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Contemporary Styles of Preaching

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Published: Fri, 23 Feb 2018

Chapter Five

Impact, event, and context in contemporary preaching

5.1 Mapping the commonalities.

The diversity of the trends identified in the earlier review (sections 2.4 to 2.8) presents a particular challenge to the analysis of justifiable generalizations about homiletic theory and practice in the last half-century. As Edwards observes, ‘there seem to be more forms of preaching today than in all previous Christian centuries put together’ (2004: 835). Furthermore, Edwards judges that ‘preachers during the late-twentieth century tried to accomplish a greater variety of things through their sermons than any of their predecessors attempted’ (2004: 663). Allen, Blaisdell and Johnston similarly describe the current homiletical scene as a ‘smorgasboard of approaches’ and cite no less than eleven identifiable contemporary styles of preaching (1997: 171).

According to Edwards two developments account for this diversity: namely, the sheer number of people who designate themselves as Christians (in the 20th century Christianity became the most extensive and universal religion in history (Barratt, 2001: 3)), and the huge proliferation of organizational bodies within which preachers are operative (2004: 835). The work of the statisticians Barratt, Kurian and Johnson supports Edwards’ judgement; in their World Christian Encyclopedia (2001) they estimate that in the year 2000 Christians of all kinds numbered 2 billion people in 33,820 distinct denominations (2001: 10). They observe that ‘there are today Christians and organized Christian churches in every inhabited country on earth’ (2001: 3). The impact of this globalization is significant even in the much narrower geographical confines of this thesis, and it is inconceivable that an accurate appraisal of preaching practice and theory could be made apart from a ready acknowledgement of the forces and influences that are properly termed global. The indicators of institutional decline apparent in the churches of the Western world have to be set against rapid and continuing growth in other parts of the globe. This shift of numerical strength inevitably has consequences for preaching as for other aspects of church practice and faith. The presence in the UK of Christian personnel from the southern parts of the world, increased congregation to congregation contact made possible by cheap air travel, and the development of Internet usage, all offer new understandings and strategies from elsewhere in the global church in ways much more directly influential than even in the immediate past. The practice of preaching, like most other human endeavours in the early twenty-first century, takes place within a pluriform social environment in which many and diverse influences from the widest possible arenas of human activity have a bearing. That said, preaching, in social terms, remains predominantly a locally-focused activity, and sermon style and content are usually closely related to the specifics of the sub-cultural frames in which the life and self-understanding of the congregation is set. Consequently, the power of the local context is another factor underlying Edwards’ observation of the immense diversity of contemporary sermon styles. As Edwards puts it, such diversity shows ‘how radically ad hoc all Christian preaching is’ (2004: 835). That is not to say, however, that such enormous diversity denies the possibility of any sensible generalization. In particular, as was suggested in the earlier review, three aspects are identifiable within contemporary preaching practices that have particular significance for collective memory-namely, awareness of a sermon’s psychological engagement, communicative salience and contextual pertinence. In other words, those aspects of preaching that deal with a sermon’s impact on the hearer; its purposefulness as an event in its own terms; and its relationship to the context in which it is delivered and heard.

In order to establish an analytical framework that is not too unwieldy three texts that are in some sense representative documents will be analysed closely. Other texts that develop, challenge, or amplify the issues disclosed will be added to the discussion as the argument requires. The representative texts have been selected as indicative of three prominent strands in the ongoing discussion of homiletic practice: firstly, continuity in terms of issues of concern and of practice methodology; secondly, change in practice and the philosophical and technical components that undergird it; and thirdly, reorientation that aims to subtly change the locus of practice itself. The first text will utilize a perspective from prior to the 1955 to 2005 period under review that still has currency, albeit in terms significantly altered from earlier years. The second will analyse a perspective of more recent origin that signifies contemporary concerns with philosophy and communications theory and the technical practice that flows from them. And the third will examine a perspective that sees the local context of preaching as fundamental to homiletic activity rather than just the arena in which it takes place.

The first text is Phillips Brooks’ Lyman Beecher Lectures of 1877, last reissued in book form as recently as 1987, and described by Killinger as ‘one of the most readable and inspiring volumes on preaching ever penned’ (1985: 207). The version used here will be the 1904 edition, published in London under the title Lectures on Preaching. No attempt will be made to alter the gender specificity of Brooks’ words since, although this study readily acknowledges that the preaching task belongs as much to women as to men, the assumptions of his text in this area are a clear marker of changes that have taken place even under the cover of longstanding common concerns.

