By Justin Rossow
When we preach, we make decision about how we are going to spend our time in the pulpit. Consciously or not, we choose how we are going to help the hearer create meaning out of the sermon. If you would like to be more intentional about how you shape the “moments of meditation” in your sermon, check out Retooling Your Sermon Development.
Here are some examples of the seven different methods of development from that blog in action. I’m sure you do many of these same things. The point isn’t how *awesome* these examples are; they are just ordinary moments in ordinary sermons. But they do evidence a variety of tools for preaching.
Your goal should not be to copy or even critique any of these examples. You don’t even have to like them. And yes, you could probably do better if you gave it some thought and effort.
That, I suppose, is the point of these examples: to encourage you to spend the thought and effort it takes to do something different in your sermon this week.
Whenever you try out a new tool, it will take longer and be more difficult than you think it should. That’s OK. The end product won’t be as good as you were expecting, either. That’s OK, too. You will probably need to work a new tool into your bag over time. In my experience, that effort is paid back in full: I preach better and my hearers listen better when I am intentional with how I develop a sermon. And it’s a lot more fun.
Whenever you try out a new tool, it will take longer and be more difficult than you think it should. That’s OK.
To help you identify and experiment with these tools, here are some examples to get you thinking in a new direction.
Narration puts an idea or experience into action and helps the hearers imagine what the sermon might look like it real life. Sometimes the narration is personal or historical; sometimes it is taken from fiction or created for the purpose of the sermon. Because there is such variety, the preacher will cue the hearers in on which kind of story this is (i.e. don’t tell someone else’s personal story as if it were your own, and don’t tell a fictional story as if it were real …).
Whatever the genre, narration expresses rising conflict over time that leads to a resolution. To avoid confusion, the resolution itself should tie directly to the experience and idea the preacher is conveying.
The following video segment (13:10-17:46) is taken from the end of a Frame and Refrain sermon I preached in Advent (you can read more about the sermon here). You can hear me set this story up as a fiction, and you will notice the story itself is nothing particularly heroic. Indeed, that’s part of the point: if we only ever tell heroic stories of faith, we risk leaving our hearers feeling like they just can’t connect with God’s Word in real life.
So I am making up a story that fits in the real life situation of my hearers. I build conflict over time–both in the back story and in the moment of confrontation–and the resolution is integral to the sermon itself. In fact, the resolution is stated in terms of the refrain used throughout the sermon: “It’s for me?!”
I also use a series of vivid details to help make the story concrete in the lives of the hearers. While too many details can bog down narration, every story needs enough multi-sensory details to allow the narration to form in the consciousness of the hearers.
Character is obviously closely tied to narration. So what’s the difference? Even though the individual is probably embedded in a broader narrative, you are using Character as a method of development if the impact of the story–and therefore the meaning of this moment for reflection–is portrayed through the unique lens of an individual character.
The following is the text of the last scene of a Good Friday Tenebrae service. In fact, each of the seven worship moves in the Tenebrae service had been developed through the eyes of a particular character. The last scene–the entombment–is now viewed through the eyes of the Nicodemus character.
Character often focuses on a person’s response to an event and will often deal with an internal transformation as a result. Both of those features are included in this brief scene.
Nicodemus never expected a resurrection.
Well, that’s not quite correct: Nicodemus expected a resurrection of all the dead at the End of Time. But Jesus, raised all by Himself, in the middle of history? That wasn’t even a possibility.
So Nicodemus joins Joseph of Arimathea, another closet follower of the dead teacher. They carefully and lovingly prepare the body for burial.
The seventy-five pounds of myrrh and aloe are supposed to cover up the stench of rotting flesh as the body decomposed. And next year, around Passover, Nicodemus planned on coming back to move the bones of Jesus to a place they would rest until the Last Day.
Nicodemus had hoped this Jesus would usher in the End Times reign of God. But that dream was as dashed and broken as the corpse he cradled in his arms.
Nicodemus must have remembered his clandestine visit to Jesus, under the cover of night, so none of his friends would find out.
What is it Jesus had said? “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in Him.”
This didn’t feel like life, eternal or otherwise. Now all Nicodemus has left to do is bury a dead body. But this time, he doesn’t do it at night. He doesn’t hide his devotion to Jesus. Nicodemus is beyond fearing the fallout for his faith.
With the death of Jesus, Nicodemus becomes a faithful, if confused, disciple.
So what does the death of Jesus mean for your life? Are you ready to follow Jesus a little more publically this week? Do you look for the resurrection of all the dead, or was the resurrection of Jesus enough for you?
What does it mean for your future, for the future of those you love, to know that Jesus became like us even in this way: His body rested for a time in a tomb?
Jesus was hidden away, removed from sight, His body planted in the ground, but only for a time. Tonight, and at every Christian burial, we lay our loved one to rest, knowing—because of Jesus—there is more to the story.
At this point in the service, the last candle still lit—the Christ Candle—was removed from view. In the darkness, the congregation heard the strepitus followed by a promise read from 1 Cornithians 15. The service did not conclude at this point, but rather continued with the celebration of the Resurrection.
3. Serial Depiction
In the same Frame and Refrain Advent sermon that closed with Narration, above, I also used Serial Depiction to develop part of the message for the hearers. In the selection below (the video starts at 9:40, but you’ll have to stop it at 12:17 yourself …), you will hear one main idea expressed in four scenes presented in quick succession. This moment of reflection is tied back to the movement of the sermon as a whole with the repetion of the sermon’s refrain, “It’s for me?!”
The main idea in this section of the sermon—that universal salvation is becoming concrete and particular—is repeated in each scene of the Serial Depiction. The scenes are also ordered intentionally, moving from the kitchen sink to a bedroom, and then from an Advent devotion to the experience of communion in worship. The variety of contexts given briefly one after another is the identifying feature of Serial Depiction.
Usually, Serial Depiction will require more than just a couple of sentences for each scene; this example is on the short side when it comes to development. But as always, the context of the sermon determines how these methods are put into practice: at this point in this sermon, a more truncated Serial Depiction seemed appropriate. At other times you may wish to extend these scenes to add a more robust move to a sermon.
What sets Serial Depiction apart from Narration, Character, or Image, however, is the sense of momentum the multiple examples provide. When the scenes do become more detailed and drawn out, pay close attention to how they fit together and build on one another; otherwise you just end up with a series of short narrations.