"Let life enchant you again." - Fernando Gros
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Blog // Thoughts
August 30, 2006

On Not Blogging About Bad Preaching

Every now and there‚Äôs a topic I want to blog about, but can‚Äôt quite fashion into a good blogpost. About three weeks ago I wrote something on bad preaching, using examples I have heard to make a humourous point. It was very funny, but too cruel. It has been revised twice and both times, it […]

Every now and there’s a topic I want to blog about, but can’t quite fashion into a good blogpost. About three weeks ago I wrote something on bad preaching, using examples I have heard to make a humourous point. It was very funny, but too cruel. It has been revised twice and both times, it didn’t feel right. So, I decided to drop the examples all together and just make the point.

We need to rethink preaching. We live in an age of unparalleled education and whilst most people’s capacity to absorb and sift information is growing, the depth and content of a lot of preaching is shrinking. Ministers need to stop underestimating the ability of their congregants to process complex ideas. Congregants need to help ministers understand the creative ways that information can be presented today. We are all in this together.

By now you are probably wishing I had included the jokes and funny anecdotes. But the fact is, I’m tired of the “say something negative to make a positive point” approach. Christian discourse has too many cheap laughs, too many pot shots at the unarmed. We all hear bad sermons Рwhat can we do about it?

I was interested to read Jonny Baker’s piece on preaching, Throwing a Hand Grenade in the Fruit Bowl (pdf download). In particular I liked the ideas clustered around remixing the sermon. We can start by asking what is the function of a sermon in the context of worship, in the context of the church’s mission and then consider how we could fulfill that function with our current technologies.

Instead of homiletics, how about homitechnics?

By that I don’t mean doing a powerpoint presentation! I’ve blogged a little on that in the past and there is a lot more to come when I review Edward Tufte’s new book, Beautiful Evidence next week.

The idea of remixing the content is a powerful one. What if we start to think of the “preacher’s” role as being content provider? Let me give an example.

When I was at Gordon Baptist Church, myself and Heath Smith, the youth pastor, set up a team to coordinate the evening services, call the sub. Officially, it was the sub-committee of the Worship committee, but of course, the sub had a more immediate meaning, subversion. The problem we had was typical of programmatic small churches. A preacher, a worship leader and a music director, not a lot of creative ministries and unclear communications. We tried to bring more planning, more people, more spark and more risk into the process.

Each service was to have a “story” (thanks Heath, you taught me a lot with that!), with various elements pulling together. A big part of creating that story was having the core content of the “sermons” (we used panel discussions, dramas and a few other things in place of traditional sermons at times) available to the team ahead of time. The story of the service then developed as the choice of songs, arrangements, dramatic presentations, artwork, handouts and other elements were chosen and fine-tuned together. Often, the sermons themselves would evolve in different ways as a result of this creative process.

What I learnt was that the members of the sub, the worship leaders and in fact most people involved grew through the process of creating content and presentation elements. In one sense, the core ideas were still with the pastoral team (for those thinking about leadership and authority questions), but on the other hand the final content and presentation was something all-together more fluid, dynamic and compelling.

Oh and it was a lot of fun. I have never laughed and smiled so much in behind the scenes church meetings!

Coming back to the point, it was remixing the content – saying here is the what we need to discuss, to consider, to learn, lets work with it. It created community through participation and creativity. It also embodied a lot of the ideas in today‚Äôs piece from Garr Reynold’s excellent Presentation Zen blog(looks like The Corner and Tensegrities are reading that blog as well!). It was as Daniel Pink says, ‚Äúhigh concept, high touch.‚Äù

‚ÄúHigh concept involves the capacity to detect patterns and opportunities, to create artistic and emotional beauty, to craft a satisfying narrative….High touch involves the ability to empathize with others, to understand the subtleties of human interaction…”

I encourage you to take a look at the summary six aptitudes of good presenters as outlined on Presentation Zen. They embody a lot of what I learnt from the experience with that team at Gordon and a lot of what I have tried to do in other contexts as well. The also give us a really helpful typopology to think further on this issue.

We can do a lot to fulfill the function of preaching in new and fresh ways, but it takes risk, hard-work, play and the willingness to let go of control about the final product. If we can accept that, I believe we can all do amazing things.

[tags] Homiletics, Homitechnics, Preaching [/tags]

martin hill 18 years ago

Followed your thread from Jonny’s blog. Really like the six aptitudes from Presenter Zen. As an “art” form preaching (and preachers) could learn from the “art” of public presentation. Having an aptitude toward preaching is part of the “gift”. As we know a gift is only really useful and used well when we develop the ways we use it. Thanks for the insight Fernando.

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Martin, thanks for your comment and for finding your way to this blog.

Toni 18 years ago

I’m interested in your point about preachers underestimating their congregations.

From what I’ve seen, it is usually heavily dependant on who is actually there listening. I mention this because our church covers a wide range of abilities, from PhD down to labourer, with a definite weighting toward labourer. For what ever reason, we seem to have a lot of ‘ordinary’ people, and my experience with them in housegroups is that they don’t keep up most of the time.

They aren’t stupid, but neither are they inclined to more intellectual pursuits like serious bible study. This has been a major source of frustration, as at one time it seemed that almost any kind of meaningful discussion would disengage about half the housegroup. I’m not sure what the answer is, other than to stream like-levels and arrange the studies according to ability and interest.

Guess I should be pleased that we’re not just another ‘middle-class’ church.

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Interesting comment Toni. Do they not “keep up” in the housegroup itself, or with the sermon in particular? I also find it interesting that you’ve linked it to class.

One church I preached in regularly in London was in a gentrified neighbourhood and a lot of the older congregants had limited education. Several made a point though, of telling me how they appreciated my sermons and from asking them what they valued, it was clear they were meaningfully engaging. I think we can explain great ideas without using grandiose language. However, the minister’s attempts to launch home groups in that church didn’t work out too well.

House groups and bible studies are a different issues in some ways, because the process often demands comprehension and debating skills/interests. The enviroment is very familiar to people with good high school/uni educations in languages, or people who deal regularly with break-out groups at work.

jonny 18 years ago

thanks – good thoughts.

Toni 18 years ago

Hi Fern, sorry not to come back sooner.

Sermons or housegroups? Sunday messages tend to be ‘light’ (I hesitate to use the word shallow) so that they don’t baffle those less inclined to thinking that way. That doesn’t mean they aren’t challenging, but tend to deal with more ‘here and now’ stuff, with sometimes ‘here and future’ too.

In housegroups there’s a lot of leeway for what goes on, so content and style can be tailored to the participants. Naturally it’s necessary to get the balance of people right, so that you don’t end up with a segment that is either uninvolved or just plain unstimulated, and that’s more difficult.

As for ‘class’, that’s not a phrase I had in mind. I meant much more the people that would struggle to use a computer, and it’s not just older folks either, or those from working class backgrounds. There does seem to be a segment of the population here that are transparent to those that talk about theology on the web. I’m not thinking about you particularly, so much as those that used to complain about people being ‘spoon-fed their theology in megachurches’. I seem to have known a lot of people both here and in London that did not want and couldn’t handle a deep theological discussion, but were great at helping put chairs out every week.

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Jonny – thanks again for your paper and for stopping by to comment.

Fernando Gros 18 years ago

Toni – thanks for clarifying that, I can see where you are coming from now.

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