“You were really present to us in your sermon today, preacher,” he said on
his way out of church last Sunday. What did he mean by that? Are there
Sundays when I am absent?
I suppose that his remark was an affirmation that this sermon really
seemed to mean something to me. I was “there” in a way that was noticeable
and engaging. Perhaps that is not a bad distinction between a sermon
and a lecture. A lecture is usually a rather “cool” presentation. A few ideas
are put out on the table for reflection, consideration, and possible adoption.
The ideas may mean something to the lecturer or they may not.
On the other hand, in a sermon, there is the expectation that the
preacher will be “present.” The moves made within the sermon must not
simply be general ideas that may or may not have any relevance to the
preacher. They must be ideas that, to some degree, the preacher is trying
to embody in his or her life. The effective sermon is not simply a report
on what the preacher may or may not think. Rather, the engaging sermon
engages the hearers, it takes them somewhere they would not go without
the power of the sermon. It makes a claim upon the hearers. They understand
themselves to be addressed, summoned because it is clear that
the preacher has also been addressed, summoned by the very word the
preacher is attempting to preach.
Sometimes some preachers are accused of being “manipulative.”
Verbal manipulation can be a problem. However, we preachers ought to
acknowledge that every one of our sermons is a sermon about matters
that deeply concern us. We really do want to persuade our hearers, want
to change them, want to encourage them to internalize these ideas in their
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely some report on an interesting
philosophy. Rather, the gospel is a matter of God’s action and human
response. The gospel is a claim about the mighty acts of God and therefore
that claim must be an act, a summons, a deed.
Detachment can be the death of preaching. In fact, for the preacher
to be detached from the subject matter is a basic violation of what the
gospel is all about and therefore what preaching is all about.
How can we preach in such a way that it is obvious we are present in
our preaching? Some of the advice your English composition teacher gave
you in high school is relevant. It is better to speak in the present tense than
in the past tense when using verbs. The active voice (she approved that . . .)
is better than the passive voice (it was approved that . . .). Simple, direct
sentences are to be favored over complex sentences. Short, uncomplicated
sentences convey energy and directness. As someone has said, the passive
voice is always about something that took place somewhere else other
than here and at another time other than now.
Concrete details are much better than abstract generalizations. I
remember hearing about a teacher of preachers who asked students in
his homiletics classes to call out all of the big theological words they had
learned in their seminary classes, words like redemption, atonement,
sanctification. Then he asked them to think of one everyday noun that
could stand for and exemplify those big words, words like bread, water,
wine, birth. He was trying to get his budding preachers to move from
the detached abstraction engendered by the seminary studies to specific
engagement. What are our sacraments if not concrete embodiments of
matter, which without the bread or the wine would remain theological
abstractions? Preaching that is present is therefore preaching that is
If something is universally true, it is best grasped through the particulars
of life. Things that are generic and abstracted tend to float above
human experience. You will note that Jesus is a model for us in this matter
of concrete communication. Jesus spoke of coins, seeds, soil, and the stuff
of everyday life to speak of divine matters.
Avoid standing off from the sermon or from yourself in the manner
in which you speak about the sermon. Don’t refer to the sermon or to
yourself as preacher, or to the listeners as listeners. Why say things like,
“This morning I would like to have you consider the possibility that . . .”?
Instead, just begin by saying, “Let’s look at the problem of . . .”
Lately, I’ve become annoyed at the way we preachers will speak about
something called “the Christian community,” when what I suppose we are
talking about is church.
Don’t talk about a story, or report on a story, or explain it. Tell the
story. Rather than introduce a story with something like, “There is an old
story that I heard some years ago, I have forgotten just where, perhaps
you have heard it, which I would now like to retell again to you.” Rather,
simply begin, “One day there was a little girl who did not know which way
to turn in a dark wood . . .”
Rather than summarize conversations between people, “One day
Jesus was met by an interesting man who had some interesting things to
say to him,” say, “‘What have I got to do to inherit eternal life?’ he said
to Jesus.” It is always better to show than to report. If the conversation is
interesting, don’t tell your hearers that it is interesting. Rather, repeat the
conversation for them and, if it is interesting, they will know it without
your telling them.
Study the art of storytelling. Storytellers seem to involve their listeners
in the action of the plot, seek to have their hearers identify with the
various characters in the story. Isn’t that what we want them to do with
Extended quotations, even if they are from Scripture, get to be tedious
and difficult to follow. Again, in quoting, we are distancing ourselves
from the material we are presenting. Our hearers likewise will feel
distanced by the use of long quotations.
Generally, I think it is a good rule to avoid heavy-sounding theological
abstractions. Use words like redemption, or atonement, or incarnation,
which are all good theological words, and watch a congregation’s
eyes glaze over. All of these words speak of concrete, available experiences
of God’s ways with us. Talk about those ways, the primary theological encounter,
rather than the abstracted theological report of that encounter,
and you will be “present” in the sermon.
Perhaps above all, we must be interested in what we have to say,
convinced that what we have to say is of singular importance for our
hearers. I sometimes tell my students to search the biblical texts for the
given Sunday and find something within the text that engages them. If
they can’t find something that engages them, they will never engage their
congregations. It is well for our hearers to ask us to be present in our sermons,
interesting, engaging, and enthusiastic about the message we deliver. To be
anything less is to raise questions about the validity of the message we
have to deliver. The message we have been given is good news, the words
of God unto life. Let us give that message with all of the clarity and all of
the presence we can muster.