Preaching with presence
Preaching is more than the conveying of information in a logical way - it is when we are awakened by God, and is deeply interpersonal. Shaun Lambert looks at preaching through the lens of interpersonal neurobiology
Is preaching today going through a hardening of the categories of tradition or a period of conceptual transformation? The answer is probably both. The hardening is around the word ‘expository’, but we also live in a time where it is possible for preaching to be influenced by other disciplines.
Preaching is more than the conveying of information in a logical, propositional way. It is when we are awakened by God. It is deeply interpersonal.
I don’t know if interpersonal neurobiology has been used as a lens to look at preaching before, but I have found it very illuminating.
The first interpersonal concept that is interesting for preaching is what Daniel Siegel, an interpersonal neurobiologist, calls ‘presence.’ He defines presence as a state of receptive awareness to whatever is to be experienced in the moment. We know this is at work in preaching intuitively. An aware preacher knows when he is losing people, or finding them, or they are finding God, as she speaks. The preacher that is ‘present’ knows when the Spirit of God is moving.
The second interpersonal concept that inhabits preaching done well is that of ‘attunement.’ Daniel Siegel defines attunement as how we ‘focus our attention on others and take their essence into our inner world.’ A parent who is attuned to her child wakes up just before the child starts crying at night. The research shows that attuned parents help develop secure attachment and resilience in their children. When we are attuned to the congregation, we pick up their signals, and the signals of God in the moment.
We worship a Saviour who had interpersonal presence and was attuned to those he met in the moment. ‘Immediately Jesus knew in his spirit that this is what they were thinking in their hearts, and he said to them...’ (Mark 2:8).
The third interpersonal concept that inhabits preaching that is authentic is resonance. Daniel Siegel defines resonance as emotional attunement – when the person we are present to, and resonant with ‘feels felt.’ A resonant preacher will often hear the words, ‘it was as if you were talking directly to me.’ All of these related interpersonal connections are both a work of the Holy Spirit and part of our potential relational capabilities.
When these three elements come together then we get the all-important elemental phenomenon that Daniel Siegel calls trust. He says that when there is trust, people feel safe enough to open themselves up to new possibilities. In the case of preaching these are the new possibilities of the kingdom.
The beauty of these elements of presence, attunement and resonance is that they are very hard to fake. People can learn techniques and hide behind them, or use them to manipulate, but genuine presence cannot be turned on and off like a tap. Daniel Siegel writes about these interpersonal concepts to help create mindful therapists. I am talking about mindful preachers. What might this mean practically?
It begins with our preparation, and attuned and resonant presence to the text. In our sin we are trapped in self-centred narratives in which we are the centre of all things. The aware preacher must be someone who has (as Michael Quicke defines expository) exposed himself to the power of God’s Word, and then exposes others to it.
God’s narrative enables us to de-centre from our own selfishness and He uses preachers who are present, attuned, and resonant. Such preachers are aware of their own sin, aware of God’s transforming grace, and aware in the moment of the narratives of those in front of them. Many of the people in our congregations will be stuck in rigidity, or falling into chaos. They will be presenting a front-stage persona where all seems well, but back-stage shadows are at work.
We need to help people move out of rigidity or chaos into a new wholeness, the shalom of the kingdom – the repentence that leads to a new mind. We need to get them to a place of trust where they can acknowledge what is happening back-stage, and bring it into the light.
The preacher needs to have been present to the text, attuned with and resonating with its living power. Each passage needs to be planted in our minds weeks before we preach out of it, nurtured and watered with constant attention. With slow prayerful reading (lectio divina) so that the words that come out of it grow like a tree.
After preparation comes the delivery. Reading a script won’t enable you to be present. Nor will memorizing it. Somehow it has to flow out of you conversationally and in dialogue with God and the congregation. We have to take away the safety-net of scripts, and walk the tight-rope of the present moment. Refusing to play it safe in monologue we should cultivate a style that is dialogue and conversation with the congregation, that involves interaction.
Too often the preacher speaks out of fear: fear of getting it wrong, fear of being criticised. This closes down possibilities and hardens the categories of preaching. We cannot play it safe out of fear.
In order to deal with the fear the preacher must be present to God’s love, attuned to God’s love, and resonating with God’s love – the love that is the truth, the justice, the peace, and the hope of our lives and the world.
Whether John Wesley said it or not, if we set ourselves on fire with God’s love, people will come to watch us burn. But a flame can become a fire.
Shaun Lambert is the minister Stanmore Baptist Church. He is part of the New Wine leader's network, and PREMIER Mind and Soul network. For the last ten years he has studied integrative and relational counselling at Roehampton University and has written regularly for The Baptist Times. He is the author of A Book of Sparks, A Study in Christian Mindfullness