Preaching re-imagined

I can be an obsessive person. After all kinds of input at this conference, more prolific blogging and journaling than I’ve had in forever, I found myself at the Hartford airport pulling out Doug Pagitt’s book, Preaching Re-imagined. Kathy looked at me and said, “You’re putting MORE stuff in your head? Aren’t you on overload already?” The truth is, being at a conference like this is like a snowball beginning its roll down a long, snow covered hill. It just keeps gathering steam and size.

We met Doug at the Barnhill’s house, which was great. I’ve had this book for a few months, and knew the basic premise: what we normally call “preaching,” Doug calls “speaching.” It’s a one way form of communication that doesn’t really help the community of Christ be who it ought to be. True preaching is “progressional dialogue”, where the whole community enters in together to help each other grow in our ability to join God’s mission in the world.

I read the whole book in airports and on planes today. He’s pushing for something even deeper than what we’ve experimented with at NFC–the purpose isn’t just participation of people. It’s letting a whole community shape the topic, the teaching, and the journey together.

Unprogrammed Friends totally get this, and probably look in amazement and confusion at us programmed Friends. Unprogrammed Friends gather in silence, and the expectation is that God can and will speak through anyone present as the Spirit chooses. Each one has the responsibility to speak only when the Spirit clearly prompts. Many times, God will speak to an individual in the meeting a message which is just for that individual. Having the space to hear that message is incredibly important. The spoken word is for the times when the Spirit says, “This isn’t just for you; it’s for the whole community.”

Friends have always recognized (in our best moments across the spectrum of Quakerism) that while God can and does speak to anyone, we as human beings don’t always hear correctly. The gathered community discerns the “sense of the meeting”, the voice of Christ, better than an individual. We are limited, finite, and fallen people. That doesn’t mean we can’t hear God, but it does mean we need to have a healthy skepticism about getting it right. It does mean that a “gathered meeting” can serve as a wonderful safeguard for our broken humanness.

So at Newberg Friends, even though most of the time there is a “sermon,” we have practices that demonstrate we believe strongly that God speaks through anyone. We always have open worship, a time where nothing is planned, where we all listen attentively in silence to the Spirit, where anyone is welcomed and encouraged to speak as God prompts. We almost always have questions for sharing, where we ask for input from people in the congregation. We make space for people to give their thoughts on the passage from the bible which we all have been reading together throughout the week. We often specifically say that the bible teaches us to teach one another.

Open worship has always been a part of worship at Newberg Friends, but much of the other stuff has come since I began as senior pastor. It’s been uncomfortable for some. They don’t want to hear from just anyone. They want to hear from someone who has done their homework, had the training, someone who is the “professional.” In the book, Doug talks about how this is a temptation for the one doing the preaching. We like that position of power, and it is difficult to move ourselves out of it. But it creates problems, as he writes:

There is hardly a preacher who wants her hearers to leave with the notion that they must access the truth of God through the preacher. But that is precisely the message speaching perpetuates: The pastor has the authority to speak about God, and you don’t. When communities are convinced they are better off with a unified understanding of God that is best articulated by trained presenters, we end up with people who cannot translate what they hear in church to the way they live their lives. (p. 29)

You faithful blog readers will remember a few months ago I was wrestling with the fact that I like to preach. I don’t want that to interfere or prohibit people from seeking God themselves; I want exactly the opposite. I don’t want to create dependence upon myself, but rather point people to a living God. In fact, I want to gain a greater perspective on God through you, as well. That’s why, as uncomfortable as it is for some, dialogue has been and probably will continue to be a part of our worship gatherings.

…speaching has led a great majority of people to think they have nothing to say. So the move to a progressional approach involves helping people develop the competencies and confidence to contribute. Christian formation requires that people not only receive well, but also give well. (p. 177)

I’ll need to get better at this. I’ll need to figure out more and better ways of making space for people to give, and we all will need to develop the ability to listen to the Spirit well. We’ll need to give ourselves permission to fail. We’ll need to give others permission to say things that are “wrong” or “irrelevant” in the hopes that the process will help that one learn to give better. We need to hear and learn from and sift the words of people we disagree with.

