A sermon about preparing sermons

Planning a service - getting to the theme

When I plan a service, the major decision is to decide what is the theme. Today’s worship leaders and preachers have so many resources available, that it’s easy to lose the big picture. Here’s a fine prayer, there’s a hymn worth singing, what about that children’s talk I saw on the internet? … and so it goes. The theme is lost amid a plethora of details.

I have to keep asking myself, what is the theme, the principle, the concept I want people to gain from this gathering? If I don’t have this theme, then the service is not likely to go well. People will leave not knowing what it was all about. And if that happens, I can’t just put it down to having an off-day.

 Sometimes I do have difficulty finding a theme. The lectionary readings seem to go in all kinds of different directions. I don’t always see the connecting threads. Sometimes the opposite happens, and it’s blindingly obvious what the theme is, say at Christmas, but no new insight about it comes. How can one proceed?

 Increasingly, I use images to find the theme. The educational psychologists say that most of our learning comes through visual rather than auditory or tactile stimulation. So I search for images to illustrate the theme. For example, there is a wonderful painting of the Trinity by Masaccio. Or the Marc Chagall stained glass windows for Tanach (Jewish Scriptures) themes.

With data projectors now essential equipment for all congregations, large and small, high quality images are readily available. It’s not just a machine for showing the words of hymns. Its potential is limited only by our imagination, or lack of it!

Once I have the theme, and an image to work with, I look for prayers that might create a worthwhile spiritual energy in the service. A broad view of prayer is necessary. A poem by R S Thomas or Ted Hughes can pack more punch than a thousand words of conventional prayers, extempore or liturgical. For example, these few lines, from Thomas’ Calling:

The telephone is the fruit

Of the tree of the knowledge

Of good and evil. We may call

Everyone up on it but God.

To do that is to declare

That he is far off.

So the final order of service may not have any overt prayers of intercessions, petitions, thanksgivings, etc. But they are there in a different way. Sometimes the image itself may become the prayer, Paul Klee’s “Ministering Angel’, for example.

Hymns and songs are the most problematic element of worship. Music can connect more directly with our emotions than words, although when in tandem the two are extremely potent. I personally want to hear themes propounded by Beethoven, Brahms, and Bruckner when dealing with Genesis. Stravinsky and Shostakovich are the order of the day when dealing with the shock of the new, say Revelation or the endings of the Gospels. So I have no hesitation in using a CD in a sermon if the music is relevant. I once played Kathleen Battle singing Handel, and the congregation sang at its best in their response of praise. One time, unexpectedly, a piano and flute did the Golliwogs’ Cakewalk during communion. A politically incorrect title for a piece, and one which Debussy today could have found a happier name for. Conceptually, of course, it was completely irreligious. Yet, the music itself evoked a response which was an overwhelming positive yes! – people enjoyed being genuinely happy by being entertained at communion. It didn’t detract from what and who we were remembering.

We forget too often that worship is a performance. It is ritual. It is drama. Sometimes high drama. I was sitting in the pews at one particular Methodist Church, many years ago, and the preacher told a deep and dark tale to the children about a missionary or two who gave their lives in service of their Lord. It was a distressing story of death on the high mountains in a snowstorm. Stirring stuff. He finished on a very sombre note, whereupon the choir immediately stood and sang the sublimely happy introit, I was overjoyed! I couldn’t contain my joy and mirth the whole service.

An under-prepared, under-rehearsed service will not help anyone in the congregation to find the genuine voice of praise. Nor will it help the preacher to feel as though s/he is doing a really worthwhile job. Having got a theme, work on it. Rehearse it, and often, if time permits. Find the beginning. Find the ending. And make the middle mercifully brief.

Finally, dealing with that plethora of available resources is not easy. I do not believe that merely cutting and pasting from liturgies found on the internet will make a good service for you. Too many clergy colleagues seem to do exactly that. There is no substitute for hard, serious thinking about worship. Actually praying the prayers or poems we ask others to say is a big help. Actually, it is necessary. The false notes of insincerity, or perfunctory performance, are easily discerned by most in the congregation.

 Sermons are the easiest and the hardest element of worship to make happen. Hence, I am always glad of the opportunity to read books of sermons. I want to find out how others go about the task of preaching, how they put it together, and what ideas have excited them enough to make public utterances, sometimes in difficult circumstances. Recently I read a book of sermons by a preacher who was popular among a certain set of people. I found them well-written, well-researched, but I kept drawing different theological conclusions for each individual sermon. I thought he was off-the-planet with the big picture. But what a privilege to have had the opportunity to read his collection of sermons. Who knows how they will ultimately expand my own thinking. The sermon is an art-form that does get read, but remember that initially it is to be preached. It is the lived act of preaching that matters most.


Bloopers from the pulpit #talltruetales

Prayer babble