A significant starting place for preaching ethically involves developing a clear sense of one’s own experiential, theological, contextual, and philosophical perspectives. It is in the interaction of these perspectives within the mind and spirit of the preacher that specific sermons are formed. Sometimes these perspectives will be in conflict. On a given subject, one may find that his theology and his experience or her personal philosophical convictions and the traditions of her denomination are in conflict. When this happens a preacher has to sort through and either reconcile these differing perspectives or decide which will take precedence. The core of the gospel itself does not change. All true preaching proclaims the one gospel that is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. What does change is how that one gospel is interpreted ethically in different contexts. Every preacher must walk a similar path of discernment again and again.
Wesleyan teaching makes experience one of the four sources of authority in the Christian life, along with tradition, Scripture, and reason. Hans-Georg Gadamer, a renowned German philosopher who died in 2002 and whose work has been foundational for much of modern hermeneutics, argued that biblical interpretation is limited by the particular historical horizon of the interpreter. Even the most educated and sophisticated of us are creatures of our own era and experiences. This experiential limitation of our perspective in preaching isn’t necessarily bad. The church needs people such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Martin Luther King Jr. whose very strength derived from the particularity of their experience. It is, rather, a fact of which we who preach must be aware. Our experience and its limitations should lead us to a certain humility of approach, as we acknowledge that other preachers from other times and places may experience and interpret a particular scripture very differently than we do.
A second significant factor in any preacher’s homiletical approach has to be his or her theological perspective. Every preacher views Scripture and life in general through a theologically conditioned interpretive lens. For most of us, that lens is the theological tradition in which we have been raised or trained. Again, as with experience, preaching honestly from one’s own theological perspective is not wrong. Indeed, to do so is far better than preaching from a confusion of varying viewpoints or even from no clear perspective at all. What is necessary ethically is for the preacher to be aware of the interpretive theological lens being used and to communicate that awareness to the congregation. Lack of awareness of our place in the theological spectrum makes us myopic, as we fail to perceive that others may have a valid point of view. It may also impoverish our preaching, as we concentrate on one favorite portion of the gospel message.
Every preacher operates within the context of a tradition. Elements of that tradition are formalized in terms of the covenants pastors make with their denomination at ordination and with their congregation at installation. For many church folk and pastors, though, the tradition is more culturally enforced—for example, “Lutherans don’t do it that way.” If the church is independent of any denominational affiliation, those boundaries are the boundaries of the congregation’s own statement of faith. Most of us preach within a particular tradition because that is where we were raised or converted. Some of us choose a tradition because we find ourselves in substantial agreement with its theological understanding of the essentials of the faith and its social teachings. Some may choose a tradition because of its ecclesiology. Any of us may have points at which we disagree with the dominant strain of teaching within our own communion. The thoughtful preacher will maintain an ongoing dialogue with her tradition, seeking to understand how her preaching should both be informed by and contribute to the tradition within which she serves.
One might ask, of course, whether we really need to discuss ethics as a separate category for homiletical formation. Don’t our experience, theology, and tradition work together to create our homiletical ethics? They do, but a preacher’s ethical perspective is more than the sum of its parts. I would argue that a conversation goes on in the preacher’s life between his own ethical perspective and his understanding of what is important in the pulpit. Duke Divinity School ethicist Stanley Hauerwas talks about ethics as character, one’s dominant approach to the challenges of life. My own ethics teacher Glen Stassen argues that in many ways, people’s ethical perspectives are profoundly affected by what he calls their “first adult experience.” Such a perspective may be predominantly religious, but it may not be. It could be sociopolitical, gender-political, or ethnically driven. I learned long ago that for many people, their view of the faith is determined by their regional perspectives and loyalties. Otherwise well-informed and highly educated people may be quite provincial in their perceptions of life. All preachers have an ethical perspective that affects their homiletical approach.
Perspective and Preaching
My point is simple. Every preacher approaches the preaching task with some sort of worldview. Because even those of us who claim we “just preach the Bible” come to the preparation of sermons with an inevitable bias, we cannot preach ethically unless we both seek to become aware of our own biases and to make those biases known in appropriate ways to our listeners. These, then, are two questions the preacher must ask herself: (1) What are the experiences, theological perspectives, group loyalties, and personal ethical values that affect my own homiletical approach? And (2) how do I practice appropriate self-disclosure as I preach from week to week? The answer to the first of these questions may take a lifetime to unravel. The answer to the second goes back to one of the most basic principles of modern homiletics.
Writing in the late nineteenth century, the American preacher Phillips Brooks defined preaching as “truth through personality.” By that, of course, he meant in part that the person of the preacher inevitably colors what he or she says from the pulpit. In some ways both the questions I have posed above are implied in Brooks’s assertion. How do we recognize the way in which our own unique perspective colors what we say, and how do we communicate that awareness authentically (truthfully) to our hearers?
Homiletician Thomas Long, in his influential introductory text, The Witness of Preaching, identifies witness as a controlling image for the work of the preacher. By that he means that ultimately what the preacher has to offer is what he or she has experienced. In a subsequent book he talks about the importance of the old Protestant concept of testimony. Long underscores the importance of these personal stories of the faith. We describe what has happened to us.
Transparency in preaching requires ongoing personal effort both to know yourself well and to remain objective about how who you are informs your preaching. One might say that the conversation is between distance and intimacy. You must remain intimately aware of the influences that shape you and at the same time be able to evaluate those influences honestly. You must know yourself well enough to be able to testify how you have responded to those formative influences. An ethical preacher first honestly and unashamedly preaches her own perspective.
Adapted from Preaching Ethically: Being True to the Gospel, Your Congregation, and Yourself, c
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How do clergy preach to meet the legitimate needs of their congregation and live up to standards of professionalism and personal integrity? Preaching Ethically offers guidelines for preaching in light of a range of factors that might tempt a preacher to misuse the pulpit. To be true to ourselves and our calling, says Sisk, we must examine how the many factors that can influence our preaching come into play. The calling to preach the gospel compels us to preach in ways that keep the gospel foremost, treat the congregation fairly, and are true to our own convictions and our personal integrity.
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