I’m reading a book about preaching at the moment, and it’s helpful in all sorts of ways. But I’m not going to tell you you which book because I want to criticise it – not for its substance, but for an irritating stylistic tic, which is so common in preaching that most of us who are preachers won’t even notice it’s there.
Almost every chapter starts in the same way – a short story, usually true, humorous and self-deprecating, then a link sentence (preaching/the preacher is/is not like that), and then what the author really wants to talk about.
I’ve heard so many sermons which begin like that, many of them my own, that I’m starting to become tired and suspicious of the formula. It’s not only so obvious that I can hear the click as the sermon changes track, but it’s so easy that I know we can write such intros in our sleep. Or during Saturday night TV.
‘My guilty secret is that I quite enjoy (insert TV programme of choice). I know it’s silly, but I like it when (insert favourite character or motif). And, this passage tells us that God’s quite like that too.’
It’s as though the preacher feels the need to sugar coat the first two minutes, get a chuckle of recognition, and then press into the passage. Bait and switch.
The dead giveaway is when it’s a ‘negative’ illustration, meaning it’s one where the Christian life/God/whatever is not like the scenario just described. They are the easiest and laziest kind to do, and once you learn to spot them you can see them everywhere.
But there are some preachers who, although they seem to do that, are actually doing something shrewder. The introductory elements are actually the main point of the sermon, but done as a piece of spiritual or cultural analysis, with a question mark against them. Rather than a quick bridge from the latest movie, they are actually taking that movie as a serious expression of humanity’s fallen state and its deepest needs.
The opening illustration isn’t an illustration at all – it’s a worked piece of application. The assumption is that every human artefact is an expression of our status as ruined image-bearers, and can be properly analysed as such.
So the next time you preach, plan to use the opening few minutes as a deliberate way to get people to engage with the issue in the passage. Expose an idol, or a lie, or a question, or a tension, or look at the story that an object tells us, in a way that makes your hearers hunger and thirst for God’s truth.
It’s hard work, but your congregation will thank you as you teach them to think.