Preaching: Taking the First Article Seriously

Michelangelo creation handsEditor’s note: Professor Glenn Nielsen is on a partial sabbatical this year, maintaining his vicarage/ internship responsibilities, but catching up on reading and writing occasional reflections on those readings. This is the fourth of these reflections.

In my last reflection, I made the following assertions:

Our preaching is reduced to accusatory Law and forgiving Gospel (often in that order in the sermon). That sameness then deadens listenability by its predictableness. It also fails to treat the text with integrity, and we are not preaching what the text has given us to preach. Even more devastating is that Christ’s resurrection becomes secondary, little more than an afterthought, because everything important happened on Good Friday.

In the footnote that accompanied that paragraph, I said I would elaborate on those assertions in upcoming essays. The next three essays will do that through conversations with a recently published book by Edward O. Grimenstein, A Lutheran Primer for Preaching (St. Louis: Concordia, 2015).

Now I’ll begin by commending the Primer for its clear and unqualified articulation of the heart of Lutheran preaching, that is, the Law and Gospel dynamic with the goal of leading people to repentance and faith. As with Walther, the book’s emphasis is certainly that the Gospel needs to predominate. This Dr. Grimenstein accomplishes by returning again and again to God’s creative word. God is the actor. God does what He says. The book throughout pushes beyond a mere “words have meaning” view of God’s speaking to the active, dynamic reality of divine speech. God performs as the word informs. These quotations are representative:

And in the doing of those things (preaching for one), the Doer (God) can perform for His people what He alone can do: save mankind from the fallen world. (15)

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the preacher of God actually speaking in a quote as if God Himself were speaking…. There can also be no more powerful Word in the world than having God Himself speak the condemning Law and also the healing balm of the Gospel. (32-3)

Ideally, each person should be able to say after every single sermon that he or she heard Jesus Himself speak to and deliver him or her in some way from this world and from sin, death and the power of the devil by means of Jesus’ own life, death and resurrection given to him or her. (69)

The revealing and condemning Law and the Gospel’s restoring and redeeming power occupy the heart and center of our preaching.

But, unfortunately, as I read through the Primer, this Law/Gospel heart seemed to turn into the whole of preaching. In doing so, this book left significant gaps in both the theological understanding and necessary practice of the homiletical art. I see this in at least three areas. 1. The use of the Creed’s First Article of creation, particularly what God has made when it comes to the hearers of the sermon. 2. Maintaining the integrity of God’s Word for preaching, especially the artistic and pragmatic dimensions of Scripture. 3. The proclamation of the full counsel of God, including the sanctified life of the believer. This Reflection will take a closer look at the First Article and just what God created when He made us.

I appreciated that Dr. Grimenstein acknowledged the Trinity in the homiletical task (29-30). But notice what happens when he speaks of God as Creator:

This world and all of creation was created in perfection through God. This creation occurred through the speaking of the Word. Satan’s speaking of a different word and Adam’s believing in that word led to a fall in creation, leaving the world corrupted until the return of Christ. (49)

He moves quickly from creation to the fall and then redemption. The realm of creation receives little attention in the book. It is as if it is a mere backdrop to the judgment/grace reality of the Second Article. The first Adam sins and messes up creation, so a second Adam is needed to redeem it. Thus the hearers of a sermon are reduced to sinful beings in need of God’s saving Word to create faith. And so we read that the preacher needs to know his hearers in order to “recognize the sin in the lives of a preacher’s congregation” (90). Throughout the book, I found little else in depiction of those listening to the sermon than that we are sinful beings.

But what of creation itself? How have we been created? And how does that understanding of the created human being lead to a fuller understanding and practice of the preaching task? Here a return to the Small Catechism is helpful. Listen to Martin Luther’s explanation about us as God’s created beings.

I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my members, my reason and all my senses, and still takes care of them.

Then later we hear:

All this He does only out of fatherly goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me.

We are uniquely and incredibly made by our heavenly Father. And the way we are made is an act of grace. Out of fatherly mercy we are created. Out of His goodness we are made the way we are, with eyes, ears, members, and a variety of senses.

So what does this mean? Very simply: just as we must not ignore God’s grace in the Second Article of redemption, we must also not ignore God’s grace in this First Article in terms of the way He has created us.

Perhaps an example will help. [1]  My students and those who listen to my sermons know that my preaching includes a variety of stories and examples from everyday life. Certainly, I retell narratives from the Scriptures, but I will also tell a story about something I saw happen, relate a personal anecdote, give a list of contemporary instances where an application can be seen in common, shared experiences, summarize a scene from a book or movie in a narrative manner, and other storied material. I do so because storied material flows directly out of taking seriously the way God created us.

Much research has been done on brain functioning in the past couple decades. [2] I won’t go into detail here, naming the different parts of the brain and what each part does when functioning. However, on a rudimentary level consider what happens when we hear a story. It sets our brains to work in many more ways than abstract assertions or explanations of conceptional material would engage. In the latter arena, mostly the language processing areas go to work. But with a well told story, almost all of the brain’s areas activate, including those that process motion, emotions, visual stimuli and other senses (note the connection to the Catechism’s explanation).

