My post a few days ago on advice to young preachers certainly evoked a big response. Well, big for my little corner of the blogging world. And a few of you asked what I meant specifically by the phrase, “wearing the text.” In the previous post I contrasted sermons that are content to point to the text with sermons that allow the text to perform. I prefer the latter and talked about this as a “wearing of the text.” But what does this look like in a practical sense?
Let me see if I can say the main thing clearly. Many sermons take a text, but scarcely let the text do anything. The text is an object, an artifact from a long time ago. We might point to the text, refer to the text, or even explain the text, but not let the text perform. Because this use of the text is not all that interesting, we hold our audience’s attention in other ways–mostly through illustrations. But there is a way of thinking about preaching where the images of the text come alive, where they do something, where they perform.
I like one of the ways David Buttrick talks about this. He compares the sermon to taking pictures. In every picture, the photographer stands somewhere. In sermons, the preacher stands somewhere in relation to the text. Many times, that stance is outside the text. Sometimes the text is not even in view. Often times it is a distant object. I want sermons where the preacher often takes a stance inside the world of the text.
I’ve published a few pieces about this. I have an essay in the book, Preaching Romans, (Fleer and Bland), “Funding the Sermon with Gospeled Imagination,” and an essay in Leaven Journal, “The Word is Near to You” where I talk about sermons in this way, especially in the second piece. You would need to read the whole of the second essay to appreciate some of the recommendations I make (and you can download it for free online, just click the link), but I’ll copy below some of the values I bring to preaching that I write about in that article.
There I suggest that a lot of sermons are conceived with a “this is that” kind of structure. They move by way of analogy (this is that, the text nearly always being the “that”) and I describe some of the problems with preaching in this manner. Chief among these problems is the way the text actually functions in the sermon.
Analogy-driven sermons can be spectacularly gripping. They can deliver the goods, biblically speaking. Sometimes the indirection that accompanies speaking by analogy is just the right sermon strategy. However, there are problems with thinking of the sermon primarily in analogical terms. For instance, analogies are terribly difficult to calibrate to the text. Discovering the dynamic equivalent necessary to translate the text faithfully into contemporary experience is an elusive quest. The analogies either appear trivial in comparison to the text–or more often, because of their strong resonance with the listener’s experience-they overwhelm the imagery of the text. Every preacher experiences the frustration of listeners remembering only the illustration, leaving behind the text that was the focus of the illustration.
The chief criticism, however, with analogy-driven sermons is that they keep the text and listener worlds apart. There is a great irony here. The hope of analogy-driven sermons is to bring the listener closer to the distant world of the text. However, the opposite effect is often the case as listener and text rarely occupy common ground in the sermon. The historical distance between text and listener is maintained throughout. As a result, sermons lose the dramatic immediacy associated with the word of God.
How do you overcome this distance? I have a few values that I try to embody in the sermon. They are not rules. I do not always follow them. But here they are in brief:
Assume nearness. While this value seems obvious given what we’ve said to this point, changing the preacher’s mindset with regard to the sermon might be the biggest shift required to produce a different sort
of sermon. In contrast to the analogy-driven sermon, the preacher is looking for the straightest line between the text and the listener. Instead of saying, “Paul said to the Corinthians … the application for us today is … ” nearness in a sermon sounds more like this, “Paul does not want to be misunderstood today. His message for us is …”
Speak as often as possible in the present tense. There are many ways to exhibit a commitment to nearness in a sermon. Perhaps the most effective is to preach using present-tense verbs. My colleague Stephen Johnson requires his preaching students to listen to sermons and indicate those places they are most engaged. According to these students, one of the greatest predictors of listener engagement is present-tense speech.
Speaking in the present tense brings a sense of proximity between speaker and listener. Listeners hear a difference between “Jesus said …,” and “Jesus says … ” From my own preaching experience, I know the commitment to speaking in the present tense requires greater creativity and often leads me in surprising directions within the sermon.
Keep the text and listener in the same world as often as possible. In other words, let the text perform in the parts of the sermon that are more contemporary and let the listeners be active in the parts that are primarily interested in the world of the text. Holding worlds together requires creativity and imagination (hallmarks of good preaching) and is often done allusively and/or anachronistically.
Let the text have the first word. Often, the first movement of the sermon sets the image grid for the bulk of the sermon. Most sermons, particularly inductive sermons, seek a certain symmetry. The problem posed at the beginning is solved at the end. This symmetry requires a consistency of images so that the hearer will make the connections. By allowing the text to have first word, the sermon is more likely to build on textual images and rhythms. The text is given greater movement within which to perform.
Let the images of the text pervade, especially in moves that are more contemporary. As mentioned previously, the words and phrases of the text should be thought of as actors who want to perform in the sermon. The lead actors in the sermon should be biblical. Hence, I want them to play in as many scenes as possible.
Learn to speak with echoes and allusions. Biblical texts reveal a densely textured world where words, phrases, and cadences echo other texts or familiar images. A bare reference leads the listener into a larger world of meaning. An allusion to another reality allows worlds to mingle without breaking the continuity of argument or narration for the sake of illustration.
Echoes and allusions are structurally small units of speech that enlarge imaginative space far beyond their limited size. In contrast, stories and long illustrations often decrease the imaginative landscape by funneling things into a single interpretative grid. Larger analogous structures tend to overwhelm all other aspects of the sermon so that they become the dominant point of reference, closing down all other imaginative options.
In the article, I provide examples. So, you might want to read the full length piece to see specifically what I’m talking about.
I think that a lot of different styles of preaching can emerge from these values. In other words, I don’t think I’m saying you should preach like me. I do think preaching style should correspond to what you think is the relationship between text–preacher–listener. But I think those values can be expressed in many different ways.
More importantly, I think that sermons that approach the text with values like these have a greater chance of making the treatment of the text the most interesting and compelling part of the sermon. I think a good diagnostic for preaching is to ask whether or not those places where the text is featured are the most or the least interesting pieces in the sermon.