Six Points for Preachers

I’m scheduled to attend a conference on preaching soon so inevitably I’m thinking about how preaching works and about how to extend my homiletic repertoire.

Someone asked me a good question yesterday – “How did you improve as a preacher”. It is a good question because it is affirming and something that all preachers should be able to have a go at answering. (It was asked of me incidentaly by someone who has never heard me).

I remember long ago during my curacy, one of my training rectors (I got through more than most) saying after one of my sermons “That was good, you’re going to be an excellent preacher one day”. What was intended to be a compliment made me fizzing mad. I wanted to be excellent than (and maybe even thought I was).

I wasn’t, but I know I’ve got better.

Which leads me to six things that I think have helped me:

1 – Accepting that there is always more to learn. When you think you’ve got preaching sussed, you are a long way from even beginning to get better. Everyone can improve. Learning to learn is a learnable skill.

2 – Putting it online. I’ve got better as a preacher since I started putting sermons online. Why? Well, for two reasons – firstly, because I listen to myself preach when I’ve made a recording and that allows me to reflect on what worked and what didn’t. Secondly because I know who might listen – people who taught me; people who are close enough to me to be honest with me; people who are apt to criticise me. I preach not only for those sitting in church but for all the rest who might be listening along – including the angels. It may be that those who are most help in learning how to preach are those whose opinions you value the most and those whose opinions you value the least. Listen to both.

3 – Learning to fail boldly. To preach is to risk. Accept it and know that sometimes what you hoped for won’t work. Experiment. Play.You don’t have to fit it all into one sermon and you are not going to be 100% right all of the time so why pretend?

4 – Trying to learn what makes people smile. That is different in different places. People usually like it when you tell stories about yourself. But be careful for local variations. I was recently in a place where someone said “Don’t try self deprecatory humour here. if you do they’ll say, ‘Oh, you’re not that bad’ and give you a self-help book.”

5 – Knowing that people like it when you give something of yourself. Yes, preaching, like blogging, is a striptease. Don’t show them everything. But know that if you don’t show them anything they may go away disappointed. Reveal yourself. That’s what God has given you and in the bizarre economy of the Kingdom of God your own feeble experience of God may be the pearl of great price. But only if you keep sharing.

6 – Realising that people need to be told that God loves them. And told again. And told again.

Guest Post: How to Hear a Sermon by Rosemary Hannah

In this guest post, Rosemary Hannah reflects on how to hear a sermon. Rosemary teaches in TISEC, has just written the definitive biography of the Third Marquess of Bute and is a member of the congregation at St Mary’s.

‘I always listen to the sermon, knowing the word of God will reach me through it,’ he said, his face that misleading mask of innocence his class knew so well. We waited.

‘Of course,’ continued the Rev Jim Whyte, later to be Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, ‘Usually the word of God comes to me that the sermon is quite wrong.’

To sit and listen to a sermon is a spiritual exercise. You settle back, and expectantly open yourself to God, and almost always he does speak. If you are listening to one of the Jim Whytes of this world, His word can be astonishingly direct. If you are listening to one of those who preached to Jim, it may easily come in other ways.

Listening to a sermon is like beach-combing. Who knows what delights lie ahead? Anything from old rubbish through to bleached driftwood, birds crucified by the sea, or polished gems and gold rings. The important thing is to be awake to what may be there, for it may be anything.

Each preacher has their own style. Generally Kelvin prefers a beguiling circuitous route to lead his listeners, apparently effortlessly, where he wants them to go. But there is also the sermon which takes the hard direct route to lead you into the experience of faith, sharing something of the anguish of the preacher; sermons it is a privilege to hear. Or you may get a discussion of any number of issues in a passage; something to puzzle over. I once sat for some years and listened to a preacher who specialised in picking Scripture apart so you could see the warp and weft of it, and I think I learned more from that than any other set of sermons I have heard; not so much the content of the passages, but how to square up honestly to the writing, and to trust the writer’s intelligence. Just occasionally there will be the sermon which suddenly throws open a door to a Biblical passage so that you see for the first time what it really means. This is for me both the most exhilarating and the most meaningful and the rarest of sermons.

Then there are the sermons which start up some little wader on the shore. Sermons where you stop listening to the content being laid out from the pulpit and follow some delightful distraction set off by it. So the Good Samaritan used oil, you find yourself thinking, which is not so different from the ointment you buy to heal the dog’s cuts. You wonder how effective old remedies actually were, and how many scars the poor man who fell among thieves ended up with, and did he get word to his wife, and did somebody ever … That is all fine. Contemplating what childhood traumas caused the preacher’s attitude to life, or what execrable theological education formed his thoughts may seem less noble but be equally useful to those with responsibilities along those lines, or those seeking to awaken the need to care compassionately for the speaker in daily life – and dear knows our preachers often need care.

But as you settle back into your comfortless seat (and actual chairs are far less accommodating than pews and nothing is at all like the squashy sofa I always think would be best place to listen to a sermon from) as you settle back, just remember to be open to everything, including the small voice which tells you God is actually nothing at all like the preacher imagines She is.