My job is to teach preachers how to have something important to say and to say it well from the pulpit. After explaining to them that they are up against TV, movies, the digital age and all those palm-size devices when trying to keep a congregation’s attention, there is one thing I caution them not to do.
Don’t bore the hell out of people.
At Southern Methodist University I oversee the Perkins Center for Preaching Excellence. In focus groups of laypeople and clergy it has come to my attention that, these days, people want sermons that are coherent, compelling and true.
After learning about the advice I give my students, an editor asked me to recalibrate my preaching tips and apply them to the politicians who are going to be bombarding us with political sermons from now until November 2020.
So, those of you running for mayor, Congress or the presidency — Lord knows somebody new parachutes to the podium nearly every day — I offer this advice if you want to connect effectively with your congregation, the voters. It’s not just advice about rhetorical strategies, important as those are. It’s advice about content that acknowledges the complexity of issues, respects the experience and differing views of listeners, and, perhaps most important of all, comes from a speaker with integrity.
To borrow from Steven Wilkens and Mark Sanford in their book, “Hidden Worldviews: Eight Cultural Stories that Shape Our Lives,” we live amid the clamor of competing narratives: individualism (I am the center of the universe), consumerism (I am what I own), nationalism (my nation, under God) and scientific naturalism (what you see is all you get).
These competing worldviews know how to market themselves as appealing alternatives via blog posts, websites, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram for starters. As preachers and speakers, we have to compete. The internet’s constant barrage of options has eroded many people’s ability for sustained, coherent thought needed to follow the line of thought of a sermon or address from start to finish.
In the 5th century St. Augustine, a student and teacher of secular rhetoric before converting to Christianity, wrote a book called “On Christian Doctrine.” In the final chapter he went on a rant, venting that secular orators held listeners spellbound, while Christian preachers left them somnolent. My paraphrased version is what I stated earlier: You can’t bore the hell out of people.
We need to up our game:
- Speak from a sincere motivation to improve the world around you. Greek and Roman teachers of rhetoric identified three streams of persuasion in a public address: pathos (a connection with something people care deeply about), logos (a coherent logical argument) and ethos (the character of the speaker — the kind of person listeners perceive a speaker to be). Make sure your life matches your words. If not, sooner or later, it will be discovered and shouted from the rooftops. The way to be the real deal in the character department is to be the real deal.
- Be clear, coherent. Have one theme that runs through the whole message, what screenwriters call “the through line.”
- Be compelling. Having a sharp hook is a must. That means beginning with a question, scene or story that intrigues and promises a payoff, then moving from negative to positive. In sermonic terms this would be a move from guilt to grace, despair to hope, shadow to light, death to life.
- Don’t put the sermon or address/speech in reverse and revisit the problem at the end. That’s like backing over the spikes when you return your rental car. Know when to land the plane. Don’t circle the airport.
- Don’t talk too much. As Episcopal priest, author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor says, “It is better to sit down too soon than to stand up too long.”
- Be brief and concise. That’s why TED talks are a successful. They are 18 minutes, not 28 minutes.
- Respect complexity. Novelist Edith Wharton’s advice for novelists is some of the best I’ve heard for preachers and speakers. She recommends that novelists choose a subject that is worthy of their audiences. “There are subjects trivial in appearance, and subjects trivial to the core; and the novelist ought to be able to discern at a glance the difference between the two …”
- Say things that are true and that make a difference in listeners’ everyday lives. Don’t seek to denigrate your opponents, take credit for others’ accomplishments or offer explanations that aren’t yours to make.
- Don’t offer false assurances, promises you can’t keep. And make sure the promises you make are worth keeping.
- Respect the listener. They bring their own experiences and wisdom to the occasion.
- Acknowledge the risk, mystery and complexity of life. Don’t oversimplify complex issues. Don’t make everything “either/or.” Don’t seek to spray Windex on the glass the Apostle Paul reminds us “we see through but darkly.” (1 Corinthians 13:12).