The Impoverishment of Contemporary Preaching

Product Details Conversations with Barth on Preaching by William Willimon is – even though I don’t agree with all of it – an excellent book about homiletics.  I’ve mentioned this book on the blog before, so I won’t go into it, but I do think preachers will benefit from it.  Here’s a part I was (re)reading today:

“…We tend to think of style [in preaching] as a matter that is dictated by the desired effect upon the audience.  Style is determined by the listener’s limits.  A major difference between Barth and us is his almost cavalier disregard for the reader of his theology or the listener of his sermons.  ‘Preaching must conform to revelation,’ says Barth, not to our judgments about the listeners, which puts Barth at odds with most of present-day homiletics.”

“…Contemporary homiletical thought has been consumed with rhetorical, rather than theological, concerns, which accounts in great part for the impoverishment of contemporary preaching.  Rhetoric might be defined as the art of listening to the listeners in order that the speech may be adapted to the audience.  Certainly the audience and its varied ways of hearing were of great concern to Aristotle.  It is this preoccupation with the listener and with the listening abilities of the audience that contemporary homiletics has most concerned itself with when it concerned itself with rhetoric.”

“Barth has taught me that listening to God is so much more interesting than listening to the listeners and that Christian preaching rests upon certain theological assumptions and works through certain theological mechanisms, having goals that are strictly theological, or it is a trivial endeavor hardly worth the effort.”

William Willimon, Conversations With Barth on Preaching, p. 84.

shane lems
hammond, wi

4 thoughts on “The Impoverishment of Contemporary Preaching”

  1. Interesting quote, Shane. I haven’t read this Willimon work yet, so maybe I’m missing his point. But there seems to me to be some room for push back as well.

    In Scripture, the human audience’s reception of the word plays a penultimate role of importance. Jesus’ harsh tone toward the Pharisees is meant be taken one way, and a different tone reserved for penitent tax collectors is “heard” another way. Even the opaque nature of the parables (hearing yet never understanding) is in some sense geared to have a certain “hearing” effect. I’m struck by the Syro-Phoenician woman; Jesus’ response seems to have the rhetorical effect of a rebuke (for the children, not the dogs) and yet the woman’s faith pushes through the rebuke to lay hold of Christ’s Gentile mission.

    I suspect that of all the theological/denominational “flavors,” Reformed pulpits are least likely to go with the zeitgeist in favor of remaining faithful to theological (and cultural?) conservativism. However, have we missed the opportunity to have more people delight in confessional, Reformed truth because of poor (read: intellectual, academic, dry, etc.) communication?

    Lastly, I have read little of Barth, yet I’m not sure I would look to him for “clarity” or “lucidity” in communication. Willimon’s remark about Barth’s “cavalier disregard” for his human audience might evoke more than one “amen!”

    I look forward to any thoughts you have!


    1. Thanks for the comments, Brian, they do make sense.

      As you know, Barth was responding to German liberalism, which is why he was so critical of the listener’s role in homiletics of his day. (Maybe there’s a parallel with Machen critiquing some preaching in his day?) Also, Willimon’s context is more mainline, so he’s critical of mainline sermons that are rhetorically nice but theologically empty. The way I read it is that Barth and Willimon are critical of sermons that think first and foremost of the listener rather than the Word. (Also have to remember that both Barth and Willimon have a “way” of (over)stating their points!)

      Maybe we could find a biblical balance: we must first and foremost preach the Word, but also realize we’re preaching it to people who listen.

      Thanks again for the comments! Appreciate them.


  2. Shane: Thank you for posting this. I am hearing echoes of Paul in 1 Cor. 1:18-2:8 in these words. Indeed, I would contend that this is precisely the reality Paul is confronting Timothy with in 2 Tim. 4:2-4. When we have our priorities right, and our focus is where it ought to be, true preaching will emerge as diametrically opposed to the wildly popular ear-tickling the masses insist on, and so many are willing to provide. The furthest concern of the great Apostle was rhetoric, or polished speech.

    Neither would Paul have bought into the modern shibboleth, “Put the cookies on the lowest shelf where the sheep can reach them.” I have often observed that dictum being insisted on by those who have lived on milk for decades, and never graduated to steak. Preaching to the lowest common denominator has a stagnating rather than a stimulating effect.

    All of that being said, I would agree that without question the examples of preaching in the New Testament demonstrate an awareness of the audience. This, however, never went hand in hand with a preoccupation with rhetoric, or with any Aristotelian concerns in the proclamation of sound doctrine.

    Words to ponder: “Preaching must conform to revelation…not to our judgments about the listeners.” Where there is any acknowledgment of “the impoverishment of contemporary preaching” in our own circles, among the varied reasons for this surely conformity to carnal methods driven by man-centered rationale would be high on the list.


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