By Davy Ellison
Let’s Read: Small Preaching—The Craft of Preaching
Do you have a craft? My social media feeds are full of posts from very talented people who have a craft: woodworkers, musicians, photographers, poets, baristas, chefs and many others. Each of these individuals all have one thing in common: they have committed themselves to learning a craft. While I have not specifically asked them, I am certain that each of them have devoted hours to honing their craft. Whether hours in the workshop or the kitchen, whether playing the same song over and over again or pouring the same coffee repeatedly until perfection is attained. My social media friends have polished their craft.
Every pastor must develop the craft of preaching—indeed it would benefit all who have any responsibility to teach God’s word to hone this craft. In the ministry, however, this is not optional—“A sermon is not a casual conversation. It is an intentionally crafted communicative experience” (p. 75). Thankfully, Jonathan Pennington offers some pointers about how to hone our craft of preaching.
Create Lasting Impressions
The first suggested help in developing the craft of preaching is to create lasting impressions.
First impressions, we are told, are key in any relationship and difficult to overcome. The same is true in preaching. As Haddon Robinson wryly observes in Expository Preaching (1986, p. 167): “There are three types of preachers: those to whom you cannot listen; those to whom you can listen; and those to whom you must listen. During the introduction the congregation usually decides the kind of speaker addressing them that morning.” A preacher in his first impressions should be attempting to gain the listeners trust and elicit their interest in his subject. Thus, as Pennington asserts, “That first minute of your sermon is absolutely crucial to your homiletical effectiveness. . . . It is your responsibility as a preacher to craft the opening of your sermon with intentionality to grab and keep the attention of the easily distracted people hearing your voice” (pp. 70–71).
Parting impressions are equally important, however. The final few words of a sermon should be carefully chosen and purposefully measured to have maximum impact. After all, “Both the beginning of a sermon and its end are the most important parts in terms of impact and memorability” (p. 74). This is a challenge, and I am convinced I do not spend as much time in crafting my final lines as I should.
The aim in all of this is to create lasting impressions that make it difficult for our hearers to quickly forget biblical truth.
The Riches of Rhythms
There are three rhythms that Pennington helpfully highlights.
First, the rhythm of the church calendar. Writing as a Baptist I acknowledge that this is something we tend to be poor at. There is of course good reason for this, many of the Reformers abandoned the lectionary in order to preach through entire books of the Bible. We do not want to lose this pattern of preaching. Nevertheless, there is wisdom in the rhythm of the church calendar—a wisdom we might do well to lean in to. Pennington argues: “The church calendar provides a rhythm of life that is intended to remind believers about the saving work of God in Christ and to guide and shape the sensibilities and affections of Christians” (pp. 79–80). Following the rhythm of the church calendar may give a regularity to our preaching that is comforting, major on truths that are life-giving and provide a cadence to following Jesus.
Second, the rhythm of the cultural calendar. On our divided island we know how difficult it can be to note cultural moments in the course of a year. This does not mean, however, that we should ignore them completely. Some cultural moments may offer the opportunity to interact with the Bible on specific topics. There is therefore justification in concluding that “It is good and appropriate to occasionally preach topical or theological sermons, even if one’s church is dedicated to biblical exposition as the primary homiletical mode” (p. 84). That being said, Pennington wisely counsels: “Pastors and church leaders should think about which Sundays they want to observe and why, explaining their decisions to their congregation” (p. 83). I will leave you to consider which ones might be most appropriate for your context.
Third, the rhythm of story. “Make every sermon a story, no matter what kind of text you are preaching” (p. 92), so argues Pennington. His contention is that we as creatures are story-bound. The rhythm of story is: setting, rising tension, high point of tension, resolution and following action. This is borne out in reality—we all love a good story. Given the structure of stories is a natural and helpful way of communicating, perhaps preachers should aim at following the rhythm of story in their sermon outlines.
Following a rhythm is certainly one aspect to the craft of preaching that is worthy of further consideration. There are riches there for those who are patient to find them.
Making the Most of Moments
Deconstructing the process of preparing and delivering a sermon runs the danger of making the whole process rather mechanical. It is therefore particularly helpful for Pennington to draw his book to a close with a number of chapters that encourage preachers to make the most of moments. I highlight only three.
First, in a chapter entitled Make Music in Your Sermon it is argued that the preacher should be alive, attentive and active in the preaching moment. Resist the temptation to let muscle memory take over. Instead, react to the dynamic in the room and preach in the moment.
Second, Pennington touches on the issue of preaching different genres of Scripture in Always Exposition? To be honest, I feel he pushes his argument to untenable conclusions in this chapter. However, being sensitive to the genres of Scripture is important not only in understanding the content of the passage, but also the emotion of the passage. Again, this offers a moment (which may last longer than a sermon) in which to be sensitive to the variety of emotions in the Bible.
Third, At Weddings and Funerals, Be a Guide. This is much needed advice, especially for young pastors. I will let Pennington speak for himself:
Both weddings and funerals are out-of-the-ordinary moments in our lives when people are drawn together because someone they care about is transitioning from one life stage to another. At these momentous occasions, the good pastor is a guide. He is the one who leads people from one place to another, helping them see and understand and appreciate what they are experiencing. If there is any time the preaching should be small—in the sense of short—it is definitely then! The good pastor realizes that his role in the event is not primarily to teach but to guide. (p. 105)
The lasting impression I want to leave with my final words is not to go it alone. In attempting to improve our preaching reach out to others. We are relational beings, none of life should be lived in total isolation. It is, or should be, no different with our sermons. As Pennington puts it, “Happily and wisely learn from others” (p. 109).
- If you have planned the next few weeks or months of preaching review your plan looking for the rhythms of both the church and cultural calendar. Are they present? Attempt to be sensitive to these in the incoming year.
- Actively seek out others willing to mutually help one another in the task of preaching. Together form a preaching group, read a preaching book and constructively critique each other’s sermons.