Seated at a piano in the front of Goodson Chapel, Peter Gomes takes requests. Students call out the names of hymns, and Gomes plays them, one by one. As he plays, he entreats the audience members to sing along, and sing loudly.
Gomes is not a musician, at least not by trade. But the Baptist minister and renowned theologian, who spent the spring semester as a visiting professor at Duke Divinity School, is certainly comfortable on stage.
This makes perfect sense. There is an aspect of performance to preaching, Gomes says. He compares preachers to actors on the stage or lawyers in the courtroom, only with more at stake. "There is no trial sermon," he tells students. "Every sermon is real. Every sermon has the power to speak the Word of God to the people listening. Preach in that manner."
This was just one of many lessons Gomes shared with members of his "Introduction to Public Preaching" class this spring.
The eight students who took the course spent the semester discussing biblical passages and working together on papers reviewing the texts. Their critiques became the basis for original sermons, and each student delivered four over the course of the semester.
Gomes says that his goal in working with students is not necessarily to produce great preachers, but to produce better ones who are able to listen to members of their congregations and integrate the ideas of their congregants into their sermons. This applies in the short term: "Listen to yourself and read the congregation," he instructs students as they prepare to preach to classmates. "If we look bored, wake us up. We should be on the edge of our seats."
It also applies in the long term, when it has the potential to address larger community needs. "People need sense made out of their reality and fears," Gomes says. "Preaching connects the real world and the one we aspire to. It is one of the only vehicles I know that does that."
On preaching days, Gomes required that students deliver sermons without manuscripts or notes, with only the Bible as a reference. He also banned microphones. One student, a native Spanish speaker, was more comfortable preaching in her native language. Gomes had her deliver her sermons twice: once in Spanish, and once in English.
The sermons were often attended not just by class members but also by their friends and divinity school colleagues. Sermons drew from the Old and New Testaments and centered on themes from social justice to boasting about one's hope in Christ. Students incorporated their own stories and culture references like Disney to connect the audience with the message. They took seriously Gomes' mantra that the only sermon that counts is the one that is heard.
Peter Gomes majored in American history at Bates College and received his M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School. He is the Plummer Professor of Christian Morals at Harvard University and the Pusey Minister at the Harvard University Memorial Church. He holds thirty-six honorary degrees and is the author of The Good Life: Truth that Last in Times of Need and The Good Book: Reading the Bible with Mind and Heart. He is a visiting faculty member at Duke Divinity this spring.
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