Shift happens


There are times when preaching that I notice a shift. It’s slightly perceptible, perhaps not at all to the congregation, but I notice it. Every few years, I get a little bit better at it.

I intentionally work on my preaching. After all, it’s a rich and wonderful art form that takes a great deal of time, practice, and thought. I’ve preached with a manuscript, without a manuscript, short sermons, and long sermons. I experiment with all sorts of styles (depending on the congregation), and for now I’ve settled on long narrative sermons.

I don’t go to preaching conferences. I would love to, but the cost is usually too big to cram into my con ed budget. But each year, I concentrate on one way in which I can improve. This year I took voice lessons, which, I have to admit, didn’t do much for me. They were slightly humiliating, and, I still sound the same. I still have my nasally, flat, and not-quite-southern-enough voice.

Here are a few personal preaching goals that I’ve developed over the years:

Start on Monday. Okay, there are people who work six months out, and that’s great. I am not one of those people. But I do start on Monday.

Engage all five senses. Somewhere in the sermon, I try to make sure that the congregation can smell, taste, touch, feel, and hear the passage or illustration.

Cut out all “while I was preparing this sermon” prefaces. I try to avoid them at all costs.

Never get an illustration off the Internet. I did it once. It was one of those emailed stories. It was stale, and I felt cheap. And then, to remind me of the error of my ways, I heard about ten other pastors use the same illustration in the ensuing months.

Read the sermon out loud before preaching it. This is one of the huge perks of being part of a clergy couple. He has to listen to mine, because I just heard his.

Speaking of my pastor/husband, here’s a goal that I stole from him: I preach the sermon that I need to hear. I’m not sure why this works so well. It just changes the preparation process. Instead of it being about what they need to hear, it becomes about what we need to hear.

And the last one…hmmm…how do I say this?

I get therapy. Okay, so I’m not always in therapy, and good spiritual direction works too. I just make sure I engage in some level of honest self-reflection.

Preaching’s an intimate undertaking. I’m not a bystander in the process, and I can’t ignore what I’m bringing to the text. Many times it’s the pain and heartache of past experience that mingles in with the passage as I interpret it. I need to be able to locate that. And I need to make sure that I’m not using the pulpit as therapy.

Strangely, it’s usually during a time of personal hardship or crisis that the shift happens. When we learn to dig deeper at that moment, our preaching becomes different. Better.

It’s like the rock I saw on my hike this morning. It was smooth, gray and dull on the outside. And somehow it had broken in half. On the jagged side of it, I could glimpse at the inside, which was rich and beautiful, with swirling colors of rusty red, ochre yellow, and ocean blue. I was stunned as I studied it.

It can be like that when we preach. Even when we feel battered and broken, we can end up with something deep and beautiful in the midst of it. If we’re willing and able to dig around a bit, we can point out the wondrous things that God does within all of us.

What are your goals?

photo by John Koetsier


6 thoughts on “Shift happens

  1. You know, that’s really interesting. I also preach the sermon I need to hear. In fact, I basically preach to myself when I preach. I decided that I can’t really know, for sure, what anyone else is thinking, or how they’ll receive something, or what they need. I can, however, get a good guess as to what I might need. So I go for that, and hope it’ll be enough.

  2. I guess the biggest shift happened for me because of a “crisis:” I forgot to take my sermon to work! It was the 1st or 2nd Sunday in Lent, and we had just started a 2nd service, at 8 am. After a moment of panic, I realized that I had just put the final touches on that sermon, of course I knew what I was about to say, and so I just stood at the chancel steps and preached it. The crowd went wild! I got many, many compliments for my unpolished, nerve-wracked delivery. So I decided, even though I had gone to my house and retrieved the highly-crafted, full manuscript that I generally preach from, that I would try the same delivery at 10:00. Well, the crowd went wild again. So now, even though I prepare a manuscript every week (I always think I might have a giant brain-fart, and I really do have to write out my thoughts to organize them), I deliver my sermons with a few brief notes from the chancel steps. After sharing my anger at the congregation’s preference with a colleague, he suggested that the parishioners were probably just looking for the more personal connection they get from me when I speak, rather than read (even though I think I’ve got a pretty good “read” delivery style).
    But your question was, what are my goals? My goal is that every parishioner would examine his or her life and faith, and know what the “Good News” is in each of their individual lives. I’m not really interested in platitudes and generalities (“Jesus has saved me from my sins”). What does that mean for you? Sometimes I try to accomplish this by telling about what the scriptural good news means when it’s applied to my very own day-to-day life. Sometimes I don’t talk about myself at all. Maybe speaking my sermons has helped me to crystallize that goal — I’m not sure. But there is a shift taking place in the parish — a move toward more energy, more participation, more fun — and that’s all I really care about!

  3. Yeah. I get pretty personal in my preaching, and I’m always worried that it will become about me, instead of that good news. There’s such a fine balance.

    Great story! I’ve had about 1,000 dreams where that happened. One time, I had to fetch my sermon from my office during a hymn, but it hasn’t actually happened to me. Yet. Gulp.

    Good for you for having the grace to punt it! Maybe your story will give me a happier ending to my stress nightmares.

  4. Hey! I like the “never get an illustration from the internet” one. I’m going to read this more closely later. I think, like you, I did once… illustrations have to be organic to “who you are” as a preacher… not just personal stories, but local/newspaper (I like to read the newspaper) from fiction (but things the preacher actually reads!) things observed…

  5. I just saw this bumper sticker “shift happens” yesterday for the first time when you wrote this post. Coincidence?

    Great post. I definitely preached to myself. And when I didn’t they generally did not go over as well. If we’re preaching what we need to hear, I think the personal impact of the message is going to carry over to the congregation.

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