The Reprise

One very effective approach to preaching is what I call the “reprise.” This is where we introduce some piece of distinctive material early in the sermon while bringing it back later for a deepened and renewed consideration.returnarrow

It is this deepening that makes the reprise effective. I remember being criticized as a homiletics student for a sermon that seemed circular to the professor, given that my closing story seemed to repeat the material offered in the introduction. If that was the effect, then the critique was appropriate.

Sermons need to move. They need to take us from where we are to where we need to be. For this reason, any re-presentation of material at a later point in the sermon must take the listener to a deeper consideration or impact. The effect of the reprise is in its maturation.

For example, a story told early in the sermon could be used to raise a vexing question or to create a sense of unsettledness which could be answered later in the sermon. In order for this to happen, the secondary telling will need to benefit from the information offered and developed in the sermon body. The story raises a question which is managed through exposition such that the later use of the story offers a settled sense of truth, insight, and motivation.

Sometimes a reprise can offer a welcome element of surprise. The story or question can yield an unexpected twist or resolution. The wise preacher will sometimes hold back a critical piece for utilization later on. Using that piece later can be like inserting a key that opens the door to the insight at just the right time.

This approach benefits from effective management of the sermon duration. The preacher develops a kind of pent-up demand for resolution. By delaying insight, the listener’s hunger and sense of receptivity is helpfully increased.

Comedians know the power of this sort of thing. The humour in a story is all in the shaping of the material. Jerry Seinfeld’s subject matter is decidedly pedestrian. It is in his knack for this delayed gratification that makes his stories funny.

Laughter, of course, is not our objective. Impact is. The truth is, I have never forgotten the critique offered by my Homiletics prof so many years ago. I suspect that I might have been overly zealous in my self-defence, which probably did not endear me to my teacher. Now, as a professor of homiletics myself, I have more respect for what he told me. Reprise is only useful if it moves me to a deeper learning.

See what I did there?

Telegraphing the Theme of Your Sermon

I can still hear my high school basketball coach warning about “telegraphing” our passes. This was a staple of his half-time tirades. Telegraphing occurred when we would look directly at the person that we were passing the ball to, making our target evident and obvious to the defenders that stood in the way. Telegraphing led to turnovers – incomplete passes that were stolen by the other team. It was a great way to lose basketball games.

Conversely, telegraphing is a pretty good way to keep listeners during sermons.telegraph

Sermonic telegraphing is where the preacher makes his or her direction obvious to the listeners.

“Here is what I am going to tell you.”

“Here is why I am going to tell you.”

“Are you ready?”

“Here it is! I am telling you now.”

“Now let me remind you what I told you.”

It might seem a little pedantic, but there is no mistaking the intention or the message when it is showcased in the sermon. Preaching is an oral medium and it can be quite a challenge for the listener to track in her ear what the preacher sees so clearly in his notes. The preacher who makes the journey obvious, helps everyone to know exactly what is going on and that can be extremely helpful in an oral message.

Telegraphing lends itself well to more deductive sermon forms where the sermon is the process of unfolding and explaining a given theme. But inductive preaching an help its listeners also, through telegraphing, though perhaps with more suggestive, inclusive language.

“Let’s see where this takes us.”

“Oh, did you notice that?”

“That is an amazing discovery, don’t you think?”

Preacher, you understand, is essentially an act of leadership. The preacher gets to the text first, several days ahead of the listeners. Having met with God and heard from him through his Word and by his Spirit, the preacher then leads the listeners to the same discoveries. Like a tour guide, the preacher points out the views along the way, making sure the listener does not miss anything important and that he or she can get home when the tour is over. This is what a leader or a guide does – makes sure that the subject achieves the objective and gets home to tell about it.

It is okay to be obvious. There are no extra points in preaching for being cute. Subtlety is not your friend. You can be subtle when you write. When you preach you need to lead us. You need to get us where we are going. You need hold no fear of interception. Look us in the eye and make the pass.

