Preaching Pointers: Proclamation as Process
When we consider proclamation as process, two examples spring readily to mind: 1) the process of preparing to preach and 2) the process by which preaching, over time, empowers us to educate listeners and deepen discipleship. Having a process for sermon-crafting is vitally important for both the quality of our sermons and our sanity. After all, preparing a sermon is only one facet of a busy minister’s week. If we have to reinvent the “how” of preparing every time, we are in for a highly unsettling and also wasteful journey. Knowing the steps that settle us into preparation, and how and when to employ various tools and techniques, allows us to focus our energies on the genuine purpose at hand.
So, how do you come to the preparation task? Do you have a time and a place where you know that “here and now, I am encountering the Word and the Spirit, seeking what is called forth for this people in this time”? Do you have a spiritual practice that marks out those moments as sacred? Do you have a set of steps, either clear in your head or laid out on paper, that you follow to hear, discern, clarify, and deepen your understanding of the text and context into which the Spirit speaks? The aim is not to limit the Spirit’s movement (as if we could) but to recognize that because we have limited time (Sunday is coming) and energy (many important tasks call us), having a process is immensely helpful.
Different processes are effective for different people, and there are far too many to chart them all here. If you have one that works, then follow it. By “works,” I mean a set of steps that allows you, by the grace of the Spirit, both to hear scripture as living and true and to convey the word you have heard to your listeners in the most effective way while, at the same time, enabling balance within your own life. If you are always deeply dissatisfied with your sermons or you are always running out of time or throwing something together at the last minute, then an investigation of the process you employ may be warranted. From time to time, we probably need to refresh our steps and try something different. If we feel (or hear) that we’re becoming boring and repetitive, or if our interaction with the word has devolved to same-old, same-old, it’s time to shake things up. Some repetition is good: we cannot hear too often that God loves us and that we are innately worthy by God’s grace. But to truly hear the message, sometimes the medium needs a bit of stirring.
Having a process that guides our proclamation over time can be immensely important too. Because we cannot count on an identical congregation every week, each sermon needs to stand on its own. However, if every message is introductory in nature, we are depriving listeners of the opportunity and tools to grow deeper in their discipleship. So, while honouring the uniqueness of each sermon, what can you do to help those who wish to deepen their knowledge, their capacity for reflection, their muscles of service? Some clergy use weekly Bible study groups to engage in next Sunday’s texts or focus on a deeper probing of last Sunday’s sermon. I’m not suggesting sermon-writing by committee but rather an ongoing encounter. Some clergy use the worship bulletin to pose questions for further reflection or even to offer “homework.” You might simply put questions for reflection out there or you might create ways for people to share the results of their reflection. Post-worship conversation sessions, if well managed, can lead in that direction. The focus is not feedback to the preacher (you can get that in other ways) but rather an invitation to people to name what they have heard and where it moves them.
What makes this a stronger process is when you, the preacher, have an aim in mind for these tools. Why are you doing this? Do you want to help people grow in their appreciation of the depth and nuance of the text? Do you want to develop their capacity for theological reflection? Do you want to encourage their attentiveness to the divine presence in all of life? If you have a goal in mind, over time you can shape the process that you use to better support those goals. Finding ways of continuing a sermon’s impact on the worshipping community is also a more faithful stewarding of the energy and effort put into preparing it.
Ross Bartlett is the Director of United Church Formation at the Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, N.S.