4 Collaborative Preaching: God’s Empowering Word

John S. McClure

For those of you who don’t know, I am a proponent of what I call collaborative preaching. I do not assume that this is the only way to engage in a theologically sound pulpit ministry – but I do hold that it is a form of pulpit ministry that is timely and can be a significant empowering ministry in churches who take lay involvement and participation in the Church seriously. I will return to describe what I mean by collaborative preaching later, and tomorrow.

Let me give you a brief summary definition of collaborative preaching to tide you over: The word “collaboration,” of course, means “working together.” Collaborative preaching is a form of preaching in which homilist and hearer work together in a group (the sermon roundtable) to establish and interpret topics for preaching. They also decide together what the practical results of those interpretations might be for the congregation. The homilist then goes into the pulpit and re-presents the dynamics of this collaborative conversation in the sermon.

The title for my lecture tonight is “Collaborative Preaching: God’s Empowering Word.” Empowerment is one of those words that we hear all the time these days, yet I am never quite sure that we know what it means, or why it is important for the Church and its ministry. One of the most useful definitions of empowerment that I have found is in the work of an old friend of many of us, Rollo May. According to May, empowerment includes two kinds of power: nutritive power (power for others), and integrative power (power with others).[1]

Nutritive power is nutritious, it feeds power to others, by giving it away. It is power for others, shared power, power that has the other person’s well-being in mind, power that is undergirded by love. Nutritive empowerment includes all the ways that leaders invite or permit others to assume responsibility for the direction of their own lives and to assume leadership roles themselves. It is all the ways a leader includes followers in an active role in the interpretation of their situation and in making decisions about the future.

I will say more about nutritive empowerment at the end of this lecture, because to my way of thinking, nutritive power (power for others) is the means or pathway to integrative power (power with others). Tonight, however, I want to concentrate first on integrative empowerment in ministry. Then I want to move on to consider how nutritive power provides a pathway to integrative empowerment in our churches.

First, integrative empowerment. Simply put, integrative empowerment is power with others. It is generated when people are integrated with one another. Integrative empowerment is sparked when spiritual conversations, connections and alliances are formed between persons or communities that are, in reality, very different from one another. Integrative empowerment includes all the ways that a leader connects people within one community or between communities.

In our generation, integrative empowerment requires that we develop a “public theology” for preaching.

A Public Theology for Preaching

Public theologians assert that the central task of the Christian ministry in the late modern period is to “resist the gravitational pull of privatization”[2] that has gripped the churches, and to re connect the Gospel message with the public realm. According to Parker Palmer, the word “public” is a metaphor for the “ebb and flow of the company of strangers, which happens in relatively unstructured and disorderly ways: on the city streets, in parks and squares, at festivals and rallies, and shopping malls, neighborhoods and voluntary associations.”[3]

Public life is a “messy middle layer” between formal social or political institutions (such as the government) and the private realm (of family and friends) “from which the stranger qua stranger is excluded.”[4]

Philosopher of communication Jurgen Habermas speaks about this realm of the public as “the lifeworld.” According to Habermas, in our world today, this “lifeworld” is being squeezed from two sides. On one side is what he calls the “system” (of exchange/money, media, and corporate and political institutions). On the other side is the private realm – the ever-expanding cult of the individual, accumulation and the closed family.

The communicative goal of voluntary organizations like the Church, therefore, is to wage a war for this messy middle layer – strengthening it so that community is not lost, and so the “system” can once again become a servant, rather than our master.

According to Palmer, we cannot be spiritually alive as Christians unless we venture forth into the public realm and encounter the “strangers” who live there. The stranger is the other who presents us with what Edward Farley calls the “mysterious presence of something which contests my projecting meanings on it, an unforeseeable depth which … cannot be cognitively or emotionally mastered.”[5]

Theologically, the stranger represents both the Holy Other and the human other: the dual foci of the great commandment. As Christians, we are commanded to love God, the Holy Other, who is the ground of all love and justice. We are likewise commanded to love neighbor, the human other, whose vulnerability invites us beyond ourselves into the realm of compassion, suffering and responsibility.[6]

Patrick Keifert identifies three ways to think of the stranger in relation to the Church: 1) as the outsiders who come from beyond the Church itself; 2) as “inside strangers” who “remain outside the intimate group that usually makes up most of the leadership in a congregation”; and 3) as a description of “the irreducible difference between two persons that exist in any encounter.”[7]

When I use the word “stranger,” therefore, do not assume that I am speaking of persons who represent some exotic form of experience or behavior. I am simply re-conceptualizing the way we think about the people all around us, in the Church and beyond. The realm of the stranger is one step beyond the realm of identification. Once we cease to assume that we can identify with the person sitting next to us, or the person we think we know so well, and once we learn not to project our own meanings or expectations onto them, then we enter into that uncharted territory where they might instruct us as strangers.