Listening to the voices of others is an essential part of being the church. We were never meant to close in on ourselves. We were never meant to engage with only those who share our positions. We’ve been called to live in the way of Jesus, who sought out the ordinary, the outsider, and the unbeliever, not only to make them whole, but also to bring his followers into the fullness of life in the kingdom. For it is often in the life of others where we find God at work in the most profound ways imaginable. (p. 226)

I like this. I like how this book pushes me deeper. I want God to be the giver of all truth. I want us to be on that journey together. Which means I probably will do better to include others not just on Sunday mornings when we gather, but in preparation, too.

The idea that I can sit alone in front of my computer and see all the complexities of the Bible reeks of arrogance. I need the people of my community to help me find the places that trip them up, the places that confuse them, even the places where they think they understand what’s being said but aren’t sure what to do about it. (pp. 187-188)

I’ve already been in the habit of posting the messages I share at NFC on this blog. What I’d like to do now is invite you in to help the shaping of the message before it happens. I know not all of you are part of NFC, but I believe that the same Spirit speaks to you, and I hope you will share your voice, your perspective, your hearing of God. I’m not sure exactly what it will look like, but I’m envisioning posts early in the week that set out the bible passage and some of my thoughts, along with an invitation for your thoughts. If you would be willing to join me in this, and make comments throughout the week as you think and listen and wrestle, I’d really appreciate it. We can journey together.

12 thoughts on “Preaching re-imagined

  1. Doug’s book sounds awesome. How cool that you got to meet him. I love your idea of inviting others to shape the message before it happens. I’ve really enjoyed reading your daily conference reflections. It’s the next best thing to being at the conference.


  2. I was impressed with this blog on speaching/preaching and listening. As Jason has noted, to invite others to help you shape a sermon is risky. My next click this morning was to read John Macy’s post on the pastor’s net (ie into Gregg’s inbox!) titled Ministry of Listening. John quoted from Bonhoeffer’s LIFE TOGETHER:” Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too… But Christians have forgotten that the ministry of listening has been committed to them by Him who is Himself the great listener and whose work they should share. We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.” (Life Together, D. Bonhoeffer, Harper San Francisco, pg. 98-99.)

    What an affirmation Gregg!

    Dave Woolsey


  3. Dialogue is great, and dialectic (a la Socrates, Jesus) is where the greatest life-changing, thought-forming takes place. The idea of having input prior to the sermon is truly an intriguing idea–I look forward to it.

    When it comes to giving a sermon, though, what is the purpose of a sermon? Is there a role for a sermon, in the classic sense? Does it serve a different role than dialectic/dialogue? Is Sunday morning with 200 people the best place for dialogue? Certainly, if we are having a conversation, and we give a sermon, that is not fitting (see Woolsey’s comment above–a la Macy, a la Bonhoeffer). When we speak when it’s time to listen, that is not fitting. But Bonhoeffer himself wrote some amazing sermons. One-way sermons, if you will. Is there a fitting time and place for sermons in the classical sense? Volf gives lectures and sermons. His book (as most books are) is a very long monologue–or monograph, to be precise. But that’s okay, isn’t it? The point is that it initiates conversation. It stirs us up to have dialogue.

    In a previous comment by Robin M in an earlier entry on this blog (
    Robin tells about how some Quakers dismissed the ‘vocal ministry’ of a thoughtful friend. But this thoughtful friend changed Robin’s life. Some were upset at this friend because not every sentence of his was short and simple. Even though dialogue is the most important type of speaking, does that mean that ALL forms of speech should become dialogue? If the sermon, which is supposed to be an inspiration for dialogue, becomes reduced to dialogue itself–short simple exchanges–what happens to the quality of the dialogue that follows the sermon?

    Even the great defender of dialectic–Socrates–gave speeches. And even the master of dialectic–Jesus–gave sermons. Is there still a time and a season for everything?


  4. Not having read the book I may be misinterpreting, but it sounds to me from the quotes you posted that he’s suggesting that preaching and community are an either/or proposition. If so, I would (respectfully) disagree and submit that it must be both/and. I like that Acts 2 says the church devoted themselves to both the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship.

    I would add to Cory’s thoughts about the role of the sermon by pointing to Ephesians 4:11-16, especially the part about not being “… tossed here and there by waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine…”. The average American church-goer’s knowledge of basic theology is frighteningly weak; if that doesn’t come from the pulpit, where will it come from?


