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Preaching as Listening – Listening as Preaching
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This article appeared in the Summer 2017 issue of Voices from the Vineyard, a e-magazine published by the Saint Meinrad Alumni Office.

 

Click here to see the full issue. 

 

 PREACHING AS LISTENING - LISTENING AS PREACHING

by: Dr. Richard Stern

 

Since my days in graduate school studying communication, I became thoroughly convinced that preaching should be considered as primarily a listening activity. Lots of listening before getting to the final stage of actually preaching.

 

Preachers need to do a responsible job of listening to the listener, the Bible, the texts assigned for the day, the history of interpretation of a given text or texts, not to mention, of course, listening prayerfully to the Holy Spirit. This notion has shaped my teaching here at Saint Meinrad since my arrival in 1990.

 

When I was in seminary, the motivating question seemed to be, “What am I going to say on Sunday?” It was a lonely enterprise.

 

Over time, however, I managed to rework the question and found preaching to become much more enjoyable as a result. It was a fairly simple change, but has made all the difference. The new motivating question became, “What is being said here?”

 

Suddenly, I had innumerable conversation partners to help me along the way to a relevant homily. I could listen to the Spirit engaging me in the Bible, as well as to parishioners in a Bible study, Bible commentaries, news stories, random conversations, fellow preachers and so many more. So much for preaching as listening.

 

After a while, I realized that this is only half of the preaching equation. The other half has to do with the listening of the listener. Notice, I wrote the listening of the listener, not listening to the listener, as above.

 

We can do a much better job of preparing listeners, preparing ourselves, to be listeners, fulfilling our role in the preaching enterprise. Indeed, we cannot afford not to do a better job of preparing listeners to fulfill their vocation as listeners.

 

A few weeks ago, I went to church on a Sunday morning at the small parish where I am a member, but not on staff. The council president approached and said the pastor had taken ill and was not going to be able to preside. Could I do it? Yikes! After my blood pressure and heart rate settled down, I agreed that I could do it.

 

And I had an idea for the preaching. It turned out to be a wonderful opportunity. After we processed in, I informed the assembly that we would together preach the homily for the day.

 

I asked them to listen even more carefully to the readings for the day and we would find out what people heard in those readings – a group lectio divina. I also told them, in that catechetical moment, that this is really what we do every Sunday. That day we were just making it more obvious.

 

Whether the pastor preached or I preached or a visiting missionary preached, we all always attach our meanings to the preacher’s words. We each create our own preaching from what we heard or think we heard or wished we had heard or wished we had not heard from the preacher. It is just inevitable, inescapable; this is what happens.

 

It is just that we, as listeners, need to be more intentional, more conscious and more conscientious about this responsibility. What did you hear the homily say to you? So what? Is there any impact that it might have for you? And now what are you going to do about that?

 

This is when listening becomes preaching. 

 

 

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Dr. Richard C. Stern is professor of homiletics at Saint Meinrad Seminary and School of Theology where, for over 25 years, he has taught homiletics and other communication classes, both in the seminary and in the Permanent Deacon Formation Program.

 

He has produced a six-part videotape series, “Preaching for Today … and Tomorrow,” and, among other articles and papers, has co-authored Savior on the Silver Screen with two other Saint Meinrad faculty members.

 

He is a past president of the Catholic Association of Teachers of Homiletics and has been a board member of the Academy of Homiletics and the Catholic Coalition on Preaching.

 

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