Helmut Thielicke on preaching

It would be fair to say that I am not known for my speediness. That confessed, I am currently racing to finish off a wee manuscript on the sermons of PT Forsyth (hence the relative paucity of posts here at Per Crucem ad Lucem). So I’ve been thinking much of late not only about Forsyth but also about preaching. And in regards to the latter, it’s been fun to revisit some of my old reading notes on preaching. Here’s one from the pen of Helmut Thielicke that I wanted to share:

‘The aim of the sermon, after all, is to create something living and set it in motion. Consequently, it should be directed not only at the intellect, but must at the same time also be aimed at the conscience, will, and imagination. It is addressed to the whole person! Corresponding to the complexity of this goal are the wealth of reflections in which one is absorbed before one makes ones way to the pulpit.

The extremely pluralistic composition of my audience forced me to still further reflections. The different levels of education and social background necessitated an inquiry into that aspect of human nature that is common to all human beings, that center of their being in which – each in his own different way – human beings are moved by fear and hope, by their finitude, by ambition, desires, the search for meaning, by the burden of guilt and torment of conscience. My goal – and I strived to attain it at least partially – had to be above all to ensure that everyone could say afterwards (because he had been personally touched in this center of his being, “I was the subject of this sermon, he meant me.”

In order to find associations with the text for my sermon and so to illustrate it with images, stories, and a human touch, I constantly kept an eye open during my varied reading for anything I could use in the pulpit. I started various collections in files and card indexes in order to have suitable quotations and other material at hand. If this material then nevertheless failed to hit the mark, I could at least comfort myself with the fact that I had done all that I could.

I did not, by the way, keep to the prescribed readings, that is, to the texts stipulated for use in church sermons. At best these prescribed texts have one useful function, namely, they safeguard the preacher from misusing the text by preventing him from choosing a text simply as a motto for his pet ideas. Preachers who do this quickly preach themselves dry. Their only achievement is to cause deadly boredom – probably not only to the audience but also to themselves – by their constant rummaging through the remnants of a crop that has long since been completely harvested. A prescribed text is certainly the best protection against the law of inertia taking effect in this way. It is also possible for the preacher himself to build a defensive wall against this temptation. This can be done in the following way.

I forced myself to give series of sermons oriented towards a sequence of biblical texts or a single subject. This is how the aforementioned series on the Lord’s Prayer, the parables, the biblical creation story, the pastoral conversations of Jesus, the creed, and many others came about. I also gave openly “didactic” sermons, which were a sort of catechism lesson for adults, in which I explained, for instance, the theological significance of historic-critical textual research and allowed the congregation to take a look into the workshop of academic theology. This principle of preaching series of sermons proved to be fruitful for both sides. It was fruitful for the preacher because it subjected him to a salutary constraint and safeguarded him against arbitrarily choosing texts on his own authority. It was fruitful for the audience because their interest was sustained by the continuity and development of a particular subject or train of thought, as a result of which they always looked forward eagerly to the next sermon.

The fact that I brought current events into play in my sermons should not be taken to mean that I had been talking politics in the pulpit. In my opinion, there are two types of degenerate sermon, both of which, although very different in themselves, are today having a ruinous effect on the life of the church service.

The first of these decadent forms is the transformation of the sermon into a set political speech proclaiming a particular political position as the Christian position. In my experience, this mostly gains the upper hand among people whose spiritual substance is too diluted for them to give a rousing proclamation of the Gospel. They are then forced to give their sermons a political shot in the arm to lend their dead spirituality the appearance of life. But this form of sermon has no permanence. People very soon wonder why it should need the circuitous route of the pulpit to get this political message across and whether they could not get the same thing cheaper and without the Christian paraphernalia simply by going straight to a political meeting.

The second type of degenerate sermon is a certain ritualism that suppresses or at least obscures the personal faith of the individual through the excessive use of time-honored phrases and traditional musica sacra.

This brief look into the “theological laboratory” has not yet touched on what goes on inside the preacher. This remains hidden to outside eyes. I can only give the following hint at where one should look for an answer. Whoever sees so many eyes directed towards him is in great danger. He may believe that they are directed towards “him,” whereas he is in fact only the ambassador of another. In the sacristy of the Church of St. Michael there is a little altar where the preacher prepares himself to approach the pulpit and arms himself against the temptations that threaten him. This is all that I wish to say about this matter’.

– Helmut Thielicke, Notes from a Wayfarer: The Autobiography of Helmut Thielicke (trans. David R. Law; New York: Paragon House, 1995), 291–93.

3 thoughts on “Helmut Thielicke on preaching

  1. I’ve only just read this post through carefully. As a congregation member I know that I’ve felt a number of times “He was talking to me in that sermon”. Now I know the motivation! The only small complaint I’d have about our present minister is that he uses an ipad on the lectern – otherwise he’s tops.
    I also collect bits of pieces from my reading and keep them in a folder. I like quotations or anything really that catches my eye or touches my heart. I get lots of stuff from magazines and newspapers too.

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  2. The first effectiveness of the ministry is it effectiveness for the Church, not for the public. It is world-reforming, but it is Church-making. It does not so much act on the world as provide a Church that does….The Church and its Sacraments, PT Forsyth

    Just been reading this for this weeks sermon and preaching is like this as well me-thinks – preaching not so much acts on the world but provides a Church that does

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