Friday, February 08, 2013

From Sermon Central

Tap the Power of Storytelling in Your Preaching

Date Published:
How long can you hold your audience? Steven Spielberg can hold them for two and a half hours.

Steven Spielberg’s popular movie, Lincoln, runs exactly two and a half hours. After the brief opening sequence there are no explosions, no sword fights, and no one is killed on screen (spoiler alert: Lincoln is assassinated at Ford’s Theater).
When I saw the film, the theater was packed. Two and a half hours of talk, talk, talking heads on the screen yet no one in the theater moved, no one became restless, and no one complained about the length. And we have trouble holding people’s attention for a 28-minute sermon. What’s the difference?
The difference is story-telling. Spielberg knows how to tell a story, and we would do well to take a few pointers from him. In fact, forget Spielberg: our sacred text, the Holy Bible, is filled with stories. You might go so far as to say the Bible is one story: the Father’s relentless pursuit of his lost children. What lengths would you go through to rescue your children? (There: did you see it? When the subject changed to fathers, children and rescue, you began to engage with the material, didn’t you?)
Those of us who feed God’s flock must become God’s storytellers. Here’s the journey we must take:
  • Once upon a time, there was a preacher who used bullet points in his sermon. The bullets killed his congregation’s attention and buried their passion. The End. (Chapter One: Just because you outlined your sermon doesn’t mean you have to reveal the outline.)
In Chapter Two we learn that God’s message to humanity is mostly story—even the parts that are not story. Take the Old Testament (please). From Genesis to Ezra-Nehemiah the book reveals one continuous narrative. The grand narrative is followed by books of poetry, filled with metaphor and images. Think of these books as God’s soundtrack to the story. Then come the prophets, who provide the director’s commentary on what has just transpired. Who could understand the prophets apart from the story of the Old Testament?
Chapter Three: When the Bible story moves to the New Testament we meet Jesus, the master storyteller. He didn’t write a book of systematic theology. He spoke in parables. His life was one long illustration of God's love. And when he taught, he used images from everyday life: flowers of the field and birds of the air. Jesus is better than even Spielberg!
Chapter Four: Professor Paul wrote letters filled with theology, but at least he had a relationship with the people who read the letters. Why not try using the book of Acts to reveal the story behind why Paul wrote his letters? Paul wrote to real people, struggling with real problems, and if you tell their story, your people will receive the story of Christians trying to apply their faith in practical ways.
Chapter Six leads us to the book of Revelation, and if that isn’t made for video, I don’t know what is! God's not afraid of imagery or imagination. Are you? (Oh, Chapter Five?) Some things are best left out of the story, especially if it makes your listener supply the missing pieces.
The End – Know when to quit. Which is better: four dry concepts from the scripture, or one life-changing story, also drawn from the Bible? In the jargon of Hollywood, make it memorable, and leave room for the sequel. After all, you have to preach 50 times a year!

Ray Hollenbach, a Chicagoan, writes about faith and culture. He currently lives in central Kentucky, which is filled with faith and culture. You can check out his work atStudents of Jesus. He is the author of "The Man With All The Answers," (a collection of very short stories) and "The Impossible Mentor: Finding Courage to Follow Jesus." (A full-length book on spiritual formation.)

