Preaching Adverbially (F,. Russell Mitman) - Review

PREACHING ADVERBIALLY. By F. Russell Mitman. Foreword by Gordon W. Lathrop. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2018. Xi + 184 pages.

                There is no shortage of books on preaching. Each book offers a different take or perspective on preaching. Some espouse a particular style, especially if they are text books. Most likely we take on some aspect of the style proposed by our teachers. Those of us who have been at this calling for many years may have developed a style that is rooted in an earlier age. Once you embrace a style, you likely stay with it. You may tweak things, but not make a major change. I’m not sure how to describe the style of preaching I have developed over the years. I’m not sure we even talked about style back then, though I did start out with the assumption that a sermon had an introduction, three points that developed the thesis of the sermon, and then bring things to a conclusion. I didn’t use a poem, since I’m not a big poetry person. All that is introduction to the book that stands before us. It’s not a text book and it doesn’t advocate a style. However, according to Russell Mitman, preaching is an event. Therefore, it needs to be described using verbs—or in this case with adverbs.

                Russell Mitman, who is a United Church of Christ pastor and former conference minister (judicatory), offers what I found to be a thought-provoking and encouraging book. He offers the book to us as a reminder that preaching is contextual in that it is an event that happens within worship. As he notes, "preaching is sermons, but much more. Preaching is what assemblies do whenever they worship God" (p. 3). Because preaching is an event, it needs to be understood in terms of verbs rather than nouns. While preaching is often described using adjectives, such as biblical preaching or narrative preaching, he wants us to think in terms of adverbs. Thus, preaching biblically rather than biblical preaching, or preaching evangelically rather than evangelistic preaching. As event, preaching is an expression of worship, for “both homiletics [the academic discipline of preaching] and liturgics are wedded in the praxis of worshiping God, and both aim simultaneously at preaching the word of God in the context of an assembly gathered with the focus intent of doing its worship work” (p. 3).  


                Mitman uses eleven adverbs to describe the preaching event, starting with "preaching biblically." When speaking of preaching biblically, he wants to contrast it with what is often understood as biblical preaching. The latter, in his view, often involves little more than proof-texting. For him, preaching involves with the biblical text, but it is more. He is an adherent of the lectionary (as am I). Preaching biblically is not the same as using proof texts to prove preconceived points. His reason for turning to the lectionary is that using this allows "the texts to encounter us rather than going back to the Bible and searching for what suits the thematic moment" (p. 17). Ultimately, preaching biblically “is the homiletical praxis of inviting the assembly to accompany the preacher, through the biblical texts, into an event that is intended to become for the assembly the Word of God through the Holy Spirit” (p. 20). Perhaps you hear some echoes of Barth there. I do!

From this starting point, we move to preaching liturgically (in the context of worship). sacramentally, evangelically, contextually, invitationally, metaphorically, multisenorially, engagingly, doxologically, and finally eschatologically. He goes into great depth concerning each adverb. There is a coherence here, in that preaching is understood as expression of the worship event. It is not a lecture. While he writes out a full manuscript, for this is not something that should be left to chance, if preaching is a verb, then a printed sermon is not the same. In fact, he would not see even a broadcasted sermon as being of the same order, for it lacks the liturgical and sacramental context. The chapter on “preaching doxologically” offers a strong reminder that the intent of preaching is to help people move into experiencing the glory of God. Thus, it is a joyful experience. It is also a harmonious experience, with sermon and liturgy working together to lead into experiencing God’s presence. I should note that Mitman has much to say about church architecture, especially that looks like a theater rather than an ecclesial space. Again, worship points to God. Thus, architecture is related to preaching. 

I found this to be an intriguing book. Even if I might not always agree with his views on something, I do think he is on the right track here. I especially appreciate his pushing for coherence in the worship service, so that preaching is connected to the prayers, the hymns, and the sacraments. In the chapter on preaching doxologically, he writes that preaching in this way "involves preaching and doing liturgy harmoniously. Simply choosing a collection of well-known and beloved hymns that have nothing to do with the Scriptures and sermon creates a homiletical and liturgical disharmony that no well-crafted sermon can rectify" (p. 148). 

This is not a homiletic text-book. Mitman isn’t attempting to offer a new homiletical theory. What he does is re-describe preaching, moving from adjective to adverb, even as he re-envisions preaching an event rather than thing. If you are a preacher, you will find this book to be not only useful but encouraging. 

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