  5. Yeah…what Corey said (on the dialectic/logic…or whatever aspect of Sermons). And…it’s unrealistic from a socio/psychological standpoint to expect people to engage in that way in a setting with hundreds. I see it happening in small groups and even in our Sunday School (which I’m about to rename “The Sandals Community” cuz it’s basically an emerging church) of 40 people.

    I’ve enjoyed reading your thoughts Gregg about your trip. There’s still a pang of things academic in me…Corporate America didn’t beat it out of me entirely over the past 10 years. Be careful upon re-entry to “the real world”.



  6. I think that we learn basic theology in adult education classes, in Bible studies, in Quaker book groups, not in worship. Theology is talking about God. Worship is bringing ourselves more fully into the experience of the presence of God. Do sermons bring people more fully into the presence of God? Probably sometimes.

    One of the great insights of George Fox was that you didn’t need a college education to experience God and to listen carefully to God and to tell others what you have experienced and how you got there. Perhaps my friend Peter spoke so clearly to me because I am also college educated. But I also know that profound vocal ministry comes from a variety of sources. The Gospels are full of Jesus using very simple, very direct metaphors for the experience of God. Even a shepherd could understand him. It’s theologians who make it all complicated.:)

    I think that inviting a wider group of people to help you reflect as you develop your sermon could allow you to speak to their needs more broadly, to hear what they think they want or need, not just what you think they need. As Friends have always done, you can assign more weight to voices that speak with wisdom. You could decide at some point that only NFC people’s comments matter as you develop your words for them. I also think that you can and should and probably intended to reserve the right to choose what you are going to say in the end, based on your listening to God directly and in the words of people around you. You could become confident enough to preach more and speach less.

    And the experiment is probably worth doing. Some blog recently was about how God is too big for us to break by doing something wrong. But you can decide after a while if it is too much or wrong for you. Way will open.


  7. Fascinating discussion! Thanks to all. Two brief responses, then it’ll have to wait for another post that this obviously deserves. First, I think (and Doug Pagitt thinks) that there is a place for speaching. Second, I’m finding myself wanting to articulate his arguments more carefully, so that we can wrestle with it and not dismiss it too quickly.


  8. I recall hearing from someone not too long ago that “the best preachers are in the pews.” It seems you are seeking for how to give these worshipers a chance to be part of the vehicle through which God’s message might be heard more clearly and lifted up for more to see.

    Of course, inviting others into your process requires a certain level of humility, vulnerability, and grace on your part. When done well, such corporate reflection and exchanges can greatly enrich the life of the congregation. I think of it as placing seeds in more people’s hands. The seeds go out to places that I myself as an individual may not reach or travel to.

    Gregg, it sounds as if you are being faithful and as if you are being opened by the Spirit, living with some new possibilities and always hoping to bring God and the fatih community closer to one another. I hope to read more from you about this “experiment.”

    Liz, The Good Raised Up


  9. Greg, I am thankful to know of your leading, and your courage to follow it.

    In addition to this,
    “The spoken word is for the times when the Spirit says, “This isn’t just for you; it’s for the whole community.”
    I have experienced another dimension of learning.

    I have found that out of silent worship can come a spoken message, given to one Friend, and intended to be spoken in community, seemingly for the benefit of some but not necessarily all present. Hearing such a message, when it is not recognizably for me, is a humbling and deepening experience. How can I listen beyond the details, and experience the movement of God’s guidance through and for others? Being more a witness than a recipient of such a message challenges my tendency to seek understanding, and prompts me to trust the wisdom that is beyond all understanding.
    Being the channel for such a message sets my feet on a path of trust, where I must accept divine inspiration, without necessarily hearing from any listeners that the message carried truth for them in particular.
    So, for me, messages may arise for one, for some, or for all.

    Spoken ministry clearly has many dimensions, and ways of opening for each/all of us.


  10. Pingback: Gregg’s Gambles » Blog Archive » John 11, Lazarus

  11. It would be so much easier if God actually were an old man sitting on a cloud, or if there could be people or things that exist apart from God. But it’s not an old man. And everyone and everything belongs.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s