A Twitter friend sent in the following article, which resonated with my experience and my own preaching style (plus some ideas I am definitely stealing). Take a read and share with the preachers in your life!
Preaching Tips They Didn’t Give You in Seminary
Rev. Thomas Fuerst
When I gradated seminary a decade ago, I thought I had some level of expertise in preaching. I strolled across that stage after four years of learning from the superlative homileticians in Christian history. From Ellsworth Kalas I learned creative approaches to the text and the potentials of storytelling. From Michael Pasquarello I learned of Aristotle’s ethos, pathos, and logos. I read Augustine on Christian Rhetoric. Andy Stanley taught me how to structure a sermon. Chip and Dan Heath set me up for SUCCES(S). Howard Thurman, Andre Johnson, and Martin Luther King, Jr. taught me the nature of prophetic rhetoric. Wilda Gaffney and Stacey Minger taught me the unique and essential qualities women bring to the craft.
In those four years I also learned how to give and receive feedback for sermons. By the end of seminary, I was the student in every class contributing (in my opinion) constructive criticism for colleagues during our in-class sermonizing sessions. I also started to see sermon writing as a hard-won skill that takes more than just natural talent to perfect.
I thought I had some expertise in preaching when I graduated seminary ten years ago. Pastoring has taught me otherwise. And that’s a good thing.
Ten years in, I no longer hold the newbie status I once did, nor do I consider myself a seasoned veteran. Ten years from now, I may look back on these suggestions and snigger at how stupid they sound. However, my hope is that by sharing what I have learned in the trenches this last decade, maybe others can avoid my mistakes, improve their own preaching, and better pastor their congregations through their proclamation.
I don’t intend these as universal truths equally applicable in every ecclesial setting. I do not think everyone should thoughtlessly adopt them (some of them might be unique to my experiences as a man). Still, they are hard-won bits of wisdom, and that makes them worth their weight in bitcoins. Here, then, are a handful of preaching tips they didn’t give you in seminary:
Be the Villain of the Story
Many pastors habitually place themselves, explicitly or implicitly, in the role of the narrative’s protagonist. When sharing personal stories and anecdotes, we slant the story to filter out our flaws and failings, accentuating our virtues and eradicating our vices. When we illustrate Bible stories with personal experiences, we allegorically associate ourselves with the heroes, the holy, and the honorable. We become John the Baptist crying out from the wilderness, Abel persecuted for his righteousness, Noah the last prophet before the apocalypse, or Jesus hanging on the cross while everyone abandoned him.
If I give us the benefit of the doubt, I concede the possibility that we do not do this on purpose. We may not even think about it.
But therein lies the problem.
In our (un)premeditated propensity to play the part of the protagonist, our sermons are neither intentionally truthful, nor do they scratch the itch driving our congregants crazy – most of whom do not see themselves as religious heroes. They see themselves as the struggling, doubting, all-too-oft-wrong people in our stories. They wonder if God can redeem and fix even them.
When, in all our stories, we habitually hold ourselves up as heroic, or when we solely identify with the people in the Bible who get it right, we subtly support both the fib of our own spiritual superiority and the falsehood of clergy/lay moral hierarchies.
Countering this lie takes intentionality. My proposal is as follows: Three out of every four times you tell a story about yourself in a sermon, cast yourself in the role of the sinner, the wrong one, the idiot, the fool, or the enemy. Three out of every four times you relate the scriptures to people’s lives, explicitly identify yourself with the Pharisees, the Philistines, the court prophets, or failed disciples. Your personal anecdotes allegorizing the text ought to disclose your weaknesses, temptations, and fears.
Such intentional efforts will not only enliven your sermons in ways you did not expect, but will also encourage an environment of vulnerability and collapse the clergy/laity barriers. People need to see their pastor is not always heroic because, honestly, you’re not. Only Jesus is. That is what they really need to hear.
Talk About Your Resistance to the Text
For the first ten years I of my Christian walk, I cringed every time someone said, Abba means “daddy” in the original Greek. I did not cringe because I had secret etymological knowledge of the Greek word. I cringed because I did not like the idea of God being my daddy. At first I thought I didn’t like the informality of it, but as I became more self-reflective, I realized what really made me uncomfortable was that my associations with the words “daddy” and “father” were more aloof than intimate, more distant than close. I have learned in recent years we should not default to translating abba as “daddy,” but before this realization, I had to come to terms with why I resisted such intimacy. I had to acknowledge my own resistance to the word. I actually needed to admit this before my Sunday audience.
To my surprise, acknowledging this resistance gave people permission to acknowledge their own resistance to the text. It opened their hearts by moving them away from a default that says, “It’s the word of God so, of course, I believe and submit to it,” to “It’s the word of God, but when I’m honest, I don’t always feel good about it.”
The fact is, we don’t always agree with the Bible. If we did, we wouldn’t need it. We don’t always feel good about what’s in the passage – Slavery in the Torah? Canaanite genocides? Jesus calling a woman a dog? The violence in Revelation? Some of Paul’s weirdness about women?
If you’re comfortable with these things, you’re not feeling the discomfort God intends you to feel. You’ve become too calloused to the text. Your systematic theology has so put God in a box that it leaves no room for a God who shocks us and does things outside your theological cage.
