I used to love writing sermons. It was one of my favorite aspects of ministry and one that I very much looked forward to as I traveled my way through seminary. I suppose that’s because I have always loved books—loved ‘em so much I bought a whole bookstore and ran it for a few years—loved ‘em so much I even had a few poems published in some places—this lead me to think I would love crafting sermons, just so.
It has taken less than 18 months for me to stop writing sermons; I now enter the pulpit with less than 300 words, often substantially less, and let it rip. This has been good for me, and for the congregation I serve. Still, not writing sermons has left a creative outlet gap, partly filled by more blogging; if you are among those who have been preaching a lot longer than me, please don’t consider this hubris or impertinent on my part but I think I have something (with the help of Stephen King) of value for the preacher as they begin the week.
As judgmental as this makes me sounds, I think I am just honestly saying what many of us have thought: I have often listened to well-polished sermons lacking in biblical content and thought, wow what a lot of effort this preacher has put in to being a good communicator, now it’s time they focus on the bible. I have also heard sermons that I thought, wow what a lot of biblical knowledge this person has, now it’s time to start working on communicating it well. I am far from perfect at either of these, we are all somewhere on a spectrum and we need to hold these two poles in happy tension.
I’ve wanted to work on the craft of writing, even if I’m preaching without a full manuscript it seems a fulfilling and useful thing to do (besides we have preacher Like Amanda Henderson-Bolton, who do such great writing and writing has been a topic of note recently). Stephen King, a writer I read some of as a teenager but whose subjects and narratives hold little appeal to me, has serious writing chops despite my disinterest. I’ve been reading his part-memoire-part-writing-course On Writing. He says all sorts of stuff that translates real well for preachers, if you are a preacher I suggest you read the whole book (unless you fear f bombs and the like), but if you have too little time here are some notes.
On writers talking to each other, “We are writers, and we never ask one another where we get our ideas; we don’t know.” This, to me, is a lot like when my preacher friends talk, we trade “we don’t know” for “The Holy Spirit” but still sit feels awful close to the truth, especially when I hear a preacher treat a text in a way I never imagined, how can I help but think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” The Holy Spirit isn’t much of an answer at such times.
King doesn’t put it this way but, on relating to that Holy Spirit during our preparation: “good story [sermon] ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere [the H.S.], sailing at you right out of the empty sky: two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new under the sun. Your job isn’t to find these ideas but to recognize them when they show up.” Knowing what belongs, what links, what jumps, make sense and help us to open God’s word, which seemingly unrelated ideas or images will help the word penetrate both the minds and hearts of our people, is primary to what we do as we prepare the sermon.
This relates to the importance of cutting. A tight sermon has been edited to ensure that only what needs to be there is. King likes to cut at least 10% of the words in his editing process, I remember reading Stefan Zweig, who you should read if you haven’t yet, used to cut 75% of his words four times prior to calling it quits on a piece. This can be daunting and frustrating as we cut out parts we really like. But “when you write a story [sermon], you’re telling yourself the story…when you rewrite, your main job is taking out all the things that are not the story.” The Word, the Gospel, the Life. No more rabbit trails, sounds about right to me.
Sometimes we encounter a text, either in the lectionary or—more likely—as we plow straight through a book—that is especially challenging. A word on greed or the complementarity of the genders but “stopping a piece of work just because it’s hard, either emotionally or imaginatively, is a bad idea.” The truth can be hard to convey, God’s word and God’s opinion is more important than the preacher’s. Preach it clean and courageously, people will appreciate it.
I have a tendency to build the sermon up in your mind, it looms larger and larger as the week progresses, Sundays sure seem to come fast. King tells would be writers to pay attention to the environment they create to write in and offers this tidbit “put your desk in the corner, and every time you sit down there to write [or study, or ponder], remind yourself why it isn’t in the middle of the room. Life isn’t a support-system for art [or the sermon]. It’s the other way around.” Amen to that!
Along the same lines King says “when making sure the kid gets to his basketball camp on time is every bit as important as your work in progress, there’s a lot less pressure to produce.” We have lives and they are important. Could our sermons be better if we worked a little longer on them, likely (though this clearly ahs limits), but the sermon isn’t our whole life, it is meant to be life giving.
On aspect of the writing life that I thought was particularly pertinent to preaching is this: “I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing.” When I side step, when I picture my 17-year-old critical self in a pew, frankly, all is lost before I even start. I cannot fear the comments I am about to get; I can’t fear the e-mails or the phone calls. I must fear God and seek to please him.
I appreciated King’s emphasis on back-story and research remaining in the back. It’s good that we do lots of research, but the sermon must be more than the study notes at the bottom of our bibles. People don’t read crime novels to learn how police policy and procedure work; they read them for the characters. Our people aren’t looking to pass doctoral exams; they are looking to find God and themselves in the characters. Study, by all means be sure of what you are saying, but don’t lecture.
Most important of all: Have fun. King tells would-be writers they will need to spend 6-7 days a week reading and writing 4-6 hours a day if they are to get any good. If that sounds like work, rather than like fun, they should consider another career. My preparation hours are a joy to me, as they are for many. My guess is this is a big part of why so many pastors work so many hours, we just like what we do. The real problems come when we power through the hours without pleasure.
We promise to serve joyfully, God intends our calling to be fulfilling and life-giving, whether we are horror writers or preachers.