The end of preaching is the edification of God’s people gathered in worship. Preaching can perform numerous other functions, many of them noble, but if it does not edify, it fails to fulfill its end. Listeners might be moved, inspired, informed, entertained, and impressed, but preaching that does any or all of that but does not bear the fruits of repentance and righteousness in the preacher and listeners, still fails. A lot of exceptional preaching — the best preaching we have ever heard — fails.
Here I want to ask whether the telos of preaching might be better served by the terminus of homiletics.* Since not everyone dwells in seminary-land, note that homiletics is the discipline that studies and teaches preaching. I think we have to agree that is a fascinating discipline, integrating an extraordinarily diverse set of interests: rhetoric, pastoral psychology, hermeneutics (biblical and otherwise), liturgics, and, naturally, public address, if not even thespian arts. People who teach homiletics are often very good preachers themselves, not always, but that does not mean that they cannot teach the craft well. Indeed, some who are exceptional preachers may have to work even harder to help others learn to do what they do themselves with such apparent ease. Homileticians are not so hard to find as they are hard to employ in the teaching of the discipline. Those who “do it” really well may rather prefer preaching to teaching about it, on the one hand, and there is the perpetual quandary as to the proper terminal degree that should count as the union card for such a professor. In any case, God bless the gallant souls who teach preaching when it is actually easier just to preach, and usually outstanding preachers are better compensated than those who teach others.
So what’s my beef with homiletics? It’s not with homiletical art. I am enamored of homiletical art. That’s my beef. This art is too alluring. If homiletics is a self-respecting discipline, then it should never rest until it perfects its end. And the end of homiletics is homiletical art, well-crafted oratory. I love that sort of thing, and I aspire to it. The question is whether and how that aspiration becomes an act of Christian discipleship. I know that my “best” sermons serve me well; do they serve the listeners well also?
Let’s say — and I think this is about right — that there are three kinds of preachers. There are preachers who are interesting. There are preachers who imagine themselves interesting. There are preachers who aspire to be interesting. The first category is relatively small, and the discipline of homiletics can claim neither responsibility nor blame for the sparse population. Interesting people were interesting before they took any training in homiletics and would still be interesting without it. They are interesting because they read and think and wonder and care and long and probably have people in their lives who tell them the truth. They don’t try to be interesting; they can’t help it.
Preachers who think they are interesting understand the pulpit not as a sacred and holy trust of which they are unworthy but as their gift to the congregation. More importantly, the pulpit meets a need for them as well. God anoints them for fifteen minutes a week — or sometimes longer, it seems — such that things that have happened to them, movies they have watched, and opinions they cherish become opportunities of transformation for people who might have been preachers themselves if only they too had watched movies, had life experiences, and held opinions.
Preachers who want to be interesting want to be interesting because they were taught that interesting is the summum bonum of Christian preaching. They weren’t told that, of course. Instructors in homiletics are not crass people, and they don’t teach people to be self-aggrandizing performers. Homiletics taught that by accident because, if homiletics is true to itself as a discipline, it must teach that. So preachers who want to be interesting, will often preach sermons they can’t preach instead of the ones that they could have. And the sermons they might have preached instead would have nourished their people.
Under the influence of homiletics, some preachers fashion themselves to be French impressionists — subtle, delicate, clever — but before we render Parisian sidewalks with individual brushstrokes we should prove that we can draw a pear in a bowl with a pencil. If some preaching aspires to the art gallery, some aspires to the locker room, but Sunday morning motivational speeches supplemented by life-hacks will wear thin over time. There are only so many ways to say, “Try harder; do better.”
Homiletics — not to say the instructors, who know better — teaches people to swing for the fences with the bases loaded (a.k.a. fields white unto harvest), but three strikeouts later, no baserunners have advanced because no one made contact with the ball, and no one wanted to lay down a sacrifice bunt. In preaching, as in baseball, sacrifice bunts or infield singles get people on base and move the runners along and sometimes even score runs. While every preacher wants to clear the fences, most of us do not have that kind of power, and we should take rather more pleasure to have made solid contact, allowing for the occasional inside-the-park homer, the ball careening oddly off the walls — clearly the work of the Holy Spirit.
Am I really arguing for the end of homiletics? That’s a little severe, isn’t it? One might even say rhetorical. But what if we were to say that by “homiletics” we mean nothing more or less than the applied convergence of biblical exegesis, the cure of souls, and ascetical theology. Biblical exegesis, because preaching must always be the proclamation of God’s word. The cure of souls, because preaching is for the edification of God’s people. Ascetical theology, because preaching is the spiritual act of a servant and preachers must preach what they practice.
*In the interest of self-disclosure (a.k.a. –preservation), I might point out that my Dean (a.k.a. boss) is an exceedingly well-trained professor of homiletics, very broad-minded, with a marvelous sense of humor. Aren’t you, Dean?