Back when I was regularly preaching I’d occasionally shake it up by replacing the sermon with a story that I’d just launch into with no preparation, no set up, and no warning.
The first time I did it was on Passion (Palm) Sunday. Anticipating Good Friday and Easter, I imagined myself to be a Roman centurion who had participated in the crucifixion of Jesus, and just told my story as I pictured it unfolding in my mind.
Afterward my wife, who’d had no idea what I had planned (I never previewed my sermons at home), told me she’d been confused for about 3 minutes; then suddenly it clicked. She thought it had a strong effect on the congregation; it had disturbed them in good ways. First, because it was dislocating – they had never before experienced something like that. (Frankly, neither had I.) Second, because it woke them up; it took them into a “living scene” and dropped them into a moment in the Bible that suddenly came alive. They had to deal with it, to process it in a new way, and that made it reverberate.
Over the next couple weeks, church members confirmed her impression. It taught me that there is something potent about transforming a story from the read word into an experienced word. That’s true of any story, but particularly of the Bible, because the Bible is meant to be read out loud, to be read to believers who cannot read by one who can.
The Bible is not intended to be set apart from the community, held up, ensconced on a pedestal or altar. It belongs in the middle of the people – in their laps, open. Or in their ears, proclaimed. For that reason, I’ve always loved The Cotton Patch Bible and The Cotton Patch Parables, written by Clarence Jordan who founded the Koinonia community in Georgia back in the 1940s. If you are unfamiliar with Koinonia, Clarence Jordan, or the Cotton Patch Version of the New Testament, you can explore them here.
Now, just to be clear: the Cotton Patch Version was never meant to replace authorized, historically-verified versions of the Bible; it is not considered, even by Jordan and the Koinonia members, to be historical or authoritative. It is, and only ever has been, a modern paraphrase intending to show that the biblical message is meant to inform, and to transform how we see our world and our place in God’s creative and redemptive work.
That was also my point in providing a one-man, prop-free, “you were there” enactment of the crucifixion. It is what I intended on the other rare occasions when I pulled my first congregation out of their comfortable distance from the Gospel and into some lesson Jesus needs us to make personal. It is also why, when I moved to my second church, I jettisoned written sermons altogether. I found that when I stopped reading, I could talk with congregants about a passage. I could adjust my message according to the reactions I was getting.
Doing away with a written sermon did not mean doing away with sermon preparation, however. In fact, in some ways it made it harder to prepare. I usually began on Sunday afternoon by selecting the next week’s passage. Over the next couple days I would conduct my research in bits and pieces, thinking about how a commentary passage or contribution from a tertiary source fit in to my developing narrative.
I also paid a different kind of attention to movements in the congregation and in my own life, looking for ways scripture and daily life intersected. It wasn’t that I intended to use someone’s personal (or even public) struggle as an illustration or starting point for my message, but I was looking for the ways that God’s Word throws a new or different light on contemporary daily life.
Also, because I was seldom a lectionary preacher, I took my cues from the unfolding events in our congregation’s life. My sermons often addressed questions that were being raised either directly or obliquely in the congregation: questions about the meaning of life in the face of debilitating illness or unexpected death; questions about the value of embracing “church change” in the context of a secular world that seems to be losing its center of gravity; questions about sustaining faith when odd circumstances seem to pile onto one individual or community, taking down the presumed “good” with the identified “evil.”
In the midst of all of the usual administrative, pastoral, and prophetic tasks that occupy a clergy person’s life, my weeks were also filled with making observations tied to a particular text of scripture, and with the task of weaving real life issues into a coherent narrative that illuminated a biblical passage, or that was itself illuminated by a biblical concept. Sometimes, I felt a piece missing; over time, I learned to wait and watch. I learned that the missing piece sometimes came at the end of the week, not the beginning. It was an interesting lesson in trusting God and having enough faith to believe that if I do all of the preparation I can, God will supply the “finish” in its own good time.
