St Paul, Dr Donne, and “Relatable Preaching”

by The Rev'd Dane E. Boston

Preachers get a lot of pressure to be “relatable.” “Folks have to be able to hear your message,” is a common refrain. By that, people usually mean you need to be approachable in style, relevant in allusions and illustrations, and sensitive to your context. Practically speaking, the idea is that if you open with a joke, tell a good story, and put people at ease, then they’ll be better inclined to hear what you have to say about Scripture.

(Of course, some folks may not mean this at all when they talk about “relatable preaching”, and I hope they will correct my error. I offer the preceding summary of “relatable preaching” because I have heard many people define the phrase in that way, and also because that’s how I myself once used it, and thought about it, and strove for it—though I wonder whether the good people at St Paul’s Church in Wallingford, Connecticut, who endured my earliest sermons, would believe that I was actually trying to be relatable…)

The basic principle is sound, and obvious. It would do no good for a preacher to stand up in a pulpit and preach in a language totally foreign to his congregation—what Article XXIV calls “a tongue not understanded of the people.” Neither should a preacher throw up unnecessary barriers for the comprehension of her listeners through the choice of arcane or obscure topics, stylistic affectations, or ponderous diction. Overwrought prose and overreaching concepts are both equally unhelpful.

But if the principle is solid, the practice of “relatable preaching” is often disastrous. In the name of being relatable, I have heard preachers disembowel their sermons—gutting anything that might make a potential listener feel uncomfortable, or confused, or bad about him or herself. In the name of being relatable, I have seen preachers and worship leaders reduced to pandering, preening showmen, trying too hard to be contemporary and hip. In the absolute worst cases, I have seen the desire to be heard (with its attendant distractions and gimmicks) completely overwhelm the message that needs to be heard.

The whole problem springs from a paradox at the very heart of the preacher’s practice and purpose: preachers must speak in a way that can be understood—but we come bearing News too great ever to be understood in its fullness, at least on this side of the eschaton. Our business is to point people to a brightness too great to behold; to tune the hearts of our congregation to a music too high for humankind; “to scrute the inscrutable, and to eff the ineffable,” as I once heard someone rather sillily say it.

Remembering that crucial (!) paradox, I have become convinced that the preacher’s primary focus can never be the vain effort to relate. Instead, he or she must seek simply to proclaim.

Paul’s description of his preaching in I Corinthians 1 and 2 profoundly shapes my thinking on these matters. To a community yearning for eloquence, words of wisdom, and entertaining speech—the “relatable preaching” of an earlier age—Paul says bluntly: “[Christ sent me] to proclaim the Gospel, and not with eloquent wisdom, so that the cross of Christ might not be emptied of its power” (I Corinthians 1:17). 

The Cross is not relatable. It’s not meant to make perfect sense. In fact, “the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (I Cor 1:18). Paul didn’t come to Corinth trying to speak in a way “that could be heard.” He didn’t want to be “relatable.” He came with an announcement—a proclamation. He knew it would get him into trouble. He knew it would earn the ire of some, the contempt of others, and the derisive laughter of many more.

And that was the point. Paul’s message came like a thunderbolt to the places he preached. He could not control or corral the reactions of his hearers. His task was instead to be faithful in proclaiming, and then to trust that the Holy Spirit would be active in the hearts of his listeners. And so in I Corinthians 2:4-5, he writes “My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”

All of these thoughts on preaching and proclamation came to me again a few nights ago as I was reading a sermon by John Donne. (I recently received a copy of Volume III of the new Oxford Edition of the Sermons of John Donne. Volume III is the first to be printed in this edition, and it includes all the sermons that Donne preached before the court of King Charles I. It’s wonderful reading, and makes me very excited for the publication of additional volumes—more than twelve are planned!)

On April 1, 1627, Donne preached before Charles at the Palace of Whitehall. His text was Mark 4:24, “Take heed what you hear.” William Laud had just been appointed Dean of the Chapel Royal in September 1626, and a renewed emphasis on ritual and liturgy threatened to dethrone preaching from its central place in reformed English worship. Within that context, Donne’s sermon was a bold, extended defense of the work and witness of preaching. (The sermon was highly controversial at the time, and apparently even resulted in Donne being investigated by Laud. Nothing ultimately came of that investigation. I am indebted to David Colclough’s fine “Introduction” to Volume III for this background information.)

