Trends in American Preaching

Here’s the first report on some of what Tom Long had to say at a Baylor preaching convocation earlier in the week.

The narrative style of preaching, which arose in the early 1960s with the demise of the didactic style and reached it pinnacle (in terms of theorists of preaching) in people like Fred Craddock, appears to be on the way out. Long says that the narrative style is being attacked from multiple directions.

The critique from the “right” say that narrative preachign isn’t strong enough on doctrine and doesn’t build either individual faith or the church adequately. (If doctrine has to be atomistic assertive propositions, then I’d probabaly agree with that critique. But I think that doctrine is more than mere truth claims and has a necessary narratival dimension that can be  strengthened with a narrative style of presentation.)

Long says the critique from the “center” – he has people like Charles Campbell (Preaching Jesus) in mind – sees a turn away from the stories of Jesus to stories about grandmothers and other characters. Though grandma’s story may connect to the story of Jesus in the mind of the preacher, the level of background biblical knowledge in most congregations is insufficient for the style to work any more.

Critics from the “left” – he thinks of people like John McClure – charge that the narrative style is not only irrelevant, but is also an abuse of power by imposing an implicit metanarrative on to the audience.

Finally, Long mentions a critique coming from philosophy in the person of Galen Strawson (Against Narrativity).  I haven’t read Strawson yet, so I can’t comment on his work in depth, but the way Long describes him, he comes across as a Humean (or Buddhist “no self”?), arguing that only the present matters. Narrative wrongly presents the story of a human life when all we have are episodes in the present tense.

While Long thinks rejection of narrativity to be a mistake (as do I), he does recognize that people in our audiences do tend to be more episodic in their self-understanding. Preachers who have picked up on this and developed a style that communicates well with that kind of audience include (according to Long) Adam Hamilton and Rick Warren.

Long then argued for what he called a “chastened use” of narrativity. This takes three forms.

  • Narratives become “dress rehearsals” for skills all Christians need. Preachers don’t settle for just telling people what needs to be done nor telling them how to do it. They provide examples.
  • Stories also become part of the “congregational canon,” the collection of stories told over and over in a congregation as they seek to understand themselves and model their response to God.
  • By telling stories, the preacher can give a “voice to the voiceless,” telling the stories of those who cannot tell their own.
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