Reverend Mary left church discouraged Sunday afternoon.
She'd worked hard throughout the week to craft an effective sermon.
- She knew she had her listener's attention right from the start
- She offered a clear message of good news—truth she really believed.
- She'd worked hard to organize her ideas and could tell her congregation was following her thoughts from point to point
- She'd thought about the best way to tell her stories in order to keep her listeners engaged and wanting to know what happens next
- And she'd finished with an invitation to take the message home in a memorable way
Yet she couldn't shake the sense that her listeners likely left church the same as when they entered.
Why? What was preventing people from experiencing more peace, joy, hope or freedom? What else could Mary do to help people encounter Christ in such a way that they left more like him?
As preachers, we all strive for:
- a compelling introduction
- a clear message
- great stories that help our listeners connect abstract concepts to lived experience
- and a message that leaves the building with them
Why? Because these elements help move the listener toward an encounter with the Living Word.
But sometimes, good sermon practices aren't enough.
As preachers, we may also need to remove obstacles that cast a shadow on people's experience of grace, truth, and love.
Ignorance, idols, and "iffiness" can all stand between a listener and their ability to encounter God through your sermon.
1. Overcoming Ignorance
Ask yourself: what information will make easy for a listener to understand what's going on?
Most listeners don't have the breadth and depth of knowledge we have, and we don't always recognize how much knowledge or experience we take for granted.
Often, we preach based on assumed understanding.
- We take for granted some knowledge of the conflict between Jews and Samaritans.
- We assume listeners know something about the political power structures of the Egyptians or Romans
- We ignore seeming contradictions, like the emphasis placed on Jesus' origins as the "Son of God" though elsewhere he's referred to as coming from "David's line."
From a listener's perspective, these assumptions create a big, "Huh?"
Listeners often need more knowledge about Scripture, the Church, faith traditions, rituals, and holidays to make sense of many references and allusions in our sermons.
We need to remove the obstacle of ignorance that comes between them and their understanding of the full, rich life that's available in God and the Church.
So how do you determine what listeners don't know about the text?
Imagine you were visiting your congregation from another denomination or faith tradition:
- What would seem foreign or confusing without context?
- What would be misunderstood if today's cultural norms were applied to Biblical stories? What context needs to be defined for more accurate understanding?
- Do terms mean the same thing in the church as they do outside the church?
- If not, we must define them.
Describe enough about the history, culture, people, and terms to ensure that someone showing up to Scripture for the first time can understand the nuances, conflicts, struggles, and amazing grace found therein.
Put your story-telling skills to work, and this context won't feel boring or stuffy. To the contrary, these details will lend texture to the stories and bring these scenes to life!
Then watch as people make connections between Scripture, your sermon, and their own lives.
2. Overcoming Idols
When you prepare a sermon, always ask yourself: What do people prefer to the Gospel?
Though we may know in our heads that the Gospel's offerings are worth far more than silver or gold, relationships or respect, power or profit, our feelings and, thus, behavior may say otherwise.
These things we prefer to the Gospel are our idols.
Idols are sticky, tenacious, clingy obstacles on the path between us and God. In fact, they are worse than obnoxious obstacles: idols are our BFF's.
We are deeply, emotionally attached to our idols.
We hug them. We carry them wherever we go. We talk to them and tell them how great they are.
Some idols we polish and set on our mantles for display, proud of the places they hold in our lives.
Others we pretend don't exist and toss them in closets in hopes of never seeing them again...but we still won't toss them out with the trash.
all the while, our idols steal our love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control
We dare not underestimate the thrall of our listener's idols.
OK. That was a little silly. Actually, that was a lot silly, because we preachers underestimate the thrall of our own idols. We rarely recognize their sway over us any better than anyone else.
The Gospel helps us see our idols.
The Gospel helps us define the shape our idols take.
The Gospel helps us understand the root of our attraction to them.
And the Gospel also promises us a trade-in deal that results in life—and life abundant.