Strangers are all around us, in the pews next to us and beyond the sanctuary doors. There’s Martha who, age 68 and childless, battles loneliness. There’s Susan, a lesbian, who wonders what to do with her sexuality in both culture and Church. There’s Bill, a busy lawyer, who is often angry and suffers under the oppressive weight of the upper middle class rat race.

There’s Clara, a heavy smoker dying from lung cancer, living in fear and denial because her family owns part of a huge tobacco interest. There’s Bob, a missionary, who sometimes wonders if what he does really makes a difference. There’s Jenny, a 7-year-old, who feels a great love for God and who wants to give more to the Church and to the poor. There’s Carol, a single parent of three children, struggling at the bottom of the pay scale. And there are many, many others in the church and in the community around us.

To ask these people what kinds of interpretive spins they put on the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to embark on an adventure in the public realm. If we ask what in particular they see in the Gospel that is meaningful for their lives, we will hear all kinds of things, some of which will seem to us to be heretical.

Yet, if we dare to involve these diverse folk in a roundtable process through which they are invited to wrestle with the Scripture, theology and confessions of the Church, and are expected to come to terms with the Gospel and with each other, we will create an opportunity for a preachable Word to emerge that may bind the Church and the world together in solidarity and hope.

This is the adventure that follows when we take the discernment of the Word of God out of the private realms of the pastor’s study and the devotional closet into the public arena, where strangers within and beyond the Church hold us accountable to the unique reality and particularity of their own spiritual experience.

There are at least two usual ways to miss out on this adventure in the public realm. One way is to “try to gain enough power to enforce our own standards on the alien experience.”[8] According to Palmer, “(this) takes the form of religious institutions and hierarchies controlling the definition of ‘orthodoxy’ and suppressing all signs of ‘heresy.’”[9] Homiletically, it takes the form of preaching in which a clerical elite rehearses timeless exegetical pearls of wisdom and dated doctrine, or repeats platitudes and formulas that are supposed to have magical efficacy.

The second way to miss out on this adventure in the public realm is to create and fortify something called a “private life.”[10] Palmer asserts that “instead of encountering, engaging, and growing from the diversity within and outside us, we have tried to avoid it altogether by building high walls of privatism.”[11] Congregational life is given over to what Richard Sennett calls the “ideology of intimacy,”[12] the idea that “the purpose of human life is the fullest development of one’s individual personality, which can take place only within … intimate relationships.”[13]

When this is the case, worship and preaching tend to go in one of two different directions. The first direction is toward anonymity and bureaucratization. Worship becomes either an aesthetic or entertainment experience in which one simultaneously is left alone in one’s private world and is engaged by a constant barrage of entertaining or aesthetic stimuli. Sermons resemble after-dinner speeches that entertain us, or they become moments of highly crafted aesthetic or oratorical wonder. This is worship controlled by the metaphor of the home theatre.

At the other end of the continuum, worship and preaching become attempts to recreate the private sphere in what Mark Searle calls “the psuedo-family atmosphere cultivated by suburban fellowshipping. Worship becomes what Robert Bellah calls a ‘life style enclave.’[14] Preaching will usually be folksy and intimate in style, with an abundance of storytelling and heart-rending self disclosure by the preacher. This is worship controlled by the metaphor of “family” as “folks like us.”

Throughout such worship and preaching, God is usually fairly domesticated. To use Palmer’s language:

God is made an inmate of the private realm. Gone is the strangeness of God, the wild and alien quality of holiness that was so well known to primal peoples (witness the Hebrew Bible). In its place is an image of God as a member of the church family circle. God is like a kind and comfortable old friend, a God who comforts and consoles us – and even reinforces our prejudices – but in no way challenges or stretches our lives.[15]

Unwittingly, many churches create a private realm in which neither the human stranger nor the strangeness of God has any place, a den of comfort in which parishioners can remain anonymous and not have to encounter anything that is strange or alien.

Kiefert points out how the stranger was very important to the worship and preaching of Israel.[16] Worship was not a human device to hold God or others at bay; worship was a gift from God of God’s self. This gift was offered in both the preaching and the worship of the people of God and was available to all. The stranger was invited to worship, and the needs and hopes of the stranger filled the preaching that guided the people of God in their journey away from sectarianism and nationalism toward becoming a truly universal faith.

