As it came to pass I was given the opportunity to deliver sermons in front of real congregations – you know, the smaller but quirkier ones. For a relatively young student of theology like me preparing and delivering sermons was and is quite a challenge. It should be that way, at least if you take your responsibility serious.
So I would like to share with you some of my thoughts on sermons, which I think are helpful especially to folks who start out preaching in public.
1) You might be asking yourself the question if you’re really ready to speak about (and maybe for) God to other believers. And surely I don’t know the answer to that. Some guideline though: If you’re filled with anger and despair it may be not your turn this time. Although these emotions are part of our God-given life too – necessary and not at all shameful ones – it may be better to start from a place of relaxation and tranquility. You’ll see this will benefit your efforts immensely. If we are in a state of despair it’s much better to connect to others, receive some comfort and guidance from them instead of trying too hard to give those ourselves.
2) Most people don’t come to church regularly anymore. Which is actually good news for you, at least for now. The people who show up do so freely and without constraint – well, at least the adult ones. This makes for a much better communication situation. All you have to do is to remember or imagine why those individuals are there and address to that.
3) That doesn’t mean you have to tell them what they want to hear (or what you suspect, they want to hear). But a good sermon ‘clicks’ on some level with the lives of the people in front of you. And therefore you should start with the life people in your community are living, not with an abstract theological thought – as good as it might be.
4) If you don’t know the congregation well enough to connect with them on that particular level, just guess. The worst thing that could happen is that you miss and that happens all the time and is a fundamental part of that process we call ‘learning’. Be sure: If you speak from your heart no one will be resentful. And shake off the arrogance to think nobody got you if you don’t feel ‘it’. Some part of your sermon will definitely resonate with someone, even if you can’t tell. That’s quite enough.
5) Half way in you might wonder: Is he ever going to talk about the bible and stuff? The word always comes second, at least in sound theology and homiletics. From the late Ernst Lange we learned much about how to connect the lives of the people with the word of God. You should read him! But in short: Your task is to intertwine Life with Word. In German we use the word ‘ver-sprechen’ to illuminate that process. As a verb it means ‘to give a promise’ and simultaneously (with a little twist) ‘talk something together’. As a noun it simply means ‘Promise’. Your business is to talk together the lives of your listeners and the word of God. Not any word of scripture, as precious it may be, but the word made flesh – Jesus Christ. Very often we hear sermons who try to put our lives in the context of scriptural words. My advice for you is to instead look for ways to put the Word made flesh into the context of the lives of the people in front of you. Help those fellow sons and daughters of God to make a little more sense of their lives by relaying even a hint of what it could mean to live with the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ, in and beside them – which in fact means to give notice about God’s greatest promise.
6) If you think your congregation is in need of prophetical orientation (aka “a good spanking”) remember that all prophets hesitated to fulfill their obligations. Real prophets – and believe me, you could really be one – don’t follow their own need to speak up but are forced by the will of God.
7) Remember that not all words that you speak are God’s too. Sure, God comes to us in the words and deeds of our fellow humans. But maybe you have to throw overboard Karl Barth’s three-way principle of the word of God for this one. After all you’re as fallen as the rest of us. So try to use the word ‘I’ not in the sense ‘I, God, am telling you …’ but more like ‘I, a sinner and saint like the rest of you, came to the conclusion, that …’.
8) I do think Jesus was a humorous guy. How could he not have been: The spirit was indeed strong with this one. ‘Humorous’ stems from the Latin word for ‘earthly’. So speak along the daily and twisted reality of your listeners. There you’ll find more than enough links to the gospel which after all is a good message and more often than we think wishes to correct us with a good laugh about ourselves and our shortcomings.
9) Humorous doesn’t have to mean funny or satirical. Make sure that you make fun of yourself, not of others. If you wish to do so anyhow then at least include yourself into the group of fellow believers you are making fun of.
10) Get rid of phrases and formulas you’ve heard and read a thousand times in sermons. In fact it may be good for you not to read sermons about your piece of scripture at all. Depending on how used you are to that special sound of church sermons, your sermon sans phrases may sound like it lays in ruins. Always remember that God build greatness out of the ruins of Jerusalem: See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? (Isaiah 43,19) And to put it simple: your sermon will sound less clerical and “churchish”, therefore more like real communication from one follower of Christ to another.
Many more tips could be given. Those ten apply to me – and thus hopefully to others as well. Which is in itself really another advice or the summary of all the above. Fear not that you are unequipped or too young – like Jeremiah – for our mysterious God surely will find a way to put your words to use.
One last one, though: Speak to your fellow students, your mentors or teachers before and after your sermons. They’ll give you great advice. Don’t fear the opinions of others – you have nothing to lose but much to gain. Some of the best advice comes from the people you are talking to. So speak to the listeners of your sermon after the service as well.