In Theory: Preachers share their oratorical methods – Los Angeles Times


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“Hi, my name is Average Christian, and I am bored in most church services because the preaching is boring.” So writes Michael Greiner on the blog “Preaching As War” in part one of a series of posts called “Boring Preaching.”Greiner admits he’s “grumpy” about boring sermons and preachers not so much because he hates being bored, but because he hates sermons that are boring because they do little to uplift the congregation. He cites sermons that preach good advice such as how to improve your prayer life or how to be a more effective Christian as topics that belong in self-help books, not in the pulpit, and that preaching should boost the congregation’s belief in and love for God and Jesus. “A Christian listening to a sermon, weighed down with the burdens of his life, will not find relief in advice on how to remove the burdens of life; that Christian will find relief in seeing the greatness and grace of God,” he says.In the article “7 Steps to a Good Sermon or How To Create and Preach a Sermon” on, Sherman Haywood Cox II identifies the salient points of writing sermons as including choosing the right text, interpreting it and getting a theme before beginning the writing process. After that it’s a case of rereading, editing, practicing and then preaching it. Other websites have similar advice, but all of them make the same point: Don’t bore your audience, know what you’re talking about, and be an effective and interesting speaker.Q: How do you approach sermon writing — as something to look forward to, or a chore? Have you ever been guilty of boring your congregation? If you are not one who gives sermons, do you have suggestions for those who do?Some of what answers the bore problem may be found in the boring “homiletic” classes we preachers endured through seminary. They always seemed be exercises in structure: introduction, point, sub-points A and B, conclusion, etc. Talk about mind-numbing and creativity-stifling. Generally the left-brainers teach the classes, and the right-brainers die a thousand deaths. But there really isn’t much emphasis on preaching anyway.I took dozens of classes on theology, Bible, apologetics, etc., but how to meld them all into interesting Sunday pulpiteering was much like the sermon you hear that provides no tangible application; it’s just left to God to “apply it to the heart.”Then there’s the debate about what constitutes faithful sermonizing. “It’s not entertainment,” says one. “You’re here to learn!” The other side spares no expense to support the message with full-orbed graphics, videos and live drama. “It’s a sin to bore people with the Bible,” they say. “Besides, we have to get them in the door!” It’s a balancing act, and everyone is happy only some of the time.My approach came trial-and-error, but it’s served me and seemingly appeals to my flock. I start with relevant humor before launching into the biblical text or topic, just to provide balance for the more sober elements to come. Sometimes I’ve blown this with off-color or dry jokes that fall flat. This invariably happens when visitors are present; thank you, St. Murphy!I do want my parishioners to enjoy their time, but I more so desire that they learn something about God’s will and how to better follow him. Then I resign myself to the fact that the thing they always seem to remember most is the joke, and I must trust that God will graciously use one of my spiritual nuggets and “apply it to the heart” when they’re back at their workweek.The Rev. Bryan GriemMontrose Community ChurchMontrose---For me, writing and delivering a sermon are my favorite things to do. There is something called a lectionary, which is a collection of scripture readings, usually two from the Old Testament and two from the New Testament, and these suggestions are available for each Sunday throughout the year. There are also commentaries to which a minister can subscribe, as I do. These commentaries are full of ideas about the scripture recommendation(s) for each Sunday. And I don’t plagiarize. If I quote a commentator, I give him/her credit.Some preachers are proud of the fact that they don’t follow the lectionary; I try to follow it as much as possible. And I agree that sermons shouldn’t be boring. One place (Mark 12: 30) Jesus is asked what the greatest commandment is, and he says to love the Lord your God with all your heart and mind and soul and strength. I absolutely love it that Jesus said to love the Lord with your mind! God gave us these great minds with which to think, and for me that means we preachers should not insult our congregants with schlocky, superficial sermons.Somebody said one time that a preacher needs to be part scholar, part teacher, part actor and part comedian, and that pretty much defines yours truly! Of course the business of preaching the Word of God is serious business, and life at its core is serious — but there can be a heck of a lot of laughter along the way (cf. Jesus and some of his parables; some were funny!). Besides, think back to your favorite teachers. Don’t the ones who made you laugh as well as think stick in your mind more than others?It has been said that a minister’s job is to comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable. I try to do that, too! And finally, probably the biggest compliment I as a preacher can receive is this: “Thanks. You have made me look at something in a whole new light.” Or , “Thanks. You had me squirming uncomfortably throughout your sermon!”The Rev. Skip LindemanLa Cañada Congregational Church---I believe teaching/preaching is my primary area of giftedness, and I look forward to every opportunity I’m given. Connecting people with God’s word in a meaningful way is one of my greatest joys in ministry. That being said, effective preaching demands diligent, disciplined and heartfelt preparation. It takes work. Preaching that connects involves explanation of what the Bible actually says, illustration of that truth in ways we can understand, application of the truth to our particular situation and corroboration with what other Bible passages say about the particular topic. That’s what I attempt to do every week.I’ve bored people before, and doubtless I’ll do it again. Trust