The Chinese article is originally found here.
I’ve had the privilege of hosting Prof. Thomas Long (pictured having a banquet with us the night before the lecture), one of the best preachers and preaching professors of our generation in the Belote Lecture Series at HKBTS. Long taught in Columbia Theological Seminary and Princeton Seminary and is now teaching at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. I choose to interact with him not merely because I am the chair of this lecture series and not less because I was one respondent to one of his lectures, but because he and I are a lot alike in that we both advocate strong exegesis on the one hand and strong presentation on the other. I must say that the lectures have much food for thought, and I have learned much from this senior scholar-pastor in both my interaction with him as well as listening to his lectures. In the next series of articles, I wish to study this eminent homiletician as a springboard into issues plaguing modern preachers. For my readers, let me first summarize some of the ideas he has shared in this next series and then I’ll give my own reaction to them along the way to move the discussion to the next level. Without a doubt though, Long is a top-notch communicator who knows his Bible very well, not only in a superficial way but in a deep and theological (as well as spiritual) way. This has been my observation of his work and through personal interactions with him outside the lecture hall.
Theologically, Long is clearly Reformed, though he never shoves his theology down the audience’s collective throat. Although he brings a lot of narrative into his preaching, he does not fail to remind the audience that ultimately God owns this world and that justice belongs to God. The theological basics of “who God is” has never been too far from his paradigm. In his lecture, he talks about an important question, “What do the listeners need in order to understand the sermon?” This is a fascinating question which can be answered variously. Long attempts to answer the question in four ways.
First, Long states that some do not even believe this would be an appropriate question to ask. Certain conservative Reformed theologians would find this question taking away from God’s uneasy message to humanity. Some may even consider asking such a question fiddling around with the gospel. Long appreciates the objection but sees it as neglecting the highly sophisticated literary characteristic of the Bible. I too agree that while God’s message can be quite demanding, not every message is equally demanding. Besides, the rhetorical nature of all communications, with the Scripture not excepted, demands that the speaker takes seriously the need of listeners/readers. The modern listeners indeed need “something” in order to understand a very ancient (but nevertheless relevant) text. The Bible is not a book dropped from heaven given by an alien without any incarnational quality. I think those who question the need of listeners are the same people with a superstitious view of both preaching and the Bible.
Second, Long states that some preachers see the human psyche processing things in terms of narrative plot which has elements of conflict, clues to resolution, resolution, more responses to resolution and finally consequences. Long comments that not everything comes in terms of such a plot shape. Not every human thinks in plot-like manner. Later, he contrasts between listening of the engineer versus the artist. If a preacher was to preach a narrative-filled sermon, the engineer might find it wanting while the artist might be touched. Yet, the stereotype is not always based on profession either. Some engineers could be quite touchy feely while other artist could be quite analytical. The point is this; a sermon hits everyone very differently. Long’s assumption once again is right on because any assumption about the human brain functioning only one way should be questioned. Sure, we may have some experience with one kind of audience, but that is different than saying that all audiences are alike simply because they’re human. In his discussion about listening, Long states that just because there is one sermon, it does not mean that the three hundred plus people listening are hearing the same thing. In fact, in a church of a thousand, one thousand variations of that sermon is heard. Trouble comes when they near one thousand “completely different” sermons which would then indicate a breakdown in the communicative skills. This and many other reasons is why I challenge my students to take a survey of various kinds of listeners in the congregation and see what the main message the audience got from the sermon. If the end result is approximately the same, then the communication of the sermon was a success. If the end result varies as much as the number of samples taken, then the sermon was a dire failure in communication.
Third, Long states that some preachers see the audience’s brain functioning like a camera which focuses, renames, and snap pictures. The listening experience would become a series of photo opportunities. Indeed this image would most certainly appeal to the visually oriented person. In fact, a descriptive sermon would fit this category nicely. What I mean by “descriptive” is not just describing the text or the event of the text, but that the sermon itself is filled with rich imageries and metaphors. The vividness of such a style of preaching will create word pictures. All this would depend on the sophistication of the speaker’s everyday vocabulary. The trick though is how we move from one image to another image without losing the argumentation of the point. To me, each section or imagery needs to be consistently self-contained. It should be apparent to the audience that the image for one section is indeed working for that section only. I suggest that we have clear transition between sections of images like, “Now, we can live our lives like …” or “now, that’s just like when Jesus died for us …” A conclusive statement acting as a transition surely helps harness an image without the image running away into the next section and causing some misunderstanding of the next section.
Fourth, Long states that some preachers focus different types of audience. Some suggest that women listen differently (in general) than men. In his general observation, women use language cooperatively while men use language instrumentally. Women then are more about being while men are more about doing. While many may fault him for gender stereotype, there is clear linguistic evidence of this fact just in the way little baby girls and boys learn language. There may be something to that observation. In other words, preaching to diverse audience is not easy at all. Many Chinese church pastors complain about the challenge of speaking to both generations with one speaking Chinese and the other English. These challenges are also quite real, but imagine if the audience is also diverse in its hearing of the “same” language. Many West Coast American churches are now filled with diverse ethnicities. They may speak the same language but their backgrounds will cause different kinds of hearing. Speaking then is as much of an art as it is science. This observation by Long certainly points to the need for the pastor-congregation connection that is much needed to make this “artistic” preaching workable. The art then is not merely about rhetoric, but it flows out of the pastoral ministry of the preacher. The above four points are the issues that homiletic scholars have paid attention in recent years. What actually does the audience need? Long gives four simple answers. We shall go through the four simple answers in the next installment.