Beginning the sermon, Bible and Preaching, boring preaching, boring sermon, homiletical method, self-disclosure, sermon illustration, Sermon Introduction, sermon preparation, sermon set-up, text-to-sermon
Ok. Maybe not exactly in half. But I’ve listened to lots of sermons over the years, and I’m worried about the way we begin sermons. I have to say that about three fourths of these sermons would be dramatically improved if the preacher started about two pages (or about 3-5 minutes) into the sermon. I don’t know what it is, but most of us love the “wind-up” not realizing that we are not baseball pitchers; sermon wind-ups are usually sermon “wind-downs.” Here are the most common “wind-up/wind-downs.”
- Re-hashing the biblical text. The preacher in this mode drags the listener through a long, expanded, or “imaginative” re-hashing of the text. No. This is not an exposition or interpretation. I’m speaking about a non-interpretive re-hashing of the bits and pieces of the text. Sometimes this never ends and lasts the entire sermon. The preacher forgets to have anything to say to us – or what is commonly called a “message,” and seems to assume that we’ll “get it” if we hear the old, old story re-iterated.
- The sermon “set-up.” In this mode, the preacher spends a few minutes exegetically framing the biblical text – providing what the preacher considers useful background information – some interesting tid-bits, mostly exegetical by-products.
- Touring the cutting room floor – In this approach, the preacher tells us how he or she arrived at this message – strolling us around the room and pointing out all of the fascinating options left behind on the cutting room floor.
- Climbing to higher ground. In this mode, the preacher tells the listener all of the ways she or he has heard this text preached in the past – leading us to the superior ground of their own interpretation.
- The rapport story. In this mode, the preacher decides to tell a personal story. This is not a story told about someone or something else, narrated through the lens of the preacher’s experience, but a story about the preacher’s experience (of self, other, family, sports, memory, life, etc.). This story might contain a catchy thematic hook designed to capture our interest. Often, the story goes on interminably. No matter what they are supposed to be illustrating, these wind-up stories seem to be saying something else, namely: “Welcome to my world – please like me and be my friend while I preach this sermon.” When this occurs over and over, genuine sermon content is sacrificed to a rather contrived rapport-building exercise.
- The message grope – In my experience this is the most common “wind-up/wind-down.” When beginning to write the sermon the preacher didn’t really have a clue what to say. The preacher just started writing or speaking, hoping a message would pop out. By the time a message finally arrived, several minutes had been wasted groping one’s way toward it, and most of the energy of the sermon had evaporated. For whatever reason, rather than removing this material, it is kept.
Anton Chekov’s famous advice to writers comes immediately to mind: “Tear out the first half of your story; you’ll only have to change a few things in the beginning of the second half and the story will be perfectly clear.” This is serious and solid advice for many preachers. Once we’ve written the sermon, or organized it and preached it through a few times extemporaneously, it is a good idea to ask ourselves whether, in fact, the sermon would be better if we started it further in – on page two or three. If we did this on a regular basis, I believe we’d avoid many of the “wind-up/wind-downs” that currently sap the energy at the beginnings of our sermons.
Jeannie Hunter Dunbar said:
Sometimes I think it’s important to re-hash the text. Especially if 1) there are other elements of worship (children’s sermon & and anthem) between the text and the sermon or 2) the scripture is more obscure. Many people don’t know the stories of scripture these days.
What is a way that the PURPOSE of re-hashing, namely conveying the scripture itself to a congregation (or even just a few people) who don’t know it, could be accomplished without winding down the sermon?
Barbara Pegg said:
I don’t want the whole text re-hashed, but I agree with one of the responses. Some way of citing the text and helping us “hear” the text is important. One reading, even one clear and well done proclamation of the text does not stick when so much is going on around us. I can’t say how many times I remember the story or the illustration in a sermon, but can’t remember any of the text itself. Maybe that’s OK; but, it seems that being able to connect the two, text and sermon illustration or story, would help us–especially when lots of us don’t know much about scripture and are not able to recognize scriptural references when we hear them. I know a sermon is supposed to do this; so, what is a better way to do it?
Barbara Pegg said:
I’d like to get new posts from this blog. Thanks!
