The challenge and joy of teaching preaching to Princeton Seminary students has captivated Sally Brown, PhD ’01, for 18 years during her course Introduction to Preaching.
“Everyone I instruct is familiar with the concept of preaching,” says Brown who is the Elizabeth M. Engle Associate Professor of Preaching and Worship.
However, Brown challenges her students to reconsider the lens of their particular tradition and hold lightly to their preconceived notions of preaching.
“Every student comes to my class with a particular tradition in mind—they have certain ideas of what counts as preaching,” Brown adds. “For some, the sermon is fairly long, and it’s a teaching experience. For others, preaching is a ten-minute homily on a particular text.”
Although length and style of preaching are factors to consider, Brown emphasizes that preaching is more about being in collaboration with the Holy Spirit to proclaim God’s good news through a biblical text.
Brown, who is an ordained Presbyterian minister with more than 20 years of parish and non-parish pastoral experience, points out that most congregations have an eclectic mix of parishioners ranging from young parents with small children to retirees. When one considers the possible variables that could affect their lives such as marital and employment status, various health conditions, personal struggles, and so on, it becomes evident that a one-size-fits-all, life-changing message is impossible—that is, unless the Holy Spirit is involved. Brown encourages preachers to seek and submit to the Holy Spirit.
“From the time you first start to meditate on which text to preach to the moment you are in the pulpit, the Holy Spirit is there,” says Brown.
She encourages her students to take an open, contemplative approach to interpreting Scripture. “One of the hazards of seminary is that you are rewarded so much for writing papers and essays, but an excellent argument in essay form does not make for a very good sermon,” comments Brown. “A sermon is different. Until the Spirit has been able to grab you, the preacher, through the vehicle of that text and rattle your doors and windows, you’re not ready to take to the pulpit and impart something to your listeners.”
However, Brown cautions that when you are truly open to the Spirit, that well-crafted, fussed-over sermon may be interrupted by events in the world or community; one may need to quickly adjust their message without much advance notice. Brown recalls having to make just such an adjustment to her sermon the day after the crash of Space Shuttle Challenger in 1986. “I felt a deep need to modify my message and somehow incorporate that event into the congregation’s worship and the sermon itself,” Brown reflects.
In her book, Ways of the Word: Learning to Preach for Your Time and Place (Fortress Press), co-authored with Luke Powery, Brown addresses the important balance of relating to the needs of the congregation while simultaneously inviting them to think beyond their circumstances—to get involved in what God is doing throughout the world.
Brown believes that to follow Jesus’ model means preachers have a responsibility to address the pertinent issues of the day, and social justice issues are not excluded. Preaching challenges listeners to think beyond their own personal concerns and consider the redemptive work of God on a larger scale, locally and globally.
“Sometimes I think preaching is too small. It’s often focused on the relationship between Jesus and the individual congregant—and that is important. However, that’s not the whole story, because Jesus is up to bigger things,” said Brown. “The Spirit is up to bigger things, transforming the church and the world.”
Sally Brown’s ties to the Seminary trace back to her great-grandfather, Vanderveer Van Arsdale Nicholas, who graduated from Princeton Seminary in 1892. He served churches in Pennsylvania; Forsyth, Missouri, where he planted a church; and Midland, Michigan. At the age of 84 he baptized Brown.