Recovering the Sermon Pt. 2: The Sermon As Our Story


This is the second installment of the blog post series recapping the Rob Bell-inspired Preaching Workshop I facilitated recently.

If you missed the first installment, you can find it HERE.

When last we met, we were just about to touch on the idea of how the preacher can tap into the universality of his/her experiences to help a congregation begin to exegete the world with the same intentionality that they exegete the word.

"There's a moment in all great stories where the word takes on flesh and blood..." - Rob Bell 

Great stories move back and forth between the universal and particular.  They oscillate between them, creating tension and then releasing it.  Take the television show Lost for example.  The story of Lost oscillated between the stories of the group, together lost on The Island, and the individual stories of the castaways themselves.  This back and forth movement between what was common to all, and what was particular to some created and released tension, which helped propel the story forward.

Preachers are storytellers who should practice the same rhythm.  In fact, the sooner a preacher can name the particulars, the sooner he/she can begin talking about the universal behind the particulars.  The preacher needs to understand the particulars in such a way that the universal is clearly evident behind them.

The details of what is particular help, but they shouldn't distract from the universal.

Here's an example that Rob Bell used during one of the events I attended. I am taking it a bit farther than he did, but there you go.
He talked about taking his son to see the band Black Sabbath perform.  The band members of Black Sabbath are all well into the 60's, but their sound, their tightness as a band is better than ever.   
Ozzy Osbourne, the lead singer walked the stage in between songs, acknowledging the joy of the crowd.  "God bless you!" he would say over and over again, with his hands outstretched over them like a priest.  "God bless you!"  Then he would pause and ask, "How are we doing?  Are we doing okay?"  He seemed to genuinely want an answer.  And then he would return to blessing the crowd, thanking them for coming.   
What is it inside of human beings that makes us want to bless others--for others to feel something when we create, offer, serve...?  What is this strong desire  that even a 66 year-old heavy metal lead singer like Ozzy can't seem to deny?   
Could it be that we were created to be a blessing to others, and there is something deep inside of us that just knows this?  True, we love it when people cheer, when we get applause---but really what motivates us more than anything is the knowledge that what we have given has been received and has been a blessing.  
Okay, that might be a bit of a stretch, but you can see what I'm doing there.  We started with a particular--a concert, Black Sabbath, Ozzy saying "God bless you," and then moved to a universal desire that is imprinted in each of us....

Example: 
I asked the group in the workshop to think critically about why videos of people spontaneously breaking into dance or musical numbers at weddings were so popular on the internet.  I can't tell you how many of those videos I have seen--people singing scenes from musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, re-enacting scenes from Grease, elaborate dance numbers and the like...  
After some discussion, I finally asked the group "How do you think it feels for a bride or a groom when they realize their family and friends literally spent hours upon hours rehearsing, planning, and then executing that elaborate dance number or musical scene?"  The answer--they feel known and loved.  
One of the most basic of human desires is to be known. When we feel known it stirs something deep inside of our soul, and it can be fairly surprising to realize that other people not only know us, but love us enough to show it. 
This is an easy example of how the preacher can take something simple like an amusing video of a wedding party bursting into "You're the One That I Want" from Grease into an existential truth that can easily be connected to our understanding of God.    

"Let the story do it's own work.  They often have enough edges in them on their own." - Rob Bell   

This also serves to highlight something else... A good story has a definable arc.  You can line it up and see where it begins, where it's going and where it ends.  And as the listener is moving along this arc with the storyteller, there is often a rhythm to the journey, something familiar that keeps reminding everyone who is traveling that they are heading in the right direction.  There's a tagline that everyone can remember, for example, or a melody that everyone can sing.

This is the task of the preacher--to identify the tagline and repeat it.  To give voice to the melody and help everyone sing along.  And further, to name what everyone is hearing, feeling, experiencing.  Then to remind everyone that there is a reason they are resonating with what they are hearing, feeling, experiencing that can be summed up in these four words:

"You already know this."

As a preacher the story you are telling and re-telling is the story of a God who is still creating, still speaking, still saving the world.  This is a story that resonates with your listeners because they are not only in God's story, but they also have a vital role to play in it.  When you take up the tagline, when you sing the melody--you help them see this.

"If you don't love them, just stay home." - Rob Bell

When we hear the word "storyteller," we don't immediately think of the word "preacher," do we?  For my own part, when I hear the word "storyteller" my imagination conjures images of a campfire surrounded by family and a patriarch or matriarch telling tales while the firelight flickers on their face.  Everyone's attention is on them--children with wide eyes, adults with small smiles...

