In a moment when overall participation in church-life is diminishing, it seems a natural inclination for church leaders to band together for text study. When you can’t find enough of your kind right around you, reach out farther until you’ve got a support group in place.
This is a natural inclination, but it isn’t a healthy one, especially for preachers. Let’s explore why.
First, think about how differently the life situation of clergy is from those listening to the sermon on Sunday morning. We know from read-response criticism that clergy more frequently imagine themselves into the text as religious leaders, or as Jesus, where as other hears enter (imaginatively) the biblical text as other characters.
Mark Allan Powell calls this narrative criticism, the goal of which is to determine the effects biblical stories are to have on their audience.
So, imagine. A group of clergy gather to discuss a biblical text as preparation for preaching on it. All of them experience the text out of their experience as clergy.
What’s missing from this scenario? Well, basically everybody else who isn’t a clergy person.
A group of clergy, discussing a biblical text, may very well bring along more equipment and academic resources for discussion than a non-clergy group. What they will lack is in way of thinking about the text in a non-churchy way.
If this is the primary way the text is considered, then preaching on it will totally miss the hearers come Sunday morning, or will at the very least aim to answer a variety of questions the actual assembly doesn’t have. Sure, most pastors engage the text in other ways also, but clergy text study groups seem strangely, well, abstracted.
Admittedly, I’m being somewhat provocative here in my approach, and especially in the title of the post. However, I’m not sure it’s that provocative. It’s more instructive. If you want your sermon to land, if you want to reach the text in a way that begins with the audience and its way of receiving the text, it’s probably best to spend time with the audience.
Sermon preparation integrated into regular daily life, regular church life, life spent with the people of God rather than set-apart clergy, is a solid approach.
In an era when the temptation will be to escape into special clergy spaces, all the more so. I’m noticing already in North American contexts a tendency for Christian clergy to do this. More and more, they’re taking time to travel and spend time at big clergy events, special ordinations, special installations.
In depictions of these moments, what I see mostly lacking is: the people of God.
I’m concerned about a certain kind of clericalism that is setting in. We should avoid it, but it will take some work, because it will mean leaning into our loneliness and discomfort.
Who should clergy do text study with? Well, basically everybody else other than clergy.