyst’s judgements may well take things further than the social actor might without being pressed, but the analyst’s observations will always bear a relationship in some way to the actor’s perceptions. The insider/outsider perspective has to be consciously worked with. Furthermore, when these insights are applied to a Christian congregation, doctrinal and ecclesiological considerations cannot be simply left aside; and they may also form part of an evaluative frame. Degrees of correlation, whether to theology, perceived social structures, the on-going traditions of a sub-cultural frame, or other categories, will form part of the process of descriptive analysis.

The intertwining of analysis and description in this approach does indeed produce a kind of blurred vision, but it is nonetheless a real way of seeing. It will always be intrinsically incomplete, but it does allow the actual deliberative and anecdotal way people behave and understand their behaviour in a sub-cultural frame such as a congregation, to be rigorously examined. Such a methodology gives appropriate weight to the complexity of the social world and the power of symbols within it, and is therefore particularly pertinent when matters of social memory are considered.

As a preacher clearly deeply sympathetic both to the developing academic field of congregational studies in the USA and the preaching style of the New Homiletic, Tisdale is profoundly alert to the issue of meanings and how they are communicated. Just as it can hardly be merely coincidence that Phillips Brooks delivered his lectures in the era when psychology was very publicly establishing itself, so it is more than fortuitous that congregational studies and the New Homiletic have come to prominence in an environment where the practical ramifications of sociological theory have been a major concern. In particular, three distinct streams of American sociological thought appear to have been influential in these developments-the ethnomethodology of Harold Garfinkel (born 1917), the symbolic interactionism of Herbert Blumer (1900-1987), and the phenomenology of Peter Berger (born 1929). All three schools of thought are heavily concerned with meaning-making.

Ethnomethodology assumes that the foundation of society is shared sense-making. In a circular process, we draw on our ‘background knowledge’ to fit together what we see and what we know. This shared methodology of fitting things together facilitates a shared social world. Individuals are thought of as ‘doing’ social life, creating society through shared methods of doing things. Thus analysis of individual behaviour figures prominently. Symbolic interactionism is similar in that it also pays close attention to localized contexts-but, this time, the focus is on the meanings which people give to things. These meanings emerge from the social processes in which people contribute active interpretation, as against other perspectives that suggest social structures largely determine what individuals and groups may achieve. As was obvious in the earlier discussion of Buttrick, phenomenology extends this emphasis on meaning even further by insisting on the pre-eminent power of what is wholly socially constructed. In other words, society consists of people ‘making sense’ of their experiences and interactions, and categorizing these things into ‘common sense knowledge’. Religion plays a very important part in this process in that it provides values and understandings which enable people to make sense of life. It provides a structure in which things become plausible.

The consequence of these influences is that congregational studies in the USA give prominence to the positive functions religion fulfils in a way that similar studies in the UK do not. Like Tisdale, many American texts (for example, Ammerman et al, (1998); Webb, (1993); Steinke, (1993); Dudley and Johnson, (1993); Mead, (1991); and Hawkins, (1997)) are concerned to employ sociological and anthropological methodologies in order to improve effectiveness in some aspect of a congregation’s life. British texts are much less concerned with such direct application of research. As Farnsley notes, many more resources have been given to such studies in the USA than in the UK, which is probably a reflection of both the higher level of participation in congregations by Americans and a more important social role for voluntary organizations (in Guest, 2004: 36). Simply put, UK congregations are much more peripheral in terms of the wider social context than are American congregations. Such considerations must be taken into account if Tisdale’s methodology is to be followed by the British preacher.

5.5 Three recurring themes in homiletic theory.

This chapter has been a search for common themes in the theory that undergirds the design and delivery of sermons in the contemporary ‘mainstream’ churches of Britain and the United States. Three areas have been identified as recurring concerns voiced repeatedly across the different Christian traditions: namely, the psychological (and physical) impact of preaching, the quality of the sermon as a purposeful event, and the relation of the sermon to the social context in which it is delivered and heard. Many texts have been cited as evidence of the prevalence of these concerns, but the principal analysis has been through the close critique of three representative works. Through that analysis a range of strategies to promote homiletic effectiveness in terms of impact, communicative engagement, and contextual connectedness has been identified.

Concern about sermons being more obvious ’embodied’ events, in the sense of speaking to the whole person rather than only in cognitive categories, were seen as extensions of Brooks’ ‘personalitism’ that fit well with modern communication techniques. Buttrick’s insistence on meaning making was, similarly, seen as a determined effort to shape preaching so as to affect consciousness in an image dominated mass media culture. Furthermore, Tisdale’s contextualism was detailed as a method for a localizing homiletic that can shape Christian identity in a way that profoundly resonates in the communities of faith in which it takes place.

In each of these approaches collective memory theory suggests that social memory mechanisms play a prominent part. As has been seen, however, those mechanisms go largely unnoticed by the theorists concerned. The contention of this thesis is that unless those mechanisms are clearly recognized, the strategies of Buttrick, Tisdale and their peers can too easily become overly accommodating to a popular subjectivism and hyper-individualism that is highly corrosive of collective memory. The preacher has to negotiate requirements of impact, event, and context alongside an absolute commitment to an intentionally anamnestic awareness with regard to the memory of the Christian faith. It is to the theological resources that can sustain such intentionality that this thesis now turns.

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Contemporary styles of preaching. (2017, Jun 26). Retrieved November 27, 2022 , from

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