Tuesday, April 26, 2011

E is for Engagement

A friend reading my preaching 'e's challenged me to do one more, on Engagement.

I quite agree. Engagement might be the most important 'e' preaching word of them all.

I have a message to give. The congregation is open to receiving the message. But will they receive the message? When, perhaps, some are tired, others are distracted (e.g. by an accompanying child, by some anxiety), and others are entranced by something around them - a buzzing fly, a sun-filled stained glass window - what will engage attention so that the message delivered is, more or less, the message received?

I do not think there is a preferred method. Some preachers use humour effectively to retain attention and to reinforce the message. Others tell appropriate illustrative stories, the best of these placing them judiciously into the flow of the sermon. Within the story tellers are those who engage best through autobiography, others through biography (i.e. the stories of other people), and others through other kinds of stories drawn from history, nature and sport (how the war was won, how ants co-operate, how to develop a winning frame of mind). It will help if the Bible is mentioned! Often the text for the day is engaging in its own right - a dramatic episode from Israel's history, a might miracle of Jesus, a parable with a sting in its tail.

Let me stop there for now. In doing so I exemplify one further aspect of engagement: speaking for less rather than more time. The most engaging material has a time limit on it. Go beyond that limit and engagement will cease.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Another "E" of Preaching: one to avoid

Here is another "E" in preaching: Explanation.

I suggest this "E" word is one to try to avoid as much as possible.

Explanations tend to give information and contribute little to transformation. Within a sermon explanations are a sidetrack down which the sermon heads, away from the main point of the sermon. By 'sidetrack' I mean: a state into which the hearers are led from which they might not come back. In my case I will probably have fallen asleep during the explanation!

'Explanation' includes explaining how the sermon came to be written, why the topic was chosen, what got in the way of its steady progress during the week of preparation. Do not do this. The sermon's purpose is to point people to the God of Jesus Christ, not to the autobiography of the preacher.

'Explanation' includes explaining technical matters. These could be matters within the biblical text itself such as what a Pharisee was, or where Pergamum is, or how big a mustard tree grows. Sometimes these explanations contribute to the impact of the point of the sermon and thus should be made, but even then, concisely! An example might be the degradation of the prodigal son in Luke 15: tending pigs was not what good Jewish boys did (or do, to this day).

Technical matters could also be about life as it is related to the biblical text. Peace and justice in this world is threatened by the decisions of world powers. A little explanation, a few illustrations will underline this point ... but please, literally "for God's sake", for the sake of drawing hearers towards God, and not towards the complexities of politicians' lives, be as brief, as concise as possible.

A third possibility re technical matters in sermons can be 'the theology of X'. Perhaps the biblical text is about the work of the Spirit in our lives. We feel a need to distinguish between that work in terms of 'gifts of the Spirit' and of 'fruit of the Spirit.' Well there are many gifts and many kinds of fruit. We could get a long way from the central point we wish to make very quickly with explanations about 'gifts' and 'fruit'. Here advice might not only be, as above, to be brief and concise in the explanation, it might also be to ask ourselves the question, "Is the feeling I have that I need to make some distinction between the Spirit's gifts and fruit a feeling which I need to act on?" That is, might there be another way to talk about how the Spirit works in our lives? There will be other opportunities to talk about the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit.

Take care when the text of our sermons has the character of 'explanation.'

PS Take even greater care when  we start ad libbing explanations. They are so difficult to bring to a quick ending.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The "E"s of Preaching

Some e-words to think about when considering how to preach well.

Exegesis: drawing out from the text what it is saying.

Exposition: saying what the text means for us today.

Evangelism: ensuring the good news of Jesus Christ is part of (even the whole of) our sermon.

Essay: the kind of sermon to avoid. Some longer sermons have the feel of an essay and suffer accordingly. A sermon should be more like a blog post, letter to the editor, or message on a postcard than like an essay.

Enthusiasm: sermons are not just words, they are convictions communicated through words; let our enthusiasm for what we believe be expressed.