In a brief internet article by Leo Widrich, he gives this explanation for why we are more engaged when we hear a story. [3]

If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts of the brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events in the story are too. [4]

Later in the article, he summarizes some research done on brain functioning when people listen to stories. One significant thing happens when stories are told. Brains synchronize. When the story had an emotional element, that part of the brain lit up in scans in both the person telling the story and those listening to it. Same for the motor region of the brain when movement was noticeable in the story. In other words, a story told well can lead the people listening to it experience the story in much the same way the one telling the story is experiencing it.

Notice the two things that are happening. One is that more of the brain is functioning, which means we are paying more attention. The second is that what the storyteller wants to convey in the story is also experienced by the hearers, in a sense, actually living in the story. Bring these two together for preaching. We confess that God has created us in this way. Our brain functioning is not some evolutionary form of adaptation; God made us to think and experience things through narrative means. Our brains are not merely wired to listen to story, it is God’s grace that has given us this capacity for telling and remembering story. Thus the preacher who has a Word from the Lord to speak and desires his hearers incorporate that Word into the life to be lived now has a wonderful gift to use in story. By investigating how God has made us as created beings, we see we have been given incredible possibilities for helping our hearers to listen, understand and remember our sermons. In fact, as we have experienced the Word, so now they can experience it as well. Or, put another way, the use of story in preaching flows out of this theology of creation. It is taking the First Article seriously in term of how God has made us. Indeed, “[s]uch preaching takes the listeners seriously by honoring the unique way God has created them as learning, knowing, thinking, feeling, dreaming creatures.” [5]

Studying how God has made us can push us to preach in other ways in addition to storied material. The estimate is that 65% of Americans are visual learners and that at least 80% of the information that comes into our brains is through visual stimuli. Our preaching thus needs to be highly visual. Educational theory shows us that people learn in different ways: visual, auditory, and kinesthetic. So we need to mix up these methods for the variety of people in our congregations. For people to remember things our emotions need to be involved. Without the insula (the brain area where emotions occur) active, little of what we experience makes it into short-term memory, let alone long-term memory. Charles Stone captures what goes on when the study of the brain is combined with our preaching:

Jeffrey Schwartz, a Christian neuroscientist, coined a term that captures an important idea to consider in sermon prep. The term, attention density, refers to mental focus and concentration. At a neurological level, the greater the attention density, the more brain real estate gets involved. And here’s the crucial thing: the higher the density, the more people remember. So if we want listeners to remember our sermons, we not only have to concern ourselves with good exegesis and sound hermeneutics; we must also include ways to increase attention density. [6]

Taking the First Article seriously means paying attention to how God has created us so that the communication of the sermon happens in ways that facilitate the hearing, understanding, remembering and even experiencing of the message.

Now I am in no way denying the absolute need for God to create, strengthen and preserve faith. That is His domain through the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Word. Dr. Grimenstein and I track together on that foundational tenet of Lutheran preaching. However, I advocate taking the track further by not only affirming that we are sinful beings but also that we are still wonderfully created beings too. [7]  In this latter arena, much can be learned and utilized for the wise and discerning communication of God’s faith creating and sustaining Word. Since God in His fatherly goodness and mercy has given us our eyes, ears, all our senses, reason, and bodily members, we need to take the God of creation affirmed in this First Article seriously.

In fact, I believe we see God taking how He made us seriously when He communicates with us. Notice the various means he uses in the following passage. I’ve highlighted many of them for you.

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete. (1 John 1:1-4)

My encouragement is simple:  Take the First Article of creation seriously because how He has created us is also a wonderful act of grace – and we do not want to ignore His grace.

Endnotes

[1] I’ve also used this example because, except for the use of Biblical narratives, Dr. Grimenstein seems to dismiss the use of most story and narrative in preaching. See 38-39 and 56.

[2] Helpful summaries on this research as applied to the pastoral ministry can be found in two books by Allen Nauss. Implications of Brain Research for the Church: What It Means for Theology and Ministry (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2013) and The Pastor’s Brain Manual: A Fascinating Work in Progress (Minneapolis: Lutheran University Press, 2015). A more detailed discussion about this topic can be found in my chapter in the second book: “Evaluating and Extending the Research Implications,” 46-70.

[3] You know this to be true without the scientific explanation. When you are listening to a sermon and the preacher introduces a story, you are paying more attention. When you are preaching and tell a story, you can see the people are paying more attention. We and they remember the story much more than the explanatory material. This is not bad. It just calls for the wise and careful use of stories in service of the proclamation of God’s Word.

[4] http://www.lifehacker.co.in/life/The-Science-of-Storytelling-Why-Telling-a-Story-is-the-Most-Powerful-Way-to-Activate-Our-Brains/articleshow/18940825.cms. Emphasis his.

[5] Thomas Troeger and H. Richard Everding, So That All Might Know: Preaching that Engages the Whole Congregation (Abingdon, 2008), 13.

[6] Charles Stone, “Communicating with the Brain in Mind,” Leadership Journal (Summer 2014): 48.

[7] Dr. Grimenstein hints at this when he says, “There are different eyes through which to see salvation, from the women, to the men, to the children. There is a multitude of ways to see, enjoy and speak the salvation of Christ for all people.”  However, he does not develop this argument any further. Rather, he quickly returns to the Second Article and how recognizing “different eyes” and “multitude of ways” will assist in speaking Law and Gospel. Once again, one key aspect of the whole of preaching – how God has created us and taking the First Article seriously – is lost in his reduction of preaching to the sin/grace heart of our preaching.

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