I confirm that this work is the result of my own independent work/investigation and that it has not been submitted towards any other academic award at Spurgeonís College or at any other institution.
In the light of what you have studied in this module, develop and defend your theology of preaching.
There is an understandable tendency for Christians to claim universal relevance or validity for something that is in reality far more limited and local. I have struggled to know what to call the subject of this essay: it is not simply 'preaching' as this would include talks given (for example) by Moslem clerics and Government ministers, while to call it 'Christian preaching' would claim a knowledge and understanding of other languages, cultures and denominations I do not possess.
My inadequate solution has been to call it 'graceful preaching' - a term which refers both to a central theme of Christian preaching, and to a particular approach and style that, I believe, transcends cultural and linguistic barriers. But the content has been taken almost entirely from Protestant books and sermons in English, so I apologise in advance for this limited perspective.
I come to this module with a set of experiences and expectations, which have made it difficult to engage with the material presented in the Study Week and books as fully as I had hoped. Overall, the material addressed a much smaller set of activities than I had anticipated, the Bible was used far less, and the advice being offered was much more prescriptive.
I have been teaching others how to preach in a variety of contexts for some twenty-five years, very conscious for most of this time that I had no formal training in the discipline myself. But during this period, I have been identifying and analysing techniques, formulating principles and searching for key issues and questions to keep in mind while preparing, preaching and reviewing sermons.
Consequently, the two parts of this essay topic are effectively in conflict with each other: I can easily "develop and defend" my theology of preaching, but when I write about my theology of preaching "in the light of what [I] have studied in this module" the result is mostly either trivial and uninteresting ("I agree with this author when he says...") or confrontational ("I think this author is far too dogmatic when he claims...").
Which is not to say that I have learned nothing useful during the course of this module: many of the authors have made very helpful points about individual techniques and aspects of the preaching process (although, sadly, little has been said about evaluation in the material I have looked at), but the help has been with the practice of preaching rather than the theology; and this essay is concerned only with the theology.
I believe that preaching is much more than sermonising, and that valid and important preaching can take place outside scheduled church services. Yet this seems barely recognised, and frequently contradicted by most authors. Barth summarises the common position well when he describes the "church as the place of preaching" as his second "constitutive element" of preaching [1991: 43], and when he says: "The sermon is a liturgical event. It is the central act of Protestant worship, closely related to the sacrament" [1991: 119]. His point about the role of the sermon in worship is surely correct, but he ignores the possibility of a sermon being preached in any other context.
In the course of my work, I am frequently called upon to give short and spontaneous talks, answering questions such as "What happens to us after death?" and "Why did God kill my mother?" I would like to understand why people such as Barth do not consider this to be preaching.
When I do an evangelistic address with a sketchboard, it seems to those in my team that we are preaching the gospel. Certainly, we call the activity 'preaching'; yet much of the instructions and advice in the books are either irrelevant or counter-productive in this context - preaching to people who do not know the Bible, or believe it to have any authority or relevance must result in a vastly different sermon from one given to a church congregation, even when the subject matter is identical.
To be fair, many authors make passing mention of preaching outside the church service. For example, "preaching... takes place... on street corners, in prisons and hospitals... Preaching in church and preaching in the world are not fundamentally different kinds of preaching, but different settings for the same activity of bearing witness to Christ" [Long, 1989: 47], but this recognition seems to make very little difference to the subsequent discussion of preaching.
One major surprise of this module was the lack of reference to the Bible. Some authors were very insistent that preaching has to be based on a Biblical text, but apart from using the Bible as source material, it seemed to be largely ignored. In addressing questions such as 'What is preaching?' 'Who should preach?' and 'How do you preach a good sermon?' other (mainly contemporary) authors were quoted and contemporary studies and social trends were referred to, but little interest was shown in the Bible or more traditional sources of instruction.
