May 21, 2013 by Jay Kim
I think about sermons a lot. I listen to them on podcasts. I have the great joy and privilege of creating them on a regular basis for my own community and for other communities from time to time. In some part, sermons have provided my family a life. I owe a great deal to this strange and wonderful medium.
For all of its beauty and power, the sermon also has a dark side. It’s not that there’s anything inherently wrong about the sermon itself. It’s what we, both those creating the sermon and those listening to the sermon, do with it after it’s been put out there for all of us to experience together. For years, my instinctive response after delivering a sermon was to analyze all the stuff that went right and all the crap that went wrong. I’d internally celebrate and applaud myself for that hilarious anecdotal story or that thought-provoking C.S. Lewis quote that brought things to a close just right. And I’d beat myself up for the illustration that didn’t work, the point that was pointless, or the conclusion that didn’t land. Dallas Willard was fond of saying that after delivering a sermon, we must let it go like a helium balloon. I love this imagery. As I’ve thought about this concept in recent weeks, I think I’m beginning to sense a little bit of clarity on the matter.
When we criticize or applaud a sermon, its delivery, or its deliverer, we nail it to a fixed point in time and space. We make it static. We lock it into a moment that is history and doesn’t have the ability to make much of a dent in the present or the future. But when we allow sermons to linger within, quietly and patiently, we give it a chance to live well beyond its initial delivery. When we give it time to grow inside of us and others, to dig deep into our souls and root itself in our hearts, we allow it to breathe. We allow the sermon to take on new life after new life; it is a resurrection of sorts and it continues speaking to us, changing and transforming us, long after it was first spoken. The sermon begins to exist beyond the clutches of its delivery and its deliverer. It takes on a life of its own. I think Paul might have been hinting at this in Colossians 3:16:
Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.
As a writer and deliverer of sermons, I want to create expressions of the message of Christ that dwell richly in people. I want my sermons to linger and speak long after I’ve released them into the world. I want my sermons to cease being my sermons the moment I speak their first words. Along these lines, I am trying to implement a few simple practices and remember a few simple principles when creating and delivering sermons. If you preach, teach, or speak regularly, maybe you’ll find these helpful. Maybe not. I don’t know. But here they are.
Don’t assess your sermon immediately after delivery. Get in your car, put on some music, drive home, eat a good meal and watch something funny. Force detachment so that the sermon can breathe and take on a life of its own.
Remember that those who tell you “you’re the best” and those who tell you “you’re the worst” are equally wrong.
Criticism from the masses is never constructive. Applause from the masses is usually destructive. Seek a trusted few and develop a regular rhythm for detailed critique and skill development.
Remember that a sermon is art, not science. Art is painstakingly difficult to make. The more personal your art, the more profound its impact. Art requires risk because you must be vulnerable when creating it in order for it to be any good.
Don’t just pray for the sermon before delivery. Pray for it as much, if not more, after delivery. Following a period of forced detachment, re-engage the sermon primarily by praying that God would continue breathing life into it as it rumbles around in the hearts and minds of your audience.
What practices or principles have been helpful in your process of creating and delivering sermons? Comment with your thoughts!