The Future of Homiletics

I was recently asked to answer the following question for a journal forum: “What is the future of homiletics?” The following was my response…

When I think about the future of homiletics, as distinct from the future of preaching, I am futurethinking about the way that we encourage excellence in the preaching that is done. As a homiletician, I am charged with thinking deeply about the nature of preaching and how to go about helping others grow more effective in their practice of their calling. This leads me, then, to two key thoughts. The first will be about the way we conceive of preaching, and the second will be about the way by which might develop people for this work in the near future.

As to our conception of preaching, I would say that the future will demand us to be far more integrative. Preaching that merely instructs, or which solely engages, will not be satisfying to people who are no longer compelled by culture or tradition to listen to our sermons. Of course, the Scriptures themselves are full of examples of preachers who were careful not only to offer teaching, but also to tell stories, to paint pictures, and to offer prayers. The preaching of the prophets, the apostles, and of Jesus himself, were rich with metaphor, object lessons, and expressive language. Think, for one example, of Jeremiah’s belt. They were varied in their forms utilizing narrative, poetry, didactic teaching and so much more. The preachers of the Bible located their preaching in life. They were pleased to offer abstract theological thought, but they were always careful to root what they had to say in the real experience of their listeners.

Today we hear a lot of hard-core exegetical and theological preaching and I am grateful for it. I believe we needed a return to biblical rootedness and a deeper approach to the word of God. I would like to think that the future, then, could retain this depth, while seeking for broader and more integrated expressions of these truths. If we could do this, we could take our preaching to another level of impact.

As to the development of preachers, I believe we the future is going to be a lot more context-based. Actually, I think that all of theological education is moving in this direction. At my own seminary, we have embraced a fully mastery-model, outcomes-based to pastoral development, including the development of preachers.

What this means is that preaching will be proved more in the church than in the classroom. There will be room for us to discuss theory and to teach technique, but increasingly, this will be done through mentoring in place. Preachers will have to show that they can actually help people hear from God in the context of their ministries instead of only satisfying their professors in the security of the classroom.

This change is going to challenge the identity of some of us classroom teachers. I think we are in danger of having found our meaning more in our positions and our systems than in our callings. If we could free ourselves to think theologically about the outcomes we have been called to pursue, we might do a lot of things differently in the future and we might be more effective.

The 500 Word Manuscript

So how much manuscript should a preacher use? Does a sermon manuscript keep a preacher from rambling into irrelevance, or does it stifle and inhibit communication? A more oral and in-the-moment approach can keep the sermon from feeling like it has been canned or packaged. On the other hand, a manuscript can keep the sermon from feeling like the preacher is making it up as he goes.

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My own preaching has utilized both methods to varying degrees. I do love the communicative power of extemporaneous preaching, even though it sometimes feels a little undisciplined and imprecise. Some have suggested the preparation of a manuscript that is left behind and not utilized in the actual preaching of the sermon. While this sounds like a great way of integrating the two approaches, I have often found myself paralyzed while preaching by this method, trying to remember the exact construction that I laboured over in the writing of the manuscript.

My solution has been to move to a 500 Word Manuscript. Having done my sermon research and construction, I write the sermon in 500 words or less – basically the sermon on a single sheet of paper. 500 words is not enough words for even the shortest of sermons, but it is enough to communicate the basic substance and structure I intend. It also doesn’t require as much time to prepare. Consolidating the sermon into 500 words forces me to focus and sharpen the sermon, requiring me to make important choices about better and best. I can then easily commit the resulting structure to memory without worrying about falling into a deadly recitation in the preaching of the sermon.

There is a delightful freedom in preaching the resulting sermon. The sermon feels fresh and focused. I am not bogged down by pre-fabricated constructions, nor am I struggling to discern direction. I don’t bring my 500 words with me to the platform. I don’t need to. I know what I am doing and where I am going, but I am free to use language that seems organic and unforced as it emerges in the moment.

One thing I know about myself is that I can talk. I am seldom stuck for words when I have clarity about my purpose. I suspect that the same could be true about any of us who preach. The resulting product might not look eloquent if published, but no one is publishing our preaching anyway.

The 500 Word Manuscript is a way if having your homiletical cake and eating it too. People love it when we can look them in the eye and communicate with them directly without the interference of our manuscripts and notes. But they also want us to be coherent and to not waste their time. My 500 words is enough to help me give them what they need.