How do preachers connect with their congregations, so that the hearers experience the world of Scripture speaking to their world?
I have set myself the pleasurable task of reading through Augustine’s sermons.
These sermons that are over 1,500 years old and have been published in ten volumes with a new contemporary translation by the New City Press. These ancient sermons speak with a remarkable freshness to our times. Augustine preached in North Africa on the edge of the disintegrating Roman Empire in the fifth century AD, but his lively observations on Scripture speak again and again to our own times.
These daily doses of ancient wisdom have done me good at a number of levels. I have been nourished as a Christian, stimulated as a preacher and been reminded again and again that the Bible speaks today, and in every ‘today’.
I have been posting a daily quote from these sermons and have been pleasantly surprised by the response. Augustine never seems to fail to turn up a fresh angle on the biblical passages upon which he preaches. He has the ability to drill deep into Scripture in ways that connect ancient texts with contemporary questions and needs.
The active presence of the congregation was always an important feature of Augustine’s preaching. In one of his sermons he invites his hearers to join him in this journey of discovery in the biblical text.
“I think it would be a very good idea if, in such deep scriptural waters, in whose words something is perhaps lurking and hiding which could profitably be brought out into the open, we were somehow to join forces in faithfully fishing and searching, in order, we hope, to earn the reward of a worthwhile catch or discovery.” (Augustine Sermon 144)
At times the preacher and congregation are only like a fisherman in the sense that they complain about the ‘one that got away’. Augustine did not want to lose his audience, instead he used all the skills he possessed to effectively engage the hearers.
Augustine is never dull and predictable. He is never satisfied with merely covering the biblical material. He is always on the lookout for a fresh insight that will jolt the reader into understanding.
The other feature of Augustine’s sermons that I find so helpful is his ability to read and address his hearers. His preaching is never vague, it is always focused and direct. Sometimes he will address different groups in the congregation, directing his comments to each particular group in turn. He was dialoguing with his audience so that they felt actively involved in the process. One of the editors of Augustine’s sermons explains:
“It is permissible to imagine the preacher’s sense of accomplishment when at the end of a subtle explanation given with great effort his hearers showed their comprehension, manifesting their enthusiastic assent not only by their facial expression but by their resounding applause.” (General Introduction to Augustine’s Sermons, New City Press.)
Ah! Of course, Augustine did not need to contend with the issue of whether the congregation should wear masks or not! I am sure that if he did, he would come up with some biblical insight that would get the congregation clapping and cheering.