As the internet geek world gets a glimpse at what could truly happen with director’s cuts, pastors wonder what to do with the parts of the sermon that are left on the cutting room floor each week.
The Sermon, part 2
I once was a pastor of a church in rural Oklahoma. I served as the associate to a wise senior pastor. He had a funny practice in the pulpit. Some Sundays, he would preach the sermon, say “Amen,” and then just as the choir director was getting fluffed up in her robe to start the congregation singing a hymn, the pastor would say “That’s sermon part 1. Here’s the sermon part 2.”
The congregation might giggle or groan, but what followed was often a very short snippet or a leftover thought that didn’t quite make the sermon, but merited being shared. It allowed the pastor to spend a few minutes on something that was left on the sermon cutting room floor, but that he didn’t want to lose sight of.
It was telling how often the part 2 of the sermon stuck with me longer than part 1!
The Snyder Cut
The past week, the internet world has been abuzz with the release of Zack Snyder’s Director’s Cut of the Justice League film. It was originally released in 2017 by director Joss Whedon. But what people may not know is that it originally was directed by Zack Snyder. Snyder had to step away from the project due to family tragedy after it was mostly done. So Whedon was brought in to redo it, essentially. And so what we got in 2017 was the Whedon version and the Snyder version—which is four hours long, by the way—never made the theaters until this past week, when it was released on HBO Max.
While both male directors are problematic, my interest is less in their personalities and failures, and more in what resulted from this process. What does it mean to gather up what was left on the cutting room floor, and keep it in the story, or make it into a new story?
Director’s cuts have been around for a while, but they are usually an extra 10 to 30 minutes of scenes that ended up not fitting the theatrical version’s tight narrative. It is very unusual to have almost an entire new movie made. But in this case, it’s a very different story than the original Justice League movie, so they are two separate takes on the same subject. We saw two different versions of a cinematic clash that would echo throughout the DC Universe.
I wonder what it would mean if more directors and writers in science fiction and fantasy movies were able to tell the full story that was on their heart.
The Sermon Cut
I wonder about this same question for preachers. What is left on the cutting room floor and why?
That same church in rural Oklahoma, the buckle of the Bible Belt, was the only church that I’ve served where I felt a pressure to not fully articulate my progressive Christian thoughts. I’m not alone in this. Most, if not a super majority of pastors, find themselves in cultures, both inside and outside the church that frown upon certain topics being shared from the pulpit, such as politics, doubt, racism, or differences in opinion between the pastor and the denomination on the inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons or women. Author Rob Bell talks a lot in his books about how many pastors reach out to him—after the publication of whatever Bell’s next hot take is on a topic—to let him know how much they appreciated his work. It always had the same same refrain: that he was able to say in his book what they had so far been unable to in their context.
This isn’t an issue for me now, serving in urban West Coast cities for nine years, which has a different mindset when it comes to sermons: many urban churches want sermons that are politically relevant and intentionally provocative to both comfortable church folks and the apathetic culture around us. When I was in rural Oklahoma, I left on the sermon cutting room floor some things I wish I had said. I have immense respect for progressive pastors in deeply conservative contexts that have more integrity than me—although former parishioners who are reading this may be flabbergasted to know that I was actually holding back then, hahaha!
The Biblical Cut
But there’s biblical precedent for cutting things out when they don’t fit the need for the day. The synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke have a common corpus of stories that most religious scholars call Q, which are the stories that are found in all three gospels, with some minor variations.
Somewhere along the line in the compilation of Matthew, Mark and Luke, they had to choose what stories from Q and what stories from other gospels like the Gospel of Thomas would make the cut, and which stories about Jesus would be left on the cutting room floor.
As well, the historical church, when they were choosing what went into the New Testament (called “canonization”), would choose which gospels, letters, and stories made the cut, and which ones were left on the cutting room floor.
