Preaching for Listeners Instead of Readers: a book review

Preaching is an oral act. It involves climbing into a pulpit (or at least standing before a congregation) and declaring God’s Word. Strangely though, sermon preparation has become increasingly a literary act. Since the dawn of the printing press and proliferation of print media, our reading of texts (and the Bible) have become increasingly private and individualized. This has had an effect on how sermons are crafted and delivered. In many churches, sermons are read and performed and do not deviate one iota from the script. Sermons are theologically precise, but often stilted in their delivery.

Dave McCellan urges the recovery of ancient homiletic practices. This would mean preparing sermons with the oral patterns of listeners in mind (rather than a literary outline which appeals to readers). In Preaching By Ear:  Speaking God’s Truth from the Inside Out, McCellan draws on the insights of ancient authors like Augustine,  Aristotle and Marcus Fabius Quintilianus and the contemporary historian, theologian and cultural critic Walter Ong (1912-2003). It is McCellan’s conviction that recovering oral patterns for preaching will transform us as preaches, and as churches and that preaching in this way is more responsive to the Word–reading it and proclaiming it in the way it was intended to be read and proclaimed.

In part one, McClellan begins with a focus on preparing the preacher. Chapter one relates an anecdote about McClellan preaching a manuscripted sermon in the ‘Big Church’ (he was a youth pastor speaking to the main congregation).  His friend’s feedback to him was that his sermon was good but didn’t ring authentic. It sounded stilted. He concludes that extemporaneous sermons allow for the greatest amount of authenticity and vulnerability in the speaker. He then grounds his argument for extemporaneous preaching in ancient writings. From Augustine (chapter two), McClellan argues that we should be ‘theologians’ who sit under the Word. He encourages us to deepen our understanding of passages and how they relate to others and what they say to us. McClellan uses Aristotle’s Rhetoric to explore the proper ethos in communication–speaking with personal character in an authentic voice (chapter three). In chapter four, Quintillian provides the most profound lessons about oral communication and preaching. McClellan says that this ancient rhetorician calls us preachers to moral character formation. He also has a method for improving our rhetoric (ccuriosity constant oral reading and writing, and casual debates with fellow preachers and small groups.

In part two, McClellan makes the theological case for the primacy of the spoken word in proclamation and walks us through how to prepare and deliver an extemporaneous sermon. It is in this section that McClellan delves into the work of Walter Ong, Ong’s thesis in his classic Orality and Literacy was that with the dawn of the printing press, fruitful practices of oral culture fell by the wayside. He identified nine characteristics of oral speech: imprecise, redundant, tradition driven, quotidian, acquainted with suffering. participatory, united in purpose, and comfortable with stories (91-96).  In contrast, literary approaches are precise, follow a logical sequence but are not reliant on the same devices for capturing and communicating shared memory. McClellan than delineates the implications for preparing an extemporaneous preaching.  One of the most profound insights on how oral preparation, invites communal preparation and allows for conversation which feed into and reinforce discipleship (129).

My push back would be that my preaching teacher manuscripted everything in his preaching preparation but in the preaching act was as free to move off script and take a new direction, often depart from his page to connect with the congregation or respond to the winds of the Spirit. He also wrote his manuscript with the spoken word in mind (short phrases, redundancy, internal summary). I think many preachers are sensitive to the dynamics that McClellan describes, even if their approach is more literary than what he commends.

McClellan’s approach is most fruitful for practitioners of expository sermons. He advocates listening to the text, learning to place it, inhabiting it and preparing a storied outline to share its truths. Topical preachers will find this sort of preparation difficult. I personally lean in a more expository and extemporaneous direction (though I still preach topically and from a manuscript when I feel it’s warranted). I am still processing how to best use McClellan’s insights in my own preaching but he does validate some of my own homiletic practice. I give this book four stars. ★★★★

Thank you to Weaver Books and Cross Focused Reviews for providing me a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

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