Edits that make sermons stronger

January 25th, 2016

“Murder your darlings.” Creative gurus chant it like a mantra. Who said it first is not as important as this fact: Artists from film directors to novelists to poets understand that creating art means deleting some of our favorite parts. Keep it simple.

Film editors may be the most ruthless. They hack and slash every shot, every bit of dialogue that doesn’t advance the story or tell us information about a character. That conversation between the lovers on the moonlit bridge? Gone. That quirky, lovable secondary character who tells a joke? Gone. Your favorite obscure part of the book? Gone.

Preachers also create with words, and we often love our words with a religious zeal. When we believe we have been given words by the Holy Spirit, we can become especially protective of our clichés and illustrations.

I’ve probably made all of the preaching mistakes. I’ve written sermons that could have been preached better in half the time, and I’ve crammed three sermons into one because I felt like I had to say everything. I’ve lobbed hand grenades when I should have thrown softballs to a congregation, and I’ve used illustrations so gentle and bewildering that people walked out of a sermon convinced I had said something completely different. (We preachers have an easy out: we chalk up such mistakes to “the work of the Holy Spirit.”)

We preachers often don’t have time for a lot of editing. We are on a tight weekly schedule with a ton of other pastoral duties and deadlines. Sometimes it hurts too much to murder a darling paragraph or story that tickles us both rhetorically and religiously. But almost any manuscript can be improved with a few quick “search and destroy” missions.

1. Eliminate generic nouns. “The homeless.” “The poor.” “The marginalized.” These abstract groups of people do not have the power of the following illustration: “Joe has a masters degree in chemistry, but he sleeps at night in an abandoned house. He tears up when someone gives him a new, fresh pair of socks.”

Images and stories do the heavy lifting in a sermon, so when I opt instead for generic nouns, I ask myself why. Is the generic noun important enough to be in the sermon? Phrases like “Care for the poor” are so fuzzy that they cannot inspire imaginations or call people to action. What does “care for the poor” actually look like? Paint a picture of specific things — shiny new books in a school, a community land trust that builds a storm shelter for residents, or a teenager with glasses who can see the blackboard clearly for the first time.

2. Eliminate super-passive verbs. Many of us know to avoid passive voice: “She was adored by everyone” is not as good as “Everyone adored her.” State of being verbs (is, was, are) do not convey the power of active verbs (love, fall, sprint), and turn the subject (she) into a passive recipient of the action.

But one class of verbs are even weaker: should, ought, must, need. These are what I call “state of non-being verbs.” They do not describe a state that exists, but one that we wish existed.

Unfortunately, preachers love these verbs. When we want to talk about moral obligations or ethical relationships — which we do when we preach — we don’t have many alternatives. These verbs feel …  well, preachy. They give preaching a reputation for being moralistic, shaming and demanding.

“Should” actually demotivates a listener. One of my congregation members once said in a mission team meeting, “Folks just don’t care enough. We need to help the poor!” As soon as he said it, I felt tired, deflated and helpless. If he had painted a picture of the joy of service — maybe told a story about a grandfather reading to a child in an after school program, about how she told him she missed him while he was on vacation, and waited until he was back to hear the end of the story — that would motivate folks.

I try to use “ought” verbs sparingly. For example, I’ve just made my case for avoiding them without actually saying that you shouldn’t.

3. Eliminate overly long sentences. When we speak, we limit our sentence length with our breath. Long sentences do have a place in a sermon. They can help build anticipation for a short, pungent finale. But generally, short sentences are better. If you preach from a manuscript, you don’t have to look at the manuscript as often. It’s easier to breathe. Varying the length of sentences keeps the spoken word from becoming sing-songy or tedious.

4. Eliminate mollifying rhetorical questions. Sometimes preachers will utter a powerful or poignant sentence. But they will sap its strength by ending it with an unnecessary question, won’t they? It steals energy from the declaration, doesn’t it? It feels like preachers want reassurance from the people that they haven’t pushed too far.

I make all kinds of mistakes in both writing and preaching. I probably don’t murder enough of my darlings. Like many preachers, I’m too in love with the message I feel God has given me to say, and don’t spend enough time listening from the perspective of the people to whom God has sent me. But getting some critical distance on our words is necessary for us to become better communicators. If we practice the easy edits, we can even build the courage to tackle the harder ones, paring away all but the most essential parts to tell the Good News.

Dave Barnhart is the pastor of Saint Junia UMC in Birmingham, Ala. 

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