The Pilgrim’s Pensieve #24
If you are a regular church goer like myself, over the years you have probably listened to hundreds if not thousands of sermons. If we are going to be honest with ourselves not all sermons are created equal. Some months back I wrote a piece about sermons which was inspired by something I learnt about C.S. Lewis which was at first a little disconcerting. He and his brother Warren enjoyed listening to sermons… and grading them. At first I thought it was a bit obnoxious and haughty to do such a thing before I looked at the man in the mirror and I realised the only thing I did differently was not adding a grade. Though I do not think sermons should bear the brunt of Christian education they are still very important. I have overwhelmingly heard more bad and mediocre sermons than even just good ones and this has to change. We do need better quality sermons. My last post on this I argued that if we have more discerning congregants it will improve the quality of our sermons. If we take everything accept everything on the pretext they are “ministers of the word of God” we end up only cheating ourselves. This time I’d like to focus not on the hearer’s duty but on the preacher’s responsibility.
At one point in my life I thought I was going to be a full time minister. I was part of a student fellowship for a really long time that had plans of being more but thankfully it didn’t work out for me. In that period, I preached quite a few sermons myself so I know what it is like to be in front of the pulpit. What I really enjoyed was teaching the scripture and that is what I am still doing today through blogging. Blogging and preaching overlap because they are both communication platforms. After 2 years and over 200 blog posts I have learnt quite a few things about how to be a better communicator. The idea that a humble blogger like myself can give a preacher a few pointers may sound like a bit of a stretch but here me out. My big, probably underwhelming insight into being a better preacher is, Write the sermon down!
Any regular reader of my blog will know that even though I am a professing charismatic, or better still a post-charismatic Christian, will recognize I have a much broader influences. I am willing and open to learn from other Christian traditions especially those I am not familiar with or it is hard for me to encounter. Now in many older Christian, more Western influenced traditions, it is the norm to preach a written sermon. If you belong to more Pentecostal/Charismatic streams the opposite is true. It’s seems cagey and inauthentic to write a sermon down because the preacher is supposed to be a vessel of the Spirit to minister the very word of God in the moment. This does not mean they do not have notes and sermon pointers at all. However, the charismatic preacher always leaves room in his delivery for spontaneity where God can do something special in the moment which is a pretty admirable attitude. With the charismatic view of inspiration among other factors including rhetoric appeal and cultural habits, it’s just unusual to have a written sermon. In spite of these things the power of the written word cannot be overlooked.
Writing is a difficult thing. It would seem quite tedious to write down an entire sermon before you preach it. It is far easier to do it extempore. However, through the process of trying to produce good, high quality content for this platform I have come to recognize that the art of writing for public consumption is the best medium to confront your own thoughts and ideas. One of my heroes, Dr Ravi Zacharias who is a gifted and accomplished speaker himself across several countries and continents, has said on more than one occasion that he prefers writing. C.S. Lewis one of Ravi’s hero’s was a very good public speaker and debater but he is universal acknowledged for his power as an author, influencing countless Christian thinkers and writers and even modern secular giants like J.K. Rowling. In fact, some of the best communicators I have encountered in my own niche fields of interest are excellent writers. There is definitely a correlation between good public speaking and good writing.
When you are addressing any audience, whether orally or textually, you cannot simply assume the always know exactly what you mean. Beyond, note taking for personal reference it is always good to write as if someone might read it one day. In the process of making your ideas clear and accessible to a someone other than yourself, you have to review them asking, what do I really mean? Writing slows down the process of communicating down long enough to allow that thorough self-evaluation. Through writing you are confronted with your ideas and thought process. You spot the weaknesses, where things are not developed enough, assumptions that lack support, new questions and directions to pursue and a host of other things. Writing is challenging but it challenges you to not only be a better communicator but a more critical thinker.
In the linguistics and the philosophy of language there is something known as speech-act theory. As the name suggests it basically means speaking is a type of action like travelling or dancing. Though it has made major contributions in those respective fields it is not that remarkable a discovery. However, it does go against a modern dualism of separating words from actions. Now if you think of as speech as an act, that is, something you perform. Public speaking from ancient times has been recognized as performance art the best performances are the ones which are meticulously planned and prepared. In other words, you have to rehearse, rehearse, rehearse! When you write something down before you orally deliver it not only do you have the opportunity to improve it as I have already mentioned, you also get to go over and familiarise yourself with the content and the ideas. Like a good actor, you not only recall the script, you understand and immerse yourself in it. When there are moments that you have to go off script and improvise, you so thoroughly understand what you’re communicating that you can come up with something new yet it fits what you’re trying to achieve overall. Preaching is a live act. Usually nothing too exciting happens but surprises do happen and you need to make sure you are not thrown off when they do.
Even if you are not going to read the sermon, just writing it down is helpful for all the reasons I have listed above as well as it allows you to properly prepare your delivery. One of the greatest problems people have with written sermons is that it feels stale and pre-programmed. Many a times they really do. It feels like you’re listening to the news instead of hearing a living word. Even great speeches which are in the spur of the moment, the speaker is so comfortable and experienced with the ideas he is espousing he is ever ready to speak on that subject or issue well at any given moment. True masters of public speaking plan everything they are going to say but deliver it so well that you think it is all organic and in the spur of the moment. One profession that taught me how prepared speech can be delivered naturally and authentically is comedy. I listened to several successful stand-up comics talk about their process and it is amazing how everything is meticulously planned, even the laughs. On stage it seems so natural but everything is planned and rehearsed. Remember, the scriptures we quote and reference have already been written so we cannot argue that something prepared cannot be effective or used by God in the moment.
Writing a sermon down is quite demanding and pastors have very busy lives. Putting more work into whatever you’re doing, especially when it is ministry related, is certainly not a bad thing since it is a commitment to doing the best work in your respective calling. To all my Charismatic/Pentecostal ministers I reiterate, even if you do not take the script with you on the pulpit, writing it before hand gives you the chance to think much deeper and more carefully about the message you are giving to God’s people. Improving sermon quality is a win-win for all in the church and therefore it is worth striving for.