People expect preachers to read, understand, and preach from the text of scripture. In some of our ecclesial and ethnic traditions we are expected to powerfully “tell the story” as we have heard and understood it in the text. This is a call to preach both the unfamiliar as well as the familiar stories. You know the stories that we have heard on many occasions.
OK, let’s get into some sermon philosophy. The question for today, “Can you write a sermon down?”
You may think so, but I am not talking about whether to use a manuscript in preaching.
No, this question gets at a fundamental idea that I hope can help your preaching. That idea is that preachers do not write down a sermon. They write down ideas and thoughts to help them in the sermon moment. Some preachers write down everything they will say, but that is still not a sermon until you are in the preached moment when the sermon is delivered.
We must remember that the sermon encompasses everything we say, but it also includes things that we do not say. It also includes things that we imply. It includes the head movement or smile at just the correct time. It includes the all of the mannerisms of the preacher. It includes the shout of the preacher as the preacher gets excited about the point.
So even if the preacher writes down everything that the preacher will say with her or his mouth, that preacher is still not writing down everything the people will experience during the sermon.
But it ain’t just the preacher who is involved in the sermon moment. The people are also helpers in the preaching moment. Now I always talk about how the people should help us in preparation, but this is different, I am talking about the people helping us in the preached moment.
Some preachers ignore the people, while others probably give undue influence to the people in attempts to extract a “shout.” But be that as it may, the people help craft the sermon during the sermon event.
A congregational look of not understanding the point can cause the preacher to veer into more explanation of a point than the preacher planned. The death of a mother in the church might change the orientation of the preacher to the text under consideration. If not that, it might at least change the illustrations the preacher planned. Maybe you were going to use death as a metahpor and now you use a different metaphor, or maybe you apply the metaphor differently, or maybe you just slightly change it. Even if the meathpor is unchanged from the plan, the people may hear it differently because of the experience that has just happened this week.
Yes the people are invovled in the preaching event. Whether it is in shouting, crying, or even silently contemplating (and then living during the week) the point of the sermon.
The Holy Spirit also changes us up as well. How many of you have been preaching and then a point that you never considered comes to mind? The point fits better than what you planned to say. The Holy Ghost is talking to you. Always be open to what the Holy Ghost is saying to you.
Now I can hear someone saying that this could lead to preaching foolishness in the pulpit. And that is true. A preacher must have prepared adequately before the preacher can hear that voice and know that it is in line with the text under consideration. But if you have prepared then you should be able to know if the thought is in line with the text and the sermon and the event.
Well we must recognize that our sermon is a living thing that happens at the intersection of the preacher, people, and Holy Ghost. It is a partnership between the three.
As we put our sermons together, let us remember that we must still be open to the leadings of the Spirit. We should also remember to be open to receiving the help of the congregation. The sermon is not something you write out, it is something that is experienced with and through the people of God as enlightened by God’s Spirit.
And when God shows up, or the people help you in a special way, remember to capture that in your notes before filing the sermon notes away. So the next time you preach the sermon, you can be enlightened by what happened on this day.
An interesting question came in this week.
When do you tell people the point of the sermon? Is it in the introduction or some other point of the sermon?
This is a good question, but there is no one answer to the question. Some of us were taught that a sermon is like any other oral speech. In that you follow three steps.
1) Tell people what you fixin’ to tell them
2) Tell people
3) Tell people what you told them
Then some folks would tack on a celebration and/or appeal at the end. If you follow that kind of method then you would introduce the point early in the sermon. Perhaps in the introduction you would tell them exactly what the sermon is about and where you are going.
This is a tried and true method that many have used over the years. The nice thing is that you don’t have to worry about folks misunderstanding what you are trying to say. However, sometimes these types of sermons can lose people as they get bored. You have totally eliminated any suspense which can help keep people involved.
Now some folks have looked at this and have said, maybe we aught to push the sermon point towards the end. The sermon is like a puzzle that the hearers put together and at the very end the full story hits you.
the nice thing about such an approach is that it encourages more participation with the people as they piece the sermon together. Also, the congregation can hear sermons like this while they would not be in a position to hear the first kind of sermon. For example, look at Nathan the prophet talking to King David. Nathan told the king a story. The king listened intently to the sermon. He did not get the point until the very end of the story and it hit him hard. David might not have been able to hear that kind of message if Nathan had attempted an approach like the first one of telling him in the beginning the point.
however, these kinds of sermons are not all that easy to construct. Here you may lose people not due to a lack of suspense but due to not progressing the sermon to conclusion fast enough.
