Presbyterian Preaching

A friend of mine is working on an indepedent study at seminary comparing Episcopal and Presbyterian sermons. As part of the course he’s asked friends (including me) from both traditions their thoughts on denominational dinstinctions in preaching. Here’s how I replied:

I’ve tried to think of what I would considered distinctive about Presbyterian preaching and I’ve got two:
1. I think there is a greater sense of weight, importance or expectation about Presbyterian preaching. Every church form in a pastor recruitment process I’ve ever seen where they rank the skills desired for the position has placed preaching at or very near number one. It is considered the main part, even the point, of worship services and many folks refer to ministers as Preachers.
2. If there is any distinction about style, approach or method I would say it is being strongly scripture guided. This might sound obvious but I mean traditionally the scriptures set the schedule for preaching i.e. Lectio Continua vs. Lectionary. Our current Book of Common Worship argues in favor of the Revised Common Lectionary because it does a better job of presenting scripture in order. Additionally a typical Presbyterian sermon starts with the text and develops based on that. I’ve heard a whole lot of sermons from other denominations, mostly Baptists who pick a topic or opinion and quote lots of verses to support it but the sermon’s foundation is not a biblical text. Many (but by no means all) of the Episcopal sermons I’ve heard preach the scripture as it relates to the church year: showing it’s relation to the other readings or the date instead of treating the sermon text on its own which adds to the what is guiding the sermon development.

Having said that I don’t think denominational distinctions are that strong, if I heard a recording of two sermons I probably couldn’t guess what tradition someone was from.

His question, like all good questions, got me thinking and I would like to hear your thoughts on this. Would you agree with my response? notice other things? Are there dinstinctions between different denominations approach to preaching? Do you think you could tell the difference between Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal or Presbyterian sermons? What distinctions (if any) do you notice? Should there be differences?

(Image is Preacher by niccolo2410: click image for link to the flickr site)

4 thoughts on “Presbyterian Preaching

  1. I guess I’m like you. I would have a difficult time distinguishing between most denominations.

    That being said, my wife and I can sit at the hospital in the surgery waiting room and 9 times out of 10, pick the pastors who are there to visit—almost the second they walk in–and often get their denomination, or something close. It’s kinda fun. (Now that I see that in print, its kind of sad.)

  2. Interesting to hear how things are over the Atlantic. I don’t know whether the chap doing the research is looking at Presbyterianism and Episcopalianism generally or with specific reference to the US, but I can offer a few comments about the situation over here, albeit based upon experience rather than detailied study.

    Nowadays, most sermons in Scotland will fall into two types. There is the standard model very similar to the one you outline in point two, Scott, whereby the preacher takes a Biblical passage and discusses it, using it as a means of shedding light upon some aspect of church life or daily living, or on a particular theme (poverty, social justice, the role of religion in the secular world). The second model if the old-fashioned method of preaching through a section of the Bible – looking at a chapter or a few verses and expounding each verse in turn, unpacking what each means and the implications of it for the church and the way that we live. This second type is much less common nowadays, and tends to be given by those on the (far) right of theological spectrum. In a sense it’s legacy belongs more to the ‘lecture’ that used to be a key component of Reformed worship rather than preaching per se.

    One other noticeable trend of recent years is for the preacher to start off the sermon with a wee story of joke, presumably to get the attention of the congregation. Often upon hearing them, one realises why they became ministers rather than comedians…

    A few years back I did a wee bit of research on sermons in the nineteenth century, and found that there was a trend for them to be split and ordered into three distinct sections:

    1. Exposition – the preacher offers a description and contextualisation of the passage, explaining where it fits into the wider story of the book and drawing out something about the main characters.

    2. Explanation – the passage is “theologised” (for want of a better term), showing what can be taken from it that helps us understand some point of doctrine, an understanding of God, etc.

    3. Application – the preacher takes the ‘story’ of the passage, either in its contextual or theological sense, and applies it to the contemporary world, sometimes in relation to everyday life, sometimes focussed upon particular issues.

    This wasn’t a prescriptive form of preaching and not all sermons followed it, while even those that did would not necessarily trace each stage in turn, but it’s fairly reflective of many sermons of that time as a general model.

    Incidentally, there’s a good article on the historical role of preaching in the Presbyterian churches of Scotland. It’s called ‘The Scottish Tradition of Preaching’, by David Read, found within Duncan Forrestor and Douglas Murray’s edited collection ‘Studies in the History of Worship in Scotland’ (2nd ed., 1996). (If the chap doing the research is looking for a copy and can’t access one over there, then let me know and I can send a copy over.)

  3. “Often upon hearing them, one realises why they became ministers rather than comedians…”

    My wife would completely agree…at least for my jokes!
    I had forgotten about the distinction between lectures and sermons, I think that went back to puritan times. I remember seeing presbytery minutes in late 17th C that required a candidate to give a lecture in Latin at one meeting of presbytery then a popular sermon in English at another as part of their trials for licensing.
    Thanks for the a view from Scotland.

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