Teaching sermons in conversation

May 30th, 2022

Often when the word conversation in relation to preaching comes up, many automatically think about the preacher’s style, or a function of the preacher’s self-presentation and presence. The preacher seems approachable, relatable, “down to earth,” and as if he or she is “talking with” listeners, as opposed to talking down to them. But the past generation of homiletic thought has helped us think about conversation not necessarily as a style of delivery but rather as a kind of embodiment of authority. The idea of preaching as conversation informs our conception of the preacher-as-teacher. In much of what we have seen, critical pedagogy does not believe teaching to be a mono-directional speech or transfer of content. This is at the core foundation of Paulo Freire’s thought. For Freire, the teacher “is not afraid to meet the people or to enter into dialogue with them. This person does not consider himself or herself the proprietor of history or of all people, or the liberator of the oppressed; but he or she does commit himself or herself, within history, to fight at their side.”[1] Freire reorients the relationship of the teacher to students, acknowledging that dialogue becomes revelatory on the way toward mutual liberation.

The same sense of the preacher’s power and relationship to the congregation has been present in the work of John McClure, first in his book The Roundtable Pulpit, later in Other-wise Preaching, and then in other important essays where he images the preacher as “guest-host” and as a leader of conversation.[2] Similarly, Lucy Rose’s book Sharing the Word, O. Wesley Allen’s The Homiletic of All Believers, as well as Ronald Allen and O. Wesley Allen’s The Sermon Without End have all been formative expres- sions for thinking about preaching as “conversation.”[3] Broadly speaking, these works have scrutinized traditional givens of the preacher’s authority, proposing that those who do not preach become (to one degree or another) participants in the ongoing work of proclamation as biblical texts come into “conversation” with life and culture and the desire to live as the people of God. The authority of the preacher is less hierarchical, less dependent on institutional foundations, and more grounded in relational and experiential types of authority, where meaning and authority remain continually under negotiation. A kind of mutuality between preacher and listener emerges, similar to what we have seen above in the work of bell hooks. Preaching that functions within this mode of teaching will live into the kind of solidarity found in these notions of “conversation.”

A newer component to the notion of conversation is that of Kwok Pui-Lan, who envisions that “the aim of postcolonial preaching is to create a multivocal and dialogical faith community committed to justice."[4] In a postcolonial world where many speak the dominant language and their mother tongue, the church’s preaching cannot just be conversational, but must also be heteroglossic. By this she means that preaching becomes more communal and participatory and even more, preaching becomes a ground for intercultural sharing and sensitivity. Preaching becomes a kind of “third space,” where the congregation “examine[s] the ‘inter’ in our identities, languages, and cultures, and by doing so encounter[s] the liberating grace of God in fresh ways.”[5]

All of this means that we prepare for our weekly sermons differently: we listen to more voices from different places, and in listening we admit the limits of our own understanding. Our preaching becomes more conversational, not simply in a kind of rhetorical pulpit style, but in its ethos. Indeed it becomes more collaborative and, perhaps, more joyful when we have something difficult to say because our preaching comes out of a place of deep solidarity with others. The preacher-as-teacher through critical pedagogy fosters different kinds of relationships.

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How does the relationship of the preacher-as-teacher with the congregation change? What does the teaching sermon sound like? It might strike us rather odd at first glance to consider the sermon as an exercise of friendship, especially as a component of the teaching sermon. We often hold commonplace assumptions about friendship that mean equality, emotional closeness, and intimate exchange. And these qualities describe what we tend to value in friendship. But rarely do these qualities define the relationship between teacher and student. Some of the teachers from whom I learned the most never approached me as though I was a student with little to offer in return. High school teachers like Mrs. Scott who taught civics and sociology, Mr. Zappia who taught math (ugh!), and Mrs. Cooper who taught language arts and newspaper were pivotal people in my journey. Undoubtedly they functioned as people who conveyed important information, but they also cultivated healthy personal relationships with me and other students by creating an atmosphere that reached beyond transactional teaching and learning. They believed students had something significant to offer to the learning experience. Educator Hannah Spector imagines a classroom where friendship is a goal, except that “friendship is not about acquiring friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter. Rather, it is about having youth that can learn about their neighbors, where similarities and differences are discovered, and where common ground can be achieved in the hopes of building little worlds of solidarity. These little worlds can pave the way to developing communities beyond classrooms, too.”[6] When I raise the idea of the preacher-as-teacher as friend, we might think of this nature of friendship as a key to what I mean: building little worlds of solidarity over ordered hierarchy. And while this characterization should be true, the preaching and ministry of Jesus strengthens how we might think of preaching as friendship. 

In preaching toward a vision of the public sphere characterized by the kingdom of God, our kingdom-talk is known by the rhetorical practice of Jesus: friendly and frank, rooted in love. In essence, reordered relationships in the kingdom of God are empowered by the plain-speech practices like those of Jesus. As those of us who have preached week to week in these contentious times know, this is not always easy! This is where the connection to Jesus and our connection to critical pedagogy becomes especially important. The disposition of the teacher in those most beloved of memories like I outline above are characterized by frank speech empowered by love. The preacher-as-teacher does not simply speak by dispensing knowledge that she knows will benefit others because she has the authority to do so. Rather, the teacher engages in plain speech out of a place of deep love and, dare I say, passion for the things of the kingdom of God. And people know the difference. 

