Engaging the CongregationMarch 13, 2007
For this week’s Classic Materials, we reflect on an extended quote from Sidney Greidanus’ “The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text.” In this section, the author touches on how we might better engage the congregation. I found these suggestions for ‘congregational involvement’ quite stimulating.
Congregational involvement can be further heightened by aiming the sermon at specific needs in the congregation, by addressing the sermon, as the text before it, to specific questions. ‘There seems to be a lot of difference in the quality of the attention accorded when the preacher begins by giving the impression that he is going to try and answer a question which is real and important in the lives of the people in the pews.’ (Brooks, Communicationg Conviction, 87).
But how can one meet the many, varied needs of a large group of people? Donald Miller compares preaching to shooting quail: ‘If you aim for all the birds, you hit none, but if you aim for one, you are likely to get several.’ He suggests that this holds true for preaching because the basic spiritual needs of men are quite the same’ and because ‘oftimes the needs of individuals are best met in crowds.’ (Miller, Way to Biblical Preaching, 119) In any event, aiming the sermon at specific needs will promote congregational involvement in the sermon.
Addressing the whole person
One must further address the whole person. In the past, sermons have been aimed all too frequently at either the intellect or the will. Ian Pitt-Watson argues for emotional as well as intellectual and volitional involvement: ‘Unless there is some measure of emotional involvement on the part of the preacher and on the part of his hearers the kerygma cannot be heard in its fulness for the kerygma speaks to the whole man, emotions and all, and simply does not make sense to the intellect and the will alone.’ (Pitt Watson, Preaching, 47-48)
Today the case for addressing the whole person is frequently made in terms of the imagination and addressing the brain’s right hemisphere. Certainly narration, whether it be of a biblical passage or of an illustration, tends to involve the whole person. Craddock lists several characteristics of narration that are able to involve people
* the human condition is presented with genuine insight…
* primary attention is given to the specific and particular rather than the general…
* sermons are realistic rather than contrived….
* narration and description are with emotional restraint and an economy of words…Too many adjectives in effect tell the listeners what to see and hear and how they are to respond to what is described…
* events are viewed from a single perspective unless the hearer is instructed otherwise…
(Craddock, Preaching, 162-165)
Whatever strategies are used, the passage which in biblical times was directed at the ‘heart’ ought today also to be directed at the whole person.
Although most sermons are in the form of a monologue, the monologue ought to be a dialogue with the hearers, that is, it ought to respond to the reactions of the hearers as these might come up during the sermon. This requirement does not mean that one should interupt the flow of the sermon with the odd ‘But I hear you saying…” It means, rather, that one ought to consider what major objections and questions the audience might raise and try to address these issues in the sermon.
Responding in the sermon to the anticipated reactions of the hearers will, when done sensitively, promote their involvement. In fact, since dialogure incorporates into the sermon the possible reactions of people, the hearers will sense themselves to be very much a part of the sermon.
Using Concrete, Vivid Language
Finally, the hearers become involved in the message through the use of concrete vivid language. Henry Davis recommends using ‘as few words as possible’: ‘The chief quality of personal communication is that it says a great deal, and suggests more, in a very few words. Excess words therefore destroy its chief quality.’ He further advocates the use of ‘short, strong, clear, familiar words’, and ‘sensuous rather than abstract, and specific rather than general words.’ He explains that ‘sensuous words are words that are close to the five senses, suggesting pictures the mind can see, sounds it can hear, things it can touch, taste and smell.’ (Davis, Design for Preaching, 268-71)
Since pictorial language in the nature of the case stimulates the senses, figures of speech also invite involvement. ‘Like an artist or novelist a minister must learn to think in pictures,’ suggests Haddon Robinson. ‘Metaphors and similies produce sensations in the listener or cause him to recall images and experiences.’ (Robinson, Biblical Preaching, 186) Like good illustrations, figures of speech often function for the hearers as lights that illuminate and clarify the obscure concepts in the sermon.
Preachers must also learn to think in terms of specifics in order to avoid abstractions and generalisations. ‘When for example they call for their congregations to ‘witness to the world in the home, in the office, at school, or in the street’, preachers [ought to] ask themselves, ‘What specifically do you have in mind?”
Abstractions communicate little and generalisation even less. By pushing beyond generalisations to particulars, however, preachers will make their language concrete and specific and clarify their proposals so that their hearers can visualise what is demanded and become meaningfully involved. Thus even the choice of words contributes to the relevance of the sermon.