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Archive for the ‘Theology of Preaching’ Category

Yesterday I watched HBO’s Talking Funny with Louis C.K., Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, and Ricky Gervais. It’s the four of them sitting in a room, swapping jokes and talking about stand-up comedy. If you’re a fan of stand-up comedy at all or especially these four comics, I would really encourage you to check it out.

They said a number of interesting things but one in particular stood out to me. Chris Rock on the new generation of comics

Underneath it all, the gimmick, the crazy glasses, the funny voice, [the set] has to have jokes.

Jerry Seinfeld followed that up with this line.

You can do whatever you want with the furniture but there has to be steel in the walls.

You can make people laugh a number of different ways, but to be successful as a comic, to really have staying power, you have to have jokes. The act can’t be all glitz and distraction; you have to have something to say.

This can be a challenge for anyone whose job requires presentations. Preachers have a distinct challenge in this regard because we know we have something to say.

We have something to say in the face of all the pain, hurt, and injustice in the world. We have something to say that brings hope. We have something to say that speaks life into life into death.

We have something to say, namely the gospel. Are you saying it?

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I was having lunch with three Pfeiffer professors on Monday and our conversation turned to their students.  The professors remarked that their students are no longer impressed by their teachers the way these professors were in awe of their teachers growing up.  Their students, they said, know that people have limited knowledge.  Through technology (namely the Internet) they have access to more information than any single person could possibly hold.

And they said something I found fascinating.

Students don’t need information; they have that at their fingertips with technology.  What they need to learn is how to process.

What if that’s true for worship as well?  Has technology changed fundamentally the role of a sermon?

The model for sermons used to be about imparting knowledge.  “Here is what this text means.  This is what the author(s) originally meant.  This word in the original Hebrew / Greek means…”  And there’s a place for that.  But is that what’s really needed in the church today?  Are people sitting in the pews looking for facts?  Is that the best a sermon can do?

Being the good 21st century Methodist that I am, I looked at Rev Adam Hamilton.  Rev Hamilton is one of the best modern voices for Wesleyan thought / theology / preaching that I know.  And I think he’s done a fair amount of thinking about stuff like this.

When he talks about preaching (especially to a group of preachers) he lays out two ways of creating sermons.

  1. Start with text.  Examine it, exegete (fancy preaching word for “interpret”) it, and apply it to life.
  2. Start with life or the world.  Examine it, exegete it, and apply the Bible to it.

This divide can be (roughly) seen in modern preaching between lectionary preaching and topical or series preaching.  The lectionary is a three year cycle of suggested texts for every Sunday and major Christian holiday, designed to introduce a congregation to a range of texts.  Series preaching is often designed by the pastor or worship team and can range from topics as wide as parenting or sex to the nature of good & evil.

Rev Hamilton does not hide the fact that he thinks churches do better with series preaching as opposed to the lectionary.  That’s a discussion for another time.  But it strikes me that the series model (#2) fits better with this sense of needing to know how to process rather than needing to know information.  Now Rev Hamilton certainly teaches in his sermons.  But the focus always seems to return to “here’s how to live in the world.”

And when we look at the Christian faith, that’s the kind of processing we need, isn’t it?  We hope that our faith informs how we live in the world. Is that more of what people want?  Is that more of what people need?

Now there are those who are quick to complain about the changes technology brings to our lives.  I try not to be one of them, because technology happens whether we like it or not.  And while this change may not be seen in every generation, I am willing to bet that it is more widespread that just the current student generation.  Technology affects all of us.  My parents are on Facebook.  My wife’s grandparents use e-mail.  This isn’t a change just happening within the younger generation(s).

So what do you think?  Is what makes a “good sermon” shifting?  Is the need a sermon fills moving in a new direction?  And if so, how should churches adapt?

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This summer I had the opportunity to preach two Sunday services.  Because so many people visit the Cashiers area in the summer months, the church expands to offer two services on Sunday at 8:30 and 11:00.  It’s rare that I ever attend two services on the same Sunday and certainly had never preached twice in the same day.

It was definitely a unique experience.  While I enjoy the art of preaching, it can be very draining.  Having to do it twice can leave one honestly exhausted.  I’m fairly certain I took a nap each afternoon, even though I had gotten plenty of sleep the night before.

I remember feeling worried that the 8:30 crowd was getting short-changed.  Yes, it was the same sermon.  Yes, I had practiced my sermons before Sunday.  But still, 8:30 sometimes felt like a dress rehearsal for the 11:00.  In some ways, this makes sense.  It’s hard to get practice in front of an audience, so the 11:00 delivery always has that advantage.  In some ways, this is inevitable as extra practice never hurts.  But it still bothered me.  Maybe the only answer is to have the sermon better established before Sunday.

My delivery at 11:00 had one other advantage; I had some idea of how the congregation would react at certain parts.  But what do you do when the reactions are different?  Handling unexpected laughter I feel is fairly easy.  Pause, smile, and consider repeating yourself if necessary.  But what do you do when you were expecting a reaction and there is none?  Do you try and force it, by admonishing the congregation?  My supervisor will do this on occasion, albeit playfully.  I tried it myself once and it seemed to work fairly well.  Although I did learn to be flexible when using audience participation.  You may not the answers you expected.  You may also get many more than you expected.

Something I did learn with pulpit humor is that the punchlines were sometimes earlier than I expected.  More than once people laughed at what I considered still part of the set-up, as opposed to the joke.  Having not watched the sermons yet myself, this may have been an issue with my delivery.  Or perhaps that’s simply part of preaching.  Like many of my questions in this post, only experience can provide the answer.

I also discovered an odd personal temptation.  The few times I’ve heard multiple sermons from established preachers, they changed between services.  The basic message was the same but the order of the sermon might be different, details elaborated on.  So my first Sunday in Cashiers I tried to do the same.  Nothing too elaborate, just a few little extras.  I was surprised by how much that threw off my rhythm.  Changing things at the last minute impeded my flow without adding anything substantial to the sermon.  I may hold this up as a goal for the future but for now, I think changing sermons at the last-minute is a bad idea for me.

For any preachers out there, what has been your experience with preaching the same sermon twice?  For any non-preachers, have you ever heard the same sermon twice?  How was that experience?

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Blog Title

You may notice that my blog title is drawn from Book of Isaiah.  I chose this title because Isaiah’s call story resonates a lot with me, especially at this time in my life.  Isaiah saw himself as unworthy to speak the Word of God.  I, too, wonder about my place to preach God’s Word with little experience.  Like Isaiah, I want to ask, “Who am I that this honor should be given to one such as me?”

I think an important part of understanding the art of homiletics (preaching) is that your words are not always your own.  Hopefully the Holy Spirit imparts some wisdom to you during the process of reading scripture, crafting an outline, writing and delivering the sermon.  Even with the relative few number of sermons I have written, I’ve been surprised to note the number of times a sermon takes a direction I was not expecting.  There is certainly a sense of fear in those moments, when you begin to re-write significant portions of what you thought was an already completed sermon.  But I think there’s also a sense of freedom too.  Knowing that you are not solely responsible for the words but you can trust that God will be present in your work if you listen.  For someone so new to the whole preaching world, I find that very comforting.

There’s an interesting debate over how preaching with or without a manuscript impacts the work of the Holy Spirit during a sermon.  However, I’ll leave that topic for another day.

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