David Buttrick’s 1987 book Homiletic: Moves and Structures is the second focus. At more than 500 pages, this is a monumental work in size, as well as scope and influence. Edwards (2004: 806) describes Buttrick’s work as being as influential and significant as Fred Craddock’s pioneering of the New Homiletic, and Lischer (2002: 337) credits him with the first homiletic in theory and practice ‘geared to our [present day] culture of images’.

The final representative text is Leonora Tisdale’s 1997 work Preaching as Local Theology and Folk Art, which asks preachers to become ethnographers of their congregations in order to understand the ‘human nature’ of their hearers from the inside as it were. Tisdale is one of a new movement of homiletic practitioners and theoreticians at home with anthropological and sociological models in Christian ministry and alert to cultural-linguistic issues. Her work provides a way into the insights of those who acknowledge that preaching’s former authority has all but evaporated, but who see a radical social re-encounter as being a real possibility for a reshaped sermon practice.

5.2 Continuities of concerns and practice: Brooks and contemporary preaching.

As was noted earlier (Section 2.5), Brooks’ Lyman Beecher Lectures remained much used as a guide to homiletic practice well into the period under review. Indeed such has been the influence of his insistence on preaching as ‘the bringing of truth through personality’ (1904: 5) that Brooks’ expression continues to be repeated in exactly the same terms in contemporary works, such as those of Day (1998: 6) and Killinger (1985: 8). In dwelling on the preacher’s personality Brooks managed to encapsulate what, in the 1870s, was a new and burgeoning interest in the human psyche. It was hardly coincidence that his lectures were delivered in the same decade in which William James became America’s first professorial-level teacher of psychology (Harvard in 1875) and G. Stanley Hall the country’s first PhD in psychology. Unwittingly no doubt, Brooks reflected on novel intellectual ideas of his own day and, in doing so, identified within preaching practice what was to become a major preoccupation in many areas of discourse in the twentieth-century: namely, the human psyche and its relationship to action and truth. It is pertinent, therefore, to examine what Brooks understood by personality and its relationship to Christian truth in order to appreciate how his ideas were developed by homiletic practitioners in the period under review. What might appropriately be termed personalist (i.e. an emphasis in preaching on the personal religious experience of the hearer somehow addressed very directly by the preacher) has been, and continues to be, a major component in sermon delivery and design. Brooks’ concept of preaching as ‘truth through personality’ became a kind of slogan for many preachers in the twentieth-century, and indeed remains a very influential mantra for many practitioners to this day. In Brooks’ lectures that sloganized thought had a rather more nuanced definition:

Preaching is the communication of truth by man to men. It has in it two essential elements, truth and personality. Neither of those can it spare and still be preaching. The truest truth, the most authoritative statement of God’s, communicated in any other way than through the personality of brother man to men is not preached truth. Suppose it written on the sky, suppose it embodied in a book which has been so long held in reverence as the direct utterance of God that the vivid personality of the men who wrote its pages has well-nigh faded out of it; in neither of these cases is there any preaching. And on the other hand, if men speak to other men that which they do not claim for truth, if they use their powers of persuasion or of entertainment to make other men listen to their speculations, or do their will, or applaud their cleverness, that is not preaching either. The first lacks personality. The second lacks truth. And preaching is the bringing of truth through personality. (1904: 5)

For Brooks, the two components of truth and personality had to stand together, since their meeting was the point at which the universal and the particular met. It would be an exaggeration to say that Brooks viewed religious truth as essentially something that can only be known in personal experience; but he did believe that truth was at its most effective and powerful when known and expressed in personal terms. He understood the truth of the Christian faith to be universal and invariable, with personality as the site where it was ‘realized’ through variable and particular understanding and appropriation (1904: 15). Thus although he was clear gospel truth was a message to be transmitted, he insisted that it could only be transmitted via the voice of a witness, i.e. someone for whom it had become an indispensable part of that person’s own experience (14). In terms of memory maintenance, Brooks’ approach assumes that the preacher is deeply cognizant of the Christian tradition and is, as it were, a bearer of it in his or her own person.