me, when that happens it’s no fun for any of us. But I find that the more prepared and passionate I am, the less bored people are. Still, I don’t preach to entertain. I preach to draw people closer to Jesus Christ. And also, effective sermonizing requires active listening. Regardless of oratory style, when the “living and active” Word of God is clearly and honestly taught and when it is believed and obeyed the listeners’ lives are powerfully changed for the better, as God promised in Isaiah 55: 11: “So shall My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it shall not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire, and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”Pastor Jon BartaValley Baptist ChurchBurbank---The journey with a sermon, from listening, to composing, to delivering and beyond can be tedious, exhilarating and even a bit frightening. Like all disciplines, writing and delivering the sermon demand devotion over complaint. It was Harvard preacher Peter Gomes who identified the scriptures as a living organism. So, I approach the scriptures as I do any living thing: with curiosity and respect.When I research the text for a sermon, which for me is usually taken from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) lectionary, like Christian traditions and New Testament professor Holly Hearon, I first do a simple informational reading. What is the text saying? What do the actual words mean? I then seek to read the text over and over again in its contextual setting. What were the larger concerns of the writers and the hearers at the time of the composition of the text? What were the social and political issues? What was the plight of women? How were the poor treated? With respect? With disdain?Finally, I begin to contemplate the text critically. What does the text have to say to those of us living in the 21st century? As one author said: What is the trouble in heaven? What is the trouble on Earth? What is the solution from heaven? What could the solution be on Earth? Having been an actor for many years before I entered seminary, I know the importance of rehearsing the words aloud before the sermon is publicly preached. When preaching, I seek to take my hearers on the biblical and ethical journey with me. I think hearers are much more engaged if they are “in on it.”I also think in this time of endless mobile technology, where people seem to be texting every spare moment (some even in worship), parishioners are more engaged by narrative rather than endless lecture. Finally I don’t attempt to solve every ethical problem that the sermon may raise. It is my prayer that the folks attending my church will seek ways to live out the sermon to the best of their understanding.The Rev. Dr. William Thomas Jr.Little White ChapelBurbank---The best sermons tell stories that reach the audience as individuals and as a group.To prepare the sermon, find an inspiring theme. This is the message that the audience will understand through your oratorical instruction. The audience members will recall this theme later or be able to easily think of it from the highlight they remember of the talk. Another step is to find a text or highlight that your story will be anchored with. This text can be a quote, a saying or a word picture that you will paint for the audience.The reason the audience will not be bored by your instruction is because you have a theme and story that is specially prepared for them that they will be able to take into their life and remember fondly. The sermon will be remembered when it contains a theme and highlights that are woven together in a compelling story containing ideas, emotion and action. People are thinking, feeling and loving actors in the world, so the best stories help them in fulfilling their needs and hopes. It is more important to focus on telling a compelling story, instead of worrying about boring the audience.Steven GibsonSouth Pasadena Atheist Meetup---I must confess that I have given some boring sermons in my years of ministry, and that sometimes writing a sermon is really hard work. I don’t experience these things being true on a regular basis, but you would probably have to ask the members of the congregation I serve about my first statement.One of the things that is unique about preaching in a Unitarian Universalist congregation is that we do not depend solely on the Bible as a basis for our sermon inspiration. The sources of our tradition come from a religious pluralism that includes: direct experience of transcending mystery and wonder, wisdom from the world’s religions; words and deeds of prophetic women and men; Jewish, Christian and Humanist teachings; and spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions.I often begin with an idea to be explored or a question to be answered. And I usually decide on the topics for my sermons a year in advance so that I can be looking for resources and beginning the editing process long in advance. However, because of things that happen in the world or the lives of congregants, I sometimes change the topics to fit those circumstances and focus my sermon more clearly on the present.Of course, there are various ways to prepare a sermon — writing a manuscript and organizing notes — creating a rubric for speaking extemporaneously. My style is to use notes so that I can more closely relate to the congregation, as in a conversation. That method also allows me to tell stories to illustrate my points instead of being locked to the words on the page. I also try to provide opportunities for listeners to apply what I am saying to their own lives rather than just giving them information. I believe that sermons should address the concerns of congregants — not just my own.My hope is that my sermons give people something to “chew on” and inspire them to continue their own spiritual exploration. With that ongoing aspiration, I will continue to fine-tune my skills in the years ahead.The Rev. Dr. Betty StaplefordUnitarian Universalist Church of the Verdugo HillsLa Crescenta---I believe everyone at times struggles to pay attention during church services. Our lives are filled with worries and distractions, and it can be difficult to shed them the moment we step into the chapel.That said, our church teaches that the congregation has a responsibility to seek the