Preaching in an amnesic society
Practicalities of design and delivery
This is a kind of an amalgamation of Saint Augustine and Maurice Halbwachs! These are suggestions for crafting sermons that take seriously both rhetoric and collective memory.
For Augustine (354-430), wisdom and truthfulness always had to come before eloquence. Nevertheless he remodelled Cicero’s (106-43 BC) ideas of rhetoric so that they might be used in the service of the Gospel. According to Cicero the orator must teach, delight, and persuade. Augustine in his preaching added a conscious effort to get the listener’s attention and maintain the listener’s’ active interest. These rhetorical skills, however, were always subservient to Christ the ‘interior teacher’ who speaks to the heart of the believer. As Augustine put it ‘We preach, but God instructs’ (sermon 153.1).
Our preaching should be
Intentional memory work
- Speak so that what you say may be remembered, so that those who hear may speak what they remember. According to Halbwachs we remember by communicating. Sermons need to be talk-about-able - the ‘bones’ of what’s said need to be able to be replicated by the hearers. In Augustine’s terms this means clarity and simplicity.
- Must be more than ‘knowing about’ so do all you can to prevent an authority-based distance between you and the hearer. There needs to be enough distance to give weight to what’s said, but not so much that the preacher becomes a remote expert whose knowledge and understanding is beyond the hearer. This is the pastoral style Augustine exemplifies.
- Speak to all the constituencies present (though not all at once), and not only to the obvious ones like age or occupational cohorts. Sermons need to speak to those secure in the faith, those coming to faith, and those losing their faith.
- Use repetition creatively. Repetition carefully used helps memory processes of ordering and structure. Augustine used scriptural phrases in this way.
- Let the structure of what you say be obvious so that people can follow (people can hear ‘faster’ than you can speak). Transitions need to be signalled clearly (though it doesn’t always have to be ‘point one, point two, etc’).
- Let memory work be part of the congregation’s usual experience – learn things by heart and encourage others to do the same.
- Create social structures that will support memory. This doesn’t have to be elaborate; it can be as simple as coffee after worship. Encourage memory work in these times – ask for suggestions and comments, provide routes for feedback, let the preacher circulate, etc.
Immersed in the tradition
- ‘Let us treat scripture like scripture: like God speaking.’ That’s Augustine in sermon 162.15. His preaching was profoundly Christocentric (the prologue to John’s Gospel is quoted more than a thousand times in his surviving works). Let preachers be very plain about their own faith in the style and content of preaching.
- Clearly born of prayer. Augustine frequently asked for prayer, e.g. at the beginning of a sermon.
- Speak out of scripture not about scripture. It is said of Augustine that he thought through the psalms; they were such a part of him that they became almost his language.
- Let scripture refer to scripture. Demonstrate in sermons how one part of scripture can amplify and explain another; use scripture narratives as illustrations in themselves; follow the development of thought in particular passages and Biblical books. Exemplify the talk-ability of scripture in the way you use it.
- Never ignore the scriptures used. If the preacher treats scripture as redundant people come to feel it is.
- If the scriptures present something particularly hard or difficult, always address that in the sermon. If you don’t you’ll only reinforce a sense of scriptural irrelevance.
- Let preaching be part of a liturgical experience where the symbols, metaphors, and topics of scripture are re-presented in a host of ways that build together into a whole.
Imaginative and go beyond the obvious
- Treat composing a sermon as a creative art. If preaching is an artistic endeavour it will be avenue for God to touch people in all sorts of ways. It hasn’t all got to be about cognition. Augustine used all of Cicero’s categories – teach, delight, and persuade – we should do no less.
- Use a variety of styles, not just the style you are comfortable with.
- Create links between the scriptures and people’s mindsets and experiences. Imaginative empathy should be clear in what’s said, without claiming too much. Sometimes Augustine created a dialogue with a biblical character. Preachers should follow his example and work up similarly imaginative ways of expressing things.
- Show, don’t tell. Don’t give a conceptual account of humanity’s inhumanity, show it by recounting concrete narratives. Don’t talk about graciousness, but show graciousness in tangible examples. What does this thing being talked about look like?
- Beware of the boredom myth! Don’t assume that your hearers are unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes. If you pick up signs of boredom it is more likely to be about competence. People will listen for substantial periods if they are engaged with what’s being said. A topically well focussed one-voice talk presented imaginatively and with conviction has a power about it hard to achieve by any other means. Every sermon needs to gain attention and maintain active interest – as Augustine said.
- Tell people what scripture means not what it meant.
- Speak to these people in this place and time.
- Always ask yourself what this passage of scripture offers these people.
- Weave present concerns into the fabric of what you say. That means trusting that scripture can speak with urgency and convincing power into present concerns. Avoid the topical sermon with no scriptural grounding.
- Preaching isn’t about relevance, it’s about God. God is not a relevant object; God is God. The preacher’s task is to make connections (Bible/life, God/the ordinary, grace/life’s hurts, etc.) that people can make their own and thereby live the life of faith. This is about God’s eternity finding expression in the present.
- Sermons should be worth listening to. Let it be plain that this talk is going somewhere. Every sermon should have a sense of direction about it – a flow that encourages people to stay with it and feel part of it.
- Prepare as if all depends on you; deliver as if all depends on God. Augustine never read his sermons from a script but he did carefully prepare them. He spoke of preaching as a debt he owed people, i.e. something demanding of labour, care, and responsibility. Effort put in communicates itself. If the preacher hasn’t bothered much why should the hearer?
- Perform sermons so as to engage, interest and amuse, but don’t make those things ends in themselves. Performance draws people in and enables them to become participants. People were delighted by Augustine’s performance but he never played to the gallery.
- Improvise when the occasion demands it. Augustine most certainly did. This is part of responding to people and underlining their part in what’s going on.
- Good performance has a quality of humility about it – it recognizes that something bigger is being served. For Augustine humility was foundational.
- Create movement, tempo, and drama in what’s said. Irony, rhythm, alliteration, humour, sarcasm, crescendo, antithesis, imaginary dialogues, and repetition are just some of the techniques Augustine used.
- The language used should be akin to the language of ordinary conversation, but not ordinary conversation. The ‘ums’ and ‘aahs,’ pauses, reiterations, missed words, and assumed common understandings of conversation can be very tedious in a monologue. The overall tone, however, is best if it is conversational, but in a prepared and structured form. Augustine was adept at this, as is obvious from his irregular syntax and simplicity of language.
- Sermons are not speeches – they are a dialogue between the preacher and the people facilitated by the Holy Spirit. Let the idea that there’s work for the hearer to do be apparent. It’s not all about what’s said at the front.
- Speak so as to include hearers in what’s said. Not ‘In Coronation Street there used to be ...’ but ‘Do you remember in Coronation Street there used to be ...’
- Make sure the sermon ‘fits’ with other parts of the act of worship. Let music, singing, prayers, liturgical responses, etc echo the sermon and the sermon echo them. A sense of oneness and belonging is well served by such careful co-ordination and helps people to locate their memories.
- Let the sermon give people words – literally. Here are resources for living the life of faith now. The preacher in an amnesic society has to teach the language of faith, not simply assume it.
For the voice of Augustine himself see
Essential Sermons (The Works of Saint Augustine), edited by Daniel Doyle and Edmund Hill, New City Press, New York 2007.