above Middle America the TWA flight attendant struck up a conversation with me and my PTS
colleague, Charles Bartow.
Are you professors? (Had she seen our books on
Calvin balanced on our tray tables?)
Yes, I averred.
What do you teach?
Preaching, I replied.
My husband is a preacher. Were National Baptists in St. Louis.
Then it was my turn: Do you think preaching can be taught?
I dont know, she said politely. I do know that you cant
preachwithout the anointing.
Can preaching be taught? I often ask myself that question, especially when colleagues
ask with furrowed brows if the student preaching in Miller Chapel yesterday happened to be
one of mine! (Of course, when students preach well, it is tempting to claim I taught them
everything they know.)
The ability to preach is a gift from God, the gift of prophecy the New
Testament sometimes calls it. It is certainly not the only gift the Spirit passes around
to the people of God, but some Christians are more gifted as preachers than others. One
hopes that persons claiming the call to the ministry of the Gospel will have in some
measure the gift of prophecy or the anointing from on High, as my flight
attendant put it.
Most preaching is learned through imitation. I remember at sixteen trying to imitate
Peter Marshall (à la Richard Todd in A Man Called Peter), complete with those Scottish
burrs! (Arent congregations patient?) Later, I modeled my preaching on my college
chaplain, Reuben Welch, a biblical expositor, who knew what grace was and who incarnated
preaching as pastoral care.
When I went off to divinity school, I never took a preaching class. It was the
60s, and preaching was passé. It was years later, after I was ordained, that I took
my first preaching course from Bill Skudlarek, a Benedictine and a Princeton Ph.D. (Class
of 1976) teaching at St. Johns Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. In retrospect,
those summers at St. Johns were a turning point for me. I began to think
theologically about what I was doing, rather than simply relying on my gifts and the
churchly models I had imitated. Later, at Union Seminary in New York, I had the privilege
of serving under James A. Forbes as a tutor in his basic preaching class, and to continue
thinking about preaching from the standpoint of what Rudolf Bultmann called the
All of this is to say that there are many ways we come to the preaching task even
before we take Introduction to Preaching. Students bring all sorts of experiences and
models into the classroom. What I try to do as a teacher of preachers is to encourage them
to join me in exposing what we bring to the pulpit to the light of the knowledge of
the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. Such testing of our proclamation is
necessary for the sake of the preacher, the church, and the Gospel itself. As a teacher of
preachers, I am also a coach or a cultivator trying to assist students in stirring up
their gift of prophecy. There are certain basic skills of the homiletical craft that can
be taught, things like exegetical method, sermonic structures, and rhetorical devices.
What I cannot teach students is how to create faith, hope, and love. Thats the
Triune Gods job. No rhetorical techniques or hermeneutical theories can ever replace
the anointing of the Spirit. But Gods graciousness does not justify our cavalierness
or our carelessness. If only God can make the Gospel significant, surely we preachers are
called to signify it to the best of our ability, our offering of thanksgiving and praise.
And, so, conversing at 30,000 feet above the heartland, I still found the homiletics
classroom necessary, if simply to remind would-be preachers and their teachers that it is
only relatively necessary. Come, Holy Spirit!