In my first appointment, I was given the opportunity to preach the ‘contemporary service’, the service that ran concurrent to our main traditional service in the sanctuary ... In the fellowship hall.
I loved it.
The service was full of wonderful people that encouraged me every Sunday. I had preached two sermons in total before being given this appointment ... But I had several years of worship leadership under my belt. So, the Bishop, the senior pastor, and the church took a risk on me and gave me a place where I could learn to preach on-the-job, while going back to seminary for my MDiv.
It. Was. A. Lot. And I wouldn't take a formal preaching class until I had begun my third year of this appointment.
It was over a full year into that appointment, though, that one of my parishioners finally pulled me aside to offer a critique of my sermon. I hadn’t gotten anything beyond the “That was good” nod at the door since I’d started.
And she was so nervous about it.
Apparently, I have this way about me that people don’t want to give me negative feedback. It’s not a temper thing ... At the time, it was a ‘he’s so happy we don’t want to hurt his feelings’ thing.
But, being a perpetual student, a former actor and singer, and current participant in the ordination process in the UMC, critique is just part of the deal.
Most of my sermons up to this point were heavy on theologizing. LOTS of exegesis. LOTS of human condition stuff. LOTS of words.
But no stories.
And that’s what this kind woman pulled me aside to ask me about.
Could I include more stories in my preaching? Could I bring the Gospel to life in how I read scripture? Could I paint pictures with words that drew people in and called them in to wonder along with me?
It was literally the gentlest, most thought-provoking critique I’d ever been given, from a person that wanted me to succeed. This person is an artist and writer. Stories and pictures are her life. And, yet, she seemed so reluctant to give me this word ... As if it would break my heart and hurt our friendship.
That conversation changed my preaching.
And for the better.
It called me to listen more to the people around me. To gather in more resources to aid me in storytelling. To seek out other storytellers and find out how they grabbed people with their words and presence.
Because preaching the sermon is intended to be a participatory act. You can preach your tail off with sound exegisis of scripture, the marvels you’ve unearthed in God’s Word, but get nothing back from the people.
But a good story, a good ancecdote, a personal experience that relates to people as Jesus did in his earthly day ... That can give people something to chew on for days. And THAT makes a sermon a liturgical act, not just a speech.
Bringing in stories invites people into God’s good story. And that’s good. But almost as important as delivering a great sermon?
Having people that trust you enough to tell you when it’s not.