From the three mysterious strangers who visited Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18:1-21), to the centurion who begged Jesus to heal his slave (Luke 7:1-10), to the woman who anointed Jesus’ feet with her tears (Luke 7:36-50), to the stranger who broke bread with the disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35), the Biblical testimony reminds us over and over that strangers “may be God’s special envoys to bless or challenge us.”[17] The history of the Church’s mission is a testimony to the many ways that people of other nationalities, cultures and experiences re-interpret the Gospel so that the message comes alive in new, life-giving ways.

The reality of the stranger in our midst, therefore, anticipates a Church not yet revealed and becomes for us today a symbol of the next generation of believers, those who do not know the limitations of this generation’s rituals and creeds. All these new believers know is that there has been a Word of hope spoken in the wilderness and that perhaps they can share in the discernment and articulation of this Word in this day and age. This will only happen, however, if the Church dares again to reach across its carefully defined boundaries and welcome these strangers into conversation.

Preaching that Empowers

We now turn to the question: How can preaching express integrative power? Recent attempts to develop public theologies suggest several commitments that preachers must have if they are to form deeper alliances of spiritual power within the community of faith and between the community of faith and the world in which we live.

First, we must attempt in our preaching to re-connect the private realm and the public realm. We must strive to take ourselves and those around us who have become satisfied with living cloistered lives of religious and personal self-protection and enter into some form of teaching-learning encounter with the strangers both within the church and just beyond the walls of the church building. We must seek out the unique, strange and sometimes bizarre interpretations of the Gospel that are around us in our culture, in the minds and hearts of good church people, and latent within the recesses of our own lives, and come to terms with these in the pulpit.

We do not do this in order to appear contemporary and inclusive, to develop market-driven leadership strategies, or to make preaching more relevant. We do it because we believe that the Word of God becomes known when real people, who are in reality more different than they are alike, strive to discern and express their solidarity in Christ. We do this in order to cultivate within the theological imagination of our Christian communities an understanding of the other, the stranger, as the potential bearer of wisdom and insight, rather than the bearer of threatening values.

Second, we must cultivate in our worship and preaching a sense that our proclamation of the redemptive work of Christ is in continuity with the creative Word of God, the Word that created and breathed life into the world. John Calvin, in Book I of the Institutes of the Christian Religion, asserts that the Scriptural testimony to God’s revelation in Jesus Christ is a “help … to direct us aright to the very Creator of the universe.”[18]

Like a pair of “spectacles,” biblical revelation helps us see clearly the hand of God at work redemptively in the world.[19] In the same way, Roman Catholic scholar Karl Rahner has pointed out how Christian worship is the redemptive culmination of the “liturgy of the world and its history.”[20] Our preaching must never proclaim Christ as if Christ’s redemptive work related only to a selective history of salvation. Our homiletical imaginations must become large enough to embrace the relatively chaotic depths of both the inner life and the public life.

In order to accomplish this, the focus of preaching must move from the center of the Christian community to its margins, from the pastor’s study to the sanctuary door. The preacher must stand at the boundary of the community, at the place where its cultural linguistic mythos is being challenged and assailed by the often silenced voices of strangers and of the “God beyond the gods.” Such preaching struggles to discern what the redemptive power of Christ is in this one world and in this one history.

Third, we must preach in such a way that the Church becomes a community of both ecclesial and public memory. Not only should our preaching remember and celebrate the history of the Church and the history of a particular congregation, but also we must remember especially the things that our culture and Church of privatism tend to forget.[21]

Christine Smith, in her book, Preaching as Weeping, Confession and Resistance,[22] encourages the preacher to remember the radical equality of all human beings before God. She invites preachers to remember the disabled, the sick, the aged, the dying, the abused, the unsuccessful, and all who have been relegated to the margins by our society.

We must cultivate in our preaching what Elaine Ramshaw calls a “critical memory.” This means that we must work to recall the history, not of the conquerors, in order to display power and protect the status quo, but of the oppressed, the marginalized and the everyday saints, in order that all may find themselves present in the way that we narrate the story of God’s saving activity in Jesus Christ.

Nutritive and Integrative Power Together

The pathway to integrative power runs through nutritive power. I do not want it to sound as if I want to encourage preachers to stand on platforms and harangue congregations for being victims of privatization, pleading with them to become “prophets like me.” Neither do we need to sneak up behind parishioners with stories or parables in which the congregation consistently wears the “bad guy” hat of social alienation and privatization.

Instead, we must place preaching into a larger process in which we slowly pry open the private realm by placing people face to face with each other in a context in which otherness, rather than homogeneity, is valued and taken seriously. My desire with collaborative preaching is to help to re-create congregations as learning communities where Christians share power and permit themselves to be instructed by each other’s differences.