5.2.1 The personal characteristics of the preacher.

Being such a bearer of the tradition required of the preacher exacting personal characteristics. The rigour Brooks brought to the personal qualities required of the preaching ‘witness’ continues to be challenging reading for anyone pursuing such a role. Alongside a deep personal piety (1904: 38), Brooks listed mental and spiritual unselfishness (39), ‘hopefulness’ as against judgmental fear (40), a vigorous commitment to physical health along with the offering of the whole of life in ministerial service (40), and an enthusiasm that made for a keen joy in preaching (42). Brooks saw the task of preaching as always needing an essential grounding in the very personhood of the preacher, by which he meant truth communicated through personality in an absolutely literal sense.

The second of his Lyman Beecher Lectures, entitled The Preacher Himself, amplified the point in this enumeration of the qualities necessary for success in preaching: purity and uprightness of character; lack of self-consciousness founded on absolute trust in God; genuine respect for those preached to; thorough enjoyment of the task; gravity of intent in all things; and courage to speak out (1904: 49-60). At first sight the list appears remote from more recent homiletic theory’s concern with techniques and philosophical issues, and therefore it might appear as less accessible and relevant to practitioners since the 1950s watershed in preaching identified earlier. Such personal qualities can seem to be more easily related to an era when the person of the preacher was regarded as carrying more authority than nowadays. Although in terms of wider social recognition the preacher is no longer a star of oratory, similar attributes are still sought after-but for rather different reasons.

Killinger (1985), for example, stresses the importance of the physical and mental health of the preacher as an aspect of communication, since troubles in those areas are signalled subconsciously to an ‘audience’ and work towards undermining the intended message. He writes:

Suppose we are preaching about wholeness and reconciliation but actually conveying a message about fragmentedness and despondency. The words may sound right, but there is something about the tune, about the look in our eyes, about the tension in our faces, that counters what we are saying. At best, people get a double message. It is very important, therefore, for the preacher to be as healthy and joyous as possible. Anything less impedes his or her message about the life-giving community of God. We are working at our preaching, for this reason, even when we are taking care of ourselves. (1985: 198-199)

Although the point is expressed in the idiom of late twentieth-century communications theory the reasoning is clearly akin to that of Brooks. For both, emphasis on the physicality of the preacher is an aspect of how the message will be received in the light of how the hearers’ perceptions of the speaker. The body of the preacher, as well as his or her mental and spiritual capabilities, is, in this sense, a tool in the preaching witness.

Contemporary women homileticians have also emphasized physicality; but from a perspective that radicalizes it by making the woman preacher’s bodily experience a site of homiletic resource. In Walton and Durber (1994), the negative, indeed destructive, consequences of a profound prejudice in the Christian tradition against women’s bodies are highlighted. They note that in the light of this shameful history and despite occasional counter-tradition movements, the advent of more widespread preaching by women with the rise of Nonconformity did not generally challenge the unembodied nature of homiletic practice. Until the rise of the Women’s Movement, women preachers, like their male counterparts, stressed a common rationality and a universal human nature that was blind to the particularities of embodied experience (Walton and Durber, 1994: 2). In more recent years, however, some women homileticians have striven to speak from their bodily experience and utilize both the negative and positive aspects of femininity, conception, pregnancy, birth, health and nurture in their theology of preaching (for example, Ward, Wild and Morley, (1995); Gjerding and Kinnamon, (1984); Riley, (1985); By Our Lives, (1985); Maitland, (1995); and Marva Dawn in Graves, (2004)). According to Walton and Durber, such efforts are part of a new emphasis that is fuelling developments across the whole spectrum of theological enquiry. They write:

Sexuality and suffering are still rarely named within a Christian tradition that prefers to speak of the spirit rather than the body, light rather than darkness and a God who creates life but bears no responsibility for pain and dying. Women who have begun to preach from their bodies are not merely redressing an existing imbalance and enriching the storehouse of Christian metaphors and symbols but are also provoking new theological debates close to the very heart of the faith. (1994: 4)

This emphasis on the body as a resource for preaching content rather than solely the necessary vehicle of delivery as it were, certainly takes Brooks’ focus on personhood further than he could possibly have imagined. That said, even here there is a certain congruence between what Brooks said and these very contemporary concerns. He did, after all, insist that the needs and preoccupations of no one sex or age should monopolize the life of the congregation, and that ‘ministrations to it must be full at once of vigour and of tenderness, the father’s and the mother’s touch at once’ (1904: 207). Brooks could not have possibly foreseen the Women’s Movement and its repercussions for preaching, but his unease with a domineering and authoritarian style in the pulpit-mediated through his lasting influence-at least readied some preachers for a message that needed to be heard.