To preach a God who refuses to be shackled by my experiences or theological boundaries, I must acknowledge the places I resist the text:
- I must acknowledge where I disagree with the text.
- I must acknowledge where I wish the text were different.
- I must acknowledge where I’ve failed to live up to the text.
- I must acknowledge where I have misused the text.
- I must acknowledge where I have changed my mind about the meaning or application of a text.
- I must acknowledge where the text makes me uncomfortable.
- I must acknowledge where the text makes me afraid.
And in the end, these acknowledgments allow me to do something else they didn’t teach me in seminary:
Give People Verbal Permission to Disagree with You
For many people in your congregation, they see the church – and, thus, you as the leader of the church – as a spiritual authority figure. Despite the increasing distrust of the church in our society, many in your pews still see you as someone who speaks adequately and truthfully about spiritual matters. They will have trouble seeing you as a morally flawed human being with intellectually flawed arguments.
It is your vocation to relieve them of such veneration.
You can do this by telling them “you don’t have to agree with me on this, but…” The fact is, unless it is a Creedal matter, the people listening to you should hear, from you, that you recognize you could be wrong about many, many matters. You don’t have spiritual wisdom on every cultural, moral, or spiritual subject. You’re still biased, skewed, subjective, and even prejudiced in ways. They need to not only hear you say that, but they need to hear you give them permission to disagree with you.
When I say this, I always accompany the invitation to disagree with, “Now, look, I don’t need to hear about it every time you disagree with me. But you’re still welcome to disagree with me.” This provides a little comic relief, especially because people are often unaccustomed to receiving such permission from their pastors. They don’t know how to emotionally respond to it, so the comic relief provides them an immediate response that permits them to chew on the offer and think about it later.
I cannot tell you how many times my congregants have repeated back to me, “You remember when you said I didn’t have to agree with you? Thank you! That made me feel safer when thinking through what you told me.” Giving people permission to disagree with me tears down walls of false spiritual authority and creates space for me to truly pastor people. It gives them space to truly feel pastored.
Be Political. Don’t Pander.
Religion is political. Christianity is political. Church is political. Preachers should, therefore, be political. I’m not saying we should be in the business of baptizing certain candidates or giving divine stamps of approval on certain governmental models. However, the church’s big claim that Jesus has ascended to the right hand of the Father, sitting as the Lord of all creation, is a political claim. It is a claim to which I owe all of my allegiance. It’s a political claim whereby I critique all other political claims.
The preacher’s job is not to play it safe and remain a-political. In fact, a-political theology is privileged theology. The only people a-political theology benefits are those who currently benefit from the status quo. The life of Jesus confronts the status quo and shows a different way. By Jesus’ very model, Christian theology can never be a-political.
However, while we should not be a-political, we ought not pander to a partisan side.
I have my political opinions. They’re probably more progressive than the average Evangelical’s. This leads me to be pretty critical of a lot of Religious Right rhetoric and politics. However, I must also offer insider criticism. The Democrats are not going to bring about the Kingdom of God. Socialism isn’t going to help usher in the Eschaton.
If you’re already telling people they can feel free to disagree with you, you are creating a safe environment for you to speak to politics without seeming like you are pandering to partisanship. But it will also go a long way for you to offer public, insider criticism to your own party. The reality is, none of us thinks “our side” bears as much blame as the “other side.” Fine. I have no problem admitting that. But by offering criticism to my side whenever I can, I show that I refuse to bow to Ba’al’s and Ashtoreth’s of partisan hackery. I’m still going to be political. I’m still going to be progressive. I’m still going to critique the GOP and the Religious Right. But I also will be skeptical of my people, my side, my thoughts, and my party’s actions.
The call of the church isn’t to be a-political. It’s to have a political allegiance to Jesus that allows us to participate in America’s politics without pledging allegiance to America above our resurrected and ascended Lord.
Bring the Full Force of Your Awkward – But Be Intentional About It
One of the greatest mistakes pastors make is only allowing their congregation to see their awkwardness on accident. Like a Pit Bull who refuses to stay in its cage, the more we try to cage our awkward, the more ferociously it fights to escape.
The secret to good preaching isn’t eliminating all awkwardness from the sermon; it is choosing when, where, and how that awkwardness will be displayed. Pastors often tell their congregations to use their specific and unique experiences and gifts for the benefit of the kingdom. We can see the ways God is working through the awkwardness of other people’s lives. We need to help people see what we see. And that begins with leaning into our own awkwardness, our own oddities, our own uniqueness. It is your awkwardness that differentiates you from every other preacher. Your message isn’t unique. Your style isn’t likely unique. The words you speak ought to sound like other words repeated over 2,000-8,000 years. What makes your sermon unique is the way the Holy Spirit works in you. And you are awkward.
So embrace it. Lean into it. Learn to use it intentionally. Don’t be afraid of people seeing how weird you are. Because they’re weird, too. And they need to see that Jesus only saves weird people.
Rev. Tom Fuerst is a husband to one. A father to four. A teacher to many. A friend to a few. A pastor to a few more. A writer to readers. A reader to writers. A prophet to some. Occasionally a Russian hit man. And despite his best efforts, he’s a pickpocket to none. His first book, “Underdogs and Outsiders”, was published in September 2016 to resounding applause from local pre-teens and fortune-tellers.
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