Weston: What is “prophetic preaching,” and how does it differ from other preaching?

Long: In a sense, the term “prophetic preaching” is redundant. All preaching is prophetic. We used to tell students that there were two kinds of sermons—prophetic sermons and pastoral sermons. Pastoral sermons were aimed at individual kinds of concerns, concerns of the heart, and prophetic sermons were social justice sermons, sermons about public issues. We’d tell students not to let that get out of balance, knowing that most students would do five pastoral sermons for every prophetic sermon, if they ever did a prophetic sermon at all.

But I don’t think that holds anymore. It seems to me the gospel is so countercultural now that regardless of whether we’re dealing with pastoral concerns or whether we’re dealing with public issues, all sermons are controversial and all sermons are prophetic in a sense.

One caution, though. I think sometimes those preachers who fancy themselves as more prophetic imagine themselves as Amos charging into the shrine of Bethel with the prophetic and socially just Word. We have to remember we are the priests of those shrines and we take care of those people. That means we must do our prophetic teaching in ways that leave pastoral windows open to people. Actually, we the preachers are not the prophets in that sense. It is the congregation that is supposed to be the prophet in the world, and our preaching is designed to equip congregations to engage in prophetic witness and action.

Weston: What you just said dovetails with what you’ve said in class, that we should never give “hit and run” sermons.

Long: I think if we’re going to preach on a hot button issue where we know the congregation is divided on cultural, political, or theological grounds, we owe it to them to go to the coffee pot after we preach so they can talk to us and let us know how what we said affected them.

Weston: Those hard sermons—do you think most preachers can actually preach them, or do you think some preachers are always going to be better at giving a prophetic word?

Long: Some preachers are better at it for a variety of reasons. I think of Reinhold Niebuhr when he was a young pastor. He wrote in his journal that he used to think the preachers who avoided the hard sermons did so out of cowardice, but the longer he was a pastor he realized that it was sometimes done out of love. That the more you know about people in the congregation, the more you know about how fragile they already are, how many things are overwhelming them.

Weston: Some congregations may be really averse to hearing a difficult word, so when you talked about being pastorally sensitive—I think that’s probably the way you get into talking about those things, by being pastorally sensitive.

Long: It is an undervalued skill not only to preach the gospel, but to help people get ready to hear the gospel. I think we read a text or we go to a conference and we get absolutely convinced that the church needs to hear this urgent word now, so we charge in on Sunday and announce this word and it’s so out of character to what else they understand about the Christian faith that it strikes them as discordant. But if constantly in our prayers, if constantly in our Bible studies, if constantly in our pastoral conversation the fullness of the gospel and its reach across every issue and condition and circumstance is always there, then the prophetic sermon may be demanding, but it won’t be unprecedented in their hearing.

Weston: We heard at the conference about the increasing secularization in our communities and that we can’t assume all the people sitting in our pews will know the Christian stories that we take for granted. How do we as preachers adjust and face that new reality?

Long: Just yesterday, the pastor of the church where my family attends was saying that a person told him, “You can keep your Christian stories; I have no interest in them whatsoever.” We are in a time when not only do people not know the story, they’re increasingly emboldened to say, “I don’t belong to the story and I don’t want the story.” On one level this is very discouraging to me. I’ve spent my whole life preparing to preach to a congregation who’s ready to hear the gospel and now they aren’t there, or they’re certainly not there in the same intensity and numbers that they used to be.

But on another level, I find this very exciting because I think we’re now in a position of having to renegotiate the hearing of the gospel everywhere we go. In one sense the congregations don’t know the story; in another sense, God has erased the hard drive and we can recreate it. We can announce a hearing in a startling new way. We are increasingly having to make use of those occasions where we are out in the public square to be bolder and speak the gospel. I’m thinking of funerals, weddings, civic occasions when we are in the role of preacher-pastor. Everybody’s gathered there—people who are close to the gospel, people who are not. And at that point, to be able to give not just a conventional preacher talk, but to speak authentically out of the gospel has a riveting effect.

I’m learning a lot about this by reading about Augustine. When he’s preaching in Hippo in North Africa, he is in a place the size of a basketball gym, and it’s jammed with people standing shoulder to shoulder, most of them not at all interested in the Christian faith—they’re interested in this dazzling orator. He stops in the middle of the sermon, and says, “I want to talk now to those who are here from the pagan festival. You’re here for the spectacle, aren’t you? Well, we’ve got one called the Eucharist,” and then he would unfold the story of the Lord’s Supper. That’s nimble preaching, and I’m trying to instruct myself about that now. What would it look like if I interrupted myself during a sermon and said, “I want to talk to the youth who are texting in the balcony”?

Weston: I think certain generations really valued public speaking and I think now, as you say, people are texting and surfing the Internet during a sermon or speech. Could you speak about the importance of good public speaking for the preacher?

Long: I do think fashions change, and one of my predecessors in the Bandy Chair at Candler, Fred Craddock, was a perfect example of a changing style of public speaking. Fred had nothing of the virtues that a 1950s preacher should have had. He was short and had a high squeaky voice. But he not only took those “weaknesses” and turned them into strengths, he also came at a time when the deep-voiced, pulpit prince was distrusted, and he managed to ride the crest of that wave of distrust.

