Preaching, Rhetoric and Michael Curry

OK, OK, I know everyone is bored of talking about Michael Curry now. But I wanted to pick up on one thing which few people have really talked about – the delivery and style of his sermon, rather than the content. In my previous post I said that it was powerful, and Ian Paul has already written what preachers can learn from him. But I think, having had a week to reflect, there is more to say – which is that the sermon wasn’t a great sermon in terms of a piece of communication. Let me try to explain by reflecting on what I try to do in a sermon. These are some of the lessons I’ve picked up over the last few years of preaching – I do this in the hope it may be helpful for others preachers or public speakers.

1. What is the main message you are trying to get across?

One of the best lessons I ever learned when it comes to preaching was – before you write the sermon, you need to come up with a short – preferably single sentence – aim of the sermon. Can you boil it down to the ‘in a nutshell’ version? If you can’t – chances are, it won’t be a good sermon. This is one of the real insights I got from Haddon Robinson in his classic book ‘Expository Preaching’.

What most new preachers do is look at a passage, and try to come up with a few helpful things to say about it – but there’s often nothing to hold it together, no overarching theme.

I’ve found the most effective sermons are those with a particular aim / purpose. You have a particular truth about God, which flows from the Bible passage, that you want to communicate. I’ve found this will be enormously helpful in preaching – because then when you preach you won’t be saying random things, but rather trying to communicate a particular truth.

At theological college, in my first year preaching class we learned to ask four deceptively simple questions about our sermon: What do people need to know? And why? What do people need to do? And why? A sermon is not simply a transfer of information, it’s a call to action. In order for that to be effective you need to have a clear purpose of the sermon, a goal, an aim.

Let’s think about Michael Curry for a second: did he do this? I’m not sure that he did. He talked a lot about love – he mentioned it over 50 times – but was there a particular message? If anything, his message was “wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all tried harder to love each other” – which, leaving aside the problems I’ve already talked about – I’m not sure is a particularly coherent Christian aim.

2. The ‘So What?’ test

Another factor of a sermon, as I’ve already mentioned, is a call to action. That is – preachers don’t want people simply to understand something. They want them to do something. In every sermon I preach I try to think about ‘application’ – that is, how the particular theological truth I’m communicating connects with people’s lives – how they can put what I’m saying into practice. Sometimes this is easy, sometimes this is not so easy – but it’s really important to do.

For example, if you’re teaching on (say) Romans 8:28, rather than simply saying “God works everything for good in your life” – it would be much more effective to say “think about the toughest situation you’re facing right now. God can and will use even that situation for good.” I’d maybe give an example from my own life of how God used a tough situation.

In other words, don’t just give people the abstract truth – ground it in concrete things.

Did Michael Curry do this? Again – he talked a lot about how love can change the world, but he didn’t really talk about what we should actually do – beyond simply ‘love each other more’. I don’t think that’s really a helpful application – particularly given that we find it difficult to love. That’s the thing: the rubber hits the road in preaching when you talk to people about how to deal with genuine struggles they have. If you don’t deal with people’s sin, you haven’t really preached.

3. Talking like a normal person

Another of the really helpful things I’ve learned over the years about preaching is that God uses the whole person to preach. God doesn’t call preachers to leave behind everything when they come into the pulpit. God uses me, a sinner, to preach to other sinners, to talk about finding his grace. God has given me my personality, my life, my experiences, gifts, etc – I bring them all with me into the pulpit.

In other words, when people see you in the pulpit, they should see ‘the real you’. I think this is another mistake people who start out preaching (or public speaking) often make: they write out sermons in full, and them read them as if they’re reading the news. I’d say – God has given you a personality for a reason. Don’t become someone else in the pulpit – just talk as you would talk to a friend. In this day and age, authenticity is a big thing – people can perceive when you’re trying to put on an act. Being genuine matters a lot more than it used to.

You need to engage with people on an emotional level – and in order to do that, they need to see you as a real person – not someone you’re presenting to mask the real you. (On a practical note – I’ve found it helpful to get away from writing out a full script with sermons. We write differently to how we talk. But it’s not time to talk about that here,)

Did Michael Curry do this? This is a tricky one because I certainly think his personality shone through. At the same time, I’m not sure he came across as very authentic – he didn’t talk about himself or reveal anything. I don’t think he really connected emotionally. To me, the sermon was like listening to Blur – it may sound technically impressive but didn’t get you in the heart like Oasis. (Yes, I’m an Oasis man rather than a Blur man. I know that many people prefer Blur, so this point is of course subjective… if you don’t know what I’m talking about, look up ‘Britpop’)

4. Leave them with Jesus

The apostle Paul wrote these words in his first letter to the Corinthians:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power. 1 Corinthians 2:1-4

What had prompted him to write this? It’s possible there were others coming in who the Corinthian church thought were brilliant because of their excellent preaching – they were rhetorically gifted and their sermons sounded learned and wise. But they weren’t preaching the true gospel. Paul, by contrast, says that he did not come “with eloquence or human wisdom” but rather preaching “Jesus Christ and him crucified”, “with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power”. Why? “So that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God’s power.”

