Alyce M. McKenzie
Westminster John Knox Press, 226 pages
Reviewed by Layton E. Williams
Alyce M. McKenzie begins her new book, “Making a Scene in the Pulpit,” by pointing out the profound impact of preaching that makes use of powerful imagery and story. I know what she means. So much of my faith in childhood and young adulthood was shaped by the vivid sermons of my church’s senior pastor, who was an excellent storyteller. In fact, when people ask about when I first felt called to ministry, I tell them about a sermon my pastor preached on the transformation of each disciple after they encountered the resurrected Christ. The pictures he painted were so compelling that I wanted to climb inside of them and live such a life of dedicated faith.
Though McKenzie heartily acknowledges the power of vivid story and narrative preaching – especially as defined by the New Homiletic movement that dominated American preaching for the last quarter of the 20th century – she also agrees with those who suggest that our capacity for extended focus on a single narrative has diminished. This shortened attention span, coupled with decreasing biblical literacy, threatens the viability of the traditional narrative preaching model.
However, while others believe that this is an evolution worthy only of critique, “Making a Scene in the Pulpit” proposes that preachers work within the modern reality by focusing on scenic preaching. McKenzie suggests that preachers can paint vivid narrative moments – a scene being “action that takes place in a single setting in a more or less continuous time” – that open a doorway to invite listeners into the larger story of God, whether those scenes are biblical, historical, modern or personal in nature.
This book is a refreshing alternative to the endless litany of complaints about our modern culture and its “devolution” on account of smart devices, endless internet access and growing secularization. McKenzie has devised a homiletical approach that meets culture and congregations where they are, and connects them with a faith that has withstood endless cultural and technological changes over the last 2,000 years. Preaching scenically doesn’t abandon the resonance of story or narrative; rather, it creatively imagines how to maintain that power in our distracted, multitasking modern world.
McKenzie provides a strong foundation for her argument by linking her approach to prior homiletical traditions and then to the Bible itself, pointing out that scenes overflow in Scripture — from Proverbs to Jesus’ own preaching to the apocalyptic visions of Revelation. While at times it feels as though she is making the same point over and over, it’s an important one, and in each new iteration she offers yet another framing or explanation of why scenic preaching makes sense as a new (and yet also ancient) method. She also offers readers a wealth of tangible sermon examples, each employing the scenic method in a slightly different way.
There’s no doubt that both the world and people are changing, rapidly so, and that church and its leaders must be agile, reflective, creative and humble if they desire to continue preaching a faith that speaks in ways both relevant and timelessly transformative. “Making a Scene in the Pulpit” offers a pathway for preachers to do just that.
Layton E. Williams is a writer and PC(USA) pastor currently based in Charleston, South Carolina. She is the author of “Holy Disunity: How What Separates Us Can Save Us.”