Listen To Article
It is sermon grading season for me as the semester ends so unsurprisingly when I started to ponder a topic for today’s blog, all things homiletical came to mind. I realize that most people who read The Twelve are not preachers but I’d guess most of you listen to your share of sermons and so hopefully this will be of some interest to also you. And perhaps along the way I will name something that might just bother you about some of the sermons you hear, even though you may not always be able to put your finger on the reason why. I may have written similar musings before here on The Twelve but as most preachers know, some things simply bear repeating!
But as I have been grading sermons these past days (about 25 of them since middle of last week with about 10 to go) I often find myself writing “Show, Don’t Tell.” This is the #1 piece of advice teachers of creative writing give to aspiring novelists, of course. The idea is that in good writing you can Tell all manner of things: that a given character attended Harvard, that a certain person loves spaghetti, that the house in which someone lives is red brick with white trim. But there are other things you ought not merely Tell but need to Show, and principally in writing this often has to do with emotions.
Thus: don’t Tell us that Jeremy is angry. Describe Jeremy to us and let us figure it out. Show how the color has risen in his face, how his neck muscles seem to be almost pulsing out of his skin, how his eyes have narrowed into slits, how his breathing has become both more rapid and more shallow. Jeremy is a Mt. Kilauea on the verge of eruption and Showing that to readers is far more interesting and indelible than blandly writing “Jeremy was ticked off.”
In writing—and also in the writing of sermons—this “Show, Don’t Tell” is often also about illustrating what you are talking about so as to let those who read you or listen to you know that you understand what you mean. In truth, all sermons have some Tell in them. But this needs to be followed up with a Show. Too often we hear sermons—and probably too often I myself have preached such sermons!—in which we hear long strings of utterly true statements. The preacher Tells us “God still restores us today! God liberates us from bondage! God fights battles for his people. Jesus stands with us when we’re sad and it really helps.”
That is all Tell and it is all true and all such things are perfectly fine to have in a sermon. But they need to be followed up with a Show. God restores us yet today? How? When? If the preacher is going to assert this, then back it up with a real-life example. Then we know the preacher knows what she’s talking about. We even have something that will now be much more memorable and the kind of thing we can be on the lookout for in everyday life, celebrating it and praising God for it when we see in action.
In a recent book and in comments I make on any number of student sermons I often use this analogy. Suppose you are sitting at Panera Bread having lunch with a friend when at one point you say, “My friend Jane Gibson is a good person.” The odds are that your friend will reply, “Oh yes? How so?” How odd it would be, however, if all you could offer in response was “I don’t know. She’s just good, that’s all. Jane. Good. Yes she is. Good.” “OK, but how do you know that?” your friend would no doubt press you. If your answer is “I have no idea,” your Panera friend will conclude you may not know what you are talking about.
Of course, that’s not usually how it goes at Panera. Instead you say, “Well, for instance, last week at the supermarket Jane noticed this older woman struggling with one of those shopping carts with the one wheel that won’t turn. She was also seeming to have a hard time reaching stuff on various shelves. So Jane abandoned her own cart, helped the woman finish her shopping, stayed with her in the checkout aisle and even helped get the groceries into her car. That’s Jane for you—she is just such a good person.”
“Ah, I see” your friend would reply. Because indeed, now he does.
If it would be unacceptable at Panera to give a non-answer when pressed for specifics on something you had just told to someone, it ought to be the same in sermons. “Jesus shows up when we need him” the preacher Tells the congregation. And in their hearts any number of hurting people in the pews ask “Oh yes? How? When?” The hardest part of preaching is answering that question with real-life vignettes of God in action. Tell without the Show is far easier.
But if we believe God is on the move today—and by the Spirit, God surely is—then it is a joy and privilege to Show that to God’s people because then they can say “Ah, we see.” Because then they will.
Dozens of times over the past few years, as I have sat hunched over an open bible with pen in hand scratching an outline, a particular question you asked me after one of my seminary sermons springs to mind and reminds me how to be more helpful and clear! Thanks for not waving off our initial attempts but leaning in and taking us seriously.
Thanks for the important reminder to a fellow preacher, Scott!
I think you are onto an important element of sermon construction. It has always been important to illustrate the truth you are trying to convey as a preacher. It is also important to show an application of a truth to our daily lives. Sometimes both the illustration and application can be shown together, but not always. The illustration of a sermon-point may illustrate the point well but not have relevance to many in the congregation. It’s difficult to apply a truth to all equally with a single illustration, to the farmer, educator, a mother, a teenager, brick layer and the nurse and doctor. There are many resources that can help with illustrations, especially if the preacher is innovative enough to manipulate or embellish those illustrations to sound authentic, and not canned. That’s not always easy, especially when you have to do this week after week without riding hobby horses.
Discerning the theological nugget, or meaning of a passage is often the easy part of sermon construction. A good and trusted commentary might be helpful on this first part of building a sermon. Bringing that meaning home to a congregation of diverse people is often the hard part and that often has little to do with the preacher’s theological training. A good story teller with a little theological training may be the most fitting for today’s average congregation. He/she might even get a good grade in your class of “Show, Don’t Tell – 101.” Blessing to you, as you teach those young whipper-snappers to preach life changing sermons.
Like you, Scott, I am in the thicket of student-sermon-assessment here at the end of the year. And I was especially blessed by this post. Thank you.
I shared it with my students this morning in class. I constantly encourage more illustrative detail in sermons. And that encouragement is sometimes met with the objection that sermons don’t need more flash or zazz — so long as they have theological substance. You helped give language to my conviction that being able to *show* enfleshed theological truths in addition to *telling* them isn’t homiletical decoration; it’s foundational. It’s evidence that you know, as a preacher, what you’re talking about.
Aside: Can I have permission to borrow the Panera example in perpetuity?