To picture this deep love as a function of teaching, bell hooks tells the story of a student who loved to dance. One week the student came in late to class, danced to the front, picked hooks up, and spun her around. While many might have taken this for impropriety, hooks read this as an apology for being late and as a sign of the presence of eros in her classroom. As a teacher, hooks seeks to cultivate love. And of this interaction in particular, she observes, “When eros is present in the classroom setting, then love is bound to flourish. Well-learned distinctions between public and private make us believe that love has no place in the classroom. Even though many viewers could applaud a movie like Dead Poets Society, possibly identifying with the passion of the professor and his students, rarely is such passion institutionally affirmed.”[7] Undoubtedly, her eros-shaped interactions with this student mean that she could speak plainly with him, perhaps even about his tardiness to class. This is the connection for the preacher-as-teacher: the preacher-as-teacher passionately loves enough to speak plainly with listeners in the pulpit. This is not harsh speech. But when the sermon engages a difficult topic, listeners listen because they know they are loved; and even more, they know this frank speech signifies that love. 

All of this frames why I hesitate in assigning preaching about difficult issues to the realm of the “prophetic,” as has been our tendency over many years. One of the fears of speaking a prophetic word is being perceived as standing “over against” listeners and that the prophetic preacher will speak as a domineering authority, rather than as a friend. The preacher-as-teacher, however, exists in a different type of relationship. While frank speech may come as a difficult practice to cultivate, love conditions the speaking. These are extensions of imitating Jesus. The preacher-as-teacher speaks like Jesus: frank and friendly. 

Up to this point, I have not mentioned the designation of Jesus as “teacher.” But this title clearly functions as an important identifier for Jesus in the Gospels. In fact, according to Brian Blount, the characters in the Gospel of Mark prefer this title for Jesus. But much to our surprise, “though the Markan Jesus is clearly understood to be a teacher, he is rarely seen teaching any particular content. Rather, he teaches performatively. His actions and words intend more than the conveyance of information.”[8] As Blount reads Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’s teaching reaches beyond the bounds of words and ideas to the realm of performance and action. Not unlike what I have described of critical pedagogy throughout this book, Jesus’s teaching does not just seek to download information about the kingdom of God to those who will carry on his ministry. From this perspective, we might call this depiction the “Freirean Jesus” or “Jesus, the critical pedagogue.” But an important clarifier is warranted here before unpacking the categories Blount provides. Jesus’s speaking and action placed him in the path of an almost certain death. So we will have to be careful of using Jesus as a model for the preacher-as-teacher. If Jesus functions as a model for the preacher-as-teacher, it can only be in a modified, limited form. Contemporary pastors occupy a different role than Jesus and thus will speak and act differently than Jesus did. 

Blount identifies four categories by which Jesus’s teaching goes beyond simple, traditional notions of teaching. And while Blount’s categories are focused toward what we call Christian education, as we have come to discover, the lines between teaching and preaching are more blurry than we might have thought before. 

1. Jesus teaches by enacting the reign of God.

By this, Blount means that Jesus’s life becomes a living pointer to the “Reign of God.” Jesus did not live his life in such a way that he pointed to himself, but rather to the life-giving reality of God’s realm. So “if we want to teach the Reign of God, we start by finding a way to live the Reign of God, as Jesus lived it, by crafting a curriculum that not only conveys information about the Reign, but, more importantly, shapes the very reality the Reign intends to convey.”[9] From the Gospel of Mark, Jesus heals beyond socially accepted barriers that created insiders and outsiders. For Jesus, the kingdom of God is not bound by social barriers or even by religious codes about purity and impurity, but rather by the pursuit of shalom healing and wholeness that ends up exposing those boundaries as false. Jesus teaches by way of living out what he spoke and speaking about what he lived. 

2. Jesus teaches by engaging hopelessness.

Blount identifies a literary marker in the times that Jesus is addressed as “Teacher” in the Gospel of Mark. In each of these instances, the situation is one of presumed hopelessness. Blount references them all: the disciples in the boat caught in a storm, a man whose child has been possessed by a demon since birth, an unknown character the disciples have seen healing in Jesus’s name, the question about inheriting eternal life, James and John’s argument over seating arrangements in the fulfillment of all things, the verbal traps of the religious leaders, the disciples marveling at the stones of the temple that have a doomed destiny, and the request for the upper room. In all of these places, hopelessness rises. And in each instance of hopelessness, Jesus speaks or acts in ways that bring healing, or at least the possibility of healing. 

