Reimagining preaching?

Posted on July 11, 2009

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Doug Pagitt: Preaching Re-Imagined: The Role of the Sermon in Communities of Faith (Zondervan, 2005)

I got hold of this because I wanted to read the best arguments for dialogical preaching; Glen suggested to me that this was one of the key texts. I found it particularly interesting, because it doesn’t assume the standard (in my experience) dialogical argument (the role of preaching is to convey information; but, monologues are a poor way of conveying information; therefore, monologue preaching is poor preaching; it seems to me that neither premise is sustainable…)

Pagitt’s argument/vision starts with a concept of community: Christian communities are to be places of genuine relationship; the role of Bible is to be ‘an authoritative member of our community, one we listen to on all topics on which she speaks’ (195). In community, Pagitt argues, the notion of deferential listening to a monologue has no place: we learn and discover by dialogue. The Bible’s voice is to be heard directly in the dialogue by all, not mediated indirectly by one particular person. The task of the community is together to grow up into Christian maturity.

Refreshingly, Pagitt recognises the power of the monologue to touch hearts and minds; however, he dismisses this as manipulation: ‘Knowingly manipulating the emotions of my hearers to get them to come to a predetermined  conclusion felt like the very thing a pastor shouldn’t do. It felt like a violation of the human relationship.’ (74). Well, perhaps. Pagitt is clearly deeply troubled about any intrusion into the sovereign interiority of the American self; I tend to the view that all of us are constantly shaped by all sorts of messages, and so I am less worried about attempting to convince my hearers of a point I believe happens to be helpful, meaningful, and true. (And appeals to emotions are the normal currency of human interactions, surely – I say to my wife, ‘Oh come on, you’ll enjoy it…’ or to my daughter, ‘I know you don’t want to – but you should do it…’; it can get manipulative, and we all know when it does; but making an appeal to the emotions is not in itself the same as manipulating.)

Instead of the monologue, Pagitt suggests ‘progressive dialogue’: a model of preaching where the preacher introduces a subject or Bible passage and then together the community discuss it, each listening to the other, and building insight and conviction through their shared conversation. The Bible becomes not a truth to be ‘applied’, but a story to be indwelt (a third-hand echo of Hans Frei?), and a voice in the conversation that carries peculiar authority.

Many of his criticisms of contemporary church life hit home, although perhaps particularly in America (I doubt there are many local churches in the UK where there are regular worshippers who do not know the pastor(s) personally, the ‘megachurch’ phenomenon not having particularly hit us, except in a few isolated instances in London). I am not sure that the proposed solution is adequate to the task, however. In particular, the notion that a rational dialogue about what Scripture demands of us will be enough to change the way we live in community seems to me astonishingly optimistic. Pagitt thinks that the problem with our communities is an informational deficit: we don’t know what we ought to be; I suspect it is far more a volitional deficit: we know what we should do, but it seems too hard, or asks us to give up too much, and so we evade the issue.

Paradoxically, I think most of the reason I disagree with Pagitt is that I have a much more modest – but, I think, more precise – account of the nature of the preaching task. As Pagitt imagined his ideal Christian community, I was reminded repeatedly and forcibly of the old vision of Baptist/Congregationalist life: a people covenanted together before God to seek the mind of Christ, to walk according the rule of Christ, and to call others into the covenant community. But you can’t do all that on Sunday morning. Conversation is vital as a part of the prayerful discerning of the mind of Christ for this people at this time – the task of Church meeting. The hearing of Scripture as a shaping voice in our conversations was a part of ‘godly conversation’, later formalised into small group ministries. Pagitt wants to do all that in the sermon, and discovers that the sermon isn’t very good at it. That might be why we used to do it elsewhere…

What is the sermon good for? In the earliest Baptist communities, three or more members would preach when the people gathered – but each sermon would be monological. Why? I think because they instinctively grasped that the monologue is uniquely powerful to address the emotions, and so to challenge for change. The preachers, week by week, would call the people to repentance and conversion, to a desire to re-align their lives with the gospel of Christ. Then, in ‘progressive conversations’ that took place elsewhere in the life of the church, that desire could be nurtured and realised. But until hearts are changed and godly desires awakened, the progressive conversations will achieve very little.

Pagitt is right to see progressive dialogue between the community and the Bible as vital; but he has nothing, I think, to say about the deceitfulness of sin, or about how, under God, stony human hearts will be melted and changed. Thus far, I know no better answer to that question than the monological sermon. So I keep preaching them.

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