Friday, March 02, 2007

Sermon Survival Tips

I've heard a fair bit of preaching, and done a bit of it myself. I have had the deep pleasure of being in a parish with another priest who takes her preaching quite seriously, and threw herself into the task with great devotion. I've endured a parish where the preaching was ostensibly held in honour, but the results and general disregard for hearers regularly called that into question. I've been in another parish -- quite high, Anglo-Catholic -- where you might expect the preaching to be marginalised, yet was quite well done: certain phrases and points made in sermons still roll around in my mind now, 13 years later. I've heard professors, priests, laypeople, deacons and bishops preach, and some of it has been sublime: informing, delighting, moving; some of it has been rubbish; and an awful lot has been somewhere in-between.

I try hard to be constantly improving my own preaching: trying to respect my listeners, convey my own humanity, tell the story faithfully, be responsive to (and responsible to) theology and our lived lives, help us all to see the wonder and delight and glory of God and God's ways with the world. All this and much else besides.

Somehow, by the grace of God, based on the feedback I have heard from people, my sermons sometimes achieve this. Other times, I am keenly aware, they fall quite short. And probably a lot fall in-between.

Clement Walsh, back in 1979 (link culled from King of Peace weblog), provided survival tips for sermon-hearers. I really quite like this and hope that it receives wide readership. I especially liked suggestion number three:
Let your mind wander. The art of mind-wandering is sadly neglected in these busy
times. If the preacher announces a subject and clearly has nothing to say about
it except plantitudes, let your imagination create the sermon that is eluding
the preacher. You have fifteen minutes to ask yourself questions that are so
important that they tend, paradoxically, to be neglected. "Why am I here? What
do I believe? What do I really want? Of what am I deeply afraid?" If a real
question grasps you by its excitement, go see the preacher later in the week and
talk about it. Such conversations can be powerful sermons in dialogue and as
good for the preacher as for you. (Did it ever occur to you that the preacher is
as bored with the sermon as you are? Preachers need stimulation to be enabled to
produce stimulating ideas.)

I tend to do this, to be honest. A sermon will steam along and get to one idea - or I will have heard something said in the Scripture lesson, some particularly piquant point - and in my mind I will take off from that point and I will start preaching my own sermon on it. On the one hand, this supports the idea that the Word and preaching are endlessly generative. Especially for a sermon which is just not throwing off sparks, this can be a helpful practice. On the other hand, I am also aware that this might distract me from some other point which the preacher is trying to make, that I could not (or would not) arrive at on my own. Preachers (at least most of the ones I know well) put a lot of effort into their sermons and the points they are trying to make, and they are not intended simply to be 'white noise' against which we can project our own sermons. But this 'other hand' is simply a caution against a possible danger, not an outright prohibition.

And I also wonder if there is a theological profit to certain kinds of 'mind wandering'? What I mean is this: as many other preachers have attested at one time or another, I have had the experience of someone coming up to me after the service -- or a few days later -- and thanking me for saying thus and such in my sermon, that they found it moving, brought them to a deeper experience of God, moved them to repentance, inspired them to love more, whatever. And the fact is, I often find that I did not actually say thus and such, or I may have said it but it was a very minor point, or some other similar situation. But the fact is, the Spirit used this moment as an opportunity to work, because (or more often, in spite) of my sermon, and for being a part of that I am humbly grateful.*

(This relates to my earlier post about unclarity [that is, when I heard someone pray for 'those in authority under us'], that unclarity might actually lead to a deeper understanding than an unexamined clarity. The Spirit may actually use someone's not grasping or not attending to one point to drive home another.)

I am also grateful for Welsh's other points, particularly that you should identify your disappointment with the sermon (strategy #4) -- so, do not simply be passive about it, but think through what went wrong and what could be better -- and (#5) do something! Engage the preacher between sermons to explore questions and possibilities. This latter is not at all a matter of telling or teaching the preacher how to do her or his job, but simply of being a colleague in ministry, taking preaching seriously enough to recognise that it is a multifaceted dialogue, rather than a top-down monologue, and taking the preacher seriously enough to engage him or her as a person.

Go and read it all here.

(With a hat tip to Dave Walker for pointing me to the article in the first place.)

* Naturally, there is much more to be said about preaching and preachers and the ministry of the church.

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