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Book Review: The People’s Sermon

| Posted: July 20, 2023

In The People’s Sermon – Preaching as a Ministry of the Whole Congregation, author Shauna K. Hannan shares her belief that a person called to preach “is not the sole owner of that privilege.” She also affirms that in “stewarding” the pulpit, as opposed to “owning” it, pastors need to empower and equip all people “to fulfill their baptismal call to proclaim God’s word.” She reminds us that this process of equipping and empowering is not just about “preparation for ministry,” but in fact, “it is ministry.”

Very early in my life as a pastor I realized that a critical part of my job was “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). I have also learned, by working in congregations in which there are dominant and non-dominant groups, of the need to “empower” those who are not part of the dominant group. I have been empowering them, starting with Spanish-speaking Latinos in a white-dominant church, by using one of the practices recommended by Hannan: evoking the community voice during the sermon.

When I read about the premise of Hannan’s book, I was looking forward to learning how to expand the work that I have already started. Although I was tempted to jump directly to Chapter 4 and read about “Collaborative Sermon Preparation,” I started from the beginning, and I am glad that I did. The reflection questions that were included in the first three chapters helped me to develop my own working definition of preaching, and to better understand the value of preaching as a collaborative process.

In Chapter 4, I learned about the practice of congregational exegesis. Not only does the author make the case for the value of context in preaching, but she also provides specific ways to listen to the congregation, and to learn about the broad environment in which the congregation exists, warning us that this is a process that may never end. She also introduces the practice of having “preaching partners,” members of the congregation with whom to do collaborative biblical exegesis. The benefit of having preaching partners, she shares, is that they provide insights that can result in potential sermon content, and that they will likely listen more intently to the sermon.

I appreciate the author providing specific ideas on how to enhance what I am currently doing in the existing congregational Bible study, without reinventing the wheel. Additionally, she encouraged me to reform some things by providing creative and collaborative practices to start with. I walked away with the idea to add the “literary exercise” to our existing Bible study, as a practice in which participants describe the events in the story from the perspective of one of the characters.

I related the most to the content in Chapter 5, Stewarding the Pulpit, because it includes practices that I have already implemented, like evoking the community’s voice, providing opportunities during the sermon for people to interact with others, and having lay people preaching. The practice of evoking the community’s voice, which I started solely during in-person services, has evolved as a practice to empower the online community in our congregation. By inviting them to share their answers to questions I ask during the sermon in the comment section of the online platform, and making sure that those answers are also listened to by all, I am including the entire congregation (now at different locations). I also value that in this chapter the author provided specific examples of sermons that were shaped by a question that arose during a Bible study, and by the intent to invite parishioners to engage their bodies during the sermon.

Chapter 6, Feedback, provided me with a totally new perspective on practices that I had experienced during my homiletics class in seminary, but that I had never thought of carrying forward into my ministry as an ordained person. I was inspired by the author’s proposal to continue the conversation beyond Sunday morning and invite people to “develop their capacity to reflect on the sermon and share their insights with the preacher and one another.” More than simply to make sure that the intent and the impact of the sermon align, implementing these practices develops mutual ministry, in which preaching is “rooted in a relationship of connectedness and mutuality between preacher and the worshippers.”

I value the author’s proposal for a transparent, non-anonymous process that invites the diversity of a congregation to reflect and share their insights. To support that, the book includes a very thorough and comprehensive “how to” section that includes examples, forms, and activities to create the space for valuable feedback.

After learning the practices for collaborative preaching, stewarding the pulpit, and inviting feedback, I felt a little bit overwhelmed with the work ahead, which initially seemed unrealistic for a preacher like me, who is also the head of a congregation. My initial thought that collaborative preaching might result in less individual sermon preparation time on my side, was vanquished by the amount of time needed to implement some of the practices recommended in the book. Thankfully, Hannan provided the final chapter on “Next Steps,” in which she started by sharing ways to start “small but hoping for big impact.” She also recommended meeting the congregation where they are, acknowledging that in some cases that may include offering an education series on preaching as a ministry.

Reading this book reminded me of my mission as a priest in The Episcopal Church to equip and empower all people to fulfill their baptismal call to “proclaim the good news of God in Christ, seek and serve God in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself, striving for justice and peace among all people, and respecting the dignity of every human being” (Book of Common Prayer, 305). At my ordination as a priest, I committed to do so, not just by preaching and ministering to God’s people, but also by “laboring together with them to build up the family of God.” (Book of Common Prayer, 532). I am grateful for this book, for equipping me to fulfill my priestly mission.

Review by the Rev. Dr. Antonio J. Gallardo
St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, Long Beach, CA

The Peoples’ Sermon: Preaching as a Ministry of the Whole Congregation
Shauna K. Hannan. Minneapolis, Fortress Press: 2021. $19.99