Preaching is Dead? (or 17 ways to Save the Sermon)

At Spring Harvest this year one of the most interesting and helpful talks I’ve listened to has been Roger Sutton on “Preaching is Dead?” He gave an interesting critique of the monologue (in a monologue) and its failures to connect with society and then looked at some of the reasons that it still has relevance for today’s Church. A book I need to follow up on is Walter Brueggemann “Cadences of Home”, which he gave a little quote from about what the job of preaching should be in the new, post-Christendom context the church is waking up to the reality of. Preaching should:

  1. give voice to loss
  2. Facilitate remembrance
  3. Rhetorically render imagined newness

or in other words acknowledge what was for the church but has passed, remember who we truly are now, and create an image of what we could be. I like the idea that in preaching we almost start to make the imagined newness start to be real with our words, that it begins to appear in minds, then physically.

So seventeen ways to save the sermon. These were Roger’s 16 (+1) ideas he shared with us with some comments and link that might be helpful.

  1. Get creative – in your approach, in your style, in the images you use, in the topic you preach on.
  2. Stop being a lone ranger – this is an era where there are few generalists and many specialists. I may not know much about a specific topic but someone in my congregation might be an expert from their job or previous life experience. Find some way to bring in their expertise, and if they can’t/won’t preach, interviews, whether live, scripted or filmed could draw out what the church needs to hear from them.
  3. Preach less often
  4. Move from a deductive to an inductive approach – deductive uses the fallacy that we can always logically construct a conclusion from the facts before us. This is faith, not logic that we’re expressing, there needs to be space to question and grow into an idea. Inductive approaches don’t set up a conclusion and work to it with data and evidences, but “go beyond” the raw facts to a suggestion. Difficult, not what we’re used to in church, but better suited to the culture we live in.
  5. Use storytelling – a narrative approach to a topic or using story symbolically to show what you’re going really helps with engagement. Story resonates with any age group – look at what is popular on TV – soaps and “reality” shows, stories of “real” people and their struggles.
  6. Watch good communicators – Use the news, youtube, films, where ever you can get examples.
  7. Arouse curiosity – push people to find out for themselves, to try out or dig deeper.
  8. Create space for creative artists – perhaps linking to number 10 or giving time to reflect or just as a thing in itself, make a place in a service for a singer to share his talent, or to watch an artist draw out her idea of what it means. Spring Harvest is great for this kind of creative expression, but why shouldn’t church be too?
  9. Create space for dialogue and interaction – Monologue should not be the only way forward. Dialogue is valuable. Q&A or discussion can really enhance learning, which is after all the purpose of teaching in church.
  10. Preach for response – at Spring Harvest they’re good at responses. One evening service, the sermon ended with the idea that God had set an open door in front of us, an opportunity for us to take. The response was four physical doors in the Big Top for us to go up to, touch and pray. That’s a response that calls for physical action as well as “spiritual” action and perhaps change. Lighting a candle, moving, standing up to be prayed for, any kind of response that needs a deliberate choice and action engages the learner.
  11. Accept some sheep are fat and need exercise – how about doing before some more learning. An active “service” where we serve rather than being served?
  12. Let the apostles and prophets loose – Roger calls on Andy Hawthorn of the Message to come talk at his church when his congregation needs “waking up.” He’s an evangelist and gifted with the kind of energy and passion that connects with people to stir them up. I don’t know people right now who could do that, I will have to find some!
  13. Spend time on communication as well as content – thinking about what to say is essential, but figuring out how to say it is just as important. Communication is what people hear, what they learn is dependent on how you teach it to them. Planning the way you will explain the passage or topic goes far beyond comprehension and on to the way you present, techniques you’ll use, rhetorical devices, even powerpoint!
  14. Don’t do it every week – not a problem for me right now, but burnout is a killer in any area of work. In schools we have holidays at regular intrvals which helps to combat it, how do preachers cope?
  15. Use cultural signposts – Paul did it, we looked at it at Spring Harvest. Linking to ideas in the culture does not mean endorsing them or agreeing. It gives a chance to reclaim the good and re-direct the minds that are seeking to connections and meaning that would be hard to grasp otherwise.
  16. Try some short sermons – Concentration spans for most adults are less than 15 minutes. How long between ad-breaks on TV? There is a place for an extended lecture, but perhaps a series of shorter talks that deeply affect the hearers would be greater.
  17. Try to team-teach – split the content of a sermon, perhaps with someone else who is more specialised, or just someone you respect and think could do a great job of explaining parts of the idea. I’ve heard it done to great effect by Ed and Kent Dobson on the Mars Hill podcast, but it doesn’t have to be father and son teams. As a young preacher, being asked to share with someone would be a huge honour.

So what do you think? Do these help to point in a good direction? Are there more we should add? How can this conversation continue to the benefit of our congregations?