Toward a methodology for teaching preaching to Baptists

Toward a methodology for teaching preaching to Baptists

Bernadette Glover-Williams

The dutiful, passionate seminarian was genuinely puzzled. “I don’t know what happened? I spent hours exegeting this text and coming up with what I just knew as the perfect sermon, and the congregation was bored to team.”

This prospective Baptist pastor was experiencing the bane of reachers: impressive material that is insignificant to the hearers. Sincerity and scholarship at their best fail to ensure an audience’s receptivity. How many in pews across the nation faithfully endure sermons weekly as a living sacrifice? Has preaching had a hand in closing mainline church doors? What and how are seminarians being taught to preach?

As standard fare, seminarians are introduced to types or approaches of preaching such as biblical, expository, and narrative. Situational preaching equips them for special occasions and social issues. Insights are gleaned from homileticians relative to hermeneutic-context compatibility, organization of ideas, and execution techniques. Yet, accomplished mastery of all the knowledge and techniques important to preaching may not make the preacher successful.

In teaching preaching to Baptists in the early twenty-first century, professors of preaching must help students address the purpose of preaching, the priorities for preaching, and the nature of preaching, all of which must be incorporated into the methodological design for teaching preaching. Whatever vehicles are deemed essential and efficient for achieving mission fulfillment in the area of teaching preaching will be favorably esteemed. Indeed, the heartbeat of a theological school’s purpose will be felt in the pulse of curriculum priorities.

Baptist history reveals that in November 1825, the Newton Theological Institution began instruction. As the institution developed, it adopted Andover’s curricular pattern and shared the same theological tradition of loyalty to the evangelical gospel and zeal for its dissemination. (1) In 1945, the Northern Baptist Convention set forth eighteen aims for the school, including the maintenance, defense, and propagation of orthodox doctrines of the Christian church. (2) Since that time, instruction in preaching has been significantly impacted by the role that the preaching curriculum plays in the delivery of a school’s mission. As a general rule, the teaching of preaching will probably be of greater importance in seminaries where the mission emphasis is evangelical or doctrinal in nature. In seminaries in which transformation of community or personal empowerment are primary in mission development, the teaching of preaching is not nearly as crucial.

In addition to a seminary’s mission emphasis, the student prone that a seminary wants to produce also influences the status of preaching courses in the school. If preaching is valued and surfaces as a priority in a seminary, preaching will be taught via curriculum and caught via an institution’s culture. A school that understands its niche to be preparation for pastoral ministry and perceives preaching to be indispensable to pastoral life will conceivably have more courses in preaching than the seminary that holds laity empowerment as being indispensable.

In 1984, David Ludeker’s Training for Ministry: A Life-Time Experience espoused that the primary function of pastoral leadership is to possess the qualities necessary to enable the laity to be both faithful and effective in fulfilling mission of the church. (3) For Ludeker, empowering the laity is the aim of pastoral preaching. In a 1999 article, Stephen Prescott of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, noted:

Midwestern’s primary purpose is the training of parish ministers. To

this end the seminary also requires a full year of expository

preaching in which the student is taught the principles of drawing

the message of the sermon from the text of Scripture, not deciding

on a message and then searching for a passage to “proof text” the

message. In a day in which many seminaries have abandoned exposition

for topical sermons, dramatic monologues, or “felt needs” messages,

Midwestern has deliberately developed an “Expository Preaching”

Department. (4)

Just as instruction in preaching is influenced by the end it is desired to serve, so also a sermon’s construction is influenced by the duplication of patterns observed in life or scripture. Al Fasol, preaching professor at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, elaborated that Southern Baptist preachers have been and still are enamored by “outlines” or “working out the points” in their sermons. John A. Broaddus, in the late nineteenth century, even went so far as to specifically recommend a three-point outline:

There cannot be a climax without at least three steps. Three gives

the idea of completeness–beginning, middle, end. When men start in a

race, the signal is always, “one, two, three,” neither more nor

less. The scriptures often use a threefold repetition as the most

emphatic and impressive: “Holy, holy, holy–Ask, seek, knock,

etc.”…. [T]he threefold dimension was due … to a desire on the

part of the medieval preachers to honor the Trinity. (5)

Over the course of the last 175 years in Baptist life, a variety of preaching priorities have been observed. Preaching’s purpose has ranged from evangelical to expository to empowerment, with instruction and faculty expectations intended to complement accordingly. Empowerment requires strong interpersonal abilities; exposition summons exegetical precision; and evangelism demands a wellspring of fervor. When Augustus Hopkins Strong was president of Rochester Theological Seminary, he discerned a connection between students’ preaching content and the faith convictions of their professors. Because he believed devoutly that young men who were sent forth into ministry should have a message that was traced to the New Testament, he expected that his teachers would have deep convictions and a sense of mission. (6)

In my own experience as a third-generation Baptist minister, I have had the opportunity to teach advanced preaching courses in a seminary context with Baptist students as well as students from other denominational backgrounds. In my teaching, depth of conviction has driven methodology. A core understanding is that a preacher is a servant who has a vibrant relationship with God, who responsibly handles the scriptures, and who reaches out to others with a relevant message that reflects the character of Christ as it lingers ever compelling hearers to draw closer to God. Those convictions have shaped my course construction. In teaching, I stress three course components: the clay, the content, and the commission.

