Tips for Effective Preaching
Preaching is tough in the best of times.
When faced with a global pandemic, political uncertainty, environmental catastrophes spurred by climate change, and economic disparity between the rich and the poor at an all-time high, preaching can feel near impossible.
Here are a few tips I’ve picked up over the years to preach effectively and faithfully in our increasingly diverse congregational contexts.
These correspond to three fundamental aspects of sermon development: reading, thinking, and writing.
1. Read Ahead
The world of our lived experiences will catalyze the biblical text.
It has never ceased to amaze me how prayerful engagement with a biblical pericope in view of a sermon will attune me to the world in ways I never could have encountered otherwise.
Perhaps you’ve had a similar experience.
You read the coming week’s lectionary texts and you say to yourself, “These texts have nothing to say to my congregation.”
Or, alternatively, “I and my congregants have heard so many sermons on these pericopes, there’s nothing new that I might add.”
You step away from your desk in frustration and then, sometime later, when the text is farthest from your conscious mind, something happens that zaps you to attention.
Without warning, you see or hear something that connects with an aspect of the text that you had never seen before.
The wisdom in this experience is to read ahead.
Always have three or four biblical texts on deck.
That way, when you are about your other responsibilities of providing pastoral care, or parenting, or exercising, or reading the newspaper, you will have already primed the proverbial pump to facilitate the fusion of lived experience and Scripture.
2. Think Archipelically
A second tip for sermon development is to foster “Archipelic Thought.”
I learned this from the Martiniquan poet and philosopher Édouard Glissant.
When he moved to France for his graduate studies, Glissant realized he possessed an alternative way of thinking than those who were reared on the Continent.
Due to its geographic singularity, continental thought tends to favor homogeneity over diversity.
But a group of islands has no center.
Its borders are always under negotiation.
Unity emerges from a conglomeration of differences.
Learning from Glissant, we may learn to think archipelically by embracing biblical texts as a conglomeration of differences with blurred borders and boundaries.
Archipelic thought seeks to do justice to the world’s diversity, and this may apply equally to the “world of the Text” (to borrow a phrase from Paul Ricoeur) and to the worldviews represented in our congregation.
Since archipelic thought is otherwise than continental thought, it makes no claim to absoluteness.
Nor does it try to force its worldview on others.
Such a way of thinking otherwise may help us reconsider the entire process of sermon development and delivery.
3. Write Collaboratively
My final tip for sermon development is to foster the capacity to write collaboratively.
In his book, Remix: Making Art and Commerce Thrive in the Hybrid Economy, Lawrence Lessig describes two means of production and their accompanying cultures.
“Read/Only” culture aligns culture with the kinds of media produced in the 20th Century.
Movies, TV shows, and the nightly news were produced by professionals for the rest of us, whose sole job it was to consume what the professionals produced.
In the 21st Century, a new culture emerged which Lessig labels “Read/Write” culture.
In this context, we are no longer restricted to the role of consumers.
Through user-generated technologies such as YouTube, Garageband, Photoshop, Facebook, and Instagram, we have simultaneously become consumers and producers of content.
If we apply Lessig’s insights to sermon development, we may think of ourselves not only as professionals who produce sermonic content for a group of passive consumers/congregants.
Through crowdsourcing technologies, we may embrace the Read/Write culture, inviting those in and beyond our congregations to produce something new with us.
With their help we can produce mash-up sermons, which draw collaboratively upon the work of others in order to produce something new.
I hope you’ve found these helpful.
Jake Myers teaches preaching at Columbia Theological Seminary. He’s interested in homiletical theories and theologies, continental philosophies (esp. poststructuralism, existentialism, and phenomenology), and emerging expressions of faith and practice in postmodern, post-Christian contexts.
His research focuses on alternative epistemologies for sermon development and delivery, the philosophical and theological conditions for the im/possibility of preaching, contextual/constructive biblical hermeneutics and theologies, and the ways in which preaching interacts with cultures and traditions.