spirit so that they can benefit from the messages that have been prepared. It’s great when we have accomplished, entertaining speakers, but we have an obligation to listen regardless. The Lord spoke to Balaam through the voice of a donkey. Likewise, he can speak to us, even by way of a dull sermon.The LDS church differs from most in that speakers for Sunday services are members of the congregation. Just about anyone age 12 or above, male or female, will at some time be called on to speak. We believe this approach helps to train future leaders, contributes to a sense of community and encourages gospel study. In a typical service, a youth will take about five minutes, followed by two adults, who will each speak 15 to 20 minutes.My personal approach to preparation begins with a prayer for inspiration to compose a message that will be of value to my audience. Then, I study scriptures and writings of LDS leaders and scholars that are relevant to my topic.I’ve found both as a speaker and a listener that it helps when a talk or sermon includes personal experiences that illustrate gospel principles. I think that as individuals we find hope and relief in knowing that speaker faces challenges just as we in the audience do. If there is some appropriate humor in the anecdote, then so much the better.Michael WhiteThe Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day SaintsLa Crescenta---How I write a sermon: 1. Fix a cup of coffee.2. Take it to my comfy prayer chair, along with a copy of the scriptures to be read that Sunday. (There are usually four passages, assigned by the lectionary, a schedule of readings set by experts I’ve never met.)3. Center myself; get quiet inside; summon the presence of God — and then abide in it for a while, sipping coffee.4. Open my eyes, and read the scriptures several times, listening to the life within and beneath the text. Which one of the four has the most spiritual energy; or what part of a reading; or what common theme among the readings?5. Narrow it down further: In what specific word, phrase, idea or verse does God seem to be the most alive? (Not the one about which I have clever, academic or amusing things to say; but the one with, you know, God in it.)6. Get quiet again. Get more quiet. Listen. Dwell on the phrase or idea. What’s God doing there? How is God alive in it? Listen. Ask God: Why this one, today?7. Ask the same question of myself: Why this word, this idea? What’s the spiritual power of this? Start peeling away layers of truth: What’s most real to me about this? And what’s even more real, beneath that? And beneath that?8. When I hit the deepest, most honest layer of what’s genuine for my own soul, it turns out to be the place of primeval humanity; and insights explode sideways, into what’s true for everyone, for all of us human beings, in our life with and in God.9. Go back to God’s presence, taking that focal point of the scriptures, and what seems to be the spiritual power of it, with me. Make sure that somewhere along the way I didn’t turn God’s inspiration into my own bright idea of what should be preached. Make sure it’s still God’s idea.10. Preach it.And keep it to 10 to 12 minutes, so people won’t get bored.The Rev. Amy PringleSt. George’s Episcopal ChurchLa Cañada Flintridge---For me, every sermon begins in the personal relationship I have with God. I find the more time I spend with the Lord in private meditation, prayer, worship and communion, the more receptive I become to the intent and prompting of the Holy Spirit.A major part of sermon preparation for me is to be prophetic in my preaching. By being prophetic, I am talking about being led by the Holy Spirit in every aspect of the message, including the delivery. It is a collaborative process. I ask the Holy Spirit to lead me in what I should speak on, and the texts and messages he wants in the sermon. In my daily communion with him, I wait for him to instruct me on his purpose and will that is expressed in the texts, and how to best illustrate this to people.For me, the true purpose of the sermon is to allow the Holy Spirit to be the teacher. I yield myself to the power and unction of the Holy Spirit when I deliver the message so that I will be sensitive to what he wants me to emphasize or omit in the moment. By collaborating with the Holy Spirit in this way, the people receive revelation, that is a spiritual impartation that leads to transformation of one’s life.It is this living gift of revelation that challenges and edifies people to discover the hidden things of the spirit, which can’t be known by the natural light of human reason. Since each person’s circumstances and heart issues are known to the Holy Spirit, he is able to individualize his revelation to the unique needs of each person hearing the sermon.Pastor Ché AhnHRock ChurchPasadena---Preaching is a privilege and a burden and an art form. I create with the designated scripture, the circumstances of my congregants, and whatever inspiration God gives me. Sometimes the outcome is beautiful and fascinating, and other times — eh, not so much. But when you preach 50 sermons a year, the odds are the same as in any other art form. You keep working on your craft, but not everything will be a masterpiece. One can’t get too wound up about such things, or one will never create anything. And Sunday does come at the preacher with a speedy regularity.Art must leave the studio to be experienced, and a sermon must leave the page. As with any other art form, in preaching there is a giver and a receiver — one who offers an idea of truth, beauty, comedy or tragedy, and one who, by receiving the offer, interacts with it. What is offered has to land somewhere — preferably on the heart, soul or mind. The best way to be bored by a sermon is to expect simply to be entertained by it — not motivated or inspired or relieved or surprised. I can use any number of video clips, dress up as characters, sing solos and play the trombone to keep it interesting, but unless you are open to being changed by God’s grace, nothing will happen. Every preacher will give a congregation more energy when he or she is getting energy in return. The best sermon is a shared, participatory activity.The Rev. Paige EavesCrescenta Valley United Methodist ChurchMontrose

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