The physical and personal qualities of the practitioner described neither in terms of communication theory nor embodied theology, but in ways even more reminiscent of Brooks’ own characterization of the preacher, have reasserted themselves through organization theory and the study of leadership. As the authority of the church, in terms of rules and obligations, has ebbed away, and the legitimacy of power based on tradition more and more questioned, it is perhaps the case that authority based on exemplary character has increased in relative importance. Certainly in the world of commerce and business the significance of the personal qualities of leaders and managers has been extensively theorized and debated. In the use of terms such as ‘sapiential authority’ and ‘referent power’, organization theorists have pointed up the crucial importance of a personal knowledge and skill that readily communicates itself to others, and a personality-based ability to influence by attracting loyalty (Rees and Porter, 2001: 82). Other theorists, e.g. Charles Handy, talk in terms of ‘the invisible but felt pull’ that is described as ‘magnetism’ (1985: 135). Handy writes:

Aspects of magnetism, the unseen drawing-power of one individual, are found all the time. Trust, respect, charm, infectious enthusiasm, these attributes all allow us to influence people without apparently imposing on them. The invisibility of magnetism is a major attraction as is its attachment to one individual. (1985: 136)

Brooks himself used the very term ‘magnetism’ and described it as:

the quality that kindles at the sight of men, that feels a keen joy at the meeting of truth and the human mind, and recognizes how God made them for each other. It is the power by which a man loses himself and becomes but the sympathetic atmosphere between the truth on one side of him and the man on the other side of him. (1904: 42)

Excluding the gender specificity, Handy might have written in very similar terms. (Comparable thoughts, although using other nomenclature, can also be found, for example in Schein, 1992: 229; Zohar and Marshall, 2000: 259; and Nelson, 1999: 76). The significance of the personal charisma of the preacher is, perhaps, in the process of rehabilitation via business practices that readily recognize the importance of personal as well as systemic qualities in the effective functioning of organizations. With the support of such an appreciation, a contemporary homiletician, such as Day, can assert, without risking suspicion and disapprobation, that ‘the hope of the sermon lies in the authenticity of the preacher’ (1998: 147). As regards the maintenance of tradition as collective memory, the resurgence of individualized authority raises the question whether organizational structures within the churches are strong enough to prevent intentional or unintentional abuse of that corporate memory bearing responsibility.

5.2.2 The preacher as learner and as pastor.

Before leaving issues associated with personhood, two of Brooks’ themes regarding the preacher’s actions are worth considering since, again, they are things that continue to be widely discussed in the literature; namely, the preacher as learner and the preacher as pastor.

After considering the dangers to the preacher’s personality of self-conceit, over-concern with failure, self-indulgence, and narrowness, Brooks brings his second lecture to a close with a vigorous plea for what would now be called lifelong learning. He writes:

In [Christian ministry] … he who is faithful must go on learning more and more for ever. His growth in learning is all bound up with his growth in character. Nowhere else do the moral and intellectual so sympathize, and lose or gain together. The minister must grow. His true growth is not necessarily a change of views. It is a change of view. It is not revolution. It is progress. It is a continual climbing which opens continually wider prospects. It repeats the experience of Christ’s disciples, of whom their Lord was always making larger men and then giving them larger truth of which their enlarged natures had become capable. (1904: 70)

