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In addition to being the center of worship for the Princeton Seminary campus, Miller Chapel is where students learn to preach. InSpire asked PTS’s three preaching professors to reflect on their teaching and their experience of preaching and worship.

James F. Kay, the Joe R. Engle Associate
Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics

High above Middle America the TWA flight attendant struck up a conversation with me and my PTS colleague, Charles Bartow.

“Are you professors?” (Had she seen our books on Calvin balanced on our tray tables?)

“Yes,” I averred.

“What do you teach?”
“Preaching,” I replied.

“My husband is a preacher. We’re National Baptists in St. Louis.”

Then it was my turn: “Do you think preaching can be taught?”

“I don’t know,” she said politely. “I do know that you can’t preachwithout the anointing.”

Can preaching be taught? I often ask myself that question, especially when colleagues ask with furrowed brows if the student preaching in Miller Chapel yesterday happened to be one of mine! (Of course, when students preach well, it is tempting to claim I taught them everything they know.)

The ability to preach is a gift from God, the “gift of prophecy” the New Testament sometimes calls it. It is certainly not the only gift the Spirit passes around to the people of God, but some Christians are more gifted as preachers than others. One hopes that persons claiming the call to the ministry of the Gospel will have in some measure the gift of prophecy or “the anointing” from on High, as my flight attendant put it.

Most preaching is learned through imitation. I remember at sixteen trying to imitate Peter Marshall (à la Richard Todd in A Man Called Peter), complete with those Scottish burrs! (Aren’t congregations patient?) Later, I modeled my preaching on my college chaplain, Reuben Welch, a biblical expositor, who knew what grace was and who incarnated preaching as pastoral care.

When I went off to divinity school, I never took a preaching class. It was the ’60s, and preaching was passé. It was years later, after I was ordained, that I took my first preaching course from Bill Skudlarek, a Benedictine and a Princeton Ph.D. (Class of 1976) teaching at St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota. In retrospect, those summers at St. John’s were a turning point for me. I began to think theologically about what I was doing, rather than simply relying on my gifts and the churchly models I had imitated. Later, at Union Seminary in New York, I had the privilege of serving under James A. Forbes as a tutor in his basic preaching class, and to continue thinking about preaching from the standpoint of what Rudolf Bultmann called “the Christ-event.”

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All of this is to say that there are many ways we come to the preaching task even before we take Introduction to Preaching. Students bring all sorts of experiences and models into the classroom. What I try to do as a teacher of preachers is to encourage them to join me in exposing what we bring to the pulpit “to the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” Such testing of our proclamation is necessary for the sake of the preacher, the church, and the Gospel itself. As a teacher of preachers, I am also a coach or a cultivator trying to assist students in stirring up their gift of prophecy. There are certain basic skills of the homiletical craft that can be taught, things like exegetical method, sermonic structures, and rhetorical devices.

What I cannot teach students is how to create faith, hope, and love. That’s the Triune God’s job. No rhetorical techniques or hermeneutical theories can ever replace the anointing of the Spirit. But God’s graciousness does not justify our cavalierness or our carelessness. If only God can make the Gospel significant, surely we preachers are called to signify it to the best of our ability, our offering of thanksgiving and praise.

And, so, conversing at 30,000 feet above the heartland, I still found the homiletics classroom necessary, if simply to remind would-be preachers and their teachers that it is only relatively necessary. Come, Holy Spirit!

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