Please

by Peggy Hahn, LEAD Executive Director

Please, we beg you: skip the well-read sermon.

If you get to speak in front of people, face to face, each week, and they are showing up, AND you are reading the sermon, STOP. They deserve more.

Memorizing the sermon is probably not getting us there either. I love this message from Seth Godin about the true work of knowing something by heart.

It is time to shift from the well-read, well-written sermon to something more important. We need to do the hard work of knowing the Biblical stories so well that we see them coming to life all around us in our daily life. Think parable. Here’s how this works for me:

  1. Experience life and notice God’s presence. Daily life is filled with these moments, but if they aren’t enough to spark your inner-storyteller, get out of your bubble by traveling to a new neighborhood, state, or country. There is nothing like leaving the grind of “normal” life to get reconnected to liminal space. This doesn’t have to cost money. It can literally mean getting to know your neighbors.
  2. Read. Feel free to read more than theology or leadership books. Read novels. Notice how characters are developed, what captures the imagination, and what creates boredom. Don’t read much? Then try audio books, podcasts, TED Talks, etc. The point is to watch how others manage the art of storytelling.
  3. Write. Literally write out the stories to identify the difference between rambling and making your point. Leaders with over-full lives will do better when they block out 30 minutes per day, or one day a week or 3 days a month, or a week per quarter to write. Writing takes focused, uninterrupted time for deep thinking. Clear convictions in tension with the Bible and the world written, edited, written, edited, etc. Not a writer? Try this anyway to deepen internal convictions with the weekly text or Biblical theme.
  4. Practice. Tell the sermon, out loud if possible, over and over. Seven times. Yes, I know, that takes time. A couple of hours during the week. AND it only works if the other three, above, are also happening. Don’t skip this step. This is where the biggest move from paper to truly embodying the message comes.

It’s a lot, but if people are giving us their time, it is the least we can do. For those who preach or speak publicly, we owe it to our audience to know our message by heart.

Please invest in preaching. Make it clear to your council and staff that this is essential work. You want them to understand and support your call to shape the faith and culture of your congregation in a way that people can repeat and engage.

We are looking for more than inspiration. We want a living faith that is contagious, one that is caught from leaders who are living out of a relationship with the Bible and the world. Clarify your convictions. Plan your preaching by carving out time (above) so you can step away from the well-written sermon and experiment with the well-lived Gospel. The church is counting on this.

13 replies
  1. Elva
    Elva says:

    From what i understand, TED talks has an 18 minute rule. After viewing “8 lessons that you can master for public speaking”, one of them says if you have 30 minutes take 25. My question is if you should have an 18 minute sermon should one take 13 minutes?

    Reply
  2. Drew Yackel
    Drew Yackel says:

    Thank you, Peggy and Seth for this challenge to “know by heart” what we as leaders need to witness to for our people and the world. Your core point is well-taken. I would like to push back a little though. The assumption here seems to be that preaching without a manuscript or outline is better than preaching with one. Time constraints are a big issue for leaders who are in contexts where they are preaching a new sermon every week, plus doing myriad other ministries. For many it may not be practical to tell the sermon seven times before the worship service. I agree that “reading” off a page is not an engaging way to preach, but for many, having a prepared manuscript or outline really helps organize, clarify, and develop ideas so that you’re not just rambling. There is value in saying something with precision and clarity and in saying something in a particular, crafted way. Frankly, I’m tired of hearing people tell me and others like me I should preach a certain way and that their way is better. I don’t mean to be defensive, but I think this piece is being a little dismissive of other ways of proclamation. We can witness to “a living faith that is contagious, one that is caught from leaders who are living out of a relationship with the Bible and the world” in different ways, and this particular way, thought it may work really well for you and your context, is not the only way or even the better way. Just wanted to offer that perspective. Thanks for offering yours.

