Sunday, January 17, 2016

Suggested New Year’s Resolution for Clergy

Note: Since I am an Episcopal Priest and almost all of my readers are Episcopalians or Anglicans, these comments are intended to apply primarily to us. 

I have been a clergy person for 44 years and during that time I have preached many sermons, heard many sermons, and even taught preaching.  Now that I am retired, I get to hear a lot of other people preach. I know that most of my colleagues consider themselves to be good preachers, so you might be curious as to my suggested New Year’s Resolution to all of us.  Here it is. 

I resolve that in 2016 I will become a more effective communicator (of the Gospel.)   

You will note that I put “of the Gospel” in parentheses.  This doesn’t mean, of course, that I think the Gospel is secondary or optional to delivery in a sermon.   I put it that way because the focus of this blog is on “effective communications” and believe me when I say that most of us have some work to do in this area. 

Fred Craddock, in his book Preaching, says that there are two tasks that a preacher faces each time we prepare.  The first is having something to say.  This takes study, analysis of the text in its context, and the ability to understand what the writer is saying using commentaries and other resources.  From this we think through the message that we want to convey to the congregation.  I have always liked Craddock’s idea of creating in my own words a one sentence declarative statement of the message I want to share and seeing to it that all my sermon material, teaching, and illustrations hold to this message.  He and others call this The Sermonic Sentence. 

Craddock also devotes the second half of his book to saying it effectively.  A sermon is not the mere restating of what we learned as we studied the text.  It is also communicating in an effective manner using the skills of rhetoric to our advantage.   In one very helpful chapter he lists twelve effective forms that have been used in oral communication throughout history.  Instead of giving us their technical names, he gives us descriptive ones. 

For example, there is the “Not this, Not this, Not this, But this” form.  If you have heard a good preacher use this method, or seen a good essayist write with it, you know that it builds a message to an effective climax.  We find exactly this form in the first chapter of John’s Gospel as the writer says how we are born as children of God; not by race, ethnicity, or family (the genetic code), not by human desire, but by the power of the Spirit.  I have often heard sermons on this text and wondered why the preacher did not choose to use this effective method to communicate rather than explain three points the preacher believes found in the text.   

Then there is the “Not this, But this” method.  This is an message in which contrast is used to illuminate an important distinction and truth.  “There was a man who had two sons,” Jesus declares as he uses contrast to make a vivid point about willing obedience.  Contrast is frequently used in the Scripture because it is rhetorically effective. 

One method he mentions is the “Explore, Explain, Apply” sermon.  In this method, the preacher explores the meaning or possible meanings of the text, explains some of the implications, and finally applies this for the listeners.  It is a good method and useful.  I believe this is now the dominate method used by most of our clergy.  This is true for several reasons, but three primary ones stand out.  First, it is taught in our seminaries and modeled by our professors because it is an effect teaching pedagogy.  Second, it is a form that allows a preacher to craft a coherent written document and most preachers today preach from a manuscript. Third it allows the preacher to present material in a detached and objective manner often preferred by college educated people.  Unfortunately, it also makes most sermons topical with our points sometimes far removed from the intent of the writer. 

I heard an example of this not long ago on Jesus healing the ten lepers.  The preacher ‘explored’ the attitude in the ancient world toward lepers who were social outcasts and believed cursed by God.  Then the preacher ‘explained’ how Jesus was often compassionate toward the poor, hurting, outcasts, and people seen as socially inferior such as Samaritans and women.  He duly noted that the one who returned to give thanks was a Samaritan.  The conclusion was that Jesus demonstrated “inclusion," God’s acceptance and inclusion of all people.  The preacher ‘applied’ this to our world and the Church and our attitude toward those who we see as different such as gay and lesbian people.  One is left to wonder what a person with leprosy or some other serious illness would take away from the passage.   

Sometimes when Episcopalians use this method, we downplay the application leaving our listeners to work this out on their own.  I heard one teacher say “I don’t bother much with application because to me the point is obvious.”  I have talked to lots of lay folks on this matter and I can assure you that they often say that the application is for them the most important part.  They are like the crowd on the day of Pentecost who interrupt Peter’s sermon and demand “what should we do?”   

Now here is my point.  This is the major method used most often today.  It is clearly habitual for many preachers to gather our sermons within this framework.  What we do not realize is how the overuse of this method defeats effective communication in two ways.  It makes us very predictable and applied to all texts ignores other more creative ways of communicating.  Take my example from John’s Gospel.  Why make it an Explore, Explain, Apply sermon when John has already demonstrated in a great piece of literature a more effective way of doing this.  In fact, what I noticed is how often I have fallen into the overuse of one way of presenting my message and how often I see this in other preachers.  Unfortunately, this is an area where our tendency to develop a habit defeats our intended goal to communicate and to communicate effectively. 

Here I found Craddock a great help.  I took the twelve forms from his book and listed them on a note pad on my desk where I did my preparation.  I began with study intending as he says to have something to say.  I would then ask myself what form of oral communications would more effectively bring out my message.  I found that this gave me greater flexibility and creativity in preaching.  I noticed that some forms were already suggested by the literary form of the text.   

Once I was preaching in a large congregation where the Rector used the same structure for preaching on every text.  I got up to preach on the Prodigal Son.  I started with these words, “It takes a prodigal like me to tell this story.”  Then in narrative form, I delivered the story moving toward the first person as though I was the desperate and lost son overcome by the Father’s love and stunned by the older brother’s resentment.  I ended and to my surprise, I got a standing ovation.  The Rector was dumbfounded.  Later he asked me how I was able to get such an amazing and spontaneous response.  I tried to explain that his habitual form of preaching made my task easy.  People heard the Gospel in a new and different and captivating way.  His predictability along with his analytical form expressed with emotional detachment was hindering effective communication. 

So why not resolve that this year you are going to become a better preacher by becoming a more effective communicator of God’s Word?  You could start by getting Craddock’s book, reading his chapters on effective communication, and applying this by keeping his forms in front of you as you wrestle with the enormous task of creatively communicating your sermon. 

Trust me; your people will appreciate it. 



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  2. Have you given any thought to interactive forms of sermon? In an Oprah age, isn't some sort of audience engagement appreciated? (And in other ages as well. See: Socrates.) I've done audience engagement a number of times. I often find that someone in the congregation makes the point I wanted to make for me, and does it better!

    1. Yes, it is definitely a tool. I also think questions are effective. But here is my rule of thumb. If the congregation is over 100, I ask rhetorical questions, like "what do you think Jesus really meant when he said....? I give the answers, but if the congregation is smaller, I ask and let them come up with answers. Usually better than mine.

  3. Well done! Variety is the spice of life. First person works well with some scripture and when you only use it infrequently.

  4. I certainly agree about first person. Effective but only for special occasions. I do like narrative preaching, which is retelling the narrative in our own words. This is effective and less limiting.