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We Always Need Storytellers

Over on a previous post, there has been an interesting conversation going on about the nature of preaching and the role it plays (or ought to play) in the life of the church. A number of issues have been raised, but among the more interesting (and personally relevant!) ones, from my perspective, is the extent to which the task of preaching is used to legitimate the existence of religious “professionals.”

Does the sermon exist so the pastor has something to do all week? That’s a pretty crude way to put it, I know, but anyone who has ever stood in front of a congregation on a Sunday morning to deliver “the word” is well-familiar with the drowsy, barely-interested looks that may greet them from the pew. It’s not everyone, of course—thankfully there are those who seem genuinely interested and attentive—but some certainly give the impression that sitting through the sermon is little more than a weekly test of endurance. Does preaching have a point beyond giving people who are interested in “that kind of thing” something to do with their time and a stage on which to present the fruit of their peculiar labours?

I’m obviously not going to presume to pronounce authoritatively on the value of the sermon here. I think that, like any other human endeavour, “the sermon” can get flat and lifeless and become something we just do because it’s always been done. But I also think that the task of preaching can be understood and practiced in ways that are life-giving and vitally necessary. Quentin Schultze was undoubtedly thinking in much broader terms than preaching in this passage from Habits of the High-Tech Heart, but I think he ably summarizes some of the best of what I think preaching could be and do:

In the information age, we still need symbol brokers who are skilled at interpreting human life… who can help us separate the wheat from the chaff…. We depend on our storytellers, for instance, to grasp the inherent meaning and purpose of our existence. They can reveal our common humanity and our shared brokenness. Journalists, novelists, and playwrights are particularly important. Priests and prophets are no less critical to our social well-being today than they were in religious history. We also need oral storytellers—such as humorists, balladeers, and narrators—who can work within the live moments of our daily routines to resuscitate moral meaning in the midst of our instrumental endeavours. Most of all, we need empathetic communicators who are not merely brokers but are themselves deeply committed to the narratives they craft. In other words, we need authentic communicators who personally commune with others through the integrity of their stories.

17 Comments Post a comment
  1. Ken #

    Hasidic masters often used this approach – story telling. Elie Wiesel has used it too. He has described himself as a transmitter of stories, not ones that he created, but ones that were given to him by his ancestors, his tradition, that he transmitted faithfully even while “lending (them) his own voice and intonation and sometimes his wonder or simply: his fervor.” (from his book, Souls on Fire.)

    December 6, 2010
    • That’s a good combination: faithful transmission + our own voice and wonder. Thanks, Ken.

      December 6, 2010
  2. mdaele #

    symbol brokers – separating wheat from chaff – interpreting human life – what does that mean?
    storytellers – is that not an art form?
    Just sayin’…

    December 6, 2010
    • Storytelling is certainly an art form. I think one of the central elements of the Christian faith is that truth comes to us in the form of a story (as opposed to, say, a metaphysical or ethical system derived from logical first principles). I don’t think these two—truth and story—can be separated or elevated at the expense of the other. Truth comes to us in the form of art but it is still truth. We are not free to reduce it to a subjective impression or experience. But neither are we free to see the story as the incidental vehicle by which the “real” truth or the principles come to us.

      Re: the language in the quote from Schultze, I think he is just getting at the idea that human beings have always been and will always be in need of people who are skilled in sorting out the meaningful from the meaningless in life, and in helping others to interpret the world, and themselves as a part of it, well.

      December 6, 2010
      • mdaele #

        i still am having a hard time making heads or tails out of this lingo 🙂 – on the surface it seems that telling the difference between what is meaningful and what is meaningless is something most people are pretty good at without ‘brokers’. If however there is a need to change or restrict in some way which things should or should not be found meaningful then a broker/intermediary might be useful. I don’t think that is what you are saying though.
        nice work on where to find truth in art. got no problem with what you said there as long as we can agree that art is formed by the artist. if this is so then a certain interpretive quality already exists in art as exercised by the artist. not that this changes truth at all.

        December 6, 2010
      • Actually, I’m not sure that telling the difference between what is meaningful and meaningless is something that most people are pretty good at. A lot of people sail through life without much of a thought to whether or not their story or the bigger story of our world has any meaning at all. Often a crisis will provoke some questions, but these tend to come in fits and starts. Meaning seems like something a lot of people have given up on—perhaps one of the jobs of a pastor (among others) is to reintroduce it into people’s frame of reference.

        Schultze has a very specific target in mind in his book which is the way that our hyper-technological society promotes unhealthy understandings of what it means to be human. Increasingly, our lives are defined by the technology we use, and we are becoming distracted, disoriented, and trivialized in the process. We don’t seem to know what to do with ourselves unless we are plugged into something (no shortage of evidence for this :)). I think he is just saying that we need people who are skilled at identifying and promoting moral meaning in a world that knows how to do a lot of things, but has lost anything like a big-picture reason of why we are doing them.

        December 7, 2010
  3. Paul Johnston #

    As a Catholic I’m not familiar with the priority of preaching within the context of worship. While it is true that the Priest or Deacon provides the faithful with a homily/teaching, framed by the weekly readings, it is much less significant to the proceedings than is the praise, the worship and the “Masses” summit, the Eucharist.

    I would imagine that the perceived quality of his sermons would be crucial to the perceived quality of his ministry, for a Protestant minister. I don’t envy you that weekly burden.

