Reclaiming Preaching

By Brian Jennings

I recently sat down, opened a magazine, and read the following quotes:

“If you could change people’s minds about something, what would it be?”

“Until you know the truth you’re trying to convey to an audience, your work isn’t finished.”

03_Jennings_JN2You could probably find similar statements in a dusty book on preaching, but I found them in the January/February 2008 issue of Creative Screenwriting. I did not start reading this magazine to search for sermon tips (at least, not at first). I read it because I love video production.

My love for video production started with a comedic, basketball instructional video Kyle Idleman and I created in junior high. (If you offer more money than he does, I’ll post it on YouTube.) Twenty years later, my voice and video editing are a lot less crackly, and I still love the process.

I almost always find one or two articles in Creative Screenwriting that are very applicable to sermon writing, but I recently found one that really made me squirm.

The title was “The Seamless Theme: Five Effective Ways to Avoid Preaching Your Message.” Ouch! Well now we know what the writer (ironically named Karl Iglesias) thinks about preaching. (His last name means church in Spanish.)

But maybe his assessment is not that far off. The odds of Mr. Iglesias hearing only preachers who are “preachy” are probably not that bad. Perhaps it’s time to redefine this craft we call preaching.

What if preachy meant “engaging, provocative, inspiring, and life-changing?”

What if someone told John Grisham, “Wow, your last book was really preachy,” and he took it as a compliment?

Or what if we heard, “And the Oscar for Preachiest Film goes to Lincoln?”

 

Our Reality

But that’s not our reality, is it?

Iglesias writes, “Sometimes novice writers are so passionate about their message that they mistakenly present a one-sided, biased argument that turns their story into a sermon.”

Perhaps a mistake we sermon writers make is taking God’s story and turning it into a five-point diatribe. I must tell you, these screenwriters I have been reading about really do inspire me. They take their craft extremely seriously. We probably could learn from them that the how of our communication has a direct connection to the what we seek to communicate.

Wise spouses understand that the content of their words is completely lost, unless it is delivered in a respectful tone. The how of communication matters in relationships, and it matters in public communication too.

Braveheart would not be very inspiring if Mel Gibson delivered his famous “Freedom” speech in a monotone pattern, while wearing a business casual outfit instead of war paint.

Sometimes we ignore the how because we’ve seen those who seem to be all style with no substance. So we overreact to the opposite extreme. But must we choose one without the other?

In his article, Iglesias encourages writers to do several things that are applicable in sermon writing. The two I’m still chewing on are:

• Turn your theme into a question, not a premise. This allows the audience to emotionally experience the answer to your question through your sermon.

• Present the opposite argument as powerfully as your truth. He states, “Anytime you can convey a theme where both sides seem right, you have drama.”

Obviously, the truth will win out, but wouldn’t it be nice if our hearers were wrestling with the truth for just a while? They surely will be wrestling with real-life situations shortly after the sermon, why not let them practice thinking through tough issues during the sermon?

 

Tough Questions, Two Sides

Every August we preach a “tough questions” series our folks have found to be helpful. This year, I was compelled to tackle the most difficult sermon I have ever attempted—“How Should I Navigate the ‘Definition of Marriage’ Issue?” With all of the emotion, hurt, anger, and confusion surrounding this debate, I knew I could not afford to swing and miss.

I spent about 40 hours preparing the sermon (which is three to four times longer than normal). I needed to be able to clearly present the biblical arguments made by those who have arrived at opposite conclusions. It was critical I not be dismissive or ignorant. Plus, clearly stating opposing viewpoints poured some drama into the message.

I attempted to deliver the sermon in a scholarly, inquisitive manner. I asked questions after presenting each text (and we covered lots of texts). Making conclusive statements is still effective, and I wanted them to really count, so I kept them to a minimum and said them succinctly. I prayed that people would have already arrived at those conclusions before I made them, because they had already pondered the text.

I have swung and missed before, but God used this sermon to help our people immensely. I am very glad I chose to ask questions and present both sides.

 

Disadvantages and Advantages

So I’ve been doing some comparing. Compared with movie writers, we preachers and teachers have some disadvantages:

• Creativity is almost always encouraged in their world (although not always achieved), but it’s not always encouraged in ours.

• Movie writers probably get to wear the writing hat more than we do. It may be their only job. For most of us, writing is just one of the many hats we wear. I’ve never read about George Lucas (of Star Wars fame) making hospital calls or sweeping up dead beetles (I did both this week).

However, we also have some huge advantages:

• We know what the truth is. We don’t have to create it, only reflect it. It is already written.

• We know our audience members and care about them deeply. This should give us more passion and confidence.

• The story we are telling actually matters—both now and forever. The same can’t be said of Twilight. (This comment is intended to include all past and future Twilight movies and subsequent spinoffs.)

• We never go on strike.

So let’s keep working hard at this craft we call preaching, even if it means taking notes from those in different fields. It’s worth it, and it deserves our best.

 

Brian Jennings serves as lead minister with Highland Park Christian Church in Tulsa, Oklahoma. You can read his blog at www.brianjenningsblog.com.

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