Friday, September 9, 2016

To improve the Church's Preaching: An interview with Dr. Mike Graves

Dr. Mike Graves, Wm McElvaney Professor of Preaching and Worship,
Saint Paul School of Theology, Overland Park, KS
Each Sunday, preachers have this task:  to speak a good word about God’s Word.  A powerful and holy calling, often preachers feel ambivalent about the results or their stamina with the week to week challenge.  At best, preparing for the Sunday sermon can be taxing.  During a week filled with unexpected (and sometimes even expected) pastoral challenges, the sermon sometimes gets relegated to the crack of dawn or the wee hours of the night.

Many preachers will point gladly to mentors who helped them learn the ropes.  Among my own mentors is the Rev. Dr. Mike Graves, Wm. McElvaney, Professor of Preaching and Worship at the Saint Paul School of Theology in Overland Park, KS. 
Prior to SPST, Dr. Graves served in similar capacities at the Midwestern Theological Seminary and Central Baptist Theological Seminary (my alma mater).  Dr. Graves is the author of many books and articles on preaching and frequently in church pulpits and offering workshops for preachers seeking new or renewed skills.  Dr. Graves is an ordained minister in the Christian Church/Disciples of Christ. 

The interview below was conducted via e-mail over the Labor Day weekend:

1)                  Share in brief your background as a preacher and homiletics professor. 

Some preachers grow up in the church, attending Sunday school in rooms with cribs and eventually graduating to chairs and even pews. Not me. I attended the Catholic church where I was baptized only sporadically, and have the vaguest memories of one Vacation Bible School at a Nazarene church near us. So when I came to faith as a freshman in college, I dove head first into Bible study and discipleship, going to seminary shortly thereafter.

If asked the first day of seminary about my vocational goals, I would have said “Preacher.” Not “Pastor” but “Preacher.” So naturally I took preaching courses as soon as they let me, and in that first exposure to the discipline of homiletics I found myself taking the course as everyone does but also thinking about what the professor was doing. Here was someone helping us think about what we think when putting sermons together. Na├»ve as it may sound, the first Christmas break of seminary I penned a draft syllabus for how I would teach preaching some day. My professor encouraged me to think about a PhD in preaching, which is precisely what I did.

I served some churches as pastor along the way, but for the most part the whole of my vocation has been teaching in seminaries. When a stranger on an airplane asks what I do for a living, I start by asking them if they’ve ever been to church and what they think about preaching. Many of them roll their eyes, indicating some measure of disappointment. That’s when I volunteer that my vocation is helping to improve the Church’s preaching.

 2)            In the time you’ve taught seminarians and pastors seeking continuing education, what has stayed the same in terms of the field and what has changed, particularly in the past few years, about homiletics and out in the field (i.e. local church pulpits)?  Anything that you can point to that your younger self wouldn’t have necessarily anticipated as a priority for preachers these days?

 Over the last 25-plus years of doing workshops and retreats with pastors, the one constant it seems to me is that ministers want help with their preaching, recognize that they could be better. Not only that, but they want to be better. The thing that has changed the most is the culture around us, not just the headlines but the technology. People’s lives are busier, so they tend to be more distracted. Except that’s not just true of those who sit in pews but those who stand in pulpits. Preachers know the people are wired, connected, online. I’m not sure how much they realize it keeps them from being still, studying hard to find a word from God. And of course with so many more online resources, there’s always the temptation to take shortcuts. I didn’t see this coming down the road, and I don’t know that any of us did, except for a few cultural prophets here and there, people like Neil Postman maybe.

3)            What books of late are you recommending to preachers who are already in the field yet need some refreshment or retooling?

Every discipline has books galore, although preaching may be one of those disciplines easily neglected after seminary. We preachers are busy looking for help with the ingredients for our sermons; we don’t have time to think about the way we cook. So we read Barbara Brown Taylor and Walter Brueggemann, and rightly so. But in terms of cooking up sermons, in terms of thinking homiletically about our calling, Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death, even if older, would be good. It’s not about preaching per se, and yet I’ve sometimes called it “the most important book that preachers have never read.”

More recent titles, in no particular order, would include: Luke Powery, ‘Dem Dry Bones, Cornelius Plantinga Jr, Reading for Preaching, Anna Carter Florence, Preaching as Testimony, David Lose, Preaching at the Crossroads, Ronald Allen, Hearing the Sermon, and Mark Allan Powell, What Do They Hear?

4)            As you look ahead, what projects are you working on for the parish and the academy alike? 

Last year my latest title, The Story of Narrative Preaching, came out. Since then I’ve finished a manuscript more focused on the Church’s worship, specifically Communion. The working title is Eating and Talking in Church: Rethinking Communion and Community. But even it deals with some of the dialogical styles of preaching that are still emerging. I’m also putting together a collection of essays as something of a sequel to my earlier work, What’s the Matter with Preaching Today? That volume honored the legacy of Harry Emerson Fosdick. This one honors Fred Craddock, and is called What’s Right with Preaching Today? In addition to the baker’s dozen of essays included, the volume also features personal remembrances of Fred by a whole host of folks.

5)         Any concluding thoughts?

If I have any concluding remarks, it would be that the longer I teach preaching the more convinced I become that doing it every week, reading about it, even attending conferences and the like may not be enough, important as all those things are. What may be most needed is more personal attention, more intentional reflection with a preaching coach. I’ve started doing that with local pastors in the Kansas City area where I live, and it seems to me to hold the most promise. If someone reading this really wants to improve, I suggest they see if there isn’t someone near them who might serve as a preaching coach. Like those folks on the airplanes asking about my vocation, God too knows the Church not only could have better preaching, but the Church deserves better preaching.


To learn more, consider reading one of Dr. Graves’ books:
The Story of Narrative Preaching: Experience and Exposition: A Narrative.  Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2015.

Preaching Matthew: Interpretation and Proclamation,  co-authored with David M. May.  St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2007.

The Fully Alive Preacher:  Recovering from Homiletical Burnout.  Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2006.

The Sermon as Symphony:  Preaching the Literary Forms of the New Testament.  Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1997.

Edited works:

What’s the Shape of Narrative Preaching?  Co-editor with David J. Schlafer.  St. Louis, MO:  Chalice Press, 2008.

What’s the Matter with Preaching Today?  Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2004.


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