The Clay

Because divine treasure is housed in clay pots (2 Cor. 4), it is imperative that the exercise or the doing of preaching not be segregated from the being of the one preaching. Just as diverse personalities were used as spokespersons in and recorders of holy writ, God continues to use a wide variety of personalities to proclaim the gospel. The assets and liabilities of these current-day preachers should acknowledge their own “clay mix” and yield themselves to God for use. The proclivity of some personalities and temperaments to see the world and the gospel from select angles may not be happenstance. Jeremiah “could not” have had Ezekiel’s message and vice versa. Further, because a plethora of anxieties seem the order of the day, many seminarians are overly self-conscious. Riddled with fears of rejection and incompetence waiting to erupt, they have a performance-based orientation toward preaching. Unconsciously, performance preaching executed to a “T” becomes a type of deliverance from worthlessness. Hence, seminarians need to deliberately initiate an excursion in spiritual formation that understands the cracks in the clay as opportunities to meet an expression of God’s grace and to help them in preaching Christ instead of self.

The Content

What to preach is a major question for Baptist preachers. How do they select the scripture and topic? Hermeneutic selection and sermon development fall under the auspices of the Holy Spirit’s leadership. From start to finish in the sermon preparation process, prayer is essential. The preacher must listen to and observe the sustained drawing of the Holy Spirit in order to capture a phrase, an image, or a tone in a passage. Preachers should specifically ask God: What purpose do you have in mind? What do you want to do or say through this text and through me to your people? If a picture is worth a thousand words, then a biblical text can hold multiple principles and lessons. Often layered in a passage, some lessons are apparent upon a surface reading while others require anointed brainstorming as to why the text says “this,” and not “that.” This intentional mining of the genius behind the Holy Spirit’s inspiration counteracts the casual treatment of scripture. Moreover, acquaintance with tools of Spirit-led excavation combined with a current walk with God deflates spontaneity’s intimidation. Profundity can be accessed through channels of simplicity.

The Commission

Since the God-reliant servant is commissioned to speak in community, not just to a community, a healthy relational IQ is needful. Receptivity is greater when the preacher is believed to be a person of integrity and a minister with genuine concern for others. The temptation to bask in the brilliance of one’s own giftedness is minimized when it is placed in the context of “I’m one of you sent by the grace of God with something for all of us.” Having students partner in preaching and participate in small groups fosters the concept of the preacher as a commissioned peer who is in community but who is also authorized to speak to community.

At some point during the course of the semester, my students begin to report a sense of spiritual awakening and an emergence in confidence anchored in God. Their preaching is enhanced as it grows out of relationship. They learn that seeking to represent someone with whom they are out of touch or using preaching for their own emotional bidding distracts hearers from God.

In our preaching as Baptists and in the teaching of preaching to Baptists, may our own hunger and thirst for God whet our appetite for diligent preparation and move the people to listen for God’s voice, even though it comes to them through imperfect lips.

(1.) Mark S. Burrows, Richard E. Haley and Elizabeth C. Nordbek, “Andover Newton Theological School,” American Baptist Quarterly 18, no. 2 (June 1999): 134.

(2.) Hugh Hartshorne and Milton C. Froyd, Theological Education in The Northern Baptist Convention (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1945), 172.

(3.) David R Ludeker, “Training for Ministry: A Life-Time Experience,” American Baptist Quarterly 3, no. 2 (June 1984): 101.

(4.) Stephen R. Prescott, “Seminary Education in Kansas City: A Model of Diversity in Southern Baptist Life: Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary,” Baptist History and Heritage 34, no. 3 (Summer/Fall 1999): 36.

(5.) Al Fasol, “Where Is The Role of Proclamation In Southern Baptist Worship?” Baptist History and Heritage 29, no. 3 (July 1996): 21.

(6.) Robert G. Torbet, The Baptist Ministry Then and Now (Valley Forge, Pa: Judson Press 1953), 106.

Bernadette Glover-Williams is assistant professor of preaching at New Brunswick Theological Seminary, New Brunswick, New Jersey. She also serves as the executive pastor of Cathedral International (the Historic Second Baptist Church) in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.

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