Recovering The Sermon Pt. 1: The Sermon As Life Changing Event

Recovering the Sermon Part 1

This past week I facilitated a preaching workshop that was hosted at St. Paul's Presbyterian Church in Ocoee.  We had about 15 participants from my local presbytery--representing the roughly 70-plus Presbyterian Church (USA) churches in the Central Florida area.

The impetus behind this workshop was two-fold: 1) I've been attending creative preaching, communication and leadership workshops with Rob Bell for the past few years and thought I would share what I learned, and 2) My recent doctoral project revealed that one of the many issues that pastors of growing churches had in common was the amount of time and energy they devoted to preparing sermons and improving their preaching.

I am hoping that this kind of workshop will serve as a prototype for some exciting things I'd like to see our presbytery do in the future.  I currently serve on the Church Transformation Committee for the Central Florida Presbytery, and I believe that one of the ways we can help strengthen our churches is take more of these kinds of workshops on the road.

I'll be doing a series of posts that will highlight some of the things we covered in the workshops.  Included in each post will be resources and links that will help pastors develop creative tools that will enhance their preaching and become better communicators.

Let's get to it...

The Sermon As Life Changing Event 

The worst thing that someone can say to a preacher as they walk out the door after a church service is, "Nice sermon."

The sermon shouldn't be something that people endure or get through or think is nice.  The sermon should be an event.  People should walk out unable to speak, or moved to tears or at the very least realizing that something happened and they were there when it did. 

"Preachers need to have the guts to help their people exegete (discover the meaning) the world in the same way they exegete the word."  - Rob Bell
This means that there are things happening in the lives of church members that the preacher needs to help them understand.  
There is a story from Acts 14 where Paul and Barnabas show up in the city of Lystra and heal this guy who couldn't walk.  When news of the healing took place, the townspeople immediately assumed that Paul and Barnabas were the gods Zeus and Hermes in human form. They assumed this because of cultural legends and traditions of these kinds of stories.  
"There are lots of preachers who work in Lystra, but get their paycheck from Jerusalem." - Rob Bell
Sometimes the things pastors have been taught, the situations that were presented to them in seminary---they don't line up with what they experience in the parish.  So you have a choice.  You can do what you've been taught, or you can immerse yourself in your context and do what is needed.  This especially applies to preaching. 
Existential Urgency
If the sermon is going to be a life changing event, the preacher has to have some existential urgency going on.  The great communicators know why this matters--you can feel it when they speak.   
It makes sense, if what you are preaching doesn't matter to you, then why should it matter to anyone else?
To that end, there are some things that human beings just know--at a cellular level.  The preacher's job is to point to this knowledge, to uncover it, to bring people to a level of realization about the things they already know to be true.

But in order to accomplish this, the preacher needs to engage the listeners and to articulate why this not only matters to the preacher, but also to the listener.  
The sooner that the preacher can tap into his/her own experience to accomplish this--the more engaged the audience will be.  The great communicators are highly in tune with what is going on in their interior life and recognize the universality of their own experience...

Example

The most interesting thing about the beginning of the book of Job isn't the fact that Job basically loses everything in a matter of moments---it's that God and the Satan make a bet over whether Job's faith will waver. 

The preacher might begin there, asking questions about why that seems curious to him/her, then recall a personal experience where it felt like God was just straight up messing with them--that too many bad things were happening at once.  It had to be God just messing with them, right?  

Which could then lead the preacher to ask, "Have you ever felt like there were so many bad things happening at once that God might very well be making a bet with Satan to see if your faith is for real?"  

As a preacher, you could spend a bunch of time in the sermon talking about ancient Near Eastern literary tropes, the history of the Satan in Hebrew theology and writing, sources for the book of Job...  All of these things are great, and you should know them, but the sooner you surrender your need to explain all of this, the sooner you might actually have something to say about the story.  

You might simply read through the story, talk about moments where it feels like trouble is coming in waves and we feel overwhelmed and like God is messing with us, and then ask, "Are there Satans in your life--accusing you, calling you out, saying to you 'I bet your faith isn't strong enough to endure this?

It starts from your own curiosity, leads to your own gut feelings to existential urgency, to a universal perception and a question that leads to a sermon people might not expect...  

Web Preaching Resources

Graceway Media - This site offers incredible videos, worship slides, graphics for sermon series, individual sermons, etc. If you preach the lectionary, there are lectionary slides, sermon titles, etc.  It requires a subscription that costs a little over $300 a year, but well worth it.

The Work of the People - This site offers videos for sermon illustrations, worship loops and a host of other things to help your sermons.  It has lots of lectionary-based videos as well.  It requires a subscription as well, but is worth it. It also has video interviews with renowned theologians, preachers, activists, etc.

Preaching Books That Are Awesome

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