The only way to accomplish this is to include others in the theological interpretation of their situation and in making decisions about their own future. This requires that we take a good hard look at how we prepare and preach sermons and how we lead our congregations. We have to examine carefully the hidden curricula in our governance, programs, worship and preaching.

We must ask methodological, rhetorical and communicational questions. We must look at the relationship between our preaching style and our leadership style. Alfred North Whitehead reminds us that “style” is “the fashioning of power.”[23]

Is there a style of preaching that is appropriate to express the kind of nutritive power that supports and fosters integrative power? I believe that there is. I call it collaborative preaching.[24] Let me project a hypothetical scenario that will suggest what I mean by collaborative preaching.

What if preachers saw themselves as parish-based “hosts” like Barnabas or Lydia, or Philologus and Julia, rather than as itinerant prophets like Jesus or the apostle Paul? What if preachers put together sermon brainstorming groups that would meet weekly to engage in critical roundtable conversation about the biblical text for Sunday morning? What if this group not only included the usual always-involved church members but also part-timers, folk on the margins of the community, missionaries on furlough, even members of the surrounding community?

What if this group changed regularly, with five members rotating on and five members off every two months or so, so that within a couple of years, in the average-sized congregation, a hundred or so members would have had the chance to be involved? What if the names of those in the group were printed in the bulletin on Sunday morning in order to foster feedback and accountability?

What if this group were given a leading role in helping the preacher to study the Bible, establish topics to preach, interpret these topics and decide what the congregation could do in light of these interpretations? What if the dynamics of their conversation were described or imitated from the pulpit on Sunday morning, so that the entire congregation was “let in” on this ongoing conversation?

Would this kind of collaborative process help the pulpit ministry empower members of a congregation to stand with others (integrative power) at the same time that it expressed power for others (nutritive power)? I believe that it would.

Collaborative preaching is not a new idea. It has been suggested, even tried, by well-respected homileticians and pastors for at least 40 years.[25]25 But only recently has it been explored theologically, homiletically and practically as a viable, ongoing form of pulpit ministry. It is my belief that collaborative preaching may be one important road to travel in our quest for a way of preaching that actually empowers others to become the church of Jesus Christ.

I have chosen in this lecture to accentuate one theological trajectory for collaborative preaching – its ability to empower congregations – to welcome the strangers in our midst into the fullness of liturgical, homiletic and congregational participation, to connect us with the “public” in our midst and beyond our church doors, and to share power and authority in interpreting our mission.

Let me mention briefly six other benefits of collaborative preaching.

First, it dramatically increases biblical literacy in local congregations. In essence, the method puts together inductive Bible study and preaching. In order to teach collaborative preaching, I have to spend as much time teaching my students how to lead Bible studies as I do teaching them how to prepare sermons that “listen” to what happens in Bible studies.

Through collaborative preaching, laity learn the Bible, and they learn what the Bible is for – i.e. proclaiming the good news to our generation. Laity are also empowered as interpreters of the Bible for their own daily lives. No longer do they feel that they need “experts” on hand in order to read the Bible devotionally. If you couple this practice with the use of the lectionary to set the text each week, then your congregation will learn even more.

Second, collaborative preaching teaches congregations what preaching is, and what it is for. Lay participants say things like: “I never realized that so much Bible study went into preaching.” Or, “Now I know how important preaching is.” Collaborative preaching tends to up the ante of appreciation for preaching and to make better listeners out of our congregations.

Third, collaborative preaching closes the gap between preaching and the real lives of hearers. Fulfilled in Your Hearing: The Homily in the Sunday Assembly, (approved by the Bishop’s Committee on Priestly Life and Ministry, National Conference of Catholic Bishops), states that “the preacher provides the congregation of the faithful with words to express their faith, and with words to express the human realities to which this faith responds.” (6) Furthermore, “the preacher represents the community by voicing its concerns, naming its demons, and thus enabling it to gain some understanding and control of the evil which afflicts it.” (7)

Collaborative preaching does not assume that preachers can do this enormous task simply by “identifying” with hearers. The range and breadth of human life and of the demonic in human life requires a careful exegesis of human life and the demonic in this place and time. In our socially diverse context today, it is more likely that we, as preachers, cannot identify with our hearers – and so we must ask them about their lives and about their afflictions.

Also, collaborative preaching groups, as I envision them, must move toward tentative decisions for forms of practice in their own lives and in and for the congregation as a whole. Preaching, then, becomes embedded in the lives and practices of living out the faith that actually exists in a particular local congregation.

