Sunday, November 2, 2014

On the preaching of sermons

I've preached a bunch of sermons although not many lately. Lately, I've done more reflecting on preaching than actual preaching. I've listened to a fair number of preachers in the past year and a half of my preaching sabbatical, as well. While the preachers have had as many different styles as personalities, they all preached in a similar environment. That was a traditional church setting with a 25 to 35 minute sermon in the middle of a typical Protestant service. There was no interaction with the listeners. Some times there were listening helps in a power point format projected on a big screen. There was no feedback other than the conversations my wife and I had on the way home. Soon after the sermon was forgotten.

There is one exception. This church setting is non-traditional. It meets in a small sanctuary with the chairs pulled back and tables arranged in the center. People bring food and eat a supper meal together before the church service. "Church" is around the tables with the pastor in the midst of us seated on a wooden stool. She reads the scripture which is available on hard copies as well as on a screen accompanied by images illuminating the passage. She gives a paraphrase/overview of the scripture and then relates it to the life of the congregation and our individual lives. She asks questions which are discussed around the tables. She concludes with some summary remarks, and then invites prayer and participation in communion. The sermon/discussion takes about 30 minutes. People hang around to talk with each other, and pick up a half piece of paper with the scripture on one side and a couple of thoughts or questions to take home.

I was not sure how I would like this non-traditional service but I have discovered it works quite well. It helps to be able to interact with the scripture and sermon immediately. It helps to carry home some notes on the scripture and her remarks to look at during the week. Since she mainly teaches a series on a scripture theme, such as the journey of the People of Israel in Exodus and relates it to our faith journeys as individuals and as a church, I feel more connected to the scripture. It stays with me.

Jan Johnson writes that communication is difficult because people only hear about ten percent of what we say. So, I have to face the fact that for all my diligence in sermon crafting and speaking, most of what I said was not heard. Johnson's counsel: say it short! Whether talking to your teen age son or to a congregation of hundreds, less is more.

Our goal as communicators, she says, is not to express ourselves but to create space for God's grace to flow. Wow, that's good but it is also hard to hear for some of us preachers who love to hear ourselves talk and like to get positive feedback (oh that sermon was soooo helpful, pastor).

In a world that communicates in bold print and emoticons, Johnson reminds us, Jesus said let your yes be yes and your no be no. In a new effort to avoid wordiness, I close by referring to a quote from Richard Rohr: "faith does not need to push the river because it is able to trust there is a river. It is flowing and we are in it."

Jan Johnson's book is Abundant Simplicity.