I have been preparing a lecture on “seeker sensitive” preaching, and I decided to try to match wits a bit with Karl Barth. I remember reading Barth on the subject of preaching, where he insisted that sermons should not have either introductions or conclusions. I decided to re-read Barth on the subject, to refresh my own memory (http://www.worldinvisible.com/library/barth/prayerpreaching/prayerpreaching.06.htm)
And indeed Barth pulled no punches on the subject. Framing a sermon with an introduction and a conclusion is motivated, he argued, by a desire to establish a “point of contact,” a “common ground,” with those to whom the sermon is addressed. And this motive is theologically misguided. We must simply proclaim the text. The Word of God will make its own connection to the hearts of the hearers. The Holy Spirit does not need our help in making the message of God’s Word “relevant” to the innermost regions of the human spirit. Barth goes so far as to label as “heresy” any effort on the part of a preacher to provide introductions and conclusions to the proclamation of the text.
But I was glad to see that there was more. In preparing our sermons, Barth says, we do need to consider “the situation in which the congregation is placed.” We must preach to them “in a way that they will understand.” The preacher “must know them as individuals; he must be acquainted with the conditions which shape their lives, with their capacities, and their potentialities for good and evil. Only so will he find the means to touch their hearts so that the Word may have significance for them.” A preacher must be careful not to deliver a sermon that is “simply a monologue, magnificent perhaps, but not necessarily helpful to the congregation.” In preparing the sermon, “those to whom he is going to speak must constantly be present in the mind of the preacher.” Thinking about the actual life situation of the hearers “will suggest unexpected ideas and associations which will be with [the preacher] in the study of the text.” This means, Barth says, that the preacher’s preparation will “provide the element of actuality, the application of [the chosen] text to the contemporary situation.” Whatever Barth meant by not looking for a “point of contact,” he was not suggesting that we should ignore the life-situations of those to whom we preach.
My own theology is very much of the “point of contact” variety. I like John Calvin’s insistence that every human being has a “sense of the divine” (sensus divinitatis), that a “seed of religion” (semen religionis) is planted in every human heart. Even our radical sinfulness cannot eradicate this spiritual restlessness. It seems to me that if we take those themes seriously we are not misguided in trying to use both introductions and conclusions in our preaching to make connections with what Barth himself calls us to focus on in those who hear sermons: “the conditions which shape their lives, with their capacities, and their potentialities for good and evil.”
I am pretty sure I can make a good case for “seeker sensitive” preaching by appealing to the authority of John Calvin. And I might even be able to make good use, at least selectively, of Karl Barth!