Preaching and the virtue of untidiness

Recently, I read Thomas Long’s What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith. In some ways, the book promises more than it delivers. Where it does deliver, however, is with Long’s persistent reminder and call that ‘preachers do not have the luxury of dismissing in the pulpit a serious question that arises from the pews’. I love that. Given Long’s proven track record in writing some of the best books on preaching around (although my favourite of his books remains Accompany Them with Singing), it is perhaps unsurprising that some of the richest insights shared in What Shall We Say? have to do with preaching. Here’s a taster:

‘Sometimes people assume that preaching works this way: a preacher prepares a sermon during the week, finishes it at some point – maybe Friday afternoon or Saturday night – and then gets up and preaches the finished product in worship on Sunday. This may be the way it appears on the surface, but experienced preachers know better: sermons are never actually finished. There are always loose ends, questions that could have been pursued in more depth, stones left unturned, intriguing aspects of the biblical text unexamined, thoughts not quite fully baked, an untidiness at the heart of things. At some point, though, preachers have to take what they have, stand up, and speak. Preachers do not preach because the sermon is finished; they preach because it is Sunday. The time has come.

That sermons are never finished is actually a good thing. Sermons get presented in incomplete form not because of procrastination or negligence – not most of the time, anyway – but because preaching mirrors the character of faithful theology and of the Christian life itself. Karl Barth once described God’s revelation as “a bird in flight.” By the time we have paused to snap a photo, write a systematic theology, or craft a sermon, the bird has flown on. “All theology is provisional,” said theologian Arthur C. McGill. “It is the movement … from darkness toward the light, so that as movement no point along its way has permanent or final validity.”’

– Thomas G. Long, What Shall We Say?: Evil, Suffering, and the Crisis of Faith (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2011), 114.

3 thoughts on “Preaching and the virtue of untidiness

  1. If you click on the link to Long’s books on your Amazon store, the books of another one “Mr. Long” appear, who is unfortunately the author of several rather explicit-looking porno titles. I doubt that the latter contain much reflection on effective preaching. I wonder if you want to narrow your search criteria?

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  2. Paul Valery said, “A poem is never finished, only abandoned.” And so wiith a sermon, it is never finished, only preached. Though it might not be a bad idea if if more were abandoned!

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