Preaching from Comp 101

January 20th, 2011

“So, exactly how is this going to help me in the real world?”

It’s the battle cry of every artist who has endured Algebra I, and every engineer who has slogged through a composition class. And—sadly—of a lot of preachers who have attended seminars in an effort to improve their craft. Although it’s not hard to find resources to help us preachers understand a biblical text, real tools for taking the next step—from interpretation to presentation—are often hard to come by.   

Fortunately, most of us have already been taught the most basic things about putting together a good sermon. We learned it in (gasp!) those English Composition classes we once swore were useless. Consider the following writing essentials:

The right word matters!

Mark Twain is famous for saying (among other things) that the difference between the right word and almost the right word is the difference between “lightning” and “lightning bug.” For preachers, it may be the difference between “pulpit” and “armpit.”

For starters, word choice is a key to clarity. The more attention you pay to your word choice, the higher the likelihood that you’ll be understood. And I don’t know of a single preacher who relishes the Monday morning phone call asking her to please explain what she meant in her sermon, just one more time.

But word choice goes beyond simple clarity. Words carry emotion and connotation beyond their strict meaning (e.g., “tea party” or “health care”). The right word can be provocative, but only if it accurately represents what the preacher is trying to say. Anything else is distraction.

Know and respect your audience.

People do dumb things. It’s part of being people.

That does not, however, mean that people are dumb. Most of us, through either training or intuition, can process an astounding amount of complex material. Preachers who talk down to their congregations insult the reflections of divine intelligence sitting before them. By the same token, preachers who like to use some of the more scholarly “right words” can come off as aloof and disconnected.

Where, then, is the happy medium? It depends on where you live.

For two years, I pastored a small church in one of the most rural towns in rural Arkansas. In it was a man with barely a high school education who spent his time hunting and whittling. He seemed the very picture of a country bumpkin. Except that he wasn’t. He understood philosophy, theology, and biblical criticism. Although we expressed ourselves differently, we were able to have some very substantive conversations, once we found a common vocabulary.

The better you know the people you’re preaching to, the better understanding you’ll have of how to speak respectfully to them. And the better you do that, the more likely they are to participate more fully in the sermon event.

Don’t tell. Show.

Ah, here we have it. The first rule of every Creative Writing 101 class. But what does it mean for preachers?

We clergy live in a world full of concepts. The very subject of our life’s work (God) is intangible, mysterious. When we talk about God, we often resort to purely conceptual words like “faith” or “spirit” or “goodness”—or even “love”. For pastors, these words carry deep meaning.

But that’s not necessarily the case for everyone. Those who live in a more terrestrial world may agree with a preacher who says, “Have faith.” But will they be able to tell what faith looks like to the preacher? That all depends on what we clergy show, both in our lives and in our preaching.

Fortunately, the Bible is full of examples of this. Abraham’s story shows that he is a person of faith long before the author of Hebrews spells it out for us. When a would-be disciple asks Jesus to tell him what a neighbor is, Jesus responds with the story of the Good Samaritan.

In general, any form of the verb “be” (is, was, are, etc.) is a good place to stop and ask if we are telling rather than showing. We can’t do without those simple verbs, to be sure. But their overuse will fast lead a congregation into foggy daydreams or outright sleep.

In a word, brevity.

Like most English Comp assignments, sermons have an expected length (which could vary from ten to twenty to forty minutes, depending on your context). The practices of your congregation will let you know what to shoot for. But fill that time with only what’s important! Stories from Reader’s Digest may be cute, but if they only take up space, the congregation will realize something is amiss.

Never use four words when three will do.

And, as one of the great little old church ladies of all time told me, “Reverend, say what you have to say and sit down.”

The better you read, the better you’ll write.

Language skill is something that rubs off on us. Fred Craddock developed his preaching style from the stories he heard as a child. Barbara Brown Taylor honed her craft through hours of solitary reading. The common element? Exposure to people who used language well.

To paraphrase another Comp 101 adage, not every reader should be a preacher. But every preacher must be a reader—and of more than informational nonfiction. Good writers who model good language use will embed themselves in our speech over time, often without us realizing it.

Short story collections are a great way to immerse yourself in language. Although they are harder to find than in decades past, there are still plenty of good short-story publications to be found. In a format whose very name suggests depth using an economy of words, preachers will find substantial parallels to their weekly creations.

Of course, preparation is only the second in the interpret/prepare/present sequence. A sermon is much more than words on a page. But putting the right words down in the right way goes a long way toward creating a meaningful sermon event.

comments powered by Disqus