YOU NEVER STEP INTO THE SAME PULPIT TWICE: Preaching from a Perspective of Process Theology. By Ronald J. Allen. Eugene, OR: Cascade Books, 2022. 231 pages.
You have to love the title of Ron Allen’s new book: You Never Step into the Same Pulpit Twice. It’s a riff on Heraclitus’ famous saying about the nature of change. There is truth to that declaration. The pulpit as a material entity may not change but the context of preaching changes each week. The makeup of the congregation is ever-changing, as newcomers might be present, and members absent. The text or subject of the sermon will change from week to week. The world in which the message is delivered changes from week to week and day to day. How often it is that preachers go to bed on Saturday evening only to wake up to some unforeseen event that has taken place? So, how do you preach in those contexts? What does one’s theology have to say about how one approaches the pulpit?
Ron Allen seeks to offer some words of guidance to preachers who approach such questions from a particular theological vantage point. That vantage point is Process Theology. It is a perspective that Ron operates out of. For those readers who are unfamiliar with Process Theology, it is a perspective that draws much of its foundations from the work of the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead. It is also an expression of what has come to be known as Open and Relational Theology. While Process is not the only expression of Open and Relational Theology, it is a major one. Over the past century, Process Theology has found a home within Mainline Protestantism. The question is, how might this perspective influence how one preaches?
Ron, who identifies himself with Process Theology, is by training and career a professor of preaching and New Testament (he prefers “Gospels and Letters”). He is an emeritus professor at Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis and an ordained Disciples of Christ minister. Full disclosure, he and I have co-authored the forthcoming book Second Thoughts About the Second Coming (WJK Books, 2023). Ron has written widely on both preaching and the New Testament, often drawing on Process Theology. In this book, Ron focuses specifically on how Process Theology can be utilized in preaching. I should note that while Ron and I are friends I do not consider myself a follower of Process Theology. I find some of this attractive, but not all of it. That being said, I do believe that whether one is a follower of Process perspectives, this should be a very helpful text.
Ron starts the book autobiographically. He shares with us how he came to discover and embrace Process Theology. He writes that as he found a place to rest in Process Theology, he found it to be “not only a trustworthy guide to theology and life, but it also offers engaging and faithful ways to preach.” (p. 7). In this book, Ron offers up the “first fully developed exposition of a process homiletic in almost a generation.” (p. 7). Thus, in his introduction, Ron offers his own story of engagement. He notes that what he is attempting to do here is provide a comprehensive interpretation of preaching from a process lens.
Moving to the core of the book, in chapter 1, Ron introduces the reader to the origins of Process Philosophy/Theology, its worldview, and why many, including Ron, find it attractive. From there he moves on to chapter 2, a chapter on “perception and language,” which focuses on the way language functions and how that influences the way we preach. From a process perspective language is an event. Having laid out a process perspective on language and the way it functions, in chapter 3 he moves into a look at preaching itself from a process perspective. He suggests that while a Process person can preach using a proclamatory voice, a more common or more fitting approach will be a conversational one. With that in mind, he takes the reader through an examination of the foundational pieces of preaching starting with exegesis, before moving on to the act of preaching, which he suggests involves invitations. In this case, an invitation is essentially a proposal. The purpose of this invitation is to allow the people hearing the message to make their own personal investment in the conversation.
The opening chapters provide a foundation for what follows. Thus, in chapter 4 Ron focuses on the way invitations (proposals) emerge from the biblical text or a topic. He shares how this works both with a biblical text and with a topic, suggesting that there are different approaches to discerning invitations depending on one’s focus. It is in this chapter that Ron begins to use the reading from Matthew 25:14-30, the parable of talents, that will serve as a case study going forward. He’ll use that throughout the book to illustrate what he has in mind as he describes how Process Theology might aid in preaching. He ends the book with a sample sermon that he had earlier preached from the text to bring the reflections to a final point.
In chapter 5 Ron reminds us that when we prepare a sermon and eventually preach it, there are multiple invitations at work. In other words, when we approach a biblical text, there is never a completely objective analysis of a text. That means preachers need to be aware of other possible interpretations, including those given in the past or might be present in the congregation that is hearing the message. Awareness of these different perspectives present might help clarify one’s preaching. This is a helpful reminder that we have a multidimensional context that influences our preaching.
While Ron is committed to a Process perspective, his greater concern is with the level of theological depth present both in congregations and among preachers. Therefore, in chapter 6 he addresses theological reflection directly, suggesting that theology will help the preacher formulate a direction for the sermon. He notes that a “sermon needs an organizing theological focus and a specific purpose. A preacher operating in concert with process theology will often want to articulate such things in specific theological terms to use as a guide for developing the sermon” (p. 149). In chapter 7 he explores ways in which a sermon can facilitate conversation. This is done in recognition that process theology, having a relational perspective, is best served through conversational preaching. One thing that Ron notes throughout the book is that there is not just one process methodology. Thus, a process perspective can be utilized through a variety of sermon styles, both inductive and deductive.
While the form a sermon takes is important, the form should fit the purpose of the sermon. Ron’s observation is that the “congregation’s existential participation with the sermon has less to do with form per se than it does with the degree to which the preacher connects the experience of the congregation in a way that is theologically life-giving.” (p. 187). The penultimate chapter of the book, the one that precedes the sample sermon focuses on embodying the sermon. This is a reminder that bodies are important. The way we use our bodies, including our voices, affects the level to which the congregation is invited into the sermon. In the end, when we enter the pulpit, he suggests we need to let go of the sermon. This is a recognition that once the words of the sermon are spoken, they take on a life of their own. Since Process theology is understood to be relational, that is to be expected from such a sermon, though it is true of all forms of preaching, whatever the theological family. In the end, the congregation brings its own dimensions to the experience.
While Ronald J. Allen’s book You Never Step into the Same Pulpit Twice is intentionally written for folks who approach preaching from a Process perspective, there is much to learn from Ron’s book whether or not one approaches preaching or the Christian faith from a Process perspective. There is much wisdom here that reminds us that our theologies influence the way we approach preaching and the Christian life in general. So, while this book is directed to a specific theological audience, it can be read with profit by all. As Ron helpfully reminds us, “The Words of the sermon come through the preacher, but once we speak, the words take on a life in the congregation” (p. 205).
Robert D. Cornwall is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Now retired from his ministry at Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Troy, Michigan, he serves as Minister-at-Large in Troy. He holds a Ph.D. in Historical Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary and is the author of numerous books including his latest books: Called to Bless: Finding Hope by Reclaiming Our Spiritual Roots (Cascade Books, 2021) and Unfettered Spirit: Spiritual Gifts for the New Great Awakening, 2nd Edition, (Energion Publications, 2021). His blog Ponderings on a Faith Journey can be found at www.bobcornwall.com.