What Brooks’ discerned as an essential component of the preacher’s disposition has nowadays been widened to embrace all who claim to be faithful believers. Discipleship as lifelong learning is a concept in wide contemporary currency in the churches, and is discussed, for example, in documents such as the published strategies of the Church of England, the Methodist Church and the United Reformed Church for training, detailed in the reports Formation for Ministry within a Learning Church (2003) and Shaping the Future: New patterns of training for lay and ordained (2006). The notion of Christian leaders needing to be exemplars in this ongoing commitment to learning and personal growth figures in much of the literature on congregations and pastoral ministry, such as Mead (1994), Baumohl (1984), Hawkins (1997), and Anderson (1997); albeit these and numerous other authors, make it plain that the goal of such action is the enhancement of learning in the whole church. In the preaching literature, allied perspectives are expressed in such concepts as ‘local theology’ (Tisdale, 1997), ‘conversational preaching’ (Rose, 1997), ‘listening “to or with” sermon preparation’ (Van Harn, 2005), ’embodying the scriptures communally’ (Davis and Hays, 2003), and ‘interactive preaching’ (Hunter, 2004). Through these and other mechanisms, Brooks’ call for continuous learning on the part of the preacher finds its contemporary expression in practices that aim to widen that learning to include the whole body of people who are party to the sermon and the preacher’s and their own wider ministry. As Anderson puts it, ‘every act of ministry teaches something about God’ (1997: 8). That is a sentiment to which Brooks would have been sympathetic given his emphasis on the absolute core of preaching as the widest of concern for souls. Learning, in collective memory theory, is often associated with the changing of the meanings and understandings of memories, and the processes by which traditions are appropriated by individuals. As aspects of learning clearly related to relationships they echo contemporary concern in the church about ‘whole body’ learning.

In Brooks’ description of the preacher as pastor this analysis reaches very familiar territory, in that such a description probably remains the pre-eminent designation of the homiletician within the churches. Brooks’ thought on this matter was absolutely unequivocal:

The preacher needs to be pastor, that he may preach to real men. The pastor must be preacher, that he may keep the dignity of his work alive. The preacher, who is not a pastor, grows remote. The pastor, who is not a preacher, grows petty. Never be content to let men truthfully say of you, ‘He is a preacher, but no pastor;’ or, ‘He is a pastor, but no preacher.’ Be both; for you cannot really be one unless you also are the other. (1904: 77)

The conviction remains no less powerful more than a century after Brooks’ lectures: for example, Eric Devenport writing in 1986 could assert, without fear that his opinion would be controversial:

Preaching and pastoral work go hand in hand. This is one of those truths that has to be proclaimed time after time, for unless it is heard, then most preaching will not only be dull but dead. (in Hunter, 2004: 145)

Clearly, at different times and in different church structures, the nature of pastoral practice has been viewed in a variety of ways. Sometimes it has been mutual support in discipleship, and at other times psychotherapeutic intervention. In some circumstances it has been ad hoc care and conversation, and in others programmatic structures of community creation. Amongst these and many other activities, those who would preach have frequently seen such pastoral practice as a fundamental adjunct to the homiletic task. Although the influence of the problem centred preaching method of Henry Emerson Fosdick, mentioned above (section 2.5), has waned in recent decades, the notion that preaching must somehow relate to the felt life-concerns of those in the congregation is still the key to good practice for many preachers. Whether the emphasis is Tisdale’s (1997) preacher as the caretaker of local theology, Willimon’s (1979) or Long’s (1989) straightforward emphasis on the role of pastor, Pasquarello’s (2005) preaching as the development of communal wisdom, Buechner’s (1977) telling the truth in love, or Van Harn’s (2005) insistence on listening in preaching, the overarching perspective is that of pastoral care to individuals and groups. The tradition as collective memory must, in these circumstances, serve pastoral needs. Here the link to the presentist character of collective memory appears strong.

5.2.3 Preaching’s first purpose and the style appropriate to it. Returning to the issue of preaching as art.

From Brooks’ paramount concern with personhood and themes that flow from it, this discussion now turns to two other aspects of his lectures that remain significant concerns in homiletic literature: style of language, and preaching’s first purpose. In his emphasis on preaching as witness, Brooks made a distinction that continues to figure prominently in homiletic texts to this day: namely, the difference between preaching about Christ and preaching Christ (1904: 20). Preachers, Brooks insisted, should announce Christianity as a message and proclaim Christ as a Saviour not-discuss Christianity as a problem (1904: 21). He asserted:

Definers and defenders of the faith are always needed, but it is bad for a church when its ministers count it their true work to define and defend the faith rather than to preach the Gospel. Beware of the tendency to preach about Christianity, and try to preach Christ. (1904: 21)

