Learning to Preach

April 17, 2012

By Aaron Carr, AoP '12

Carr Aaron 150x150 Learning to PreachA few days ago, I was wandering the shelves of my favorite used bookstore. In the back, nestled in among old and awful texts that someone had dared to label “Christian Inspiration,” I found a little gem that did inspire me: a well-loved copy of Fred Craddock’s seminal preaching textbook simply titled Preaching.

I knew I was going to buy it from the moment I saw that familiar red script blazoned on the front cover, but I flipped through the pages just to make sure it was all there. As I did so, on page 16, I spotted a quote that has been working its way through my brain for the past several days: “learning to preach is difficult.” [1]

The key word, at least in my mind, is learning. In my development as a preacher, I’ve met many people who’ve had different opinions on the formation of the minister. Some claim that the ability to preach is innate, a gift from the divine that cannot really be learned. I, on the other hand, have become firmly convinced that preaching, although unlike just about any other skill on the planet, is something that must be learned.

Like many of you, I’ve learned this the hard way. My first sermons were pretty awful, fumbling attempts to interpret texts that I didn’t really understand. But as I was given more opportunities to preach, I began to improve. I learned my own style and my own voice – what did and didn’t work for me. I learned to be comfortable in my skin and how to relate to a congregation. Preaching is a skill that must be learned via experience, and the Academy of Preachers is a great way to begin that experience.

But a part of learning to preach that the AoP doesn’t have the time to engage – part of learning to preach that is often ignored by large sections of clergy – is the learning that comes from reading. Craddock’s book is just one slim volume in a veritable library of preaching textbooks. From St. Augustine to the modern era, there are millions of handbooks on preaching, and millions of tidbits for preachers of all ages.

They’re not all good, and some of them are barely worth the ink they’re printed with, but there are some really great books out there. The first preaching book I was ever exposed to was Eugene Lowry’s The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form [2] . In it, Lowry teaches the preacher how to treat the sermon like the plot of a novel, complete with rising action, misdirection, climax, and dénouement. This form, Lowry argues, helps the congregation move through the text themselves, rather than just experience the preacher’s exposition. It flows in a way that engages more parts of the human brain and subconsciously pleases the human desire for cohesive narratives (although those who haven’t read Lowry will rarely recognize it as such).

That’s only one example, but for me, it was paradigm shifting. I would never have thought to turn to plot structures to help me write sermons, but it works incredibly well. And while I don’t preach a sermon plot every time I get in the pulpit, it has helped my sermon writing tremendously. And I never would have learned such a method via my own trial and error.

So, to preachers of all ages, I encourage you to never stop learning to preach. Keep practicing and honing your own craft and your own style in the school of experience. But never be afraid to pick up a book and see what you can learn from seasoned veterans. You’ll be amazed at the wealth of resources that are just waiting to help you learn.

[1] Fred Craddock, Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1985 ), 16.
[2] Eugene Lowry, The Homiletical Plot: The Sermon as Narrative Art Form (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2001).



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