I’m wondering if preaching is moving in that same direction again. That instead of standing in the pulpit and dropping the lights down and doing the NPR piece with that golden tone, if preaching in the future is going to be in the middle of a living room at a table, with the Eucharist on it, and the preacher in a chair speaking honestly to a group of people gathered around the table. Saying in essence, “Before we eat there’s one thing I really need to say”—and speaking out of the gospel in that sort of way. It’s not dramatic oratory, but maybe it’s more matched to the time.

Then again, it’s puzzling to me that for the first time in 250 years, the average American sermon is getting longer rather than shorter. The average is being skewed because mega churches are doing teaching-style sermons that are going 40 to 45 minutes. And they’re not only going longer, they’re changing genre. We in the mainline churches have been so influenced by the narrative style that we have been constructing sermons on a short-story model that introduces suspense in the beginning, develops suspense in the middle, and has a resolution at the end. It requires the listener to stay on track with us all the way through. But what if people don’t listen that way now?

And so what these other preachers are doing is building on an instructional model, with bullet points about formation in the Christian faith. It’s almost at a wisdom level—theology for keeping your marriage alive, theology for raising your children, theology for personal or vocational focus. Some people will sit for a relatively long time to listen to someone unpack theologically informed life skills. They feel like they’re getting some God-knowledge that’s generally useful for everyday living. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s out there in the communicational mix, along with that conversational model in a living room, and the 18-minute TED talk. Things are in a swirl in a way.

Weston: Are you hopeful about the future of preaching?

Long: Oh, I am, absolutely. I think there will always be a need for someone who loves other people to tell those people the truth. There will always be a hunger for the gospel if it can come wrapped in the authenticity of “this is the truth, the God’s truth about us that I want to speak to you today.”

Weston: I’m always curious about pitfalls of preaching. Your thoughts?

Long: I think one of the pitfalls is not watching the amount of autobiographical disclosure that goes on in preaching. There are some teachers of preaching who forbid it, who think there is no reason to ever mention yourself in a sermon. I disagree with that, but I do think that autobiographical information is very potent in small doses and begins to be diluted the more we talk about ourselves. Every now and then I do this little discipline for myself: I look back at the last four or five sermons I’ve written to see how many of them start with the word “I.” It’s such an easy way to start a sermon. “I hate reality shows,” we start out, or “I had trouble with this text this week,” or “My favorite season of the year is Lent.”

Weston: I find it interesting that you go back over your old sermons.

Long: Oh, yes. Marilynne Robinson’s novel Gilead is about an old minister writing a long letter to his young son. One of the things he mentions is his old sermons in the attic, and how those sermons are up there judging him! I know that feeling. You think about the missed opportunities, misstated things, misunderstood things that you’ve done in old sermons.

I think this finally throws us on the grace of God about preaching—that we have been fools for Christ and we have been damned fools at the same time! Our sermons are full of the brokenness that is a part of all of us. And yet we are confident that they have been taken up into the providence of God and used to shape the gospel’s hearing.

Weston: How have students changed over your career?

Long: The big change for me is that when I first started teaching I could look out at the class and know that every person there felt called to be a preacher. And so the task of the class was, how do we do it? We want to do it. We’re called to do it. But how do we do it? Now I am looking out at a much more tentative group. Many are there because it’s a required course, and they have no inclination at all that they should be a preacher. Or they may feel like they want to be a minister, but preaching is not something they can see themselves doing. So I have to start in a different place now. I start in a way of calling them to preach, not just instructing them about how to preach. Letting them know how important this ministry is, and how none of us, from biblical characters forward, have ever come to this moment with the kind of deep confidence that we are supposed to be here. That from Jeremiah to Paul, there have been those who ask, “Am I to do this, why am I here, what is this that has fallen to my lot?”

Weston: Having done this for quite awhile, what would you say is the most important thing you do in preparing a sermon?

Long: When we’d go over the process of preparing a sermon in class, I used to have students complain that I never mentioned the place where you pray. I always resisted talking about it as if prayer were a step in the process—pick your text, pray, then do this—because I think the whole thing is an act of prayer. I realize now I probably should have articulated that more strongly for the students to accentuate their ability to sense the forms of prayer that are found in the process of preparing a sermon. But as I age, that dimension of it is so important to me now. It’s almost like Augustine’s Confessions—the whole book is an act of prayer and the whole act of preparing a sermon is an act of prayer, and to keep that in my consciousness the whole time is the most important thing I do.

Weston: What has been the highlight of being a preaching professor?

Long: Some people don’t last long at this job. They do it for a few years and decide they’d rather be a pastor themselves. Often they burn out in hearing student sermons. There is a certain repetitiveness. But I am not in the group that burns out on this. I am touched when a student preaches for the first time in my class. No matter the level of accomplishment, it’s still a brave thing to do, and the student brings a huge gift to the moment. That’s been the best part about this. I sometimes talk about it as if I were an instructor in skydiving, and there’s that moment when the person is standing in the bay of the airplane. They look down and sense the depths and their eyes widen, and then you, the instructor, say, “GO!”

CREDIT: Kay Hinton/EPV.