Wednesday, February 06, 2013

From Sermon Central

Gird Your Preaching: 10 Supports

Date Published: 
1. Sunday School Teaching
Naturally Sunday School teachers tend to focus on narratives that are accessible to children. Perhaps less wisely, they can also tend toward narratives that offer moralistic “lessons” (this can serve to obscure the gospel, but that is a post for another day). So for those growing up going to Sunday school, there will be a bank of familiar stories.
2. Preacher Passage Picks  
Whether it is selection of passages for preaching, or choice of biblical allusions and illustrations, preachers also can do the same as Sunday school teachers (perhaps justifiably so in many cases — no point referring to something people don’t know). So for an example, the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac in Genesis 22 will be reinforced repeatedly, while the Genesis 15 account of the covenant ceremony remains largely unknown.
3. Devotional Reading
Whether people use guiding notes or read the Bible for themselves, they will tend to be directed toward the familiar passages. So there is a reinforcing of passages that may or may not be as “load-bearing” as others. Isaiah 6:1-8 is well known; the rest of the chapter is often overlooked. But which part functions as a girder for the building of the biblical macro-structure?
I’m sure there are other reasons to add to this list, but hopefully this gives a sense of the situation. People are more familiar with Psalm 23 than Psalms 2 or 110, even though the biblical reliance on the latter examples is greater than on the more familiar 23rd Psalm. This is not about diminishing the wonderful passages that are more familiar. A large part of why they are taught and preached and read and known is because they have made such a difference in peoples’ lives. But perhaps we do need to think about helping folks know some other critical passages more than they typically do.
While not seeking to diminish the well-known passages, let’s consider whether we can help people know their Bibles better by bringing to their attention the existence and importance of some of the biblical girder passages.
Biblical Covenant Passages
A strong case can be made for seeing the biblical covenants as a skeleton on which the Bible is built. God’s promise and subsequent covenant with Abram/Abraham in Genesis 12, then 13, 15, 17 is critical. Then there’s the Mosaic content in Deuteronomy 27-30. (How often do we stumble across “Who will ascend?” or “Who has descended?” allusions in the New Testament?) Then God’s covenant with David in 2 Samuel 7 and 1 Chronicles 17. And, of course, the New Covenant in Jeremiah 31, Ezekiel 36 and the latter part of Isaiah. Being unaware of these covenants is crippling if someone wants to grasp the Old Testament or the development in the New Testament.
Biblically Quoted Passages
Some passages are quoted with a significant frequency. Sometimes the quote is actually just an allusion, but that doesn’t diminish its significance. Sometimes it proves the writer assumed hearers would spot it more easily. God’s spoken self-revelation in Exodus 34 runs like a refrain through the Old Testament. Psalms 2, 69 and 110 get their fair share of airtime once you get to the New Testament, as does Psalm 118 in reference to Jesus and Psalm 8 plays a key role in Hebrews. Genesis 15:6 comes out three significant times, as does Habakkuk 2:4. The lesser known part of Isaiah 6 does some heavy lifting, as does the allusion to Daniel 7. And in the passion of Christ, where you might expect lots of references to Genesis 22 (Abraham and Isaac), instead you find lots of Davidic Psalms and Zechariah quotes.
Structurally Significant Passages
Some passages seem to serve a key purpose in the structure of a book or a section. Joshua 1 serves a key transitional function between the Torah and the Kethubim. Psalm 73 seems to provide the hinge for the turn in the flow of the whole collection. John 11-12 offers a significant transition in John’s Gospel.
There are many more that could be listed. The point is that many of these are less familiar to most people in the church than David’s slaying Goliath, or Naaman dipping in the Jordan, or Daniel in the den of lions, or Jesus calming the storm, or Paul in prison in Philippi. All important, but in terms of grasping the flow and message of the whole Bible, perhaps there are too many gaps at critical points.
As well as key passages, we could well add a list of key themes that weave through the canon like ribbons. So what do we do if we recognize that people in our churches are foggy on the biblical superstructure? How can we help folk without turning the church into a lecture hall and losing the devotional and spiritual emphasis in our preaching? Some ideas:
1. Periodically Be Overtly Educational
Perhaps a seminar or evening class or group session in which you trace through the superstructure. You will find that there are people in every church who have a genuine appetite to know the Bible better and will want to attend this kind of training if it is done well. You will also find that a false dichotomy between education and devotional spirituality need not be imposed. Take every opportunity, even in a “lecture,” to woo people by the gracious work of God in biblical history.
2. Be Alert to the Girders
If you are preaching Genesis 22, Abraham offering up Isaac, be alert to the place of that story in the flow of the narrative. Take the opportunity to help people see it not as a stand-alone incident, but as the culmination of a journey over many decades for Abraham. Include and highlight the importance of Genesis 15 as you preach Genesis 22. When you preach about David and Bathsheba, don’t just look ahead to the fallout in his family life, but also look back to 2 Samuel 7 and the amazing covenant God had made with him — highlight the importance of that to your listeners.
3. Preach the Girders
Take a miniseries and help people see the big picture of the Bible. Too many Christians make too many “surprised and helped” comments when they hear a Bible overview. This implies that it is not being offered enough.
4. Preach Through Books Without Being “Flat”
When we preach through a book, it is easy to flatten it out into so many segments of equal length and apparently equal value. Instead, look for ways to point toward and back to passages in the book that have a “superstructure status” for the book and the Bible as a whole. Preaching through Habakkuk, don’t let 2:4 get lost in the mix.

Peter Mead
Peter Mead is involved in church leadership at an independent Bible church in the UK. He serves as director of Cor Deo—an innovative mentored ministry training program—and has a wider ministry preaching and training preachers. He also blogs often

