When Preaching Is Out of Control

I’ll admit it. I like to be in control. I don’t think of myself as a “control

freak.” However, I want there to be a minimum of chaos. On Sunday, for

instance, I like to have a general idea of where we are going to be by noon.

It is fine for the Holy Spirit to be invited into our worship, but only to a

degree. I like the Holy Spirit to have some room for movement, but not

all that much.

I believe it is helpful in the planning process to state a theme of where

the sermon might go on a Sunday like this one, with a text like the one

assigned. After all, we ought to know where we are going, and if we don’t,

we’ll never get there. However, the statement of theme might be guilty of

giving the illusion that we have somehow, by simply stating a theme or a

message for the day, controlled where we are going. Most preachers learn

very early that preaching is not an easily controlled activity. And I like to

be in control.

Some time ago Barbara Brown Taylor stated that “something happens

between the preacher’s lips and the congregation’s ears that is beyond

prediction or explanation.” Taylor notes an experience that every

preacher has, sooner or later: “later in the week, someone quotes part of

my sermon back to me . . . only I never said it. There is more going on here

than anyone can say.” And how! In order to prepare our sermons well, we

need a fairly clear idea of our intentions. But in preaching there can be a huge gap between intention and result.

And so a distinguished literary critic, in pointing out the great gaps

that occur in literature between a writer’s intention and the results that

take place in the reader, calls his book The Uses of Misunderstanding. How

well I recall interviewing an older preacher, asking what he had learned

in forty years of preaching. He answered, “The possibilities for misunderstanding

are virtually limitless.” And how!

How many times have you stood at the door, on a Sunday morning,

and a layperson says to you, “That was a great sermon on . . .” And you

want to say, “But I never said that. That was not what this sermon was

about.” Too late. The sermon is already out of your hands and into the

congregation. Something has wrenched the sermon from your control.

The sermon is not, therefore, best conceived of as a skillful packaging of

ideas that are delivered to a congregation. Rather, a sermon is an event,

a conversation between pastor and people that can go in almost any


I remember an educational theorist years ago telling teachers,

“Teaching is not telling and listening is not learning.” This teacher of

teachers had learned that education is a more indeterminate, risky endeavor

than simply delivering information. The receiver is busy intruding

powerfully on the message that is delivered. We cannot predict where

a sermon will finally go. Rather than predicting, we ought to consider

that perhaps the most important preaching task is offering, intending to

evoke an event, but not being able to control that event. My friend Eugene

Lowry likes to say that the preacher’s work is to help people get to the

point where they can perceive what God is doing and open themselves to

that. Beyond that, preaching is mostly out of our control.

We are not simply delivering a package of information to a congregation.

In the sermon, we are walking a journey together, engaging in a

conversation. In any conversation, there must be a willingness on the part

of each partner to be changed through the conversation. A lecture is oneway

communication. The speaker hopes to change the listeners. But in a

conversation, all of the speakers are also listeners. As you preach, you are

busy listening to the congregation, picking up on a number of subtle, but

powerful cues from them that tell you how you are communicating. The

congregation is also struggling to hear what you are saying. But as they

struggle, they are also busy rearranging what they hear.

Add to this the Holy Spirit. By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit takes

our pitiful words of preaching and enlivens them, rearranges them, helps

them to catch fire in people’s lives.

In the African American tradition there is the powerful use of silence.

The preacher stops frequently throughout the sermon, sometimes

even in mid-sentence, to let the congregation have some room to process

what is being said. This is crucial space. Not only does it provide space

for people to thoughtfully consider what is being said, to catch up with

the flow of ideas, but it also provides for the Holy Spirit to come. It is in

the gaps, these life-giving spaces, that the Spirit can roam, can take hold

of lives, and can make of our preaching more than it would be if left up

to us. No one did this better than the great Howard Thurman of Marsh

Chapel, Boston University. The phrase “pregnant pause” was meant for

Thurman’s preaching.

Eugene Lowry says, “We cannot control the result of our sermon.

We do our best, of course, but know that with God’s Word we are at best

working provisionally. The Spirit works with certainty. Our task is to try

to maximize the possibility of proclamation happening. We simply cannot

produce it by will.” And I like to be in control.

Better than seeing the sermon as my product, I ought to see it as my

gift, my part in the divine-human conversation that takes place in the

congregation. I ought to enjoy the freedom that is given in the sermon,

the freedom for new insight to arise in the congregation, the freedom

for the Holy Spirit to take my poor sermon and make it mean even more

than I intended. There can be great grace in learning to enjoy being out of

control in the sermon!

Will Willimon

3 thoughts on “When Preaching Is Out of Control

  1. I’m not a preacher, but I spoke briefly on Easter Sunday about what my church means to me. The following Sunday, in a small group discussion, a 13-year-old boy shared a vision that he has for the church that I had mentioned in my talk. It was about being yeast.


  2. Will, I am reading your book, Sighing for Eden, and wondering if your views in the book have changed much since you wrote it. I’m just wondering. Your book — like your blog — leaves room for God to do his own thing, which I’ve noticed scares a lot of believers. This morning I realized that most believers prefer NOT to have to trust God. They prefer him to do what they want, when they want. I’m not talking about “if it be Thy will,” but about the role we actually want God to take in our lives. So… what about Sighing for Eden?


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