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Churches in the African-American tradition are familiar with “talking back.” This give-and-take between the pulpit and pew offers immediate and affirming feedback with “that’s right,” “come on now” and “preach it” in response.

Every preacher knows the importance of shortening the distance between what is said and what is received. We like knowing we have made a connection and feel awful when our words seem to fall from our mouths right onto the floor and never make it to the mind, let alone the heart and soul of the listener.

Fred Craddock, professor emeritus of preaching and New Testament at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University, understands. He is an authority on preaching as well as one of America’s top preachers. Recently interviewed by Day 1, a homiletic resource for preaching in America, Craddock underscored the listener’s vital role in the preaching event:

I am concerned more about the listener’s responsibility. A preacher/pastor has to stay with a congregation long enough for them to develop the muscle and the nerve, the audacity to speak back, to respond, to converse about the sermon.

Being able to complete sentences and ideas, to make analogies, and to be reminded of something you already know–that takes an activity that most congregations haven’t really gotten into.

This summer, for eight weeks here at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky., we are engaging in a “talk back” sermon experience. The first of these, last Sunday, has already proved rewarding.

This sermon, based on Psalm 86:1, “O Lord answer me, for I am poor and needy,” and the Lord’s opening words from the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:3, “Blessed are the poor in spirit,” was meant to emphasize how God is just as real–if not more real–during the shadows of experience as much as during “spiritual mountaintops.”

“Talk back” brought up a more perplexing dilemma. Someone shared: “I have no problems experiencing God in the highs and lows of life. In fact, God was most real to me when going through my cancer treatments. It’s experiencing God during the routines and regular rhythms of life I find difficult.”

After the helpful conversation that followed, I (the preacher) understood my sermon even better–and I knew what was offered that morning by the people was equally insightful and important.

In this exchange, the church travels as partners and as bearers of a common word–a gospel in us, by us and for us.

That’s right! Come on now! Preach it!

Mark Johnson is senior minister at Central Baptist Church in Lexington, Ky

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