Is it only me or has your homiletical junk mail increased?
Every day a bundle of brochures pitching quick fixes lands in my mailbox. But when I ask colleagues if these new approaches have had any affect on the way they preach, most shake their heads. They might know a maverick who uses prop sermons or read about a preacher who uses a video screen, but most of us still preach the way we learned in seminary — a quick retelling of the Biblical story, three points, a quote or two, and a pithy ending.
If you were to push or to prod us, you’d find underneath our lack of homiletical adventuresomeness a desire to mix things up. But we don’t know how, and are hesitant to take the first step.
For the past twenty five years Rudolf Bohren, a little known German homiletician, has argued that any great renewal of preaching begins with a deliberate opening to the work of the Holy Spirit. In his opinion, the central act of sermon preparation and delivery is our willingness to open ourselves to the leading of the Spirit.
Historically, there has been some wariness concerning the role of the Holy Spirit in preaching. Some have been uneasy with speaking in tongues, others afraid that an over reliance on the Holy Spirit might replace a preacher’s commitment to in-depth scholarship and careful exegesis. Fred Craddock cautions, “Any work of the Holy Spirit which relieves me of my work and responsibility is plainly false.” But most homileticians do agree it is the Holy Spirit, not the preacher, who illumines the text. Tom Long has said, “In preaching, creativity has little to do with inventiveness and everything to do with faithfulness to what the Spirit creates through the text.”
Bohren suggests we establish a pattern of opening ourselves to the leading of the Spirit. One model I use in my own sermon preparation comes from Princeton Seminary professor James Loder. He believes we connect to the Holy Spirit through our human spirit. His process involves four steps.
The first step he calls conflict in context. This is when we acknowledge, and (in his opinion) welcome, the tension we feel during sermon preparation. In Loder’s paradigm, this conflict prompts us to allow an interlude for scanning — time to stare out the window, stand in front of our shelf of commentaries, walk around the block. Loder believes this scanning is crucial to our ability to work with the Holy Spirit. In the act of scanning we con intentionally open our human spirit — our insight, our imagination — to the Holy Spirit. And when we open ourselves to the Spirit then we are more likely to have a constructive act of the imagination moment when a detail is revealed in the text, a pertinent newspaper article comes to mind.
Most of us already experience such moments of insight and are familiar with staring out the window wondering what to say on Sunday morning. What Loder suggests, however, is we frame our sermon preparation time, in the context of the Holy Spirit working as Christ intended, as “teacher” and “guide.”
The next step Loder calls the release of energy when we say “aha!” or “Hallelujah!” In the final step, we complete the process by verifying what we have learned. We “test the spirits.” For example, we might ask as Jonathan Edwards once did, “[Does my work] raise esteem for Jesus, work against Satan’s kingdom, produce a greater regard for the Scriptures, confirm the truth of Christianity, inspire a spirit of love, produce a longing for God and Christ, preach peace and good will, inspire kindness and produce delight in the children of God?”
Call me old-fashioned but since encountering the work of Bohren and Loder I now pray and allow time for my human spirit to be met by the breath of God. Sheets of doodling and a blank computer screen no longer make me nervous. I realize I am called to wait patiently, faithfully, for the Spirit to speak.
Keep an eye out for my brochure. My seminar will be coming to a town near you.
Just kidding.

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