Youthful Preaching (Richard Voelz) -- A Review

YOUTHFUL PREACHING: Strengthening the Relationship between Youth, Adults, and Preaching. (Lloyd John Ogilvie Institute of Preaching Series). Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2016. X + 213 pages.

                If you look around many congregations on Sunday morning, you probably won’t find too many children or even adolescents present during the sermon. They may be present in the building, but often not in the sanctuary. It seems there is something of a disconnect between the pulpit and young people. When it comes to homiletical theory, youth are just as invisible as they are in the sanctuary on Sunday morning. Why is this? That’s the question that Richard Voelz seeks to provide an answer, or at least the starting point for finding an answer, in this scholarly look at the relationship of preaching and our youth. 

                Voelz is currently the senior minister of John’s Creek Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Georgia, and recently called to be an assistant professor of preaching at Union Presbyterian Seminary (Richmond, VA). The book in question is a revision of Voelz’s dissertation for his Ph.D. in preaching at Vanderbilt University. In writing this dissertation Voelz discovered that very little attention is given to youth and preaching. It is largely unexplored territory, and as one who has a Ph.D. that is what you are looking for in a dissertation topic. You want to plow new ground. That this ground that needs to be plowed, however, is lamentable. Fortunately, Voelz has chosen to take it up. 

                As for why I requested a review copy of an academic treatise on preaching, the answer is two-fold. First, Richard is a fellow Disciples of Christ pastor, whose e-book Tending the Tree of Life: Preaching and Worship through Reproductive Loss and Adoption I had recently read and reviewed. Besides this reason, I was intrigued by the title. Knowing that our children and youth often experience a disconnect with preaching, I wanted to know what he had to say. I wanted to gain some wisdom for my own preaching.

                As already noted, this is a work of scholarship. The audience is primarily other scholars of homiletics. It’s not really a hands-on practical guide, but there is wisdom here to glean, but one must be patient with the theory that is expounded throughout. His purpose, or at least the initial purpose, is to alert the professional homiletic community to the invisibility of youth in homiletical discourse. If this is true, then the topic isn’t coming up in preaching classes or in books written for preachers. This is an important quest on the author’s part, because fewer youth, even youth who attend church, either listen to sermons or preach them. And, Voelz is concerned about both youth as listener and as preacher.

                First and foremost, Voelz is seeking to "set a theologically and ethically grounded agenda for faith communities that take preaching and youth seriously." It’s not that he doesn’t think that churches take youth lightly, it’s just that for the most part we have turned youth over to religious education and failed to see the connection of preaching to our youth. To accomplish goal, Voelz takes us on an exploration of the history of youth and preaching and then looks at culture, so that we might discern a "theologically appropriate homiletic" that keeps in view youth. He’s concerned about those who listen but a significant portion of the book focuses on youth sermons, which he critically analyzes, hoping to develop "new understandings of youth in both academic homiletics and communities of faith." Moving beyond this he also hopes to envision other ways in which adolescents and adults might engage with each other. His hope is to articulate a way in which "preaching can lead the way toward renewed and strengthened relationships between youth and adults" (pp. 7-8).

                The book itself is composed of five chapters. The first chapter offers us historical analysis, and as a historian myself, I was very interested in this section. Voelz is mostly concerned about homiletical practice in North America, beginning with the colonial era and moving into the twentieth century. It is fascinating to see how much attention eighteenth century preachers gave to the faith and moral formation of the youth in their midst. In fact, these preachers addressed youth with great specificity. As we move into the nineteenth century we see continuity with the eighteenth century, though has time wore on and the Sunday School emerged as a primary force in faith formation, the focus of preaching to youth began to dissipate. More and more the theological and ethical formation of youth was placed in the hands of religious educators and greater distance developed between youth and pulpit. This was a fascinating read, and may help explain the contemporary distance. Preaching is for adults, classes are for children. The nineteenth century did see some youthful preaching, especially in the context of revivals, which often opened up space for child exhorters, but less and less attention was given to youth.  By the twentieth century religious education and child development theories began to drive the conversation rather than homiletical theory. 

                The second chapter, titled "silence and deficiency," looks at the contemporary picture of the relationship of youth and preaching. While homiliticians often assume that youth are among the hearers of sermons, they are largely absent from the conversation. In essence they are living exile.   But, if homiliticians are going to overcome this deficit they can’t simply import the findings of religious education. There needs to be direct work on the connection. He writes: “Homiletics can initiate a homiletic discourse that honors the rich texture of adolescents’ lives, not dependent on images informed by ontological adolescence” (p. 67). There needs to be a theological/ethical corrective that will lead to a renewal of the relationship of youth and preaching.

          Hoping to help renew this relationship, Voelz proposes engaging youth in terms of two poles—liberation and formation. In using liberation categories, he seeks to free youth from conceptions of youth that marginalize them by imposing harmful representations and leave them exiled from the preaching moment. The other pole, formation, serves as a recognition that youth will be in need of spiritual, moral, and ethical formation. He speaks here of the important role played in the past by preachers in catechesis, and the value of catechesis in providing "narrative complexity." He suggests that homiletics has abdicated this important role and needs to address it. 

                With these two poles established, Voelz spends the final two chapters examining expressions of youthful preaching. Making use of sermons preached by youth found on YouTube, he listens to them with an ear for the way they express Christian identity (chapter 4) and homiletical identity (chapter 5). He listens to these sermons, transcripts of which are found at the end of the book, using rhetorical analysis. More specifically he uses Kenneth Burke's pentadic criticism to listen to these young voices. He listens for five elements: agent, act, agency, scene, and purpose. With this as his guide he evaluates the sermons in relationship to the liberation-formation polarity. He is listening for where their Christian identities might need a bit of liberation and where it might need formation. He listens for how they speak of God, suffering, and sin and grace. He concludes that these youthful preachers "demonstrate the ability to piece together rhetorically coherent and theologically significant Christian identity" (p. 121).

                In chapter five Voelz turns to homiletical identity, that is the "image of the preacher." This involves such issues as ethics of preaching, theology of preaching, relationship to the congregation, relationship to the Word, authority of the preacher. In this chapter Voelz analyzes (critically listens) the sermons in terms of credibility devices such as competence and trustworthiness. Of great interest here is the role of self-reference, which figures prominently in all but a couple of the sermons. Voelz makes a distinction here between self-disclosure and self-display—the latter being a form of narcissism. In general, the youth stayed away from the latter but made great use of the former. In terms of homiletical identity most of the preachers identified themselves first of all as students and then as part of particular community. They also noted the privilege that had been granted them to enter the pulpit. Voelz takes this as a clue to the need to open up homiletical space for youth so that they might experience the pulpit. He also notes that these youths affirmed the importance of preaching with integrity, and recognized that this was not only a privilege, it was a sacred responsibility. 

                As I’ve noted this is first of all an academic treatise that speaks to the professional homiletics community. It's focused on theory and analysis. My sense is that this only the first round of conversation, after all, scholarly attention has been given to this question. My hope then is that in time Voelz or others will start creating the resources that will help preachers connect and encourage youth to take up the preaching cause. There is much to be learned from this book, if we’re patient with the theory and catch the vision of engaging in liberation and formation. As a preacher I am challenged to both listen to youth, so that they are not marginalized in my preaching, and consider ways of opening up homiletical space for youth to explore their own preaching voice. Many of us who preach today got our first opportunities to preach as youth, perhaps on youth Sunday, but it doesn’t have to be just a token Sunday. I look forward to hearing more, because I think Voelz has simply sighted the tip of the iceberg!


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