    Reply
    • Peggy
      Peggy says:

      Great points Drew. Believe me I think writing out a sermon is essential. I know that I’m only speaking to one aspect of a dynamic witness of the faith. There are times when reading a thought, quote or story is perfect. Sadly, as I travel around the country, I see so many pastors reading a manuscript and honestly, no one is listening. Our tone of voice changes when we read vs speak. Our eye contact, body language, etc. are impacted, so delivery does matter. I get that TED and proclamation are not synonymous but our culture shifts are raising the bar.

      I know some weeks are brutal for pastors. I have a need for the laity to honor the role of preacher enough to allow them to prepare. The bottom line is are you (the preacher) and those gathered, engaged and experiencing God’s grace in worship rather than going through the motions?

      Reply
  3. J. Jeffrey Zetto
    J. Jeffrey Zetto says:

    When I was in the Seminary (late 1960s) we were taught “it takes one hour of preparation for each moment preached. That hour (ten to fifteen hours) should be non-negotiable in the Call and in your monthly time-task report to Congregation Council and Annual Report to the congregation.
    If you do any kind of a tape ministry, you can transcribe the tape, clean up the grammar, add footnotes, and put it on line or in the Narthex. The transcription process (even if someone else does the initial transcribing) will also help you to better prepare for the next sermon (“I really said that?!?”).

    Reply
  4. Ed Dusang
    Ed Dusang says:

    We now or on our second pastor and they both have not used paper to read from. It is very refreshing to here a sermon from the heart. Thanks for the article.

    Reply
  5. Sandra Jones
    Sandra Jones says:

    The only reason that I write out and read from a printed version of the sermon is because I have a number of folks in the congregation who do not hear well. They have asked me to print the sermon for them so they can follow along. They say it helps them understand what I am saying better. And – I feel like I have to stay with the manuscript in order for them to actually be reading what I am saying. I much prefer to preach without a manuscript but in respect for my hard-of-hearing folks I write it out and preach from the paper. Any ideas on how to get around that?

    Reply
    • Peggy
      Peggy says:

      So context does matter. I’m guessing if you veer off the script when telling a story they will still catch the point and you will engage other demographics too. You can also give a warning, “going off script here…” or “just to speak from my heart for a minute…” so you can manage the whole crowd. I know there’s no perfect recipe here.

      Reply
  6. Laura Holck
    Laura Holck says:

    More important than whether a sermon is delivered by heart or read from a page is a sermon than moves people; a sermon that takes people from one vantage point or experience to another.

    Sermons are relevant when they create a relatable real-world experience, filled with the tension of life only resolved by the power of God’s grace at work in the here and now.

    We preachers create those types of sermons by “showing what happens” in life and relationship with God (as opposed to describing feelings or experiences): dwelling in the Word in the midst of the stuff of life, sharing encounter with the Living Word, and celebrating the power of God’s transforming work in our midst right now.

    It matters little how the sermon is delivered if the preacher is attentive to theses things. The sermon at its best is a living event in the lives of God, preacher, and hearers unfolding in the present moment.

    Thanks for hearing my two cents.
    Rev. Dr. Laura Holck
    Sessional Faculty in Homiletics, Lutheran Theological Seminary, Saskatoon, SK
    Pastor, Lutheran Church of the Cross, Calgary

    Reply
    • Peggy
      Peggy says:

      Thanks for you thoughtful points, Laura. You are right…and I can’t help but add, if the preacher is not fully invested this is less likely to happen. Through the power of the Holy Spirit anything might happen to be sure but we are called to participate to the best of our ability.

      Reply
  7. Elva
    Elva says:

    In a previous post, I realized I had not completed my comment as I was hoping that if…that 13 minute sermon would help those transitioning from paper to a type of storytelling style. But, I have to agree that “sermons are relevant when they create a relatable real world experience” so whatever the choice-as long as it puts forth a “contagious faith”.

    Reply
    • Peggy
      Peggy says:

      Thanks for your post. I’m really appreciating all the conversation about preaching.

      I’m not an expert preacher but I am a seasoned listener so I’m writing out of that heartfelt perspective. I want people to hear the good news of Christ’s love so much. I know the listener has a role as well. The stories are just easier to remember. Jesus is the best teacher for delivering a narrative.

      Reply

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