This distinction continues to be vigorously promoted, particularly amongst the New Homiletic advocates of an inductive sermon methodology. From the distinction there comes an emphasis in sermonic style on a demonstrably engaging, emotionally affective, and inclusivist presentation, rather than a detached, analytical or objective stance. Brooks would have undoubtedly concurred with David Bartlett’s worries about sermon style that appears to make sin more interesting than grace, and ‘evil more lively than goodness’ (in Graves, 2004: 25). Bartlett suggests that sermons too often misdirect their hearers by putting active or abstract language and thoughts in the wrong places. He writes, ‘For the most part we show evil and then tell about goodness. We show judgment and then talk about the doctrine of mercy’ (in Graves, 2004: 25). Yet again, Brooks’ lectures were extraordinary prescient of a concern that has become commonplace these many years later.

Likewise, Brooks’ conviction that a sermon is essentially a tool and not an end in itself is also a perspective that continues to be vigorously debated (Brooks, 1904: 110). Unlike Browne (1958), Brooks was insistent that preaching is not an art form. He wrote:

The definition and immediate purpose which a sermon has set before it makes it impossible to consider it as a work of art, and every attempt to consider it so works injury to the purpose for which the sermon was created. Many of the ineffective sermons that are made owe their failure to a blind and fruitless effort to produce something which shall be a work of art, conforming to some type or pattern which is not clearly understood but is supposed to be essential and eternal. (1904: 109)

In many ways, Browne’s advocacy of the sermon as art-form (1958: 76) was a reaction to those who had taken Brooks’ evident pragmatism and utilitarianism as regards technique and turned it into a bald instructionalism that claimed too much for itself and was simply tedious. That was not Brooks’ intention, however, as his aim was an absolute focus on ‘the tumultuous eagerness of earnest purpose’ (1904: 110). His overriding concern was that sermons should engage and communicate in such a way as to affect and mark personalities at their most profound level. As such, his understanding of the nature of sermonic engagement serves the purposes of collective memory.

His objection to preaching as an art-form was the tendency he saw for art to be an end in itself-over concerned with pure forms and the abstractions of principles (see, for example, pages 110 and 267 of the 1904 edition). These many years later, art operates, and is applied within immensely diverse environments wholly unknown when Brooks lectured: so his criticism is, perhaps, no longer apposite. On the other hand, how far and in what ways artistic expression relates to and uses tradition is a question rather more vexed now than in Brooks’ day. The one aspect of artistic endeavour Brooks’ was willing to concede was art in the sense of an awesome appreciation of the mysteriousness of life. This was something Brooks regarded as an essential component of the preacher’s outlook, and was the reason for his advocacy of the preacher as, at least in some measure, a poet (1904: 262).

Preaching as art form brings to the forefront of homiletic awareness the sermon’s place in the imaginative construal of engaging gospel alternatives to commonplace understandings and outlooks. Collective memory theory suggests that affiliation to group identity is an essential element in the continuity of memory. What the emphasis on preaching as art form does is alert the preacher to the need to create in preaching that sense of engagement, creativity and exploration that aims beyond utilitarian instruction. Here, preaching is seen as genuinely performative. Like the repeated performances of a classic drama, a sermon hearer can become intensively engaged again and again with material that, although familiar, becomes in the engagement surprisingly new. Likewise the preacher as performer or artist, works with familiar texts in order to render then creatively new in a sermon. From both sides of the sermon event collective memory is supported via the performative interaction.

The discussion of art related issues in contemporary homiletic literature largely supports this assessment. Morris, in his Raising the Dead: The Art of the preacher as Public Performer, makes performance the guiding principle of all homiletics and insists that preaching should delight and enrich in ways similar to other mediums (1996: 19). Gilmore, in his Preaching as Theatre (1996) shares the same concern with performance, and designates preaching as a dramatic event that happens. He writes:

As long as preaching is seen as lecturing or teaching, then, in order for it to be effective, listeners have to go away and do something about it. If it is art, they don’t. By the time it is over something has happened, or has failed to happen. This is what makes preaching as an art distinctive, more exciting and satisfying when it works, more depressing and worrying when it doesn’t. (1996: 7)

Other homileticians are a little more reserved and tend to use the idea of art or artistic endeavour as but one tool the preacher can employ. For example, in Allen (1998), the appreciation of works of art and artistic frames for sermons are advocated as ways to create spheres of perception i


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