Monday, August 29, 2011

Quote of the Week

"There is a homiletics so obsessed with form, or what rhetoric called arrangement - points, steps, blocks, moves, illustrations - that it loses touch with the New Testament's rhetoric, which is characterized by astonishment and self-abandonment to God's future." - Richard Lischer, The End of Words, p. 118.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The cure for boring preaching

"The cure for pulpit dullness is not brilliance but reality" - P.T. Forsyth

Added a new blog to the blogroll

I've added This Preaching Thing to the blogroll. It's a blog by Michael Ruffin, pastor of First Baptist Church of Fitzgerald, GA.

Michael's been at this preaching thing for forty years and has some thoughtful insights. You can get a taste for his writing in this post: Preaching to the Dying.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Ministry is sermon preparation

I am an advocate of the study. I think good, wise, biblical sermons require the preacher to spend ample time listening to the text so that they might also hear a fresh word from God. That being said, I was struck by a passage I read recently in Richard Lischer's The End of Words that reminded me, sermons are not the product of study alone. Ministry, especially ministry to the least of these, is also sermon preparation because it is where we encounter the presence of the living Christ.

“Training in preaching begins with training for ministry. ‘When did we see you naked or hungry or in prison?’ the naive sheep ask the Judge. Preachers have ransacked nature, history, and their own emotions for illustrations of the divine. They have scratched into every conceivable experience in search of divinity or its analogues. They have explored every possible site except the very places Jesus promises to be – among those who suffer and seek restoration.

"Preachers have looked for him virtually everywhere save among the ordinary practices of the people of God, who yearn more deeply than they are willing to admit for sermons that credibly portray their lives of faith – not Mother Teresa’s, Gandhi’s, or Gandolf’s, but theirs” (Richard Lischer, The End of Words: The Language of Reconciliation in a Culture of Violence (The Lyman Beecher Lectures in Preaching), 39).

What are ways you join the study and day to day ministry in your sermon preparation? How do you get out of the office and into people's lives?

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The interplay between the altar and the pulpit

The late John Claypool was an Episcopalian priest that started off as a Southern Baptist minister.  This binocular vision provided him with a wonderful insight into many aspects of worship.  I especially like his take on the "interplay between altar and table."

"I have found the interplay between the altar and the pulpit to be mutually supportive and creative. Kneeling at the altar before a mystery I cannot fathom keeps me from being fanatical and arrogant in the pulpit, while attempting to make as much sense as possible of life and the gospel in the pulpit keeps the altar from degenerating into mindless ‘mumbo-jumbo.’ The Church has always known a feeding of both kinds, and I cherish the opportunity to spend the last phase of my ministry in this particular room of God’s Great Church" (Claypool, The Preaching Event, 2).

My particular room of God's Great Church tends to emphasize the practical to the expense of the mysterious. I wonder how a renewal of the table's presence in worship might help balance our experience?  

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Lights, Camera, Action: Helping your sermons come to life

In his book, The Four Pages of the Sermon: A Guide to Biblical Preaching, (Abingdon, 1999), Paul Scott Wilson argues that preachers should envision their sermons as movie scenes in order to help bring their sermons to life.  Wilson's thesis reminded me of an interview I did with Richard Kannwischer, pastor of St. Andrews Presbyterian in Newport Beach, California.  Dr. Kannwischer said that one of the books that had most influenced his sermon preparation was The Screenwriter's Bible.  Wilson doesn't directly reference any such work, but he does provide some basic suggestions for how to transform your sentences in ways that help the congregation to visualize what you are saying.

1. Avoid adjectives and and adverbs. Wilson argues that these descriptive words actually diminish description.   Notice the difference in the examples he provides.  The sentences without adjectives or adverbs are easier to visualize.
  • "The beautiful road" vs. "The road ran alongside the beach"
  • "She ran quickly" vs. "She scrambled" or "Her feet pounded down the trail"

2. Avoid cliches.

3. Concentrate on a few small details to set the scene.  Think about what details you would need to shoot the scripture text or the modern illustration as a movie.  What decisions would you need to make about gestures, clothing, the age of the character, etc.?  By just adding one or two of these details, the preacher can help a scene leap off the pages of the Bible and into a listener's imagination.  
  • Clothing - By briefly mentioning a small detail about a person's clothing we can not only help the congregation visualize the scene, but we also are providing information about that person's economic situation, interest, age, profession, etc.  
  • Gestures/Facial Expressions - Emotions are difficult to visualize.  Gestures or facial expressions are not.  Instead of saying, "the boy was bored," one could say, "The boy slumped in his chair with boredom."
  • Age - A few quick words about the color of one's hair or the state of one's skin can give a wealth of information about a person's age.

4. Stay out of characters' heads - Wilson argues that if we want people to visualize a scene, we must "stay out of the minds of the characters."  The best movies don't narrate a character's thoughts, they show you a character's actions and let you eavesdrop on their conversations.  This leaves many thoughts hidden, but that is what creates interest in the story. The listener or viewer is drawn into into the movie (or sermon) because they want to figure out what a character is thinking.  He notes that the Bible also rarely gives us a person's thoughts, but instead focuses upon their actions and a few brief quotations of dialogue.  To this day we can read, say, the story of Adam and Eve and wonder at motive as we ponder their actions.  The Bible doesn't give us thoughts, but action and dialogue.

5. Keep the camera on people and actions - Wilson doesn't want a sermon devoid of doctrine.  In fact, his  book is an attempt to get preachers to preach more doctrine in their sermons.  But, he argues, this is done best by focusing upon God as the primary actor in the story.  Instead of preaching on the caring nature of God, we ought to preach on God reaching out to those in trouble.  The action keeps us interested and informs us about doctrine.  Just saying "God is caring" is not as interesting, even if it is as accurate.