3. Jesus teaches by crossing boundaries.

Blount points us to Mark 4:35 to show us how Jesus crosses ethnic boundaries as he physically crosses “to the other side” in the boat with the disciples, whereupon stepping out of the boat at the beginning of Mark 5 Jesus encounters the (Gentile!) Gerasene demoniac. This crossing leads to healing. And this dual crossing composes another component of Jesus’s “teaching—that is, acting, living with authority and power that no teacher any of [the disciples] had known had ever displayed before.”[10] 

4. Jesus’s teaching meets resistance.

In this final category, Blount points to the various forces that compose resistance to the authority of Jesus and, more specifically, to the reign of God that seeks to break down boundaries. In Blount’s examination of Mark 4:35-41, these include demonic forces and nature in the form of wind and waves. But we might think even more expansively about the kinds of resistance Jesus faces: scarcity in the form of hunger, disease, and exclusion; religious and political collusion that opposes the way of shalom his ministry brings; a violent state execution in his crucifixion; and finally, death itself. The resistances are not only met by an exorcism and by calming the sea but also by healing, feeding, community-building inclusion, and the ultimate display of meeting resistance: God’s power that resurrected Jesus from the power of death. Blount notes a twofold lesson for those who seek to teach in the way of Jesus: (1) there will be resistance to the teaching of the reign of God and (2) ultimately, no matter the resis- tance raised, humanity will be able to receive the message of the reign of God by God’s power. 

The idea in these four categories is simple enough, but not insignificant. Teaching is never divorced from praxis, from concrete action in the world. As critical pedagogy makes clear, pedagogical practices informed by critical theory always participate in and leads to emancipatory practice that promotes freedom and alleviates suffering.[11] Theory informs teaching that leads to practices of freedom. But Blount’s insightful, descriptive framework of Jesus as teacher still leaves us at a bit of a loss for our preaching-as-teaching. Preaching that rightly participates in the kingdom of God not only imitates the ways Jesus spoke (“plain speech”) but also always embodies the kingdom of God in and beyond the preaching moment. But how do we do that? We know that when our preaching becomes merely words without corresponding embodied action, our preaching fails the test of the vision of the public sphere found in the kingdom of God. So the teaching sermon can never stand alone as a kind of one-off, independent theological rhetorical event (teaching as information!). Participating in the vision for the new public sphere shaped by the kingdom of God, the teaching sermon becomes embodied by preacher and congregation. 

This move toward embodiment involves a number of things both within the sermon and beyond it. It means that we are never satisfied with sermons that settle for abstraction. Our vision and our sermonic claims must always become concrete and within the realm of serious possibility for our listeners. The move toward embodiment means we pay attention to community and world. We never allow ourselves to fall into the trap of believing that our preaching cannot or should not address “current events.” It means that we call people to wholehearted, full-throated participation in the basileia tou Theou in ways both big and small. And it means that we invite them to a performative, participatory kind of hope, holding out a path to live into God’s vision for the world but also allowing room for God’s eschatological completion. And as we do that, we do not manipulatively induce guilt for privileged listeners but paint an inspiring, (and again) concrete path toward restoration. In connecting the sermon to our liturgy and our broader church ministries, we show people how to cross boundaries and overcome resistance in the way of resurrection. And we never allow our preaching ministries to become divorced from other ministerial acts, including community organizing, advocacy, and witness for social justice, acts of mercy, pastoral care, acts of healing, and so on.


This article is excerpted from Preaching to Teach: Inspire People to Think and Act by Richard Voelz (Abingdon Press, 2019).


[1] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Continuum, 2000), 39.

[2] John S. McClure, The Roundtable Pulpit: Where Leadership & Preaching Meet (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995); John S. McClure, Other-Wise Preaching: A Postmodern Ethic for Homiletics (St. Louis, MO: Chalice, 2001); Robert Stephen Reid, ed., Slow of Speech and Unclean Lips: Contemporary Images of Preaching Identity (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2010); O. Wesley Allen, John McClure, and Ronald J. Allen, eds., Under the Oak Tree: The Church as Community of Conversation in a Conflicted and Pluralistic World (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013).

[3] Lucy Atkinson Rose, Sharing the Word: Preaching in the Roundtable Church (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 1997); O. Wesley Allen, The Homiletic of All Believers: A Conversational Approach to Proclamation and Preaching (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2005); Ronald J. Allen and O. Wesley Allen Jr., The Sermon without End: A Conversational Approach to Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2015).

[4] Kwok Pui-lan, “Postcolonial Preaching in Intercultural Contexts,” Homiletic (Online) 40, no. 1 (2015): 18.

[5] Pui-lan, 21.

[6] Hannah Spector, “Cultivating the Ethical Imagination in Education: Perspectives from Three Public Intellectuals.,” Review of Education, Pedagogy & Cultural Studies 39, no. 1 (January 2017): 48.

[7] bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 198.

[8] Brian K. Blount, “Jesus as Teacher: Boundary Breaking in Mark’s Gospel and Today’s Church,” Interpretation 70, no. 2 (April 2016): 184, https://doi.org/10.1177/0020964315622997.

[9] Blount, 186.

[10] Blount, 191.

[11] Henry A. Giroux, Theory and Resistance in Education: Towards a Pedagogy for the Opposition, 2nd ed. (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2001), 21.



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