Fourth, collaborative preaching acknowledges the influence of social location on biblical interpretation. It makes a difference whether I interpret the crucifixion while sitting in my study or office, or if I do it while sitting with a group of people at the mall, or in someone’s home or, perhaps, in a shelter for battered women. Even moving from the pastor’s study to the youth room will make a tremendous difference.

Fifth, collaborative preaching teaches the preacher the humble practice of generosity as the priest’s first movement in all relationships with laity. Fundamental to this method is learning how to put generosity before suspicion when engaged in theological and spiritual conversations with laity. Priests must learn to bring all of their learning in seminary in under the fledgling interpretations of laity first! Then they will invite the community to critique and discern itself second. And only last will the priest wade into the waters of didactic communication.

Finally, collaborative preaching symbolizes that leadership in a particular congregation is collaborative in the first instance. Without precluding the need for sovereign and consultative leadership styles in certain circumstances, collaborative preaching symbolizes, from the center of liturgical practice, that participation in leadership in this congregation is welcomed – indeed, expected, and that an ecclesiology of the Church’s sacramentality is taken seriously.

Having shared with you tonight what collaborative preaching is, and my convictions about why it is important, theologically and ethically, tomorrow I will walk you through the process of how to get and prepare a collaborative sermon. I hope that you will come back for more!

  1. Regina Coll CSJ, “Power, Powerlessness and Empowerment,” Religious Education 81, no. 3, (Summer ‘86): 417.
  2. “A Spirituality of Public Life” in Parker Palmer, Barbara G. Wheeler, and James W. Fowler, (eds.), Caring for the Commonweal: Education for Religious and Public Life (Mercer University Press, 1990), 159.
  3. Ibid., 152.
  4. Ibid., 152-3.
  5. Good and Evil, Interpreting a Human Condition (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Press, 1990), 39.
  6. Farley, Good and Evil, 41-42.
  7. Welcoming the Stranger: A Public Theology of Worship and Evangelism (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992), 8-9.
  8. Palmer, “Spirituality,” 155.
  9. Ibid.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Ibid.
  12. The Fall of Public Man (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977), 259.
  13. Kiefert, Welcoming the Stranger, 24.
  14. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 72ff., quoted in Ibid., 34.
  15. “Spirituality,” 158.
  16. Welcoming the Stranger, 57ff.
  17. John Koenig, New Testament Hospitality: Partnership with Strangers as Promise and Mission (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1985), 3.
  18. ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. XX (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1975), 69.
  19. Ibid., 70.
  20. “Secular Life and the Sacraments,” The Tablet (6 March, 1971) 236-38; (13 March, 1971) 267-68. Quoted in Searle, “Private Religion,” 41.
  21. Ibid., 42-3.
  22. (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1992).
  23. The Aims of Education (New York: The Free Press, 1967), 12.
  24. See my forthcoming book entitled: The Roundtable Pulpit: Collaborative Preaching and Congregational Leadership (Nashville: Abingdon Press, summer, 1995).
  25. In the 1963 Lyman Beecher lectures entitled Parish Back Talk, (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1964), 76-82, Browne Barr advocated a “sermon seminar” to assist the preacher in sermon preparation. Later, in The Ministering Congregation, (Philadelphia: United Church Press, 1972), 75-82, he and co pastor Mary Eakin described how the sermon seminar could become an integral part of an entire program of lay ministry. Homiletician John Killinger saw collaborative sermon preparation as a way to recover congregational interest in preaching. Listen to the cassette tape series by John Killinger entitled: “How to Enrich Your Preaching: An Eight-Session Cassette Course for Individual or Group Use” (Nashville: Abingdon Press, Abingdon Audio Graphics, 1975). Collaborative models were also suggested by theoreticians of parish dialogue such as Ruel Howe and Clyde Reid. See Ruel L. Howe, The Miracle of Dialogue (New York: The Seabury Press, 1963), and Clyde. H. Reid, “Preaching and the Nature of Communication,” Pastoral Psychology 14 (1963), 40-49. More recently, Don Wardlaw has identified collaboration as a way to help the preacher correlate today’s social context with the ancient social context of biblical passages. See “Preaching as the Interface of Two Social Worlds: The Congregation as Corporate Agent in the Act of Preaching,” Arthur Van Seters (ed.), Preaching as a Social Act: Theology and Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1988), 55-93. Pamela Ann Moeller, in her book entitled A Kinesthetic Homiletic: Embodying Gospel in Preaching (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1993), 21, includes corporate sermon preparation as an integral part of her performative homiletic.