Friday, June 17, 2005

Editing Sermons

From "Couldn't Help Noticing" by Tony Payne

Being an editor doesn't have many occupational hazards. A bladder weakened by coffee over-consumption perhaps; or bruises on the upper arm from having been punched by your teenagers for pointing out yet another appalling lapse of grammar or pronunciation on their part.

Probably the most serious spiritual hazard is what the editorial mindset does for sermon listening. I find it very hard to listen to my pastor's Sunday expositions without mentally editing them as I go along: working out how ten minutes could have been saved by omitting that unnecessary illustration; or how the main point could have been so much sharper without that overly detailed excursion into the Old Testament background; or how the application could have been so much more powerful if the interesting but rather tangential point 4 hadn't been made.

If only I edited my life as frequently as I edited sermons.

All the same, in all this covert sermon editing over the years, I have noticed a few things: common strengths, failings and pitfalls. In this post I'd like to share two with you.

The first is that a great many sermons are what an editor would call "a good first draft". All the material is there, the thinking has been done, it's in reasonable shape, but it's not actually finished -- which is not all that surprising, since it was, in all likelihood, still being written at 11:30 pm Saturday night.

The tell-tale signs of the "good first draft" sermon are: illustrations and stories which are funny and/or effective but which only tenuously relate to the point (i.e. which the preacher has spotted or thought of early in the sermon-writing process but which don’t really fit into the finished product); extraneous points or cross-references that seem to have too little to do with the main flow of the argument; too much detail on an interesting side-issue or exegetical difficulty (about which the preacher is intrigued and has read quite a lot, most of which has found its way into the sermon draft); an overly long introduction or a too-brief conclusion (the introduction often being the first thing written, and the conclusion the last at 11:25 pm Saturday).

These are the kinds of things that are quickly spotted and easily fixed by the preacher, if he makes the time to put the sermon draft aside for a while (even a few hours), and then come back to it afresh to give it a final work-over.

What is true of writing and editing articles is also true of sermons I think: if you have a finite amount of time to spend, allocating the last hour or two to a re-draft will almost always produce a better result than counting on those last two hours to finish the writing.

Granted, this is not a very profound or theological insight into the nature of preaching, but my hunch is that a lot of sermons would be a lot more listenable if they made it to the "second draft".

The other thing I've noticed about what makes a good sermon is this: good sermons create tension, and release it using the Bible.

Thinking back, nearly every really excellent sermon that I've heard in recent years (speaking of them as sermons, as pieces of communication) has followed the classic narrative device of creating a disequilibrium at the beginning, and then restoring it by the end.

In most narratives, something happens at the beginning to upset the equilibirium: there is a crime to be solved, a mystery to be unravelled, an outrage to be avenged, a quest to be fulfilled, a true love to find, and so on. Good sermons do this too. They do not simply introduce the topic or passage in a general way, or tell a joke or story or illustration, or make a comment on society in general—they make their audience feel a tension; they make the congregation realise that there is a problem that needs resolution, a reason they want to jump on board this sermon and get to the end of the line where the answer is.

The problem or tension can be of many different kinds:
  • a daily life-issue we are struggling with and in which we need help (e.g. depression)
  • an issue of godliness that is difficult and about which we may feel guilty or inadequate
  • a threat to our Christian lives that we need to know how to deal with- a confusing or difficult point of Christian teaching that we want answered
  • a famously controversial or difficult verse we want cleared up
  • an area of controversy and disagreement among Christians that ought to be addressed- some area of inadequacy or lack of knowledge that we feel (e.g. not knowing what to say about a particular topical issue when we talk with our friends)
  • an issue about which the world thinks Christians are fools and criticises them, and which we would like fortification and help with
  • an outlandish thesis that disturbs or intrigues or upsets comfortable ideas (e.g. "Do you realise that only bad people go to heaven?")
These are just some examples, but the common point is that they create tension, so that the sermon can proceed to release it. Three conditions need to be met, in my experience, for the tension-release sermon to work:
  1. The point of tension must be real, and must resonate with the congregation. For example, beginning a sermon on justification with an introduction about how in the Reformation this doctrine was a key battle ground with Roman Catholicism is interesting and informative, but it creates no tension; it doesn’t upset the equilibrium in the mind of the listener. However, beginning by suggesting that the Pope is a heretic creates an entirely different response: outrage, curiosity, discomfort—all forms of tension that you can proceed to resolve over the course of the sermon.
  2. The resolution must satisfy. If you promise that, at last, you're going to help your listeners solve some particular problem in their lives, and then you conclude with some vague platitudes and generalisations, don't be surprised if your congregation comes out of church looking like Star Wars fans who have just been to see Episode 1: The Phantom Menace.
  3. The point of tension, and its solution, must arise from the passage under consideration, and the more clearly and insightfully it arises, the more satisfying will be the resolution.
In other words, it's the passage and its concerns that come first (in the preacher's mind and his preparation). The tension-release pattern is merely a convenient and effective communication tool that helps to engage the listeners and carry them through the 'plot' of the sermon to its (hopefully satisfying) conclusion.

This overall conception of the sermon helps in three ways, it seems to me:

  1. It gives preachers a simple criterion for selecting what they will include and exclude (i.e. include that which leads from the tension to its solution, and omit that which does not).
  2. It provides a framework for digressions (or 'sub-plots') if you want to include them. If it's worth diverting from the main tension-release plot to deal with a side-issue, it works best if it has its own mini tension-release structure (e.g. "Before we get to point 3, it's worth pausing and looking at verse 16, about which so much has been written, and which has caused Christians so many problems … etc.").
  3. It always leads naturally and obviously to a conclusion and application, since at the very least, the conclusion will be the 'answer' to the tension of the introduction. The 'answer' to the tension may not be the only application. Indeed, depending on the passage and the congregation, it may not even be the most powerful and life-changing application—much like a detective mystery that in one sense is all about resolving the tension of the crime, but which has other themes that are in the end more powerful and affecting—the struggle of an aging and tired detective to overcome his personal demons and to find meaning in his job.
And speaking of finding meaning in one's job, perhaps I need to leave my editorial mindset in the office a little more, and come to sermons with the mindset that most pleases God: "the humble and contrite heart that trembles at God's word".

Links to this post:

Create a Link

<< Home