Every so often I go away on a conference to sharpen my preaching skills – in fact, I’m on one at the moment. Something like this has popped up in my diary every year since – well, since a long time ago, and it is one of the top two things that help me improve. The other is meeting up with a bunch of fellow preachers every six weeks or so, to trawl over each other’s work in progress.
But at this conference, amidst some presentations from the front. the hard work is done in smaller groups where we listen to each other’s sermons and give each other encouragement and help. We’ve all submitted recordings of our sermons in advance, so we listen to what actually happened, and then give constructive feedback. I’ve known the people in my group for some time – in one case, for many years, so we don’t need to pull our punches
It is always helpful, and has been this time too.
But as we all listened to my sermon this morning, I realised that there were a couple of elements which were missing, which needed to be taken into account for the sermon really to bed down.
One was the congregational context. I was asked about a particular point I’d dwelt on for a while, and they were right to press me on it. Listening cold, it did stick out. But when I explained that there was a particular pastoral issue I had in mind, and that I was responding in public to some ideas that I knew were running round the church, it made sense. I intended to change some minds on one particular point.
Every sermon has a date and a postcode
Every sermon has a date and a postcode (zipcode), and this one was no exception.
The other missing element was how we had led people into being prepared for the sermon, and how we enabled people to respond. The prayers and songs – if you like, the liturgy – were designed to enable people to be ready for this reading (and not another one), and to respond afterwards. Our musicians usually have a palette of songs available, and they make the final choice of order actually during the sermon.
Just listening to the sermon, on its own, from a USB stick felt curiously two dimensional in some way. Useful, but incomplete.
So preachers, do listen to your recent sermons with experienced colleagues, in order to improve. I learnt a host of lessons from my time with my friends this morning.
But always remember that our talks are embedded in a number of subtle ways. The sermons are not designed to stand alone.
And, preachers, remember that those who can only listen to our talks miss out; when we package them for our members who are shut at home, let’s remember that they need the songs, prayers and praises as well.
And musicians, remember the ebb and flow through the service – our meetings are better represented as a melody, not just a chord, and as the service progresses, we are readying people for the next element.
Sermons don’t stand alone.
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