    December 6, 2010
    • Just for clarity’s sake, to whatever degree preaching is a burden, in my case it is one that comes monthly not weekly.

      And we Protestants do use readings and song and prayers and, yes, the Eucharist to communicate truth as well. It may not be the “summit” that it is in the Catholic tradition, but it is a hugely important part of the ascent :).

      December 6, 2010
  4. “we need authentic communicators who personally commune with others through the integrity of their stories.”

    Wish I had that quote for my philosophy of preaching paper 7 years ago!

    December 6, 2010
    • mdaele #

      I don’t mean to be stupid or obnoxious but what does that mean?

      December 6, 2010
  5. Paul Johnston #

    Hey Ryan, I have no frame of reference for non-denominational church. Do you work from some form of standardized prayer book or lectionary? What influences the choice of topics for sermons at your church?

    I’m glad to hear you are only required to provide a sermon on a monthly basis. That seems to me to be a more realistic time frame for a good story teller. 🙂

    December 8, 2010
    • Well, the first thing to say is that I am not a part of a “non-denominational church.” Our church is a part of the Canadian Conference of Mennonite Brethren Churches which traces its roots back to the “Radical Reformation” back in the 16th century (Menno Simons and the boys :)).

      Re: prayer books and the lectionary, these do not typically govern our preaching schedule (although I wouldn’t mind moving in that direction). In our church, the choice of sermon topics for a given month or season is determined through consultation between the senior pastor and myself. The challenge is to make sure we’re not just preaching on topics or parts of the Bible that we happen to find appealing—to make sure we hear from the whole counsel of Scripture. It can be difficult to accurately gauge the needs of the congregation in determining what to preach on (which is probably why I find the idea of preaching according to the lectionary appealing—it takes the onus off of me :)).

      Re: monthly vs. weekly preaching, I have long marveled at those who can consistently preach a good sermon on a weekly basis. A few times I have done two in a row or three in a row, and was always struck by how draining it was, on a whole bunch of different levels. Apparently, good storytelling is work (who knew?).

      December 8, 2010
      • Paul Johnston #

        Thanks for the response and clarification, Ryan. While I knew that you were Mennonite by denomination for some reason I thought your church was ND.

        With regard to priorities, one advantage of a sacramental relationship is the personal encounter with the divine. In spite of my shortcomings, in spite of my church’s, I encounter Christ and the ongoing outpouring of grace from Calvary, every time I receive the Holy Eucharist. While everything else matters, everything else pales by comparison.

        December 9, 2010
      • Yes, how true. We encounter Christ at the table, and are forgiven, restored, and renewed for service.

        December 9, 2010
      • James #

        “While everything else matters, everything else pales by comparison”
        Nicely put, Paul. The centrality of encountering Christ is something fundamental that Mennonites and Catholics both say, “Amen!” to. It’s a good illustration of the profound unity of believers.
        Now we can get on with arguing about everything else 🙂

        December 9, 2010
  6. I had considered weighing in on your earlier post about preaching (grateful for your honesty in revealing some of the burdensome parts, also true for writing, as you note: that desire to say something significant, profound etc. each time). Of course, like most pew-sitting non-preachers, I have plenty of opinions about preaching! 🙂 Just two things, though. Per today’s post, I would agree with you that “meaning” is one of the preacher’s tasks, and not to be taken lightly. We need to think of the “Sabbath” and its activities as a re-orientation to what’s true. Six days in the hustle and bustle pushes us off course, whether we want it to or not. It’s not the fault of unreflective parishioners, however, but I think simply a factor of being human. So thanks to all you and other preachers do in that work. — But, perhaps, as you also suggested earlier, the sermon has been given too dominant a place in evangelical worship. The preacher is required to do too much of that re-orientation, which a stronger liturgical practice could cover. I’ve often felt in our tradition of preaching, the sermon is simply too long. (BTW, we’ve been using the lectionary in our congregation this past year, and I really do like the practice. And, since the “Rejoice!” devotionals my husband and I read mornings also use lectionary texts, it’s so wonderful to encounter them more than once in the same week.) Probably the sermon I remember best from the past year is the homily we heard in a liturgical, mainline church this summer on that most familiar of texts, the story of the Good Samaritan. In less than 10 minutes, the preacher invited us to enter into the story, first by imagining ourselves bending to tend our particular “enemy,” and then, by imagining ourselves in the ditch, with our “enemy” bending over us to tend to us. I suspect that it’s more work, however, to speak short than long. And now I’ve gone on and on myself and it will be too much work to focus!

    December 8, 2010
    • Thanks for this, Dora. I hope I didn’t give the impression that parishioners are unreflective! As you say, there is so much about modern life that conspires to push meaning to the side (or at least bracket it or relegate it to the domain of private preference) that it’s a challenge for all of us to maintain perspective.

      It’s good to hear of your church’s experience with the lectionary. I agree that evangelical worship tends to place too much emphasis on the sermon. Yesterday on the ferry I was reading an essay by Miroslav Volf where he talked about how after growing up Pentecostal, and then spending some time in various Baptist contexts, he eventually “sought refuge” from bad/too much preaching in a church that celebrated the Lord’s Supper every week. In his view, it was harder for a pastor to mess up the Lord’s Supper than it was a sermon. Not the most exalted view of the pastoral vocation, I suppose, but an interesting commentary on what we prioritize as churches and why.

      December 8, 2010

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