Thursday, March 17, 2011

An Experiment in Preaching

A friend who in his late fifties took a new pastorate said that he had written the last sermon he ever intended to write, meaning that he planned to use the vast collection of sermons that he had built up over his career and produce nothing new.

I have in my paper and electronic files every sermon I have ever written; I even have the outlines, some of which were lifted straight out of the back of my trusty Thompson Chain Reference Bible, from my first halting efforts, which were quite different than my later halting efforts.

I have at times “re-preached” some of my “greatest hits”; in so doing I heeded the wise words of my wise father who once told me, “If it was worth preaching once it’s worth preaching twice.” And if it’s worth preaching twice maybe it’s worth preaching thrice or more!

Over the last twenty-five years I have written full manuscripts for 99% of the sermons that I’ve preached and 90% of the time I’ve taken that manuscript into the pulpit with me.

Last Sunday I began an experiment that consists of the following elements:

1. I am studying for and thinking about the sermon as always.

2. I am writing down the one main point that I want to get across.

3. I am seeking one good story, biblical or not, that will make the one main point.

4. I am writing down an introduction.

5. I am writing down a concluding sentence.

6. I am taking no notes with me into the pulpit.

7. I am trusting the Spirit and my experience; after all these years I should know both pretty well.

The thing about experiments is that sometimes they lead to helpful discoveries and sometimes they blow up in your face…

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Preaching to Everybody

It’s a funny line that really isn’t funny: “That must have been a great sermon, Preacher…I didn’t understand a word of it.”

I am concerned, though, that there are many times when many if not most of the people in the congregation would say something like that.

I say that not because I think that my sermons are all that hard to understand—although sometimes they are—but because of the variety that characterizes a congregation.

Over there sits someone who has been a seriously thoughtful Christian for fifty years; right in front of her sits someone who has never decided to follow Jesus.

Over there sits someone who hasn’t missed a worship service in decades; over to his left sits someone who is participating for the first time in decades.

Over there sits a 90 year old woman; two rows behind her sits a nine year old boy.

Over there sits a professional with a bachelor’s degree and two graduate degrees; on the other side of the room sits a laborer with a GED.

And we preachers are supposed to preach to everybody in the room, hopefully in a way that all of them can understand.

What do we need to remember?

(1) We should speak as plainly and simply as we can. All people need the simple truth of the good news.

(2) We should go into deep things as we feel led to do so. All people need to have their spiritual imaginations stretched; if someone’s gets stretched farther than it can sustain, maybe it will snap back to a helpful place.

(3) We should tell stories. Everybody likes, understands, and remembers stories.

(4) We should trust the Holy Spirit. The Spirit can and will communicate to someone what they need to hear, whether through or despite our words.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Preaching to the Dying

I have always had a keen sense of my mortality; perhaps it’s because I had to deal at any early age with the death of a loved one or perhaps it’s because I was blessed and/or cursed from my genesis with the awareness of my inevitable demise.

Whatever the reason, I am aware that I preach as a dying man speaking to dying people. At the end of my sermon we are all 20-25 minutes closer to dying than we were when I started.

What do dying people need to hear?

First, they need to hear an acknowledgement and affirmation of their mortality. Death is a fact of human life. That truth should not be morbidly dwelt upon but it should be freely acknowledged and its awareness should lie behind all we say. We do our listeners no good if we feed the culturally promoted illusion of permanence.

Second, they need to hear that they can experience God in loss and pain. Illness, injury, grief, functional decline—all of these create weakened and broken places where the grace of God can be especially experienced, which is good practice for receiving the grace we will need at the end.

Third, they need to hear the basic Christian truth that while life leads to death, death also leads to life. It is only in dying that we find everlasting life; it is only in dying to self that we find a life worth living.

Fourth, they need to hear about hope and faith. They need to hear about the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the promised resurrection of the dead. They need to hear about the impact of the resurrection on our mortal lives, about how the presence of the resurrected Christ gives us grounds for assurance and trust.