Just preach!

Learning_to_Walk_in_the_Dark-330-expI have been asked to review the latest book ‘Learning to Walk in the Dark’ by American priest Barbara Brown Taylor for the Baptist Times. It will be done shortly.

She was on tour in this country this month, bringing with her a reputation as a gifted preacher.

BBT_Photo-210-expHer first book, The Preaching Life, includes a powerful defence of preaching as a form of communication

No other modern public speaker does what the preacher tries to do. The trial attorney has glossy photographs and bagged evidence to hand out; the teacher has drawing boards and projectors; the politician has brass bands and media consultants.

All the preacher has is words. Climbing into the pulpit without props or sound effects the preacher speaks to people who are used to being communicated with in a very different ways.

She wrote this in 1993 and went on to contrast how most messages in Western culture are – and can be – no longer than half a minute, whilst a sermon which requires a much longer attention span.

A sermon needs sustained and focused attention. If the topic is not appealing there are no other channels to be tried. If a phrase is missed, there is no replay button to be pressed. The sermon counts on listeners who will stay tuned to a message that takes time to introduce, develop and bring to a conclusion. Listeners for their part, count on a sermon that will not waste the time they give to it.

Times have changed and are changing. Now when I am asked to lead a church service I am as likely to be asked whether I am bringing a power point presentation as to what my scripture readings are.

Recently after leading a church day-conference my host rounded off his comments by remarking that I did what I did ‘and all without a power point in sight’. I wasn’t sure whether or not this was a compliment.

Such contemporary means of reinforcing and expanding on what is said by a speaker can be very helpful and is very common in the churches where I go. But I am concerned that this is done at the same time as disparaging the role of preaching.

John Drane has expertly examined the rise and fall of the sermon whilst calling for more contemporary means of communication to be used in the church.

This means that the sermon has been often replaced by the lecture, the stand-up routine or the storyteller.

But let us not think of this as the demise of preaching. The defining quality of preaching is the capacity of a human being through voice, vocabulary and body language to engage with other people who are ready to become involved in what they hear.

imagesThe amount of time that we can concentrate depends on our willingness to commit to the task of listening. For instance I don’t really want to contemplate which toothpaste to use for more than 5 seconds let alone another 25!

Earlier in the summer I visited the Globe theatre to see a performance of King John. The audience was engrossed. The speeches were long and intricate. The subject matter at times was dense. But there was a shared commitment between artist and audience. Together they created the performance.

Taylor writes

The sermon is a communal act, not the creation of one person but the creation of a body of people for whom and to whom one of them speaks.

Preachers are performers. The Gospel is the message but there are many scripts. Preaching may now be moving on from the formal shape of the sermon but it is still a human interaction between equals. People who are seeking truth in what each can give their loyalty to. For the Christian this is the Gospel.

Taylor has written a number of books about her experience as an Episcopalian priest; moving on from a formal role with a Church and moving into the world of religious studies,.

I would be interested to know if anyone reading this may like to give their opinion about what she has written. I will post my book review in due course.


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