CPL: What is your context?
The mission of Refuge is to share the peace and community of God’s abundant table. Our context revolves around our weekly dinner together at the beginning of worship and ends with our coming to the Lord’s Table. Refuge is a church that is attended by many who’ve left the church/faith at some point and are coming back with deep doubts and struggles but also a desire for community. At Refuge, we emphasize practicing our faith before believing. That is, what we practice often precedes belief. These practices form us together in community as we try to become more like Christ and as we love our neighbors.
What are the benefits and challenges of preaching in a house church setting?
I take a conversational preaching approach, which means the sermon includes participation from the congregation. People talk back, which is both a benefit and a challenge.
One benefit of conversational sermon is that it invites interruptions. When we show up on Sunday, we don’t necessarily leave behind our problems or struggles, questions or doubts. We don’t take them off like a jacket and hang them up outside the sanctuary, to put on again when it’s time to leave. We usually bring them with us into worship. Every follower of Jesus knows that there are days (or even weeks, months, or years), when our doubts and questions are too much to bear. Instead of passively listening, a conversational sermon makes room for the congregation to interrupt, to ask questions, to name struggles aloud.
A second benefit is that a conversational sermon opens up space for testimony, for the congregation to see where and how God’s Word is speaking and give witness to it. Finally, a conversational sermon can offer the participants space to begin integrating the preached Word. Instead of taking the preached Word home with you to (hopefully) consider later, conversational preaching makes space to reflect and begin integration in real time.
Regarding the challenges? The sermon can easily be derailed once the conversation begins and questions get raised. Another challenge to this methodology is that you have to learn to ask good questions. When I am preparing I ask myself: Does this question help the sermon get where it’s supposed to go? And do the questions help move us toward responses that enable us to become more faithful disciples? An example of a bad question might be: “What do you think?” It is a bad question because thinking is only one part of what following Jesus is about.
Another challenge to this type of setting and preaching style is you don’t have control. In my opinion, this is reason enough for most pastors to give it a try! In a typical preaching moment, you are totally in control. The only agency a person listening to you has is to walk out. So this challenge can be a gift in that it will stretch you in some ways you never imagined.
Are there resources you might suggest (books, etc) for preaching effectively in this kind of unique setting?
Unfortunately, no. There are many people experimenting with this type of preaching (and have been for some time now) but the literature is still catching up. What I would say, however, is that the preparation for conversational preaching is identical to that you would follow for a more traditional kind of sermon. That is, you still need the tools to work with the text and reveal why it matters. The departure point for the conversational sermon is when you begin to try and figure out how the communal conversation will shape the sermon. At what point do you engage others in the conversation? That is the question. Having said that, I’d mention several preaching books that have been central to the way I understand preaching and they include The Word Before the Powers by Charles Campbell. Dr. Campbell is a close friend and colleague at Duke who has mentored me in how to speak about the principalities and powers. Another favorite is Preaching as Testimony by Anna Carter Florence. She tells the story of three women preachers and the central role of testimony as a component in preaching. (Testimony is enormously important in conversation preaching.) Additionally, the appendix in this book has some of the most practical and concrete suggestions for how to work with texts in preparation for preaching that I’ve encountered. Barbara Brown Taylor’s The Preaching Life should also be mentioned. And finally, I consult the Feasting on the Word commentary series a lot as well.
What rhythms are most helpful for you as you prepare your sermons?
I try to know about 6 weeks in advance what my text will be. If I am not preaching from the lectionary, I still keep this discipline and plan ahead. It helps me stay rooted and keeps Scripture primary. I begin with Scripture and spend time with the text before I read anything else. Another rhythm is dislocated exegesis, which is simply reading Scripture in a place where I don’t normally study Scripture, such as a city bus, a line at Target, a waiting room at the doctor’s office. This practice helps Scripture come alive and often allows me to see things I would’ve otherwise missed if I were reading it in my office. (Charles Campbell explains this practice in a short video: https://www.workingpreacher.org/craft.aspx?m=4377&post=2206).
Megan M. Pardue is pastor at Refuge Church in Durham, NC. She is also a teaching assistant in the department of Homelitics at Duke Divinity School.