Now there are other approaches as well such as never telling the point but letting the people learn the point later as their lived experience interacts with the message. At any rate, there is no one way to do this. Personally, I usually use the first method which I describe in the ebook “Three Points And a Poem.” But, I do recognize that there is a time for the second approach as well. Find out what is needed in your congregation and preach the word.
It is clear that the old “liberal habit” of a “social action agenda” has, of itself, little transformative power in the present church. It is equally clear that the old “conservative habit” of scholastic certitude makes little claim on the energies and passion of the church. No doubt the church will continue the habits of liberal advocacy and conservative certitude. But surely it is self-evident that the primary work of the utterance of the church is neither such advocacy nor such certitude, but to voice an alternative way in the world that can be ventured outside the conventions that define and posture as “given.”
Testimony to Otherwise, page x, emphasis mine.
We preachers have an awesome responsibility to speak the Word of the Kingdom of God. This Kingdom is not like anything you would hear outside of the community of faith. Conservative and liberal pundits attempt to use the words of the Kingdom to support their agenda that falls far short of the Kingdom agenda.
Too often we allow our voices to be purchased by these people who often are doing their best, but don’t have the vision that we as preachers are to promote. Too often we bounce back and forth between the “options” provided by the kingdoms of this world without realizing that the Kingdom provides an alternate vision.
Let us look at the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King had a kingdom vision of justice and equality. But the powers that be (liberal and conservative) had a vision of the way things are and saw change within those parameters. Thus, some said, “I like your agenda, but you are going too fast.” Others said “your agenda attacks the law and order function that God gave to this society.” Both couldn’t see that the call of the Kingdom could not take second seat even to that which is seen as given.
Today the church is in desperate need to break through the shackles of “the way things are.” The church is in desperate need to say to those who think that we should use Madison Avenue techniques to grow a church, “we cannot be beholden to an alien philosophy that cannot see what we see. Advertisers are doing what they think is best, but their vision is limited for Kingdom Work.” Those who are looking for God’s inbreaking Kingdom can’t be happy with merely selling a product, we are seeking to be agents of God’s trans-formative power.
We cannot be happy with the simplistic answers that our politically conservative and liberal brothers and sisters seek to sell us. We cannot be happy neither with wars based on lies or a liberal tendency to throw money without getting intimately involved with those who need help. No, the Kingdom cannot be too closely aligned with those on the political left. Sure enough it cannot be appropriated by the political right. It is a radical departure from both. it is an affront to both. No it is an attack on the status quo that makes both of them possible.
The Kingdom is an offense to any who want to move ahead. The Kingdom speaks of the first being last. The Kingdom looks like socialism to some Conservatives, reactionary to some liberals, and hopelessly out of touch to both. No, the Kingdom is seeking transformation of individuals and yes other entities into God’s image.
Now preacher, it is time for us to catch hold of that alternate vision. And preach it. Because the false gods seek to take over your vision and appropriate it. The false gods of materialism want you to preach about all the money that God wants you to have. It’s idolatry!
The false gods want you to preach about America’s manifest destiny that allowed for wars of expansion. They want you to believe that God cares more about American financial health than the lives of millions in other countries. It’s idolatry!
The false gods want you to preach about getting political leaders elected. Stop selling your birthright to false gods….Preach the Kingdom…Stop preaching merely about what is…preach about what will be.
Preach about the Kingdom! Preach about how we can join the kingdom. Preach about how we are in the Kingdom. Yes preach about salvation. But also preach about the lion lying with the lamb. Preach about the first being last. Preach about Love in the midst of hate.
Give us a vision of what it means to be the Kingdom in a world that is against the kingdom. Yes preach that alternate consciousness so that we can catch a vision of what God wants. Preach that alternate vision so that the gods of this world can’t sell us mediocre caricature and call it the Kingdom of God….
Like everyone else, I can easily fall into the trap of seeing what I have not done right. This can be problematic over the long haul. If you never look at what you are doing right you might do one of a few things.
1) You might never realize that progress is being made in your preaching.
2) You miss out on the easiest way to improve your preaching, namely, build on your strengths.
3) You might miss out on some encouragement that you need. Some of us cannot even hear a member telling us of how important a message was because we are too busy critiquing what could be done better.
In short, if you only look at the things you do wrong in preaching you are only getting a piece of the picture. So look at your sermons. What parts are you doing well. Which parts are you exceeding expectations in? What parts of your theological understanding are moving forward in great ways?
It is a tough job, but you are doing something correctly. Always take time to celebrate that. It is true that God is not through with you yet…It is also true that God ain’t just started on you either. Praise God for the progress.
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