A notable exception to this trend is Stott, who regularly refers to former generations of preachers and writers on preaching, devotes a whole chapter to the 'Theological Foundations for Preaching' [1982: 92-134], and goes on to use the Bible to answer the question "exactly what is preaching?" [p. 135]. But even he goes on to ignore the Bible most of the time: for example, in the discussion of ways to structure a sermon [pp. 228-231] there is no attempt to examine the structure of Biblical sermons.
Most of the material being presented was either descriptive ("Afro-American preachers often use these techniques...") or prescriptive ("this is how to construct and preach a good sermon..."). A great deal of this was interesting, but not particularly useful at the theological level.
On the whole, I expected more functional descriptions than I found ("the key elements of this technique are..."), but - more importantly - I was looking for new possibilities (faced with this situation, you could try using one of these techniques), and helpful analysis (these are the strengths and weaknesses of this approach as opposed to that one).
I understand many of the prescriptive elements of the material ("a good sermon looks like this"; "you must always do such-and-such") are not about preaching as such, but about preaching a sermon of a particular type or preaching a sermon in a particular context - contrary to the written claims of the authors, but not, I suspect, contrary to their actual beliefs.
Of course, the multiplicity of voices all telling us how to preach would not be a problem if all the advice and instructions could be applied simultaneously. But, in general, the requirements of one approach make it impossible to follow the instructions of another.
The question of monologue sermons is a good example of the limitations imposed by these prescriptive approaches. Few mainstream authors are prepared to consider anything other than monologue forms of the sermon (despite many examples to the contrary in the Bible). I have preached several interactive sermons along the lines suggested by Murray [2004?], and both the preparations and delivery are significantly different from anything described by Craddock, Stott or Wilson, or summarised by Eslinger.
When considering the theology of preaching - or the theology of anything else, for that matter - my first question is "what does the Bible say on the subject?" While the Bible does not explicitly deal with preaching as a subject, it does touch on the subject of preaching in many passages: there is much evidence of preaching in both the Old and New Testaments, and many references to both the practice of preaching and the content of sermons.
The early Christian writings also contain a great deal of similar material, which, as always, must be considered highly significant, even if it is only of secondary importance.
All of this evidence must be considered in context, and there are many different aspects of the context to bear in mind: the authenticity and reliability of the documents that have been preserved, either in whole or in part; the theories we have concerning how these documents were composed; why and how they were preserved; how they were selected/recognised as canonical or not; the cultural expectations (both Jewish and Greek) concerning preaching and related activities; the various meanings of the relevant words used in the original documents; the beliefs, motivation and inspiration of the early preachers; the beliefs and expectations of the people they preached to; and so on. And, of course, the same issues are raised when considering the OT background.
Wright summarises the essential disciplines required for studying the NT as "literature, history and theology" [Wright, 1992: 31], to which I would add philosophy: as he recognises [p. 32], you cannot make progress in these fields without at least an implicit epistemology, and various other areas of philosophy also provide an essential backdrop. For example, any consideration of the meaning of words must draw in some part on the work of people such as Russell and Wittgenstein.
We do not have time to consider all these areas, even briefly. So I will unpack just one of these areas to give an indication of the sort of ground I would wish to cover.
If we are to understand what preaching was understood to be in the NT, we have to consider not only kerysso- (to announce, make known, proclaim) and its various forms, but also numerous other related words. Brown [1978: 44-68] lists didasko- and kate-cheo- (the communication of material to be learned), paradido-mi (the passing on of tradition), gno-rizo- (to make known), martyria (to bear witness), homologeo- (to confess) and angello- (to announce). To these, we should probably add at least peitho- (to persuade) and dialegomai (to discuss).
I find it illuminating that in classical literature, the noun, ke-ryx, is generally translated as 'herald' rather than 'preacher': it is a man "commissioned by his ruler of state to call out with a clear voice some item of news" [p. 48]. The noun appears only three times in the NT, the authors of which prefer to use the verb. Again, from Brown, "it is not the institution or the person to which importance is attached, but only the effective act of proclamation" [p. 52].