Our job as preachers is to understand and acknowledge idols so we can name them, acknowledge their temptation, and then clearly and compellingly identify the Gospel's counter-offer.
Idol: power. Gospel: vulnerability.
Vulnerability is the key to human connection.
- Idol: "my" people. Gospel: all people.
- Love for all eliminates the concept of enemies, competitors, winners or losers. We are brothers and sisters who rise and fall together.
- Idol: to be admired. Gospel: to be seen a fool.
- Challenging the systems of the world may look like failure or chasing windmills but actually accomplishes the ends of peace, grace, forgiveness, and redemption "on earth as it is in heaven,"
Making the case to trade in our idols for the Gospel is an "Alice in Wonderland" journey of irrationality and requires that sermons that go through the "gut" more than the "head."
As much as we feel the fear or despair of letting go of our idols, we need to feel the hope, possibility, promise and truth of Gospel freedom.
Acknowledge the challenge. Empathize with the loss. And then call us into new and better life without our idol.
3. Overcoming Iffiness
Sometimes the obstacle to experiencing the Gospel is not knowing how. Sometimes we only have to make the path straight.
What would make it easier for a listener to incorporate or act on the Good News so they can experience its fruits?
Quite often, there are practical steps that can lay a path from the listener's stirrings during a sermon to their action after the service.
Stewardship offers an easy and timely example. What would make it easier for a believer to offer time, talent, and treasure?
People may want to give their time. How can we make it as easy as possible to match the amount of time people want to offer with appropriate ministry needs?
- Make an index of ministries by time. Certain ministries require thirty minutes per week while some need several hours a month. Others are needed only periodically throughout the year, while some happen only at a certain time of day. Plus, many ministries require a commitment over a specified length of time, from a week, to a year, to three years.
- Let people discern based on the time they want to give.
We all want to feel we're making a difference, so how do we match listeners' deep joy with the world's deep needs (to reference Frederick Buechner)? What's the path from wanting to give of oneself to finding the best venue?
- What if there were a group of people whose ministry it is to know the opportunities available in the church and community and to meet individually with members to learn about them and offer suggestions?
- What if there were an online survey to assess people's passions and skills and make recommendations based on the answers?
Fewer and fewer people carry cash or checks. How effective is the offering plate anymore?
- How much "treasure" is left in people's wallets because their "treasure" is accessed through a credit card?
- What will make it as easy as possible for regulars and newcomers to give their treasure whenever they feel so moved?
Sometimes, simply putting ourselves in our listener's shoes helps us understand where greater clarity might result in action. Then we can tackle this obstacle of "iffiness."
Spend time creating strategic and compassionate entry points for folks who may be hesitant or confused to take the first step. And then watch as the obstacle of "iffiness" and confusion fades away.
Consider the three I's the next time you preach: ignorance, idols, and iffiness. Which can you remove? How can you make their path straight?
While preachers remove obstacles between the listener and the Lord, Backstory Preaching exists to do likewise for preachers.
We aim to make the path straight and remove obstacles that obscure your experience of God so you can preach ever-more effective sermons.
We examine the obstacles preachers face, like:
- lack of time for sermon prep
- not knowing where to start
- irregular prep schedules
- competing demands
- feeling spiritually drained by the weekly grind
- struggling to find new life in old stories
- lack of joy or awe in sermon prep
- feeling depleted by the pressure and expectations
And then we offer spiritual and practical guidance for establishing new practices that help the preacher encounter God in their process.
Backstory Preaching has created a 5-day, prayer-soaked process that helps you finish your sermon by Friday.
This process always starts with Lectio Divina on Mondays, and we've begun meeting online to share this time together.
Join us for this free live study & reflection time!
Live Lunch Hour Lectio is held on Facebook every Monday
12:00-12:30 CST (1:00 EST/11:00 MT/10:00 PT).
Pray and discuss next Sunday's lectionary Gospel lesson in real time, in community.
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