Then he said Amen and sat down. I have never in my life wished so badly for pulpit police. I wanted someone with a badge to go up and arrest that guy, slap some handcuffs on him, and lead him away.
But there is no one to stop us, you see. Some of our congregations may tactfully suggest that we take a little time off, maybe take in a preaching conference or two, but on the whole we are alarmingly free to do anything we want in the pulpit.
– Barbara Brown Taylor, in When God is Silent
I have a friend at Western Theological Seminary, let’s call him “Norm,” who has said to me on more than one occasion, “I wish my pastor had sent me his manuscript before he preached. I could have done so much to make it better.”
Have you ever had that thought?
Today is a big preaching day at Western. Eugene Peterson is on campus, along with 160 or so other preachers, for the Bast Preaching Festival. I don’t know what Peterson is going to say, but I have an idea he’s going to talk about interiorizing the Word and the shape of the preacher’s soul. No one shines brighter than Peterson in the ministerial firmament on such topics. His words are needed. Who enjoys tepid sermons from ministers who have lost their way? I remember a few years ago listening to a sermon about global warming. The congregation went away hungry, because although we were sure what the preacher believed about global warming, none of us could say what he believed about God. In the Barbara Brown Taylor passage I cited above, she describes a sermon she heard from a single man about his vacation. He never made any connection to God or the gospel, leading her to conclude, “He was lonely, and we were the only people he could think of who might care where he went or what he did.” Preachers who – to use a phrase Peterson employs in Working the Angles – “abandon their posts without leaving their jobs” are a real problem, and I admire Peterson’s lifetime of addressing this.
All of which is why I’d be very surprised if the sort of stuff that bothers Norm and me is addressed today. Peterson is focused on the quality of the preacher. I want to focus on the quality of the sermon.
I want to suggest preachers take Norm’s idea literally. Find a reader. Or a team of readers. You must know college professors, English teachers, artists, or literate lay people that could help you. The only requirement is that they hold nothing back, tell you the truth, and don’t try to spare your feelings.
Writing for the ear is different than writing for the eye, but there are disciplines those that write for the ear can learn from those who write for the eye. I don’t know if people like Hemingway and Faulkner needed readers, but the rest of us mere mortals do. Every piece of writing gets better after an objective reader gives feedback. Why wouldn’t the same logic apply to a sermon?
Objective readers will tell you when you make mental leaps and don’t take the congregation with you.
Readers will tell you when you are building a straw man to knock down and warn you against it.
Readers will tell you not to state the debatable as fact.
Readers will urge you to use more elegant language.
Readers will tell you to shorten passages that go on too long, warn you against boring the congregation, and urge you to use a story to make a point instead of saying the point as a proposition. How I wish I heard more stories – as all the writing books say: “show, don’t tell.” Listeners connect with stories and remember them. Afraid you don’t have good stories? I remember a fellow preacher saying, “You always have entertaining stories. Nothing interesting ever happens to me. “ A bit later that evening he told about getting confused one Saturday afternoon at the Rose Bowl when he was playing in the UCLA marching band and taking a left turn when the rest of the band took a right turn. Yeah, right, nothing interesting ever happened to him.
Readers will challenge the applicability of your illustrations. I edited something the other day where the writer used that story from the Narnia books when Mr. Beaver is asked if Aslan is safe and says “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe, but he’s good.” The writer went on to say the world isn’t safe but God is good. Nice . . . but that wasn’t the point C.S. Lewis was making. Lewis wasn’t saying the world isn’t safe, Lewis was saying God isn’t safe. Read the story of Ananias and Sapphira in Acts 5 or what Jesus said about not bringing peace but a sword in Matthew 10. “God isn’t safe” is a much more complex and interesting topic than the fear of the big bad world.
Eugene Peterson’s visit today is part of a grand effort to increase the quality of preaching. The Lilly Endowment is putting its massive resources behind this effort. Norm’s idea is less costly dollar-wise. His idea would, of course, cost preachers a bit of pride and also demand sermons aren’t written in the wee hours of Sunday mornings. Anyone willing to try it?