I’m doing a little series on preaching, since I will be preaching a sermon this coming Sunday at my church. See here to read my last post. In this post, I want to ramble on about the content of a sermon.
I talked with my Dad years ago about effective preaching techniques, since that was the time that I was about to preach at the church that I attended in order to fulfill my divinity school’s requirements. My Dad is not a minister himself, but he has given sermons a number of times, plus (like many of us who listen to speeches) he has his ideas about what is effective and ineffective in terms of public speaking. My Dad shared with me two insights. First, even if a speaker’s delivery is not spectacular, people will listen to him if he has something to say. My Dad referred to one preacher he likes, who stutters and stammers. My Dad said that this guy would probably be laughed out of the halls of Congress! And yet, my Dad likes him because he has something to say.
Second, my Dad said that it’s powerful when a preacher uses himself as an example—-by sharing with the audience some lessons that he has learned from experience as well as areas in which he has grown. I agree with my Dad here, and I think that’s one reason that preachers such as Joyce Meyer and Joel Osteen are so effective—-they are not afraid to share their humanity in their sermons, their personal experiences of trials and growth. What’s ironic is that I don’t recall my Dad telling stories about himself all that often in his sermons. His sermons still came across as personally authentic and as expressions of his spiritual journey, but he rarely used himself as an example in his sermons, at least not in an explicit sense.
On the first issue, having something to say, there are some challenges. Do you want to share with your audience a fresh insight that they’ve never heard before, or do you want to preach a message that repeats a lot of the same material that preachers have preached for years? On the one hand, I think that audiences like to learn something new. I recall one of my relatives saying that he used to like Garner Ted Armstrong because, during the Feast of Tabernacles, Garner Ted would share a unique thought or reflection that he recently had. Eventually, however, it got to the point where Garner Ted preached the same handful of messages over and over, and my relative found that to be boring. One time, I gave a talk to a small group about the love of God, and one person remarked that he already knew about what I was preaching, so why did I need to go on for fifteen minutes?
On the other hand, I do believe that there are times when audiences want to hear the same old thing reaffirmed, and going outside of the box may not be a good idea. I heard a sermon recently about how we should be honest with God about our suffering. I’ve heard this sort of message over and over again for years. I’m sure that others have, too. And yet, this preacher got numerous compliments about his sermon, as people told him that it really touched them. When I was talking to my pastor about the topic of my sermon—-Job—-he responded that people need to be encouraged with a good message about how they should trust in God amidst their sufferings. That does not strike me as a fresh and new reading of the Book of Job. As a matter of fact, there are other ways to read the book—-ways that highlight Job’s impatience with God, or that border on nihilism, for example. And yet, I agree with my pastor: there are many people who would love to hear a message about Job that highlights his patience and faith, even if they have heard that sort of interpretation of the Book of Job numerous times before. Granted, there are also people who would greet that message with cynicism, but plenty would appreciate it.
On the second issue, using oneself as an example, there is probably a right way and a wrong way to do that. One of my friends a while back became a Catholic after he attended a Protestant church for a brief period of time. My friend liked Catholicism in part on account of its rich intellectual content. He did not care as much for the Protestant church, by contrast, because the pastor in his sermons would ramble on about his relationship with his wife. I’m not sure if my friend was against pastors using themselves as an example in their sermons. Perhaps he prefers sermons that have deep intellectual content rather than personal anecdotes. I think that many people, though, would like a balance: they’d like to learn something, but they’d also like for the pastor to share some of his own humanity. The key, in my opinion, is not to ramble on about one’s personal life in the sermon, but rather to use personal anecdotes in such a way that they reinforce the sermon’s main theme—-as well as communicate how the experience resulted in lessons learned and personal growth. This has to be done in a tight manner, though, for it to be effective, I think.
In terms of how I will approach my sermon this coming Sunday, I’ll be preaching some of the traditional interpretations of the Book of Job, but I also will be sharing some views that are not particularly traditional. On using myself as an example, I doubt that I’ll tell a lot of stories about myself. When it comes to the Book of Job, I’m really hesitant to do that, for I don’t want to imply that anything I’ve suffered is on the same level as what Job experienced! But I may share a few lessons that I have learned in life. Overall, my sermon will be an expression of where I am spiritually, on some level.