This is not to diminish the importance of preaching, but it does provide a counter-balance to some of the traditional Protestant rhetoric about the importance of the preacher - to quote one example by the Reverend Horne in the 1914 Beecher Lectures on Preaching: "The preacher, who is the messenger of God, is the real master of society" [Stott, 1982: 38].
Everyone defines preaching in their own way, and can find valid reasons for criticising the definitions of other people. Barth provides a helpful discussion of some definitions, and draws from them nine "constitutive elements" [Barth, 1991: 43], while Long identifies just four: congregation, preacher, sermon and the presence of Christ [Long, 1989: 22-23].
My personal definition is that preaching is an event in which God meets people, for the purpose of changing them, through a talk given by an individual.
However, this avoids at least one basic question: what is preaching about? Why do people preach? Long helpfully distinguishes between the Herald, the Pastor, and the Storyteller [1989: 23-41]. He recognises [p. 36] that the first two categories describe the preacher, while the third describes the preaching. My personal preference is to distinguish between a number of styles (which would include categories such as storytelling, exposition and application-focussed), and motivations.
It seems to be self-evident (and perfectly valid) that different people preach for different reasons. Each of the five 'Ephesians 4' ministries will have a different perspective on what to preach and how to preach it. Using these categories, the Barthian 'Herald' naturally translates (both linguistically and functionally) into Apostolic preaching.
The Apostle, Prophet, Evangelist, Pastor and Teacher all preach, and I have heard each of them give excellent sermons. I have also heard perfectly good sermons denounced as useless because they did not live up to certain expectations - one of my former ministers was heard to say "That wasn't really a sermon: it was only teaching."
If my understanding is correct on this point, then it is not possible for Wilson, or anyone else, to provide a single 'guide' to Biblical preaching. No one approach will work, for example, for both the Evangelist and the Teacher. The purpose behind their preaching, while it is united in many ways, is radically different, and thus the preparation, structure and delivery will all be different.
Why is preaching important? On one level, it is self-evidently important in the NT: Jesus preached and the Apostles preached. It had a high priority for them; so, in the absence of any instruction to the contrary, it should have a high priority for us.
I do not wish to explore here the question of why preaching is important: many people have given many reasons, and any response to the wealth of material on this would take far too much space. In any case, there is no necessity for us to explore why preaching is important, as the answers to this question are in essence only speculation.
My basic metaphor of graceful preaching is a place of meeting; my basic understanding of how God meets people is: He does it through incarnation.
God meets the preacher in the process of preparation - in the study, the pastoral conversations, the life experiences, and all the other factors that feed both consciously and unconsciously into the sermon. God is also present in the preacher, directing and interpreting the study and experience, and in preparing and delivering the sermon.
God meets the congregation in the delivery of the sermon. I am sure every preacher has been humbled by grateful thanks for a point that was never uttered: this (at least sometimes) is surely evidence of God using the sermon to speak to an individual in a way that transcends the limitations of the preacher.
We do not need to explore and understand all the ways in which God meets the preacher and the congregation: at the heart of incarnation is a mystery we cannot penetrate. The key point is that God is present; all else flows from that.
However, we must identify a cognitive component to this meeting: when God speaks, He communicates ideas. The beliefs of people change, and hence their actions change. But our beliefs are much wider than our doctrines: we each hold a worldview, which is far deeper and more encompassing than the issues we usually consider when preaching or teaching Christian doctrine. Orthodox Christian doctrine depends, in part, on holding a suitable worldview.
Craddock talks about interpreting both the text and the congregation [1985: 85]. In my view, neither of these is central. God is present, and He wants to transform people into children of the Kingdom: people who are experiencing the Kingdom, living according to Kingdom values and insights, and demonstrating the reality of the Kingdom to others.
The purpose of preaching can be seen as facilitating change in people: from being out of relationship to in a relationship with God, from being out of line with His Kingdom into alignment with His Kingdom.
One vital attribute of any sermon is structure. I agree with W E Sangster that a sermon "can be without form and - such is the grace of God - not utterly void", but such an event "borders on the miraculous" [Stott, 1982: 229].
