The social solitude of preaching

July 26th, 2017

Preaching is an intensely solitary activity.

Preaching is a thoroughly social exercise.

Which is it? Solitary or social?


My own process of preparation is wholly wrapped in solitude. I study, I jot, I brainstorm, I fret, I pray, I get excited, I become depressed, I write . . . all on my own. At my desk in the office or at my dining room table at my home. The only input I get during that process is some occasional wordsmithing advice I receive from trusted friends.

And while I work several weeks in advance, I still need to prepare a message almost every week. And until the last word is written and the printed sermon is in the “hopper” . . . I’m not terribly social around the office. But when it’s done . . . I’m full of high fives, stop-by-your-office-to-shoot-the-breeze and the casual conversations that make working environments worthwhile.

So sermonizing is inherently solitary.

But sermon delivery is by definition social. (Unless attendance at Good Shepherd declines to zero, something I don’t have much interest in being part of.)

There is a gathered community. I see responses — or lack thereof — on people’s faces and in their posture. Some register the “a-ha! I never knew that before!” look that lets me know I have engaged their mind. Others betray the “that hit close to home” look that lets me know I have engaged their heart.

The preaching event is, as I shared previously, a shared journey towards a common destination. We in the room do it together, and if we do it well people don’t feel I’m preaching at them but preaching with them.

So, solitary preparation leads to social delivery.

It’s why some of the best preachers you’ve ever heard are inescapably introverted in their personal lives. And it’s also why a few of the “hail fellow well met” types can’t preach their way out of a paper bag.

And it’s all part of the ambiguity that makes preaching an endlessly fascinating endeavor at Good Shepherd.

Talbot Davis is pastor of Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina and the author of Crash Test DummiesSolveHead Scratchers: When the Words of Jesus Don't Make SenseThe Storm Before the Calm and The Shadow of a Doubt, all from Abingdon Press.

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