The whole sermon is excellent, but two passages stood out to me in connection with the topic of “relatable preaching.” The first is about God’s decision to proclaim and announce himself through the ministry of preachers:

And for Publication of himselfe here, by the way, [God] hath constituted a Church, in a Visibility, in an eminency, as a City upon a hill; And in this Church, his Ordinance is Ordinance indeed; his Ordinance of preaching batters the soule, and by that breach, the Spirit enters; His Ministers are an Earth-quake, and shake an earthly soule; They are the sonnes of thunder and scatter a cloudy conscience; They are as the fall of waters and carry with them whole Congregations; 3000 at a Sermon, 5000 at a Sermon, a whole City, such a City as Niniveh at a Sermon; and they are as the roaring of a Lion, where the lion of the tribe of Juda, cries down the Lion that seekes whom he may devour; that is, Orthodoxall and fundamentall truths, are established against clamorous and vociferant innovations. Therefore what Christ tels us in the darke, he bids us speake in the light; and what he saies in our eare, he bids us preach on the house top.

Donne’s confidence in the power and importance of preaching (and preachers) is extraordinary. Consider the wonderful pun on “Ordinance.” In a basic sense, Donne refers to God’s command to the preacher to preach. But he also uses a secondary meaning of the word “ordinance” (shortened in later years to “ordnance”), meaning “cannon” or “weapon.” Preaching carried out according to God’s command (ordinance) is in fact God’s artillery (ordnance) against the rebellious defenses of the soul. The preacher’s bombardment opens a breach in the wall, and through that breach the Spirit enters. (The image evokes Donne’s famous poem “Batter my heart, three person’d God.”)

For Donne, preachers are earthquakes, thunderstorms, floods, and roaring lions. To preach is to become a force of nature: a tool in the Lord’s hand. The question here is not “Am I relatable?” but “Am I faithful?”: faithful to the ordinance—the command—of God; faithful to the message of Christ, for “what Christ tels us in the darke, he bids us speake in the light; and what he saies in our eare, he bids us preach on the house top.”

And faithfulness to that command, that message, matters infinitely more than concerns about reception. We can, as God gives us grace, proclaim the message he has implanted in our hearts. We can never, by any power within ourselves, control the way people respond to our message.

Donne himself makes this point brilliantly just a little later in the same sermon. Arguing against “Corner Divinity”—preaching or teaching specially suited to certain tastes and not proclaimed boldly to all—Donne declares,

So the Apostles proceeded; when they came in their peregrination, to a new State, to a new Court, to Rome it selfe, they did not enquire, how stands the Emperour affected to Christ, and to the preaching of his Gospel; Is there not a Sister, or a Wife that might be wrought upon to further the preaching of Christ? Are there not some persons, great in power and place, that might be content to hold a party together, by admitting the preaching of Christ? This was not their way; They only considered who sent them; Christ Jesus: And what they brought; salvation to every soul that embraced Christ Jesus. That they preached; and still begunne with a Vae si non; Never tell us of displeasure, or disgrace, or detriment, or death, for preaching of Christ. For woe be unto us, if we preach him not.

I love the sarcasm in this passage! The image of Paul or Peter scuttling into town and doing some reconnaissance, trying to determine whether the Emperor might be open to a little preaching…or whether there might be a sympathetic female in the household who could grease the wheels for them. Donne plays upon and encourages the misogyny of his age through his mention of “a Sister, or a Wife.” We can imagine derisive chuckles rising from his congregation at the notion that the disciples would use a woman as an inroad into imperial favor. (Never mind the very real influence that women did indeed wield at court.)

But notice how Donne then immediately turns to confront and skewer the pretensions of his own audience. There in the Chapel Royal, he dismisses the influence of “some persons, great in power and place, that might be content to hold a party together, by admitting the preaching of Christ.” He tells the assembled courtiers—and the king himself—that the apostolic preaching was never meant to be a mere cog in a vast political machine: a means of currying and keeping favor. The proclamation of Christ is not a useful tool for princes and politicians. God is no respecter of persons, seeking out the influential and the important to accomplish his purposes. Neither do his commissioned messengers tailor their message to the ulterior motives of their hearers.

Instead, they proclaim. “[The Apostles] only considered who sent them; Christ Jesus: And what they brought; salvation to every soul that embraced Christ Jesus. That they preached; and still begunne with a Vae si non; Never tell us of displeasure, or disgrace, or detriment, or death, for preaching of Christ. For woe be unto us, if we preach him not.”

That is our call, and that is our only hope.

So preach, preacher. Preach, not in anxiety whether you may be understood, but in confidence that you have been obedient. Preach, not in worry about whether your message has been received, but in wonder at the words you have been given to say: the announcement that you—even you!—have been given to make. Preach, not that you may be relatable to women and men, but that God may relate himself, convey himself, give himself to your hearers. This he has done already, in the person of Jesus our Lord. This he does still, by the power of his Word at work in you. This he shall do, when at last the Day dawns, and the shadows depart, and we see not in a mirror dimly, but face to face; when we know not in part, but in full, even as we have been fully known.

In expectation of that coming Day, preach!