I also agree with Stott on the value of starting the sermon "where people are, rather than where we hope to take them" [1982: 244-245]. I find the argument by Wilson [1999: 73-74] that the "first page of the sermon" should be about "trouble in the Bible" bewildering: he seems to confuse sermon preparation with delivery. A contrary view is that beginning the sermon on that 'page' can be seen as implicitly telling the congregation that the sermon will be of academic interest and relevant only to Bible scholars. Most Christians do not lie awake at nights worrying about passages of scripture, so addressing such concerns is not a good way to help them engage.
However, starting from where people are is not the same as addressing a pressing concern right from the outset. A common approach I often use with evangelical congregations is to get them to agree with some statement (often a Bible text) or identify with a value (again, often taken from the Bible text) and then introduce some difficulty in applying this to real life.
Many structures are possible. Craddock lists some of them [1985: 177], and most of them - perhaps all - can be used when starting from a difficulty or problem. What matters is that the structure helps the congregation hear and understand the message.
Christian preaching can never be a mechanical process. Beyond any human activity, we rely on the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit: "It is God who fashions words into the Word" [Craddock, 1985: 19], Who must be acting at every stage in the process if His desire and purpose is to be fulfilled.
So preaching must be seen as a partnership between man and God. If the preacher takes a risk in standing in front of people to proclaim the Word, it is also the case that God takes a risk every time He allows a man to stand up in His name: God "takes the risk that his word will be tainted when it comes through my life. He takes the risk that it will be tainted by my weaknesses, by the residue of sin in my life" [Ulmer, Winter 2003: 86].
I have heard preachers talk about their 'call' to preach, but people understand this call in a variety of ways. It seems possible that preaching is, or can be, all of the following: a job God gives you, a supernatural gift God gives you, a natural gift God gives you and a skill you can develop.
Preaching may be helpfully compared with singing. Both may be undertaken to the glory of God. Some people do it for a living, and some as amateurs. Some people have a greater natural gift than others, but all benefit from training.
A key question concerns how God appoints some people to preach. Whatever happens spiritually within the individual, in practice, the mechanism is dependent on the systems and structures in place within the congregation and denomination.
It is likely that different understandings of the nature of church and ministry will lead to different people being selected to preach and different styles of preaching being encouraged. There is a recognisable difference between a typical sermon given (for example) in an Anglican, Baptist and Pentecostal church, which goes far beyond any difference in their theological and ecclesiological positions. It would be interesting to research these differences.
I am left with a number of questions that require further exploration. Some questions are probably self-evident, such as how you understand the text, and how you know what God wants to say to this congregation on this occasion. I will concentrate here on the questions that seem to be the more interesting ones from the perspective of this essay.
Preaching takes place in many contexts. How does the context shape and determine the style and content? An evangelistic sermon delivered within the context of Sunday morning worship is very different from an evangelistic sermon delivered on a street corner.
Interestingly, despite the number of sermons we have in the Bible, there is no example of a sermon preached by a Pastor to his flock meeting regularly as a congregation, so there is at least a question mark about whether, in Biblical terms, what generally happens on a Sunday morning is preaching at all.
The Bible contains examples of sermons arising from a variety of events, many of which were unplanned by the people involved. Should we expect to use opportunities for preaching such as miraculous healings [Acts 3]?
When Paul visited a new city, he was sometimes invited to speak at the Synagogue [Acts 13:15]. If a stranger turns up in our church, is our instinctive reaction to invite them to give a sermon?
What is the place of nonverbal factors in preaching? There are many examples, such as the yoke in Jeremiah 27, particularly in the OT, and we have even more possibilities today: we could use many forms of visual aids, film clips, music, movement and dance, etc.
Eslinger has a whole chapter on images, imagery and imagination [2002: 246-287], but for all the talk about 'images', he is only talking about words. Yet people do use real images in their sermons - such as a sermon on the Day of Atonement "featuring a live goat and a man dressed as the High Priest" [Beukema, Summer 2004: 61].
