What I learned over time and through much trial and error is that there are some recognizable patterns of creativity. These elements of creativity are building blocks that can help you grow in sermonizing. Look at them, and see how many forms you can use to create a message. Note: it's best to use one or two in a message . . . don't resort to overkill!
1. Surprise—What a delight it is in life to be surprised. Some of the best sermons I remember hearing are ones where I was surprised by the ending or by something in the middle. The surprise caught me off guard and made me sit up and listen. It reminds me of the saying “Made ya look!” That's what surprises do. See if you can find ways to initiate surprise into the body of your message, and see how intently people listen after you do!
2. Distraction—When we draw attention away from a problem, we have a second chance at the problem. Often this second chance is what helps us to view Scripture in a new way or to see applications to our lives that we can't get when we doggedly pursue a solution. Try the distractions of stories that don't end until later, of implementing something that seems irrelevant, or of looking away and then looking back at something. It brings a newness to the sermon that will give you a smile.
3. Imaging—To image is to make visible. We can do this with descriptive words, or we can actually bring an image to the people and let the image speak for itself. For example, when talking about baggage, have a pile of suitcases up on the stage that provides a visual response beyond anything words could ever say (see Nine Seeds). Pictures are worth more than words, so include images in new and old ways.
4. Metaphor—Metaphors are connectors linking ideas that otherwise might not be seen together. We have a rich history of ascribing metaphors to God. “God's hands” is a metaphor that connects God's actions with our understanding of touch. Jesus was a master at using metaphors, similes, and parables, and we can be masters at the art of description as well. Don't get stuck in old metaphors though. Find metaphors that have not been used before, and surprise people with a depth of thought that is relevant to our cultural understanding of the world.
5. Remix—Look at things and mix them up in new ways. When we get good at cooking, we can use basic ingredients and throw in a few extra spices or tastes to change the outcome. One of my favorite surprise tastes was at a chili cook-off where one contestant put chocolate into the chili. It changed the texture and the taste, and it influenced the spices already in the mix. I never forgot that one. That's the point.3
6. Layering—To layer a sermon is to add one element, then gradually add another, and then another. For example, before you begin talking, show a silent picture of the story, say, of Jesus riding into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. Then add music without words to the picture, and then music with words, inviting the people to join in the song. Then as the music and picture fade behind you, begin talking about the story. Layering helps people to go deeper with the meaning of the message. It starts at a safe place and then goes a little further in our understanding than we had planned.
7. Sensory—Although we used to be a people who learned by hearing, most of us today are visual learners. If you notice, you can tell who the auditory learners are in your congregation. They are the ones who close their eyes to hear the sermon. Ask them why and you might hear about them listening to the radio in the same manner, or to music, etc. But visual learners are people who take in all kinds of information by what they see around them. Most of us are adept at visual cues and have been greatly influenced by the age of television and the Internet. If you want to add to the typical senses used in sermons, think about the sense of smell. Smell can take us back in time to a memory that is vivid. Think of the smell of homemade cookies, or the smell of freshly baked bread. The old traditions of the church included the sense of smell when they used incense as a way to welcome the presence of God. Taste is also a memory connector. When we taste the Communion elements, we remember the giving of Christ for our sins. The sense of touch involves cells that cover the whole body. Touch communicates warmth, caring, and connection. Touching a shoulder, for example, tells someone that you are with her. It provides tactile memory that touches our emotions. Therefore, any time that you can add the sensory communication, you will enhance the experience of worship.
8. Play—Play includes humor, fun, and lighthearted activity. Many studies have shown the benefits of humor to our overall health. Joy is good for the soul. The thing about playfulness and humor is that it lets us look sideways at an idea. We laugh at something and take it lightly, and then we can zero in on the serious side of the same subject. It opens us up to the possibilities that we previously shunned. For too long, we've given ourselves to the thought that church is only a serious endeavor. But it is more than that. A lighthearted approach to the world and to the subject matter may enable you to go deeper than you ever imagined. That's why we know intuitively that laughter and tears go hand in hand.4
9. Connecting the Circle—I often use this technique to bring back a theme or story or to end up where I started. For example, I may begin to tell a story, then go off into other sequences of thought, and finish the sermon with the end of the story I started in the beginning. Follow that? It's an easy but effective way to bring a point to a conclusion. It leaves the hearer with that feeling of having gone “full circle” with a topic. It adds completeness to the message.
10. Interruption—To stop and start a message can be effective because it makes a topic lighter in order to go deeper. When we are interrupted, we forget what we were doing, and when we get back to the task, we often have a new take on it. So too with interruptions. Plan interruptions in your message. I have done messages with “musical hats” (see Three Seeds) and with plain old interruptions by cued laypeople (see Seven Seeds). These are surprising and cause people to pay closer attention to what lies ahead.
11. Musical—The musical sermon is one of my favorite forms to work with because the possibilities are endless. I started using these by talking to Cliff Wright, the worship director, and giving him ideas for the message. He would talk to me about songs that worked the metaphor, and we would go back and forth between word and song in a planned and seamless way. This takes practice and trust between the two giving the message, but is well worth the effort. Once, a harpist worked with me on a message, providing musical backdrops to the words and spaces for reflection in the message. Don't be afraid to use snatches of secular as well as sacred sounds.
12. Artistic—The arts are a wonderful way to communicate a message. Think of ways that you can mix dance, mime, painting, sculpting, weaving, drama, and even cooking into a sermon. The first time I heard about a creative sermon was when I served in my first church. The pastor who preceded me, Rev. Steve Marshall, had delivered a sermon with no words and a little music, as he painted a picture of Jesus on canvas before the very eyes of the congregation. It was so memorable that the church hailed it as “the best sermon ever,” and that painting still hangs in the church. Artistic expression is valuable, and it is a form that has possibilities beyond the scope of these pages. Let your artistic imagination run wild!
What methods and techniques do you use to make your sermons more creative?