(RNS) — Good preaching took a hit during the coronavirus — with many preachers speaking into their computers from their living rooms or from an empty sanctuary, cut off from the eyes and ears of their listeners.
A 30-minute documentary about Will Willimon, one of the most effective preachers in the English-speaking world, according to a Baylor University survey, shows how a master craftsman approaches the task. Filmed before the pandemic but released last month on South Carolina’s ETV, “A Will to Preach” follows Willimon, 75 and still preaching and teaching at Duke Divinity School, as he goes from Scripture study to sermon.
Willimon has worn many hats over the years. He was dean of the Duke Chapel for 20 years, a bishop in the North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church for eight and the author of some 70 books. But at heart he’s a preacher, still delivering sermons each Sunday — currently at First Baptist Church in Asheville, North Carolina, filling in for the summer for a minister who is on sabbatical.
A native of South Carolina, Willimon never lost his deep Southern accent or his ability to charm listeners with stories. He tells stories in a conversational way but often leaves listeners pondering a witty or enigmatic ending.
His friend and sometime collaborator, the theologian Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote that Willimon is a master of the “Southern con,” by which he meant someone much smarter than he lets on but able to sweet-talk people with his down-home gift of gab.
Religion News Service spoke to Willimon about how he approaches preaching and what makes for a good sermon. The interview was edited for length and clarity.
The documentary starts with a quick discussion of the merits of using the lectionary, the prescribed Scripture readings for the church year. Why do you like using the lectionary?
In a sense, you preach what you’re told to preach. It can protect the congregation from the minister’s pet crusades. It can also protect the church from being jerked around by the concerns of the moment and the obsessions of that particular demographic. The Scripture sets the agenda. But it also means there are moments when Scripture doesn’t want to talk about what we want to talk about. My own church — the United Methodist Church — is splitting over sexual orientation. Scripture isn’t interested in sexual orientation. I like the way the lectionary says, “How about spending some time talking about what Scripture thinks is important?”
The documentary talks about how you approach preaching by telling stories. When did you first realize you needed to be a storyteller to be a good preacher?
When I was growing up, I thought there’s so many uninteresting sermons because sermons needed better ideas and there were no good ideas in my preacher’s sermons. So as a young preacher I tried to have some stirring, engaging, maybe even controversial idea that I worked into a Christian insight. But at some point I learned you can’t talk about Jesus in abstractions and in ideas. It’s concrete, it’s the incarnation, it’s a story. To preach that story, narrative is uniquely suited. Our lives are narratively constructed. For most of us, life is a matter of trying to find a coherent narrative by which our life has a beginning, a middle and an end. I guess I ended up telling stories because I noted that nobody remembered the theoretical aspects of my preaching. All they remembered was the stories.
One of the risks of telling a story is that people interpret it from a variety of perspectives. But of course, that’s also the risk biblical writers will take. Those multiple interpretations means the Holy Spirit is working in people’s souls. That’s only a problem if you think a preacher’s job is to give you one authoritative, final interpretation.
Someone in the documentary says you make up stories. Why?
A story is a conglomeration of things that have happened. I’ve been preaching at First Baptist Church in Asheville and I was saying Jesus doesn’t always deliver us from difficulty but puts us in difficulty. I ended by talking about an older woman from Raleigh going to a Black Lives Matter demonstration at 11 o’clock at night. That’s a true story. Yet some of the details I changed a bit. But I ended my sermon by saying, “What kind of savior would put an old lady out in downtown Raleigh in the middle of a demonstration with glass breaking?” And I said, “The same kind of savior that put the disciples in a boat during a storm.” The story illustrated the point better than simply the abstract statement “Jesus puts people sometimes in peril.”
Race is a subject that comes up in the documentary. Is that something you talk a lot about?
I’m from Greenville, South Carolina. I was heavily influenced in my early days of ministry by a few pastors who did some remarkably courageous things and many paid dearly for it. My students will sometimes say, “Oh, I can’t get into this issue. Everything is so politicized now and America is so divided.” I said, “I’m sorry if you don’t deal well with controversy and I’m sorry if you can’t handle someone saying, ‘I disagree with you.’ But that comes with the territory of preaching. And it can even be part of the adventure.”
Stanley Hauerwas once wrote an essay about you in which he (facetiously) described your technique as the “Southern con.” What do you think of that?
My defense is I think God gives us whatever you’ve got as a preacher. If you are charming to the point of deceitfulness, God says, “Let me use that. Try not to deceive people. But charm them if you can.” As Emily Dickinson said, “Tell all the truth. But tell it slant.” If you tell it directly, the light of truth can blind people. Also, I’m from the 1960s, and I have an authority problem. I’ve never liked to be told, “You need to do this and you need to do that.” I’ve tried to entice people into goodness. I try to instruct but also leave people room to make that discovery themselves and to willingly go in a certain direction.
I’ve been watching preaching online (during the pandemic). Much of the preaching is scolding and kind of “Hello, good morning. Let me tell you, we have a racial problem in America. You wouldn’t know that. But I’m telling you that. And here’s what you need to do next week to work on that.” Well, where’s God in all of that? I resist that kind of preaching. How about trusting (listeners) to be concerned about these matters, too?
People have noted you often end sermons abruptly or enigmatically.
So did Jesus. Many parables have no explanation, no ending. I think partly a sermon is a communal product. A sermon doesn’t end until God says it’s over. Many times, God doesn’t say it’s over until months later in the hearts and mind of a hearer. It’s a sign that, in a sense, to be a Christian means you’re busy living out sermons in your own life. Someone once told me, “You didn’t really apply; you didn’t tell us how to use this in our daily lives.” Well, I said, “I don’t know how you would use this in your daily work. That’s your problem. Apply it, and let me know how it goes.” I don’t want Christians to think it’s all tied up in a bow and finished. This is one you finish in your own discipleship, in your own life.