The Truth About Sermons

Posted: March 15, 2012 in General, inspiration, Society, worship, writing

I just read an interview with Mike Dellosso on Greg Mitchell’s The Coming Evil site. The interview was well done, and at one point Greg asked a  particularly  interesting question:

…how do you respond to the critics that believe you’re only trying to disguise a sermon with your fiction?” (Read the full interview here)

And while Mike gave an extremely insightful answer (again, check out the interview), the idea of sermons in Christian Fiction seems to come up often, and not always in a positive light. So, I want to explain exactly what a sermon is. And just in case you have any questions, I am an ordained United Methodist minister, served churches in NC and GA for fifteen years, graduated in the top 3% of my class at the Candler School of Theology at Emory University (one of the top seminaries in the country), and have taught special sessions of sermon preparation and delivery on a graduate level. In short, I know a little something about sermons.

First, what a sermon is not: A sermon is not an exercise in finger pointing. It is not a speech designed to tell people they are wrong, that they are not up to your standards, or that they’re just no good unless they think the same way you think. I’ve heard that kind. I’ve also walked out on them. Once in my own church. God has nothing to do with those diatribes, whatever they are.

Developing a sermon is unlike anything you’ll ever do in your life. It is not like putting together a Sunday School lesson. It’s not a talk, a speech, or a presentation. It is not like putting together a speech for the local Lions Club, Toastmasters, writer’s group, or Kiwanis Club. It is an altogether different thing.

Or it should be.

And it sure as [insert your favorite expletive deleted word here] isn’t what some people do when they pull together something at the last minute on Saturday night to deliver to their congregations on Sunday morning.

When I was serving in the pulpit, this is what I would say every time I was assigned to a new church, went to preach a revival, or was a guest preacher in any church: “This is the point when I am supposed to tell you how happy and honored I am to be here because it’s the polite thing to do. But I can’t say that just to be polite. The fact is, you have invited me here to preach, and the act of preaching itself is an honor. It is the most awesome responsibility on the planet because anyone who stands in this place, or any place like this, stands before you and has the audacity to say, ‘This is what God said to me.’ And if you are true to the process and act of preaching, that is exactly what you are doing. Telling those before you what God has whispered in your heart or shouted at your soul. And it is because you have allowed me to come to this place and perform the most awesome task anyone can perform that I am able to say to you that I am honored to be here with you today.”

Yes, sermons are that important. And I never failed to tell congregations why on my first visit as a preacher. A sermon is truly the Word of God for the people of God…and that means all of us, not just the people in the pew on Sunday. And that brings us to the big question: Where do sermons come from?

In my case, I would start working on a sermon on Sunday afternoon. Not Monday morning. I started by praying and reading the lectionary for the coming week. Then I would do my daily Bible studies throughout the week, read whatever theological (and other) texts I happened to be reading at the time. In fact, I kept six books going simultaneously (biography, poetry, theology, a novel, one of the classics, and history) to give me a wide range. During the week I prayed a lot, listened for God a lot, and read random sections of the Bible. Not in a “flip it open and see what comes up” approach, but in a systematic  “read through the Bible in a year” approach.

Through all that I continued to be open to what God had to say. Sometimes it was subtle. Sometimes not. Sometimes it came in the silence of my study and sometimes it came in the words or actions of someone else. But at some point during the week everything starts to gel, and the little voice inside says, “yes…that’s it.”

And by Sunday morning, the message was an actual part of me. It was something I felt. Something I knew. And I am here to tell you, the best feeling in the world is to be standing in a pulpit preaching and suddenly realize you’re not the one doing the talking. Realizing that you have become a vessel for the voice of God. And in those moments, it is like being outside of yourself listening with everyone else.

Now…does this mean every preacher does what I did to craft a sermon? I doubt it. But what it DOES mean is a sermon comes from a place deep inside you and is a partnership with God forged through prayer, Bible study, theological study, being aware of the world around you, and actively listening for the voice of God. It’s not a matter of pulling out your favorite book of sermon illustrations and trying to make something fit around the pithy saying you just found or buying a copy of the latest sermon series and photocopying the “talking points” (although spending time with God can lead to a true sermon series ).

So should there be a sermon in Christian Fiction? There had better be. If we have been called by God to write Christian Fiction (or anything else for that matter), or if we simply want to write because we feel we have a talent and have asked God to bless our efforts, and we don’t listen for the very message we asked for, then our words are a waste of paper and our efforts a waste of time.

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Comments
  1. Great post, Thomas. When I read that last paragraph I gave a hearty “amen!” Right on.

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