John McClure said:
Thanks Jeannie and Barbara. Great comments asking for clarification. I think I’ll do a more positive post soon on several of these – discussing how to do what it seems preachers really want to do, or are trying to do, (such as keep the text active and voiced) when, instead, these modes of communication take over and wind a sermon down.
Michael M. Burke, OP said:
I agree with you about starting the preaching/homily a ‘page or two’ from the usual beginning, or warm up. Your examples of the various ways preachers ‘lead in’ and actually ‘wind down,’ or dissipate energy are right on target! I know I’ve fallen into those traps here and there.
I agree with Barb Pegg, ‘Hi, Barb,’ who I think wants to integrate a little of the Scripture background. I think that can be done just fine, but with a lot less exposition than some of the detailed exegesis that is more appropriate for a Scripture class than for a homily. I still like the old definition of the homily as ‘hermeneutic,’ bridging the gap between what the scripture meant when it was first addressed to a community and what it means today. And, for sure, don’t tell a story to bring the congregation ‘on board your boat,’ unless it really illustrates your core thought. Our first few minutes of preaching we have the most attention, so let’s begin in the ‘middle’ and tighten up the homily! Thanks, John, I wait for more.
Michael Burke, OP
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Mark P. HILL said:
Makes sense to me John. People, and in your case Preachers, often ramble on needlessly and should always seek to ” listen” closely to what it is they are trying to say. Often, there are 2 or 3 sentences that are saying the same thing and some can be removed thereby lightening the “effort” of the listener.
I am working on a speech now for this coming Wednesday evening and I am most definitely going back, once again to see if I can shorten my words and say the same things I want to say. Thanks!
Sheldon Sorge said:
There is a tradition of the “incipit” – a contextualization of the Scripture reading before the reading. I find that often helpful. Problem is, we leave the reading to readers who know nothing of the context, nor of the sermon that will follow.
Lorne Pritchett said:
I am certainly not a fan of ‘anything for Jesus’ style of any part of worship whatsoever. But sometimes there is an arrogance in the critic that leaves me cold. Since the writer does not specify any type of church I suppose we are free to understand that this applies to the preacher with 200 ministers on staff and one or two researchers as well as to someone like me who is in a small congregation of about 200. Some of us like me, are meat and potato preachers. I am never going to get a call to, say, People’s Church, because I don’t have that skill set. And by the way – I don’t need, because that is not the path God has put me on. So I don’t have the capacity to spit and polish like some of the men and women I admire from these mega churches. I listen to at the very least one sermon from these great hearts every day. But pray as I might, study as hard as I can, with write after rewrite for the two different sermons I have to preach on a Sunday, I will be far from the mark in some people’s appraisal for sure. And if that is my reality, what about the pastor who is in the typical congregation in Canada that has an average of 75 souls, some of whom have to work just to pay the bills. When they read a list like this, I wonder if they are encouraged or discouraged. And if they quit, will someone with the skills to preach the a++ sermons required by the writer then apply for the job?
Preaching involves several miracles. I have some 30,000 + hours in study (I aim for 20 hours per week and I have been at this for 40 years – which officially qualifies me for student status). While I am sympathetic to some of the things being said, another homileticaian will put up another list next week. But the miracle is when what is said becomes what was needed to be said. Balaam proved that any old Jackass can be a preacher. One of the most poignant sermons in the NT was preached by a rooster so we should not get too cocky or someone will surely come along and make us eat crow. So now, I would be happy for the writer of that post to grab his best sermon and put a couple of dozen of us guys in the congregation and let him preach and be evaluated. Could any of us stand that test without someone else coming along and making a list saying ‘I know God called you, I know you prayed long and hard over that sermon, I know it is theologically correct, but you did not say it as well as you should have.’ Well, that would apply to every sermon I have ever preached and the critic is me. But the miracle is I come with a few fish and bread meal and 5000 people end up stuffed to the gills with tons left over that they could not digest. It is because we give out of His resources, not our reserves or our giftedness. God bless every preacher who will stand on Sunday from every denomination – some with broken hearts and other with broken bodies and mount the sacred desk and through the foolishness of preaching, trembling like Paul, speak the words of life. Longest blog response I have ever written! I should have started 1/2 way through. :)