The unhelpful solitude of preaching

The practice of preaching is a lonely and solitary one. A certain amount of solitude is necessary for study and creativity. But for most of us, preaching has become a strikingly individual and secluded exercise.

In solitude, we preachers exegete a text. We consider the content and context of the text—all in private. We then craft a talk—ideally with insight into our congregation and community, with little chance to bounce ideas around with others. Then we preach our sermon on Sunday. Then, often with no significant discussion of what has just happened with anybody else or even with ourselves, the whole process begins again the next morning.

Yet this lonely practice is inconsistent with the nature of preaching, which is relational and communal. Preaching is the proclamation of God’s word to and within a community. Preaching is a mark of a Christian church. It energizes this group of people in their mission to the world. How can the discernment necessary for preaching be found alone?

In addition, this process is also inconsistent with learning theory, which tells us that reflection is critical for skill development: no reflection, no development. Where is the time and community for reflection on an already-preached or about-to-be-preached sermon?

Sadly our secluded practice of preaching is consistent with much that is not so admirable today. It is consistent with the image of the ‘professional’, indisputable in knowledge and authority. It is consistent with the western ideal of an actualized human being: our society is full of individuals striving to be as stunning as they possibly can. The ancient Jewish relationship between Rabbi and disciple was different: a Rabbi invited his students into a relationship that brought life, teaching and learning together.

How can we emerge from our seclusion, and practise the art of preaching in community? We can get creative about how to introduce relationship and reflection into our preaching practice. Establishing preaching groups is one way. These can be formed within a church, or across churches. In preaching groups, members share the responsibility for the development of other preachers in the group. Currently I meet up weekly with other preachers in our church for mutual reflection on preaching practice generally and on our own preaching in particular. Members of our preaching group preach a sermon to the rest of the group for comment. We’ve also found it valuable to listen to and analyze sermons by other well-respected pastors, as well as to read and discuss books on preaching.

But we can get even more creative! In Lectures to My Students, Spurgeon recommends that preachers practise extempore preaching. This can be done in pairs or in a group.1 Each preacher is given an ‘unseen’ text to preach on briefly without much preparation time. Extempore preach­­ing in a group creates the opportunity for dynamic and immediate reflection together.

Agreeing with a preacher in another church to preach the same series concurrently is also a helpful learning tool. With such an arrangement, we can learn from the other’s sermons and also, perhaps, do some pulpit sharing, thus giving us time to reflect on a sermon and preach it again. In addition, if we can share the preaching load in our own church, this will be a great step forward. Reflection takes time, so preaching less and reflecting more with others and by oneself will be beneficial.

Perhaps the journey towards transforming our preaching practice from a solitary to a communal responsibility can begin by looking outward—by reflecting on our mutual responsibility toward other preachers. Let’s apply the question “Am I my brother’s keeper?” to our relationship with fellow preachers and their preaching: the answer, as always, is “Yes”.

  1. CH Spurgeon, Lectures to My Students, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1972, p. 149.

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