In recent years, the unearthing of these extra-biblical stories and letters have helped give more clarity to the diversity of early Christianity—that it has not been quite the monolithic faith that those who cherish “orthodoxy” would have us believe. There’s value in reading those stories that didn’t make the cut, knowing that there’s faithful reasons why they aren’t part of the story the Church has held through the centuries.
What to do with Sermon Cuts
I think the world would be a lot better if we had more sermon cuts. If each Sunday, pastors, felt the creative ability to share what was on their hearts with their congregations, and have outlets for those ideas that don’t make the final cut.
Here’s a few ways to do that.
- Sermon Series scoop up more of the Sermon Cuts. I’m a firm believer in sermon series, where churches spend several weeks on a single topic, looking at it from a variety of different ways. I’ve preached sermon series exclusively for almost a decade. I liken it to being able to spend four to six weeks binging on a serial TV show: we know the characters, we know some of the contours of the conversation, and it can be somewhat familiar but each week you get a different take on it, or a different perspective. Sermon series allow you to “turn the gem,” as Rob Bell would say that would allow more ideas to come forth during a sermon, those things that would be cut from a single sermon to be utilized in multiple sermons for our congregations benefit. It’s an interesting discipline to know you have maybe 12-15 in-depth sermon topics each year rather than 52 quick takes, but it allows a depth of engagement that single sermons may not offer.
- Preachers should have an outlet for Sermon Cuts. Preachers should be encouraged to have another outlet for these musings that isn’t the sermon. Many of us find those in newsletter articles or classes that we teach, alongside the sermon on Sundays. But there are other venues, such as blogs, podcasts, video blogs, etc. Of course you are reading my blog today, for example. I’d like to take this opportunity to advocate for what I’ve never had: that your church considers this type of online ministry to be part of your ministry and your working hours. All of my articles and research is done outside church hours, but it is the same type of proclamation as a sermon, even if I don’t put their name on it. So giving permission and resource of time to pastors to have a place where their sermon types would be very valuable.
- Sermon Cuts can become dialogues or opportunities for other preachers. Sermon cuts give preachers and writers the chance to partner with someone who may be more articulate about a subject than you are. I’m thinking about sermons on race, or gender, or sexual orientation or experience of abuse, or things like that that are outside of a preacher’s demographic or experience. Those are great opportunities to turn a proclamation into a collaboration, to turn a monologue into a conversation that can bring forth a topic in a new voice. One of my friends, the Rev. DJ del Rosario in Washington State used to do sermons that were TED-X style, meaning they were conversations between the pastor and another person. Sometimes the person was the expert. Sometimes the pastor was the expert, and sometimes they both were experts, or had similar life experiences that they were reflecting on in the moment. I think that’s a neat and creative way to bring in topics that you might not feel led to lead, but you feel called to have the conversation happen—or get out of the way entirely and have them be a paid guest preacher for you.
A director’s cut in a movie allows people who are already fans of the movie. To see the full vision, and how those same or edit contribute in ways, very different than the original vision. Likewise, the sermon cut is a spark of inspiration that may be lost to the sermon cutting floor when it could be an entirely new narrative by itself.
Cutting and focusing sermons is great and needed in the ever-decreasing attention age we are in. But those Sermon Cuts need a structure in place to deal with them or a channel to distribute them. Don’t let them be left on the sermon cutting floor: give them new life in new forms.
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Related, I’ve often wondered about sermon reruns. We watch our favorite shows over and over but there is an expectation to experience a fresh sermon every week and for the preacher not to keep relying on the same stories and illustrations. Why is this? Why not a “best of” series, especially in these times? Who would select which is a preacher’s best them or the people? Would it be something worth doing in a season when the preacher’s focus needs to be in another area, say, the final month before reopening? This is what I’m thinking about as I look at that tail end of summer staring me in the face…
My pastor is periodically rerunning worship services (they’re all prerecorded) from earlier in the pandemic, only updating the prayer concerns. His explanation is that it takes much more time to make a recorded service than live, and he needs some of that time for his other pastoral responsibilities.