I think this is the heart of the matter: true preaching leaves people with Christ. There’s a lovely line in the last verse of the hymn “May the Mind of Christ my Saviour“:

May His beauty rest upon me
As I seek the lost to win,
And may they forget the channel,
Seeing only Him.

“May they forget the channel, seeing only Him.” I think that’s a wonderful description of good preaching: people are left with the beauty and glory of Jesus, rather than the preacher. This is what I love about Spurgeon – he was extraordinarily gifted with words, but he always, always, always brought people to Christ. Spurgeon knew, as all good preachers do, that Christ is what we need. People don’t need a good sermon for its own sake – people need Jesus.

Did Michael Curry do this? I think it’s hugely telling that after the sermon people weren’t talking about Jesus – they were talking about Michael Curry. Straight after the sermon, the commentator Huw Edwards summarised the sermon by talking about love – and not at all about Jesus. And that, to my mind, is the biggest failure of the sermon.

I am not a great preacher, but in every sermon I try to commend Christ in some way. I was preaching at a wedding this afternoon, and I said to them – if you want to love, don’t look to yourselves, look to Jesus. Christ is the one we proclaim, not ourselves. Judging by what people have been talking about this last week, Michael Curry did a pretty good job at proclaiming himself… not so much a good job at proclaiming Christ.

I pray that it may never be the case for me that people talk or think about me and the sermon more than they talk or think about Christ.

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Royal Wedding Sermon: Michael Curry’s Bad News

michael-curry

A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. – H. Richard Niebuhr

One of the biggest talking points of the royal wedding yesterday between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle is – unpredictably – the sermon. Even The Guardian have got in on the act! Everyone seems to be talking about how great it was. (If you missed it, you can read a full transcript here).

Given all of this, I really hate to rain on the parade – but, I have to be honest, I didn’t like it. I mean, sure, the delivery was amazing. As an orator he did absolutely brilliantly – you have to admit it was powerful. But what about the content? After all, if he didn’t really communicate anything – at the end of the day, as a piece of communication, it didn’t do what it needed to.

If you watched it, I’d be interested to hear what message did you hear? What was the ‘take-home’ point? Something about love for sure – maybe, “we need to love each other”. Maybe something about God’s love or Jesus’ love thrown in there. It was an inspiring message, wasn’t it? We all like a bit of love!

But – this is exactly the problem, as I see it. Michael Curry avoided talking about the kind of love which really matters. Let me explain by briefly telling you about someone called Pelagius.

Pelagius was a theologian who was born in around 354. The real interest for our purposes is in what he taught. Here’s a section of what Britannica have to say about him:

After the fall of Rome to the Visigoth chieftain Alaric in 410, Pelagius and Celestius went to Africa. There they encountered the hostile criticism of Augustine, who published several denunciatory letters concerning their doctrine, particularly Pelagius’ insistence on man’s basically good moral nature and on man’s own responsibility for voluntarily choosing Christian asceticism for his spiritual advancement.

Pelagius’ key teaching was that we human beings are basically good, and we simply need to choose what is good – an ascetic lifestyle – to grow spiritually and closer to God etc. This teaching became known as Pelagianism.

The thing is, Pelagianism is alive and well today – in fact, I think it’s the default state of many people. We can solve our own problems if we simply try harder. It’s in our own power to choose what is right.

The problem with this view is that it removes the need for Christ. If we are basically good people who have the ability to choose the good every time, then why do we even need a Saviour? Why do we need a Christ who saves his people from their sins (Matthew 1:21)? Can’t we just save ourselves?

And this is the problem with Pelagianism: it all but removes the need for a Saviour. It leads to the quote I started with – ‘a Christ without a cross…’ And the tragedy of it all is that the Bible says we cannot save ourselves. The Bible constantly reinforces our sinfulness and our need for a Saviour. I talk about this in my video about whether we are good people.

Let’s apply this to Michael Curry’s sermon. The sermon – as it seemed to me – at no point suggested that we have a problem with loving God and loving our neighbour – a problem the Bible calls sin. The sermon advocated loving each other – and imagining what the world would be if we did love each other. Of course, that would be a wonderful place to live! But we don’t live in that world. In fact, we live in a world where by nature we are selfish people, not inclined to love God or others. If we want to solve that problem, we need a solution which is bigger than ourselves – we need God to step in.

And this is the tragedy of the sermon: Curry basically said ‘try harder’. But we are incapable of achieving the love God requires by trying harder. We need new hearts, new hearts which only God can give. Instead of looking to ourselves for the solution, we need to be looking to Jesus. Someone who does try their hardest to win favour with God will ultimately despair – for evidence of that, read a biography of Martin Luther and what led him to the reformation.

This is why I said that Michael Curry’s message is ‘bad news’: it’s bad news because it bypasses the solution that God has given us in Jesus Christ. It bypasses the salvation that only to be found in him, and it leaves us with ourselves – us who are incapable of loving God and our neighbour as we should.

When I preach a sermon – at a wedding or in any service – I always try to proclaim Christ in some way. Jesus Christ is the solution to our needs, even if we do not yet realise it. Christ is the answer, the one who we must look to.

If you want to see me talk about this in a marriage context, have a look at this video on relationship issues.