Pulpit and Pew (Installment 26)

My eighth grade English teacher was a wonderful woman named Mrs. Tolbert, who not only kept on me about tucking in my shirt and buttoning my sleeves (I must have been a very sloppy teenager), but who kept on all of us about prepositions. Mrs. Tolbert said they shouldn’t be dangled but should be tucked in properly like the tail of my shirts. For those who don’t recall the precise definition of a dangled preposition, it’s the forbidden practice of ending a sentence with one. In other words, it’s not proper English to inquire, “Where are you at?”

While I understand that some stylesheets now allow for ending sentences with prepositions (with apologies to English teachers everywhere), it turns out those fairly insignificant parts of speech play an important role in preaching. Here’s what I mean. If you ask a preacher what she’s talking about this Sunday, that’s commonly expressed this way, “So what are you preaching on?” (Yes, I see the dangling preposition.) The “on” in this case is meant to indicate the topic. Preachers speak “on” different topics all the time. “About” would be roughly equivalent with “on.”

Another common preposition in preaching is “to,” typically indicating the congregation that the sermon is designed for. (Oops, sorry, Mrs. Tolbert. I should have said, “…the sermon for whom the sermon is designed.”) Ask a preacher about their congregation, and you will get an answer indicating the “to” part, the listeners. Closely related, but with a very different perspective is the preposition “at.” Preachers who preach “at” congregations have a different theology altogether, usually a top-down, harsh message of repentance from which they are somehow conveniently excluded themselves.

My favorite preposition in preaching is “with.” The preacher engages the biblical text and the contemporary world “with” those gathered. One way to think about preaching “with” involves triangulation. Even if you’ve never studied family systems theory, you are familiar with triangulation. I remember when our kids were little being asked one time, “Can we go to Worlds of Fun this Saturday? Mom said we could.” That’s triangulation, two (or more) against one. In preaching that sort of thing happens when the preacher and the biblical text gang up on the congregation. That’s more “at” than “with.”

But what if we reconfigured the triangle? What if the preacher and the people of the church encountered the biblical text, sometimes letting it ask us questions and other times the other way around, us questioning the text, probing it? From what I can tell reading recent literature in preaching theory and visiting lots of different churches, that kind of preaching is catching on. (Sorry, another dangling preposition.) Still, it is something to talk about. (Ugh.)

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