Thursday, June 14, 2012

Behind the Scenes of Sermon Writing: Five Rules I Live By

...but if I was a pirate pastor (note to self: excellent idea for a Halloween costume), these would be more like guidelines than actual rules.  Besides, really, these are guidelines because they work for me--whether they'd work for you or for others is anyone's guess!

Between my student associate ministry in Concord and my current solo pastorate here in Longview (plus a few pulpit supply gigs here and there), I just hit the 50-sermon milestone—I’ve given about a year’s worth of sermons in my career.

For a while, when people asked me how I had written them (presumably so that they could be better informed about how such a comedy of theological errors could come from the pulpit), I was never quite sure what to tell them—I just would sit down and write, and pray, and write some more, and let the whole thing simmer over low heat for a while like a good beef stew.

I realized that this was especially true for my most recent sermon—the “As it is in Heaven” sermon on Revelation 4. Because of the subject matter, I took an exceptionally long time to muster the courage to compose it—I was still writing content on Saturday night, whereas 9 times out of 10, if I’m working on a sermon on a Saturday, it is purely to give the sermon some polish rather than adding content, as I almost always write them much earlier in the week.

But one of the most important things after you leave seminary and enter full-time ministry is figuring out who you are as a pastor—as a teacher and a counselor and a leader, but perhaps most importantly as a preacher. I have finally begun to get to know myself a bit, so now, whenever you ask me how I wrote my latest Biblical atrocity of a sermon, I’ll point you here!

1-Prior Preparation Helps Prevent Poor Performance

With the exception of holidays like Christmas and Easter, I preach almost entirely in the format of sermon series—that is, in multi-week arcs (usually 4-8 weeks long), and these arcs are centered around a particular Bible story, or theme, or Christian book. 

This style necessitates planning these arcs weeks—and usually months—in advance. For instance, I have texts and general themes picked out for my next FOUR sermon series after the current one I am doing on Revelation, which will take me clear into December. Even if I won’t actually get to the nuts and bolts of a sermon until that week, its theme has likely been knocking around in the darker recesses of my brain for a long time. The benefit for me is that it forces me to maintain some in-depth continuity in worship rather than simply writing whatever comes to mind on any given week (while I definitely indulge in that, I try to do so here on the blog, rather than in my sermons).

2-Juggling is for the Circus

I’m also a series preacher in that I don’t preach from the Revised Common Lectionary, an ordering of texts published every year that is designed to allow a preacher to go through *most* of the Bible every three years. The RCL includes 1-2 Old Testament readings, a Gospel reading, and a reading from one of the letters of the New Testament (ie, Paul’s letters, or Peter’s, or John’s, James, etc). The RCL’s goal is admirable, but I worry that it might fall short at it because it necessitates skimming over great swaths of the non-Gospel, non-Psalm books, which forces preachers in turn to reach for the McNuggets, the most well-known passages of those underrepresented books, rather than for the whole thing.

And after trying originally to preach on the RCL for my first couple of sermons, I now know that I am really only good for one text per sermon—whenever I try preaching on multiple texts at once, it is the preaching equivalent of juggling, and when it goes wrong, it is nearly as spectacular a disaster. So while I may bring in a variety of Biblical passages to augment my sermon, it will almost always feature only one text, and this is another benefit of preaching in a series—I can structure the ordering of the texts to best suit my preaching’s needs.

3-Everyone Loves a Good Story

My childhood pastor was—and is—an excellent storyteller, and though I know that I am supposed to preach with my own voice rather than imitate someone else, I have tried to emulate the approach of beginning each of my sermons with a story or anecdote. Sometimes the stories are funny, sometimes they are serious, but every time I try to bend over backwards to make sure that the story fits the message, and not the other way around.

The stories also aren’t always about me and my experiences—of course, some are, but I’m also 26 years old, and some of the folks I am preaching to are three times my age, and have me beat but good on the life experience front, so I try to rely on a diverse array of stories beyond my own. I’ll try to consider not only what has been happening in my life, but in the lives of my congregants and in the world of current events before I settle on a tale to tell.

4-Keep It Simple, Stupid 

At the risk of speaking ill of any of my well-intentioned, dedicated, and extremely talented colleagues, I must admit that there are few styles of preaching I find more stupefying than the style that says you have to have exactly three (or whatever) distinct points to your sermon, and that (even worse) each point must begin with the same letter.*

To quote the ‘80s robot, “Like, gag me with a spoon.”

And so somewhat related to rule #2 on only using one text, another of the most valuable lessons I have learned was that a sermon should say only one thing, and say it well. It’s impossible for me to cram everything I know about the Bible into a 15-20 minute message, so I shouldn’t bother trying. Much like a good research paper, a sermon needs a thesis statement—or at least a bottom line. I have since learned that if I cannot sum up the basis of my entire sermon in a single sentence, then I need to take the whole thing back to formula.

*As an aside, is ministry is the most alliteration-happy occupation ever? Going through the newsletters of my colleagues’ churches, their columns often go by names like “The Pastor’s Pen” or “Musings from the Minister.” I simultaneously laugh and weep at my profession’s collective corniness, even as I indulge in it myself (see previous sentence clause’s use of “collective corniness”).

5-The Highest Technique is to Have No Technique 

Beyond those four basic rules (er...guidelines) listed above, I have few other requirements for how I write my sermons. Because I detest the overuse of the word “postmodern” (especially in the church, where, let’s be honest, we acclimate to change about as quickly as a polar bear would acclimate to the desert), I prefer labeling my preaching as “freestyle.”

What that means (to me) is that I place no artificial requirements upon my sermons when writing them—no needing X number of illustrations, or Y number of quotes from Biblical scholars, or Z amount of action steps. I just write. I pray a lot, I unpack my thesis wherever it leads and guides me to, I pray some more, I edit, and I try to wrap things up in a nice, tidy way at the end.

This has the ancillary benefit of actually decreasing my dependence on out-and-out quoting outside sources. That doesn’t mean I don’t use them, but that I am more apt to paraphrase or quote briefly rather than quoting extensively, which in turn leaves more room for my OWN words, and for God to use my voice to speak His truth. In this way, my preaching becomes my own, and God's own.

So…with apologies to Bruce Lee, I think that (at least, for me) it is best to describe my preaching technique as being no technique.

I don’t know if this was illuminating or useful in trying to explain how the sermons that get slapped up here every week come into being (or if it was merely an exercise in me talking about myself)…but it has been beneficial for me to try to explain my process, as it has helped me gain a more in-depth perspective into who I am, and who God has made me, as a preacher.

To fellow preachers and teachers of the Word out has God led you to your personal styles of offering the Gospel?

Yours in Christ,

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