There is constant reference in the literature to 'the gospel', but people almost never spell out what they mean by this term. It is taken for granted that we all understand what we mean by it, but when I ask people to state what they mean by 'the gospel' it is obvious that different people have very different ideas - sometimes they are clear, sometimes vague, and sometimes they give different answers at different times.
Is the gospel about individuals or a community? Is it about a ticket to Heaven, or a way to live on Earth? About something already achieved for all time, or an invitation you have to accept? And if, as some people would say, it is about all these things, in what sense can we ever say we have 'preached the gospel'?
Is the gospel the same message for all people, or does it differ from person to person? If it is the same, why is there so much uncertainty about the precise content? And if it is different, how can we tell whether we have preached it to these people at this time?
Where an attempt to summarise the gospel is provided, we are normally told that it concerns Jesus Christ as 'the Saviour of the world,' "the glad tidings of God's redemption through Jesus Christ" [Long, 1989: 20]. But I would like to argue (if I had the space!) that the essence of the gospel message is not Jesus as Saviour, but Jesus as Lord [2 Corinthians 4:5].
I find Goldingay's approach to the Biblical text helpful, and his insistence that we must interpret different kinds of texts in different ways is surely correct. But his division of Biblical texts into four basic kinds, and the rationale for this, seems to be based on less certain ground, particularly as he admits that Searle adds 'declarations' to the four 'fundamental' categories - "descriptive, prescriptive, commissive and expressive" [1995: 4-5].
It seems to me that Goldingay either misunderstands or over-simplifies Searle, who is interested in many kinds of 'speech act', including "making statements, asking questions, issuing commands, giving reports, greeting and warning" [Searle, 1971: 39].
I would divide the wisdom literature from apocalyptic, rather than combining them both under the heading of 'experienced revelation', distinguishing between genres (narrative, prophecy, wisdom, Psalm, Gospel, Epistle, Apocalypse) and forms (law, dream, lament, parable, miracle, exhortation, autobiography, funeral dirge, etc.) as Greidanus [1988: 23] suggests.
However, while such analysis is vital, it must always serve the process of interpretation. The temptation is to allow it to rule: 'because I place this text into this category, the meaning must be determined by this theory.' How we use such theories, and how (or whether) we communicate the basis of our interpretation in the sermon seem to be vital questions that are rarely addressed.
Barth, Karl, Homiletics (Louisville: Westminster / John Knox Press, 1991)
Beukema, John, 'The Sermon that Got My Goat' in Leadership (Vol. XXV Number 3, Summer 2004) pp. 61-63
Brown, Colin (Ed.), The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology Volume 3 (Exeter: The Paternoster Press, 1978)
Craddock, Fred B, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985)
Eslinger, Richard L, The Web of Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2002)
Goldingay, John, Models for Interpretation of Scripture (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1995)
Greidanus, Sidney, The Modern Preacher and the Ancient Text (Leicester: IVP, 1988)
Long, Thomas G, The Witness of Preaching (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1989)
Lowry, Eugene L, The Homiletical Plot (Atlanta: John Knox Press, 1980)
Murray, Stuart, Interactive Preaching (Unpublished paper available from London: Spurgeon's College, 2004?)
Searle, JR, 'What is a Speech Act?' in The Philosophy of Language, ed. Searle, JR (London: Oxford University Press, 1971)
Stott, John, I Believe in Preaching (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1982)
Ulmer, Ken, 'My Words in Your Mouth' in Leadership (Vol. XXIV Number 1, Winter 2003) pp. 85-88
Wilson, Paul Scott, The Four Pages of the Sermon (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1999)
Woodruff, Mike and Moore, Steve, 'An Honest Sermon' in Leadership (Vol. XXIV Number 1, Winter 2003) pp. 32-36
Wright, NT, The New Testament and the People of God (London: SPCK, 1992)
I include here, mainly for future reference, some further questions about preaching, and reflections on the subject that have been provoked by the books I have studied in the course of this module.
