By C. Christopher Smith on Nov 1, 2019
If we re-cast preaching as a kind of "slow reading," we might lead our congregations into deeper engagement with the biblical text--and with one another.
In the wake of Slow Food and other Slow movements that have risen over the last quarter-century, there has been a growing interest in slow reading in recent years. David Mikics, one of the leading advocates for slow reading and author of the helpful book Slow Reading in a Hurried Age, describes its benefits:
Slowness means discovery. A good book dawns on us, and within us, with gradual sweetness and strength. … [What] we get from even a single good book, slowly and carefully read, is an education. Moving at a deliberate pace, we discover what writers really think, and as a result we develop our own minds.
Just as "Slow Food" seeks to build community among those who share food together, so also slow reading seeks to foster deeper relationships between readers and authors, as well as among communities of readers. Slow reading, however, is not such a novelty in the Christian tradition. It may seem new to many of us because we have been deeply formed by the modern, industrial powers of speed, but whether we realize it or not, Christians have inherited ancient traditions of carefully reading and meditating upon texts in community.
Perhaps the most ancient Christian practice of slow reading is lectio divina, which developed in monasteries within 500 years after the life of Christ. Lectio divina is usually described as four interwoven elements that have retained their Latin names: lectio (reading, and typically reading aloud), meditatio (meditation, entering into a conversation with the text), oratio (prayer, encountering God in the text) and contemplatio (contemplation, beginning to imagine how a text might be lived out).
Preaching, I believe, is a kind of slow reading in which we read and contemplate the biblical text and allow it to lead us as we discern the shape of our life together. Using the four elemental practices of lectio divina, I would like to explore briefly here how thinking of preaching as a kind of slow reading might lead the members of our congregations into deeper engagement with the biblical text and with one another.
At its best, preaching is focused on reading, understanding and embodying the biblical text, and requires a listening and engaged congregation. If a sermon is merely a religious product to be consumed, there is little hope of transformation and flourishing. Cornelius Plantinga has described preaching as “the presentation of God’s word at a particular time to a particular people by someone the church has authorized to do it.” In this definition, we see that although one individual may be standing up and doing the preaching, the two most important components of preaching are the church—who authorized the preacher and who hears the text—and the text itself.
In order to explore the preaching interplay between church and text as a sort of slow reading, let’s examine it through the lens of the four elemental practices of lectio divina. These elements might be arranged differently in various homiletic contexts, but they all are present.
In most churches, the sermon text is read aloud at least once. Sometimes the full passage is read aloud as a separate part of the service preceding the sermon. Often the preacher will read the passage aloud verse-by-verse as he progresses through it in his sermon. Either way, the act of reading Scripture aloud is a type of lectio. The congregation hears the text and, if they are attentive and the text is read slowly and well, the church abides with the text—parts of it will stick in people’s minds, and questions might arise as it is read.
Although we as preachers may pray before and after a sermon, oratio is most importantly practiced in the congregation’s preparation to encounter God in the biblical text of the sermon. In his classic work, Celebration of Discipline, Richard Foster emphasizes that an essential part of worship is a people who gather with “holy expectancy,” ready to encounter God in their midst.
"The early Christians gathered with anticipation,” he writes, “knowing that Christ was present among them and would teach them and touch them with his living power.” Although I suspect that we could do more to encourage our congregants to be prepared to encounter God in the biblical text, the bulk of the congregation’s work in the lectio divina of preaching unfolds in oratio, in preparing to encounter God in the text.
The bulk of the preacher’s work, on the other hand is focused in meditatio and contemplatio—helping us to reflect on the meaning of the text both in its original context and in today’s world (meditatio) and inspiring our imaginations with thoughts of how we might begin to embody the meaning of the passage in this particular time and place (contemplatio).
Exegesis is an essential part of meditatio, exploring the language and culture in and around the given passage in order to shed light on what it might have meant for those to whom it was originally written. Similarly, explorations of how the text fits into the larger witness of Scripture as a whole and what it might mean for God’s people today are both important tasks that fit within the scope of meditatio.
Although most sermons call us to imagine a way forward from the text into action—the contemplatio element of lectio divina—it seems that contemplatio could be enriched in the local church context by creating space for broader conversation about how the text might be embodied by the full congregation. Although the preacher does play a vital role in leading the church, the task of discerning and embodying Christ falls ultimately on the congregation as a whole.
All too often in our culture of pervasive individualism, members of the church are left to apply and embody the text as they see fit (or not) in their own personal lives. Perhaps the contemplative element of our sermons is not as robust as it could be, but there is in fact almost always a contemplative call to imagine how the given text gets embodied in our lives.
Preaching is a sort of lectio divina—lectio, meditatio, oratio and contemplatio are all present in some form or another in most sermons. Indeed, as a form of lectio divina, preaching is a way of slow reading that can lead us into a deeper way of living and being that stands in contrast to the speed and inattentiveness of the broader Western culture.
If we read the biblical text together slowly and carefully, if our preaching helps the church to meditate on the text bringing it to life, if we encourage our members to be prepared to encounter God in the biblical text as we are gathered together, and if we reflect and talk together about how the text calls us to be transformed and gives shape to our life together, God will guide us into a life of deeper connection with the Scriptural story of God’s redeeming work and with the brothers and sisters of our church community.
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