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Sunday, September 10, 2006

Memorable Preaching

When I departed from my con-
gregation in Pittsburgh, people said they hoped I'd still have occasion to preach. I will, but for now I am enjoying hearing good preaching for myself.

I have often thought about what are the necessary ingredients for good and effective preaching. Most fundamental, of course, is that the message remain Christ-centered; properly distinguishing law and gospel; highlighting the cross, forgiveness and justification; sacramental; ecclesial; and eschatological.

That having been said, the most orthodox preaching in the world helps no one if it is not heard. And hearing means more than simply that the sound waves vibrate the eardrums. Hearing includes understanding. Or as Jesus would say, you can have ears and still not hear or eyes and still not see.

In the post below, I mention two outstanding sermons that I heard today. What made them outstanding? A number of things. But one thing that stands out is that they were clear. It seems to me that what taints much of the Lutheran preaching I have heard is that it lacks clarity.

To me, this is the most difficult part of sermon preparation. I can write textual and orthodox sermons. That is relatively easy. What is less easy - at least to me - is to compose text for the ear instead of for the eye. Writing for the ear is a different skill than writing for the eye. When you are reading a page, you can go at your own pace. You can pause to think. You can re-read complicated sentences. But when you listen to oral exposition, you do not have those luxuries. We preachers need to keep that in mind. Preachers can have quite varying styles and still remain effective communicators. But however you do it, people need to be able to leave the building and know what they've just heard. It troubles me when a person listens, truly sits and listens to a sermon, but can't tell you much about it one hour later.

Part of the responsibility falls to the person in the pew, of course. Get enough sleep on Saturday night. Don't come to church expecting to be entertained. Pray for the ability to receive and understand God's Word. And be an active listener. Take notes, if it helps. I often do.

But preachers can't content themselves with writing orthodox manuscripts, though that is certainly essential. I'm not advocating that we water down the message. I'm not saying you have to dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator. I am saying that people today have more difficulty following oral presentation than they did a hundred years ago and so we generally perform a dis-service from the pulpit when we write like Victorians. Oh, that's not always the case. Congregations differ widely. And what you may be able to pull off quite well, may flop for me. And vice-versa.

I have heard and read sermons that used humor effectively and others that belittled the gospel with flippancy. No man should enter a pulpit unless he does so with fear and trembling. Sometimes illustrations do help to make a point. Other times, the preacher merely uses the biblical text as a pretext. The tail wags the dog. And the illustration becomes a point of its own. Cliche and trite expressions deaden the mind. Avoid them like the plague (wink).

A sermon that speaks should have meaty content, but should resonate with the average person. Don't be a clown, but watch out for the dreaded "pulpit tone." Be dignified but not hifalutin.

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1 comment:

Frank said...

Pastor Stiegemeyer, I would love to see you write a post on the difference between preaching the Word and hearing the Word. I've always been amazed at God's called servants whether they be pastors or organists, participating in the Divine Service. I know you folks are called, but when I'm at work, I'm at work. It's difficult for me to understand how called workers are fed. The one's I've asked answer so matter of factly "it's what we do." The subject has always had me curious.

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