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Howard University School of Divinity dean offers ways to use prophetic preaching to be heard in a tone-deaf culture

Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert speaks to New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C.

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Dr. Kenyatta GIlbert

LOUISVILLE — Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert, a nationally-recognized expert on African American preaching and the dean of Howard University School of Divinity, shared his thinking on “Prophetic Preaching in a Tone-Deaf Culture” Tuesday during an online presentation for New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, D.C. Watch Gilbert’s talk, which was  followed by a question-and-answer session, here.

Gilbert, who’s taught homiletics at Howard’s School of Divinity since 2006, recalled sitting on a park bench with Walter Brueggemann ahead of Gilbert writing a 2018 piece for Sojourners on the 40th anniversary of Brueggemann’s classic book, “The Prophetic Imagination.” Gilbert asked Brueggemann what advice he had for being prophetic in these times. Brueggemann told Gilbert, “We have to do social analysis better, how to follow the money to see where it creates hurt, and that white people are not very good at social analysis,” Gilbert recalled. The other thing Brueggemann told Gilbert was to “trust the biblical text.”

Much of what Gilbert shared Tuesday comes from his 2018 book, “Exodus Preaching.”

“Writing is first inner work,” Gilbert said. He said he seeks to “get readers to see Jesus rightly” and “give them voice to name reality.” He defined tone deafness as “the failure to perceive incongruities of human experience that is often tied to willful ignorance born of ideological entrenchment.”

He said prophetic preaching “carries a truth-telling agenda.” It’s daring “because it offers a vision of divine intent … among people who appear to be tone deaf and can’t hear a voice outside their own.”

As preachers, “our seeing, if we see anything at all, is revealed through the lens of our experience,” Gilbert said.

Having studied “countless sermons” preached by African American preachers, Gilbert identified four marks of prophetic preaching:

  • It unmasks systemic evil
  • It remains “interminably hopeful” when confronted by tragedy and despair
  • It connects speech with action “to help people name their reality”
  • It carries an impulse for beauty, especially in its use of language.

Then Gilbert offered preachers four strategies “to earn a hearing in this tone-deaf culture”:

  • Paint a robust picture of Jesus’ “compassionate orientation of justice”
  • Seek to understand the relevant and factual details of political and social happenings. Remember, he said: the preacher is not the only interpreter in the room. The sermon reminds those in worship “that evil and despair have an appointed end.”
  • Address controversial topics respectfully without demonizing others. The preacher “has to take the hermeneutic risk of saying what the text says and taking the theologically responsible stand of teaching listeners what a text means and why it matters,” he said.
  • Decenter the progressive vs. conservative battle, which Gilbert calls “the idolatry of perspective.” There’s “no one way to parse or see a text. The preacher’s best friend is self-criticism,” he said.

The Rev. Lionel Edmonds, pastor of Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., then engaged Gilbert in some Q&A time. Edmonds led off by asking Gilbert about the causes of spiritual tone-deafness.

“I think the cause centers on the work we do or don’t do,” Gilbert said. “Tone deafness happens when we are excessively busy, and we don’t pray and study to hear from God.”

Edmonds wondered how listeners can aid the preacher if prophetic preaching is more individualized than communal.

“There are often messages that would be more helpful if they were birthed in a community of dialogue,” Gilbert said. “There is nothing corruptive” about inviting others to share in the production process, he said.

Asked to say more about the inner work that must go on before writing, Gilbert labeled it “very difficult to be self-critical when one takes an arrogant posture with respect to what’s required in preaching. I don’t know how you preach well without praying fervently.”

“It’s not just petitioning,” Gilbert said of the preacher’s task. “It’s giving thanks that God would use frail human beings to give a message to people who need to hear it.”

“We all fall short, but that doesn’t mean we are worthless,” Gilbert said. “God decides to use human beings such as ourselves to give a faithful and relevant witness.”

Gilbert said he’d appreciate seeing more preachers able to hold lament and celebration together. “Living into that narrative gives us a certain posture for doing God’s work in the world in profound and positive ways,” he said.

Gilbert also answered questions posed by viewers. One asked about “playing nice with viewpoints antithetical to Jesus’ teaching.”

“The gospel sometimes offends,” Gilbert replied. “It would be nice if the preacher told us what we wanted to hear all the time, but that’s not the case.” Preachers must constantly examine themselves, he said. “Is what I’m saying coming from a place of honest wrestling, from a place of deep abiding love?” he said. “I don’t think every space is the space to be confrontational.”

Asked for any final comments on personal attitude and humility, Gilbert said that there are some things preachers must simply call out. But “honoring this call to be meek, which Jesus modeled for us, keeps us honest, wrestling and prayerful.” He called that “difficult in this society, given the pressures and forces of evil that stand against flourishing.”

“I think it’s very difficult to be humble. I really do,” Gilbert said, but “our own mental, physical, and psychological limitations bring us to a place of humility so God can use us.”

As New York Avenue Presbyterian Church’s McClendon Scholar in Residence this summer, Dr. Kenyatta Gilbert plans two more talks at the church at 11 a.m. Eastern Time on July 27 and a 10 a.m. Eastern Time sermon on Aug. 4. Both will be livestreamed. Learn more here.

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