No one asked me. And I know that some young preacher could no doubt write a blog, “A Word (or two) to Old Dudes Still Hanging On to their Old School Preaching Fantasies (especially, Mark Love).” And I no doubt would learn a lot of things that I didn’t really ask to learn. I know that in writing a blog like this, its possible that I will come across as cranky. I really am hoping to grow old more gracefully that that.
But I care deeply about preaching. Unlike others who think preaching is an outdated form of one-way, monological, imperialistic speech no longer suitable for contemporary tastes and values, I think it will always be important that some people listen for the sake of the rest. And that the congregation learns through preaching that its first movement toward God is to be still and to listen–to be addressed. (I also don’t believe that just because one person speaks while others are silent that a sermon has to be monological or imperialist). This is a high view of preaching. Sacramental, really. I care a lot about preaching.
And I believe in young preachers. I am so proud of the young women and men that I know who have answered the call to preach. They are gifted and devoted and so mature already in their gifts.
So, hopefully my words will be heard in this spirit. Here goes. A few words for young preachers and those who care about them.
Don’t just point to the text. Stand in it. Wear it. In too many sermons that I hear, a text is read and then largely discarded. The preacher stands outside the text and refers to it here and there, makes points about it, uses it as the sponsor of the sermon. But the text wants to do something, not just be pointed at or referred to. It wants to perform. This is what texts do, especially sacred texts. They don’t simply say something, they do something. And the sermon should do this: allow the text to perform. Too often what performs in a sermon are stories or jokes or alliteration or lists or pithy slogans. You have something better than all of that. You have a sacred text. Stand inside it. Live in it. And let your listener experience that.
Let me be clear here. I’m not saying explain the text (which is another way of standing outside the text, or even above it), unless that’s necessary. I’m saying put on the text, wear it, and let it walk around and absorb our world.
Second, intensity is not the only way to hold a person’s attention. Too often, in my opinion, young preachers rely on one volume (loud) and one pace (fast) to keep the audience emotionally engaged. I think, however, that it is more likely that you’ll keep your audience if there’s variety in the tone and pace of the sermon. Sermons need movement and emotional variety, distance and proximity. They need a dynamic range, and to get that you have to have moments other than loud and fast. (This seems only to be a problem for male preachers).
Third, lose the preaching voice. I know that preaching is something other than having a conversation. There is a certain performance that requires projection. But this should still be your voice, not a sermon voice. In fact, I think the great task in becoming a good preacher is learning to find your own voice as you preach. You want to trade on authenticity. PT Forsyth once said, “the preacher loses power whose sermons are felt to be productions and not real doings with a living God.”
Fourth, don’t try to do too much. There will be other sermons. You don’t have to tell us all you know about something. Your sermon doesn’t have to utilize every good idea that occurs to you. You’ll likely get to preach again and there will be other chances to share what you have or know. Preach one sermon well, not several sermons under one cover.
Fifth, don’t be the hero. I think its important that listeners know how your life is implicated by the text. But I don’t think that means you have to tell a lot of stories about yourself, and you should be very careful before you tell a story in which you are the hero.
Sixth, don’t listen to cranky old preachers. Unless you should.