Why should a sermon have only one dominant metaphor? I find Paul Scott Wilson's need for one metaphor baffling: "I resolved the dilemma by recognising that even movies need scripts, and scripts have pages" [Wilson, 1999: 11]. Jesus sometimes shifts images of the Kingdom of God every few verses; Paul changes his image of the Church from field to building in a single verse [1 Corinthians 3:9] - what is the problem?
I am very concerned when someone tells me (even if it is never put like this!) that I should not use Jesus as my example. Yet most authors on preaching seek to place constraints on preachers that Jesus and Paul never followed. In what sense are the principles being taught Biblical ones?
For example, we are told that "Stories on Page Four should correspond in some way to those on Page Two" [Wilson, 1999: 229], but why should they? We are being given rules without any justification, and without any evidence that following these rules will result in a better sermon.
To be absolutely clear: by 'a better sermon,' I mean one that builds the Kingdom of God, one that enables people to connect with God, one that sees lives turned around - not one that conforms to the principles of a 'good sermon' in some textbook.
The books contain a great deal of advice: this is how to preach; this is good preaching, this is bad, and so on. It is generally very unclear on what basis these judgements are formed. Is it simply a matter of personal preference on the part of the author, or perhaps the preferences and prejudices of the author's peer group? One would hope not, but we are offered few alternatives.
As noted above, I am astonished that there seems to be a complete lack of reference to the Bible when considering the nature of preaching and how to preach well: we are told that this is good and that is bad, but there is no attempt to justify these assertions, either as principles identified in the Bible or as examples from Biblical sermons.
Nor is there any attempt to justify not doing this on the basis that what is considered to be a good sermon has changed over the centuries, and Jesus and Paul's sermons would no longer be considered to be good these days. But even if such a claim were to be made, I would have to ask about the basis of the claim, and on what authority is it being made? Who says that good preaching has changed, and why do they say this? Is this change a matter of fashion, or culture? Can it be theologically justified?
The books we have read are uniformly interesting, and contain many helpful insights, but very little theology - either by reference to the Bible, or to the traditional Christian understanding of preaching. There is an occasional reference to Augustine and Calvin, but apart from this it appears from the books that Craddock invented Biblical Preaching. Stott, as noted above, is the main exception to this rule; and Barth, writing before Craddock, identifies several modern forerunners. Surely any appreciation of the 'revolution' in preaching must include a discussion of what was being revolutionised; yet this is done in a very inadequate way.
I have another, more serious, problem with the books. Much of what is written would not be acceptable as an academic paper. We have a great deal of narrative, many personal opinions, arguments that are nothing more than affirmation and 'universal principles' that are seemingly plucked out of thin air. It is interesting to hear people say, in effect, 'after so many years in the ministry, these are the conclusions I have reached', but it is not immediately obvious how such statements should be used in theological study.
There is a pragmatic argument for using many of these texts: they have been widely circulated and have influenced many people, but their influence can be over-stated. Many preachers in many churches are completely unaware of Craddock, Buttrick et al, and are untouched by their influence. For example, in my own group of churches there are some twenty people who preach regularly, yet I have only found one person who even recognises their names, and nobody who can tell me anything about their contribution to preaching. And nobody demonstrates any awareness of most of the principles they describe in the sermons that are preached.
And even if the influence of Craddock, Buttrick et al were universal, we would still need to ask just how their insights and principles should be used. That they are popular is a statement of fashion, not theology; that they are effective in some way is (at face value) of interest to students of psychology and sociology rather than theologians. After all, 'it works, therefore it is right' is a strange argument in the context of theology.
The books talk a great deal about images, but what they mean by 'images' is words. They don't use images; they are talking about words that may evoke an image in the minds of the hearers. But the examples given do not generally evoke images in my mind; and when I ask people about the examples, it seems that they evoke widely varying images in the minds of those who do respond 'correctly'. So the technique seems to be far more problematic than is recognised by these authors.
