Metaphors for Preaching


I’ve started Thomas Long’s The Witness of Preaching for my class this semester. This has become a standard text on preaching in many seminaries and preaching classes. I’m not done, but I must say that this book is outstanding so far. The book provides a basis for considering the nature of preaching and its role within the church. The book provides practical steps for sermon development and delivery. It’s full of insights, and I have certainly enjoyed it so far.

In the first chapter, Long sets out three metaphors for how preaching has been typically conceived, and he concludes with his suggestion for an alternative metaphor.

  • Herald. The herald primarily views preaching as pronouncement. It involves the idea of a messenger sent on behalf of an authority to relay a message, and the herald’s chief concern is to relay the message accurately. It was championed by Karl Barth, and it has been advanced by many preachers since. Long applauds this metaphor for the seriousness with which it regards the text and the effort to be faithful to it. However, he notes that it de-emphasizes important components of preaching like effective communication style, the relationship between the preacher and the congregation, and the varying situations of the audience.
  • Pastor. Unlike the herald, the pastor metaphor emphasizes the listener and the impact of the sermon on the hearer. The personality of the preacher and rhetorical form in the sermon aid the process of preaching. The gospel is presented as a solution to individual problems, and its ability to resolve personal issues and provide healing is highlighted. Long points out that the pastor image of preaching addresses the weakness of the herald metaphor, including the dynamics of communication and the situation of the audience, but it creates weaknesses of its own. It develops an inflated sense of individual relevance and a limited view of the gospel. The gospel addresses individuals as parts of communities of faith and traces the people of God throughout history. Additionally, the gospel stakes a claim on the present, but it finds ultimate fulfillment in the future.
  • The Storyteller/Poet. The story-teller focuses on the literary and artistic character of preaching as seen in the form of narrative. The gospel is primarily a story about what God has done in the world and his interaction with humanity. It does not merely consist of doctrinal beliefs, but it finds it voice in the interaction of the good news with individual lives. Moreover, some proponents of the preacher as poet state that the sermon should be given in the form of a narrative with plots and logical sequence rather than linear points derived from a theme. A story prompts the audience to engage the message as they consider the story of their own lives. The author has many positive things to say about this metaphor, but he notes that it fails to account for other literary genres in Scripture and like the pastor model, it can be guilty of overemphasizing the experiential aspect of preaching.
  • Witness. Long’s preferred metaphor for preaching is a witness, as evidenced in the title of the book. Two items are necessary for a person to qualify as a witness. First, a witness must have actually seen the events in question. Second, a witness must be willing to tell others about what they have seen and heard. The author emphasizes that a preacher must go to the Scripture on behalf of the congregation, seeing and experiencing it, and then come before others and accurately and faithfully tell what is found there. Long argues that this metaphor has biblical precedent, and it possesses the positive aspects of the previous metaphors while eliminating many of their flaws.

So, what’s my take on all this? The introduction of these metaphors was helpful for me to think through the goal and process of preaching. The herald metaphor for preaching was probably modeled for me more than any other in my upbringing, and it dominated my early preaching. As I consider these metaphors, the herald and pastor images are helpful for a consideration of preaching, but only so much as they are combined with other metaphors. I would agree with Long’s critiques of each one of them.

I have been particularly intrigued with narrative in Scripture and taking account of this in evangelism, Biblical interpretation, and now preaching. So, the preacher as a story-teller is compelling to me. It’s a crucial part of the Bible, and it should not be ignored in preaching and teaching. Yet, it cannot provide the sole picture of preaching, either.

I appreciate the two-part component of the witness metaphor, and it certainly stands as a Biblical notion, although mostly (maybe exclusively?) in the sense of first century witnesses to the events of Christ. It lacks the vividness of the other metaphors in addressing certain aspects of preaching, but its general nature allows it to be more encompassing of more aspects of preaching.

Metaphors usually convey a single idea really well, but they fail to provide a full picture for something else. They are not really designed to provide a perfect and complete analogy. Therefore, I don’t think it’s a cop-out to argue that all of these metaphors are helpful to convey the act of preaching.

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3 Responses to Metaphors for Preaching

  1. Patrick says:

    Sounds like quite a good book. I think one of the most helpful things we can do in our thinking is reexamine (or pay attention for the first time to) our metaphors. I read something the other day that really resonated with me, in a book that discusses metaphors that have been used in science: “The temptation to ignore negative analogies in our pleasure with seeing positive ones is understandable and compelling. But we must try constantly to recall the basic analogical nature of our arguments if we are to remain masters of our own belief, capable of discriminating between fruitful insights into the world and gross distortions of it” (Richard Olson, Science as Metaphor: The Historical Role of Scientific Theories in Forming Western Culture).

    I wonder what other preaching metaphors we use in our circles, and how helpful or detrimental they are? I wonder how Long would evaluate our “preacher as guardian” one?

  2. Pingback: Self-Focused or God-Focused? | Theological Sweets

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