Good storytelling brings people together, but it's the heart of the storyteller that creates a connection between the listener and the story.  In other words, it's not all about technique--as important as technique might be.  That often used truism from Chik-FilA founder Truett Cathey is a truism for a reason: "People don't care how much you know, until they know how much you care."

I remember Rob Bell telling our group of pastors, preachers and teachers something very profound and unsettling.  "If you don't love them (your congregation)," he said to us, "just stay home."  When I shared this at the workshop I led, it was hard for the group to hear.  In retrospect, I think I needed the image of the campfire to help that comment along.

Here's the thing... You can be the best technically proficient preacher on the face of the earth, but at some point your preaching is going to fall flat with your hearers if they don't really believe you care about them.

Along those same lines, preachers also need to acknowledge that congregations are changing.  Emerging generations aren't content to simply sit and listen to lectures, they want to participate somehow.  At every major event in our culture--the Super Bowl, the Oscars, even State of the Union Addresses by the President--people are commenting on Twitter, Facebook and blogging afterward.  Feedback is instant.  People don't simply watch events anymore--they are part of them.

Rob Bell told us, "Great preaching has the first word, not the last word."  He went on to say, "The great [communicators] aren't up there arguing a case for something--they are alike a guide who knows what's there and is pointing it out to you."

Preachers who understand this find ways to engage their congregations, to elicit their feedback in the moment, and to spark their imaginations when the event of the sermon is over.  Preachers who understand this are also open to letting the conversation continue--letting their sermons be unresolved from time to time in order to empower their listeners to stay engaged.

Preachers who understand this realize that the Gospel is an embodied reality--something that is lived, breathed, experienced, wrestled with or embraced.  It's not simply a magic bullet or a feel-good aphorism.

Sometimes congregations need to carry the sermon with them for a while in order to fully hear it.

Example: 
Several years ago, after a particularly long season of Lent and a challenging Lenten sermon series, I prepared my congregation for Easter on Palm Sunday in an unusual way.  I explained that the word "Hosanna!" which was being shouted by people in Jerusalem as Jesus rode in to town on a donkey was roughly translated "Save us now!"   
I talked about all of the ways that look to Jesus to be the Messiah we want, rather than the one we need.  Then I challenged my congregation to get real about how they needed saving.  I basically asked them, "What are the things in your life that you need to give to Jesus, that you can't hold on to any longer?  What do you need Jesus to save you from right now?"  
We had little cards that had the word "Hosanna!" printed on one side, but were blank on the other.  I asked the congregation to write down what they wanted to give to Jesus on the cards and then pin them to a large wooden cross we had brought into the sanctuary.  Over two hundred people responded that day.  The last image they saw before they left church that day was of the cross loaded down with all of those cards.  For those who returned for our Maundy Thursday and Good Friday services, the cross still stood there with all of the cards--all of those burdens. 
On Saturday night before Easter, my wife and I came to church and took all of the cards down.  We then covered the entire cross in flowers, and scattered flowers all around the foot of it.  It was beautiful.   
When my congregation came to church on Easter Sunday morning, the cross stood there, but it had been transformed.  All of those burdens, all of the ways they needed saving---were gone.  We essentially kept the sermon from Palm Sunday going all through the week and then concluded it the following Sunday.  

Web Preaching Resources 

This is a free resource from LifeChurch.tv in Oklahoma City. This is the same church that created the YouVersion app for the Bible.  Pastor Craig Groeschel believes in being the kind of church that gives itself away.  For every sermon series they do, they give away the graphics, videos, motions, countdowns, sermon notes, handouts, etc.  This is a gold mine for pastors on a budget.  

If you need videos to help illustrate a sermon, or if you use videos as transitions in your worship services--sermonspice is a go-to kind of site.  Videos average between $15-20 a piece, though.  

This site provides clips from movies, TV shows, etc. that can be used as sermon illustrations, if you are able to show video in your services.  I don't use it that often, but on occasion you can find some great stuff.  From time to time they will have clips from new movies that are popular.  

This is where I get a lot of sermon illustration ideas.  Zite is an app for your iPhone or iPad that essentially customizes a "magazine" for you based on your interests.  It also learns what you like to look at it and continues to evolve based on this knowledge.  You can help matters by telling Zite whether you like or dislike an article, would like to see more or less from a particular site or if you would like to have certain sites blocked.  When I find articles that interest me, stories I find fascinating, I will forward those stories to my Evernote account (more on Evernote in the next post).  I use Zite every day, and typically find one to two interesting sermon-worthy items each time.  

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