Prophetic Preaching in the Real Pulpit

November 1st, 2009
This article is featured in the Ministry with the Poor (Nov/Dec/Jan 2009-10) issue of Circuit Rider

I went to a large preaching conference a few years back, where one day was specially designated as a “celebration of prophetic preaching.” Some very big names were the featured speakers that day, and everyone I talked to was excited about learning about prophetic preaching. During the worship services and the teaching sessions, however, the speakers said very little about prophetic preaching other than to encourage preachers to do it, with no regard for the consequences. I lost count of how many times they used applause lines like “Who cares if you make people upset? Who cares if you lose your job? Do what God is calling you to do!”

The big name speaker advocated a kind of “scorched earth” policy when it came to preaching about issues of poverty. “Make them see how their rampant consumerism is killing people in developing countries!” That was another big applause line. All of us taking notes on our shiny new MacBooks and still riding caffeine highs from our Starbucks lattes felt appropriately ashamed. Where is a good mourners' bench when you need one?

I agreed with him that global poverty needs to be addressed, but there's no way I could preach that same sermon in my congregation and expect people to actually listen to what I have to say! I wondered if I was the only one with this worry.

It turns out I wasn't. At breakfast the next day, a colleague summed it up perfectly. “That's fine for Rev. Big Name Speaker, but he speaks to a big audience where he doesn't know anybody, collects his check, and moves on to the next gig. But I have a community I'm accountable to, and they write the checks I use to feed my family.”

My colleague articulated a very real tension that every professional pastor faces. On the one hand, we are called to challenge people with the gospel and help them to actively combat the injustices of the world. On the other hand, we live in a country where we greatly benefit from the injustices of the world, and those to whom we minister have a great deal of control over our professional and financial well-being.

So how do we preach prophetically in a local church context? Is the “scorched earth” policy advocated by some of these big name speakers really the only way to do it? Or is there a way to challenge people in a way that they will actually hear and respond to, enabling real change in our congregations and making it possible to keep our jobs?

I believe there is. There's no way to preach prophetically and prevent everyone from getting mad, of course. Some people are going to disagree and get upset no matter what you preach, and besides, anger can be channeled in positive ways. But there is a way to minimize the anger when you preach challenging things, a way that increases the chance that the gospel will be heard and that people will respond to the challenge.

Homiletician John McClure calls it “negotiating a hearing.”[1] McClure's understanding of speech communication is that while all hearers in a group may technically speak the same language (English, Spanish, etc.), they do not all understand that language in the same ways. Other communication experts talk about people who play different “language games,” in which certain words carry very different connotations from one group to the next. One must understand the language game(s) being “played” by their audience.

Think of this in terms of different theological systems. Preaching in a United Methodist Church, we can casually mention someone's heart being “strangely warmed” and everyone who knows the story of John Wesley will understand what we are saying. But if you preach the same sermon in a Roman Catholic Church, you may not find anyone who knows what you're talking about. Both of these groups speak the English language, and yet they are playing different language games such that one group has a difficult time understanding the other on their terms.

It is up to the preacher, then, to negotiate a hearing by understanding what language games their hearers are playing and to demonstrate an understanding and appreciation for said language game. Once the hearers are assured of the preacher's identification with and appreciation of them, they are more willing to hear what it is the speaker is saying. In this way the speaker biulds a bridge between the linguistic location of their audience and the place they want to show to them, and invites them to cross that bridge. Not everyone will be willing to cross it, of course, but the hearers will understand that they are being invited to cross a bridge and not to attempt a long jump across a bottomless chasm.

To learn these potential language barriers, take a few congregants who seem very different from you out for coffee. Ask their opinions on potentially controversial topics you hope to address in upcoming sermons. Listen attentively without sharing your opinion. Take note of the words they use to express their beliefs and the life experiences that have shaped their views. Notice any “buzzwords” that elicit strong emotions, making them defensive and less likely to hear what you have to say.

The ability to negotiate a hearing was the genius of Martin Luther King, Jr., according to Richard Lischer. King spoke differently to majority white audiences than he did to majority black audiences, because he understood that the groups hear and understand things differently.[2] He varied his tone, cadences, and energy. He did not, however, compromise the integrity of his message. He varied the form enough to ensure that the function was accomplished.

I pastor in Clarksville, Tenn. Our city is home to Fort Campbell, a huge military base, so much of the culture of the city and its churches is greatly affected by military issues. So to negotiate a hearing with my congregation, I have to take into account their strong connection with the military when I am preaching about any issues that might be controversial. If I am preaching about war, for example, and suggesting that God wants us to be peacemakers, I have to demonstrate that I understand and honor the willingness of servicemen and women to sacrifice for their country. The phrase “pro-soldier, therefore anti-war” has paid big dividends, because no one is more anti-war than the person who has to fight the war.

Or, for example, if I am preaching about issues of global poverty, I can talk about how governments use military force to perpetuate the status quo and prevent undeveloped countries from gaining economic and political leverage. But I also have to acknowledge that members of the military are involved in humanitarian efforts all over the world. That way, soldiers and soldiers' families in my congregation understand that I am not questioning their integrity or worth as human beings, but rather the actions of our leaders in Washington.

Negotiating a hearing requires knowing our audience very well, which necessitates a significant commitment to pastoral care. We have to take the time to listen to our congregants, to know what their likes and dislikes are, their fears and their hopes. Where are they in their relationship with God? What do they need in order to grow as disciples of Jesus Christ?

Knowing the answers to these questions will help us to understand how our congregations need to be challenged, and how to challenge them in a way where they will hear and respond to God's call in their lives. If we are able to negotiate a hearing we will be able to preach prophetically in our ministerial context for many years to come.


Matthew L. Kelley is Pastor of Bethlehem United Methodist Church in Clarksville, Tenn.

[1] [2]

[1] McClure, John S. The Four Codes of Preaching: Rhetorical Strategies. Louisville: Westminster John Knox. 2003, p. 124.

[2] Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America. Oxford University Press, 1997.

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