It should also be noted that the traditional approach of telling people what to believe and how to act, while suffering from a number of problems, does actually communicate content very effectively. David Pawson, a noted preacher of the 'old school', would regularly make between 40 and 50 major points in a single sermon - and for years people came from all over the country to hear him preach at Millmead Baptist Church. You simply cannot pack that much information into a sermon that relies on building images in the minds of the hearers.
Consideration of people such as Pawson and Lloyd-Jones raises another obvious question: what is so wrong with the traditional sermon? It may contain many different points, each point unrelated to the next except by the text, and it may contain many different images, but doesn't this offer a better chance that each hearer will find something of relevance, and be able to identify with some part of the message?
It may be aesthetically pleasing to construct a sermon around a single dominant image, but if that image does not work for someone (and no image will work for everyone), what can they be expected to gain from the sermon?
The use of images, descriptions and illustrations has an important place in preaching, but they too contain their own dangers and pitfalls. This is recognised in part by many authors. For example, "the difficult yet central task of diagnosis is often exchanged for description or illustration" [Lowry, 1980: 38]. But it is not clear whether all the dangers have been recognised and addressed, and my personal suspicion is that it is easier to address the weaknesses of the traditional sermon than a sermon that uses one of the newer models of preaching.
In talking about 'traditional sermons' and 'newer models of preaching', the question needs to be raised about how different they really are, and how much the differences between the two are superficial.
An interesting task for some theological Linnaeus would be to produce useful categories and sub-categories of sermons according to their guiding principles and underlying assumptions and methodologies, identifying which techniques and principles are particularly helpful or relevant for which categories.
There are some obviously wrong things you can do: such as preaching someone else's sermon; using other people's work as your own; and pretending that other people's stories happened to you. However, even at this basic level, the moral and practical issues are not as simple as we might wish. The most helpful discussion of this topic I have found was in Leadership [Woodruff and Moore, Winter 2003: 32-36].
But there are many other ways to mislead a congregation. When you say that something is important, you imply that you do it. When you preach on a passage, you imply that this is what it means - or at least, this is the most important aspect of what it means.
Preaching is an exercise of power. You want people to be moved by the sermon, but at what point does this turn into manipulation?
How much work do I need to put into checking my interpretation and assumptions are correct? The amount of work I actually put in is directly proportional to my level of uncertainty, but being confident is not the same as being right, and it is arguable that the more certain I am of a theological position, the more I need to check it. The Church is full of people with diametrically opposed theological positions and interpretations of passages, each of whom is totally convinced that they are correct.
This seems to me to be an 'ethical black hole' in preaching - we know that no two preachers will agree on all points of doctrine, so when we say we preach the Bible, what we mean is that we preach our personal interpretation of the Bible. Did Jonah die in the whale? Did Paul write Hebrews? Many preachers are quite dogmatic on such questions. We can't all be right! But we nearly all preach as if we are.
And yet it is surely not correct to attempt to preach a sermon that gives equal weight to all the various theories and interpretations people have put forward: any message would be swamped by opinions and contradictions.
Equally, no sermon can fully explain the theological assumptions and underpinning that justifies this interpretation, or weigh up those assumptions against the fervently-held alternatives. Yet, unless we do this in some way, we are effectively putting forward our own views and opinions ("The Bible says this!") as those of God.
It is easy to tell people what the Bible says, and to say what it means in abstract terms. It is much harder to say what it means for specific people: applications are dangerous ground!
But most applications in sermons only deal with individual behaviour and morality. Examples are given that relate to family life, and occasionally to leisure. Rarely are issues of work and employment raised. And then there are more significant (and harder) questions about how we live as families and as a church community, and how we function within the wider community.
How should sermons address questions of politics, and global issues? Should a sermon touch on how to vote or whether you should get your children vaccinated? Wesley certainly believed he should preach on such issues - or, at least, their equivalents in his day. And if God says nothing about any of these issues, how relevant is He?