Friday, 29 January 2010

Should academic students learn how to preach?

Homiletics or preaching at the university
Last week we had a discussion in our department that I think is of common interest. We are planning a ‘capstone module’ for 3rd year students, including ministry, preaching and leadership.
I have my reservations, even though on a principled level. What is perhaps less wise is that the module includes real practices in preaching which will be assessed.
We are talking about a course that will attract students from the Protestant family, some of whom are opting for the ministry in their church. With the background in the Dutch Reformed tradition, the theological faculty become a department within the Arts faculty, could be seen as doing something fairly normal. I am not so sure.
Reservations may come from at least two quarters. First, the churches themselves may say that the practice of preaching belongs to a particular church’s mandate and formation. My Lutheran church ELCSA for example has a clear requirement of formation and our students have to spend a full year in Pietermaritzburg for such formation.
Secondly, the university itself could have reservations. A department may not be seen doing work for a particular Christian group (denomination) or even a particular religion (and we are open for students of all beliefs but our expertise is typically almost exclusively within the Christian faith). If a course could be seen as furthering one particular tradition at the expense of others, the whole exercise could backfire and powers at leadership level of the university may again find reasons for saying that theology does not belong in academia.
Homiletics (the art or science of preaching) is one thing. It should certainly be promoted in a department of religion and theology. Here one could move forward on two tracks, within reach in our department. First we should make an effort to see to the various preaching traditions in an ecumenical setting, giving space to the Reformed, Lutheran, Methodist, Roman Catholic, Orthodox and even Anglican traditions.
Secondly it is also within reach to approach homiletics in the frame work of Christian and Muslim theologies; this could be done together with our Muslim colleagues in the Foreign Language Department; it would certainly be exciting to find out, not only what the imams are saying in Cape Town at the prayer on Fridays, but also about the art of preaching as such, the way the Koran is applied in the here and now etc; likewise it would be possible to compare Christian and Muslim sermons, find similarities and discrepancies.
I am not against the new module as it stands, but would welcome a widening as just suggested at least as a general framework for this course. I also feel that church leaders should be told in no uncertain terms that what we are busy with is theory and the art of preaching rather than teaching our students how to preach; that certainly must belong to the particular church family in question.

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