The goal of each week’s preparation was not to memorize a sermon so that I could speak it rather than read it. The goal was to understand the progressions – what story or point comes after which – and to know the transitions. Transitions are brief sentences that move both the teller and the hearer from one phase of the narrative to the next. I also needed to know the ending because I can go off on tangents very easily. So I memorized the final sentence or two; knowing where I had to end up kept me on track.
For a good example of using transitions, watch stand-up comedians at work. You’ll notice that they don’t memorize their individual jokes, or even the set-ups. Of course they know their jokes, but they don’t memorize them word for word. What they memorize are their transitions. The transition triggers the mind to the next phase of the performance, and then that phase is played out spontaneously. (This is the way jazz music works, too.) Which means, if you watch multiple performances of the same comedy routine, you’ll see transitions that are very nearly verbatim in each performance, but a wide latitude in how the intervening set-ups and punch lines are delivered.
Because I do my creative thinking in mental images (I don’t mean fully-formed pictures so much as a gestalt of a situation or setting), I spent each week getting a “feel” for the stories, illustrations, and key points of the upcoming sermon; and in devising transitions to trigger each succeeding image. Usually, by Friday I had everything aligned. Sometime on Saturday I’d run through the sermon in my head, in a five-minute reverie, and then I’d just let it all go until I started preaching.
So my spontaneous, text-less presentations were thoroughly prepared. Well-prepared spontaneity made room for moments of on-the-fly humor. One Easter morning I woke up with a crazy idea: I shaved my head bald and had my wife paint my skull like an Easter egg with a large crack down the middle. That transformed the whole worship service, and caused me to adjust my sermon.
It also led me to presenting Easter as a big party. With the help of my children, I started showing up at church several hours early every Easter morning in order to inflate several hundred balloons with helium. The kids would help me make large bouquets on long tendrils of colorful ribbon, which we’d then spread throughout the sanctuary. We also festooned the dais with streamers and, sometimes, with those letters you can buy at any party store that spell out “Happy Easter”.
Abandoning written sermons and switching to a lapel microphone let me leave the pulpit and walk among the congregation. It allowed me to do things like disappear out of the sanctuary and keep talking as a way to illustrate a point. It let me sit down with the children and really talk with them in a back-and-forth exchange without the older members of the church feeling left out. It made it possible for worship to become more immediate, personal, and alive.
I remember an occasion when I was talking about the wonders of God’s creation and our called duty to “husband” it. Purely by coincidence, I moved to a point in the sanctuary where, looking out a large window, I saw a deer in our church’s garden. I pointed it out, and it became an instant symbol – for me, and for the congregation – which I wove into the narrative. At that moment we all felt the presence of God in our service. Many took the deer’s appearance as a sign of Divine affirmation.
Sermons are not lectures; they are proclamations. Proclamations are living, breathing presentations of God’s Word that connect with hearts, move souls, open eyes, and strengthen hands. They are informed by careful scholarship, for honesty and accuracy are the preacher’s responsibility, but they are not proven by their scholarly references or stentorian presentations. They are proven in the lives and actions of those who hear and respond. I believe that on Sunday we are to preach the Good News. On Tuesday evening or Thursday morning, we can (and should) teach the Bible.
Bringing the Bible’s stories to life is a sure and certain way to change hearts and help listeners navigate their lives a little closer to God. Here is a video example of what I mean, presented by Christian actor and writer Curt Cloninger and posted on YouTube in two parts. One. Two.
Also look at The Art and Craft of Biblical Preaching, which offers extensive resources to help expand your communication skills. The compendium’s 200 articles are written by many of the best contemporary preachers from across denominations and Christian traditions, who use a range of styles to help God’s Word live in the hearts and come alive in the lives of believers.
- The preaching triangle and four sermon types – John Meunier identifies four types of sermons based on the “preaching triangle” (Bible, preacher, hearer), and indicates where he tends to fall out. Where do you land? In which direction could you stretch in order to expand your preaching “tool kit”?