Preaching to Teach (Richard Voelz) -- A Review
PREACHING TO TEACH: Inspire People to Think and Act (The artistry of Preaching Series). By Richard W. Voelz. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019. Xxx + 103 pages.
The word “teach” might conjure in your mind a lecture. It might involve an act of imparting information that will eventually land on a test. In an age when education at all levels seems to be driven by measurable "outcomes," which normally means doing well on tests, it's understandable that we might find ourselves thinking in that direction. When it comes to preaching as teaching, what comes to mind? Does it suggest something rather dry and boring, perhaps offered in a monotone voice droning on and on (remember the teacher in The Wonder Years)? That is not what Richard Voelz has in mind as he prepared his book Preaching to Teach. As the subtitle suggests, he envisions something that will inspire people, both to think and to act.
The book Preaching to Teach is the latest contribution to Abingdon Press's "The Artistry of Preaching Series." These are relatively brief books that take up specific areas of concern related to preaching. In this case, it is teaching. In an age of increasing biblical and theological literacy, and when the sermon might be the only place during any given week where one might encounter information about the faith (the percentage of persons in any given congregation participating in Sunday School or Bible study is rather low), the sermon will be the primary place where teaching takes place. Preachers can no longer assume that the persons inhabiting the pews know the Christian story, and so we have to address this reality in our preaching. The question is, what form will it take? Is it merely information transferal? Is it simply focused on the ancient world? Or will it address the current context as well? Again, the subtitle helps us understand what is envisioned. Preaching that teaches should “inspire people to think and to act.” That should bring the text of Scripture into conversation with our contemporary realities.
Before we get to the content of the book, I should say something about the author. Rich Voelz is the assistant professor of preaching and worship at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, Virginia. He is an ordained Disciples of Christ pastor (I share this distinction with Rich). He is also the author of two previous books: Tending the Tree of Life: Preaching and Worship through Reproductive Loss and Adoption (Energion Publications, 2018), and Youthful Preaching (Cascade Books, 2016).
Now to the content of the book. Preaching that teaches so as to inspire thinking and acting must be undertaken with intentionality and care. What Rich has in mind is preaching that encourages critical thinking, which fits with a tradition that was born out of Enlightenment visions. But such teaching is more than simply an intellectual exercise. It should lead to transformational action.
To get there, Rich draws upon the work of people like Paulo Freire, the Brazilian educator who influenced the development of Liberation Theology, as well as Henry Giroux and belle hooks, both of whom took the ideas of Freire and adapted them to the European and North American contexts. In the course of the book, Rich introduces us to the idea of critical pedagogy as well as encouraging preachers to develop a radical imagination.
Rich’s introduction places the idea of the preacher-as-teacher in our current context, while also placing it historically. He speaks of the “The Preacher as Teacher in Three Acts,” with act one involving “instructing the faithful.” This is the vision of Augustine in his book On Christian Doctrine. Such preaching is designed to form persons in the faith. It is a tradition that continues to this day. In act two, we find preachers reacting to “changes in North American Christianity.” What is different here is that in Augustine’s time the church was growing and those coming into the church required instruction. Now, such instruction takes place in the context of decline and “theological malaise.” It is also a reaction in some ways to the embrace of narrative preaching, which when it was born assumed a certain level of understanding no longer present. This leads to the third act, which is the act that Rich wants to develop, and that “Critical pedagogy as a partner for preaching.” This vision of preaching as teaching engages the work of Freire and his intellectual heirs, such as Henry Giroux. In this vision of preaching as teaching, preaching does more than supply information. That is the focus of the book’s five chapters.
Rich begins this conversation with a chapter on envisioning the preacher-as-teacher being a “transformational intellectual.” In an age that increasingly distrusts elites and intellectuals, where such persons are understood to be disconnected from regular people (witness the distrust a great swath of Americans have in the work of climate scientists). That is why he uses the word "transformational" here. The idea here is that the preacher is one who can help members of the congregation participate in the public sphere in transformational ways. In essence, he envisions clergy as public intellectuals who bring faith into conversation with the public realm. He writes that “Preaching-as-teaching uses the sermon as an exercise in critical thinking to help the faithful exercise agency in and beyond the ecclesial sphere” (p. 17).
The second chapter takes this idea of "preaching toward a public sphere" a step further. He addresses the concerns of those who fear becoming political in their preaching (especially if one serves a "purple" congregation). He suggests that we envision this task through the lens of the proclamation of the basileia tou theou or realm of God. From there we move to strategies, as understood in terms of critical pedagogy and releasing the radical imagination. Such preaching, if it is to be transformative, will involve critique. While this involves prophetic preaching, it is not simply "declarative statements about oppressive ideologies and structures." Especially in North American situations, this requires leading people to a place where they can see for themselves the realities around them. Thus, the value of teaching, even if it involves a prophetic dimension. Such preaching will also offer the community a sense of hope.
One of the concerns here centers around authority. The form of teaching here is not to be seen in a hierarchical fashion, where the preacher is the all-knowing sage or the prophet who brooks no dissent. Although there are charismatic preachers, for most of us, our authority will derive from the community. Such sermons will be conversational and embodied in action. It is here that he develops the concept of radical imagination. While imagination involves creativity, here it is envisioned that it will be grounded in moral underpinnings. It involves imagining the future in transformative ways without losing sight of the present. Thus, preaching-as-teaching will help us envision a renewed public sphere. You can see how this vision is very different from the one many of us have experienced. This isn’t a matter of memorization and passivity. It is geared toward creating persons who are autonomous and critically engaged in society. It’s not that information isn’t passed on, but that we can’t stop there.
One of Rich's concerns is to offer a way of engaging congregations in transformational ways so that they can embody the basileia tou theou. While recognizing the importance of prophetic preaching, he also reminds us that a constant dose of such preaching will wear a congregation and a preacher out quickly. Thus, the sermon as teaching offers a way of communicating God's vision of transformation without taking on an authoritarian mantle that will quickly turn people off. Thus, he offers the “teaching sermon.” The preacher is not the all-knowing one, the “sage-on-the-stage.” Thus, chapter four deals with questions of authority and the way in which the congregation functions as a classroom. You might say that he envisions the relationship of preacher-as-teacher with the congregation relationally.
In chapter five, after laying out the principles of preaching-as-teaching as critical pedagogy he offers three sample sermons that exhibit some of the layers of critical pedagogy and radical imagination. Not only does he provide the sermons, one of which is his own, but he uses sidebars to make note of ways in which the sermons make use of the principles and where they might be strengthened by making more use of them. These are useful to help the reader bring the conversation to a fruitful ending. One can better envision what Rich has in mind.
I would say that this is a timely book. It addresses areas of deep concern among preachers who are seeking strategies that deal with the realities of biblical and theological illiteracy, while at the same time addressing the concerns present in an ever polarized and increasingly violent public sphere. He offers a vision of preaching that is sustainable over the long-haul. It is a form of preaching that avoids skipping from one crisis to the next, while addressing the importing issues and concerns of our day. It allows for the preacher to be prophetic without being overbearing. It’s good to remember that many in the congregation may share our concerns, but what they lack is a way of grounding those concerns in their faith. While this book is brief in length, it is rather deep. This is a book that rests on educational theories that many of us may have encountered at some point, but which we've not given much attention to. For example, we may have heard of Freire but not have read him. Rich doesn’t dwell on Freire, but he does give us enough background to help us grasp what he is intending here. Though this isn’t easy reading, I believe it will be a rewarding read for preachers wherever they find themselves on their journey in ministry. Oh, and you don’t have to give up the narrative preaching element, it’s just a matter of connecting it to the task of preaching as teaching.