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

From Sermon Central

When to Throw Away Your Sermon Notes

Some preachers think it's more spiritual to preach without notes. Others think it's more spiritual to use notes. What if it's both?
Preachers and listeners who favor preaching without notes have long justified the practice as more “spiritual” than preaching from a manuscript. 
“Father” Daniel Nash, the grand old man of revival preachers in upstate New York, relied on a warm, extemporaneous style. He was appalled when he heard that one of his protégés, Charles Finney, had begun using “skeleton” outlines to gain a little more precision in his language (and, not coincidentally, to appear a little more polished for an emerging merchant and professional class along the Erie Canal).
In 1831 Father Nash wrote Finney, saying, "By the by, as a friend of Jesus Christ, I should advise you to be careful about using skeletons in preaching. Whatever may be the effect on you I am persuaded they would injure my spirituality; and, if not spiritual, I am worth nothing. If you choose to write them for the sake of digesting a subject, write. If you wish to look at them at home, to refresh your memory, do it: but, when you preach, throw yourself entirely on God."
Nash’s letter to Finney gives a sharp statement of one of the most time-honored justifications for preaching without notes: it involves greater trust in God, and so a deeper and more authentic spirituality.
There is a distinct kind of spirituality to preaching without notes. But it is not necessarily more real or profound than the spirituality that attends to preaching with an outline or a manuscript. Preaching without notes, as Nash wrote, can lead a preacher into habits of trusting God and being present in the preaching moment with a powerful immediacy.
It can enable a preacher to attend more carefully and respond more nimbly to the people who are listening. It can involve long study, prayer and rumination so that sermons arise organically from deep within the preacher’s own life. But it can also serve as a cover for shoddy preparation, procrastination and arrogance. It can tempt a preacher to rely too much on performance skills that might or might not incarnate the Gospel he or she means to preach.
By the same token, preaching with a manuscript can lead a preacher into an extraordinarily rich set of spiritual practices. It can help a preacher attend to listeners in the course of preparation and then craft words and phrases that respond to the deepest needs discerned. It can lead a preacher into careful work with words. But it can also serve as an excuse for writing little treatises that are not as well researched as academic articles and not as punchy as good op-ed pieces. It can promote a cloying preciousness in style. And it can invite distraction and distance in the preaching moment.
The decision about whether to preach with or without a manuscript does have implications for the spiritual life of a preacher, just as Daniel Nash saw. Long practice in any style will form a preacher in profound and distinctive ways. But there are better and worse possibilities for preaching both with and without notes. Neither option guarantees that a preacher will be “more spiritual.”
The very best preachers tend to cultivate a wide range of styles, including styles that do and do not make use of manuscripts. Even more, the best preachers cultivate the wisdom to know when to use each one. What kinds of things might a wise preacher consider when deciding whether or not to use notes of some kind?
Sometimes a message suggests its own style. A sermon on the joy expressed in the exclamations of Psalm 150, for instance, might find fullest expression in a more extemporaneous style. And a sermon making sense of a very dense passage of Paul’s letter to the church at Rome might require a manuscript to get the details right. A sermon that is thinking theologically about a difficult moment in the life of a congregation — like the discovery of some grave professional misconduct by one of the leaders — might demand the precise language andgravitas of a manuscript sermon from the pulpit. Just so, a graveside sermon might best convey its message through a simple and unadorned style that is unencumbered by notes of any kind.
The habits and expectations of listeners also matter very much, but not in obvious ways. Preaching without notes might seem like a natural choice for a youth retreat in a camp setting. And it would probably be a wise choice in most cases. But a wise preacher might discern that expectation and play with it in ways that lend the sermon unexpected power. Or a congregation with a very formal worship service might be accustomed to sermons from manuscripts and so benefit all the more from a sermon preached without notes.
There are risks to sermons that elude or defy expectations. The mere fact of an unexpected choice can overwhelm anything else a preacher says or does. But when that unexpected choice fits very closely with the core proclamation of the sermon, this overwhelming quality can be a powerful asset.
The nature of the space for worship should also play a role in discerning whether to preach without notes. Preaching without notes may be essential for a service in which darkness plays an important role. It may be practically required of a space with no functional pulpit or lectern. A very large room, constricted lines of sight, or lack of a wireless microphone might all lead a preacher to stay firmly in the pulpit and so perhaps more closely with a manuscript.
The preacher’s own relation to the sermon, and the preaching moment, should not be neglected. I usually preach without notes, but when one teenager in the town where I served as a pastor accidentally shot and killed another one, I preached from a manuscript. The makeup of the congregation that day — filled with young people who usually preferred a more extemporaneous style — might have suggested that I should leave my notes in my study. But I was close to both the person who died and the person who pulled the trigger. I needed a manuscript to read and a pulpit to hold.
Less extreme situations also matter. A preacher might be too exhausted to preach in whatever style is more demanding for him or her. A preacher might be at a point where he can be bolder and more faithful in moments when they can gather their thoughts — and so need to use a manuscript to carry the courage from the study to the pulpit. Or, like a tightrope walker who can’t stay on the wire when she knows there is a net, a preacher might need a boost from the particular kind of intensity that comes from standing before a congregation without notes of any kind.
Almost every preacher will need to preach with notes at some times and without notes at others. Neither style is always more effective. And neither style is necessarily more spiritual. The deepest faithfulness comes not in choosing one style or the other, but in discerning what it means to respond to God in each particular situation.

Ted Smith
Ted A. Smith is assistant professor of preaching and ethics at Candler School of Theology at Emory University. Smith teaches and writes across the fields of homiletics, theological ethics, and social theory. He is the author of The New Measures: A Theological History of Democratic Practice.