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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Preaching and communication: Lessons from the Sermon on the Mount

Over the last few weeks I’ve been spending a bit of time in Matthew 5 preparing for various sermons. As well as being struck by how rich the Sermon on the Mount is – you could easily do a sermon series on the Beatitudes, for example – I’ve been struck by how profound Jesus is as a communicator. Jesus is a wise, learned and skillful communicator – he communicates deep truths in a way which we can understand.

I think there are lessons to be learned here for preachers – not least myself! Here are a just two of the things I’ve found to learn from with Jesus’ preaching, I’m sure there are many other things you could say.

Use positive and negative examples

Several times Jesus uses this technique. We are to be salt and light – salt, in the sense of being distinctive and preserving and preventing decay, and light, in the sense of doing good deeds. We are to avoid taking revenge but positively love our enemies. The negative – what we are to avoid doing – coupled with the positive – what we should do.

How often in my sermons do I only focus on one or other of those? I think it’s very helpful to have both together. What bearing does this particular passage have on my life? What should I not be doing? And what should I be doing instead? Christians sometimes have a (not totally undeserved) reputation for being ‘Thou Shalt Not’ people. But we need to hear both the negative and positive side: our vision needs to be transformed.

How do we turn away from our sins, and what do we turn to instead? I think this is helpful to think about as a general rule in sermon preparation.

Use (several) everyday examples

Jesus used salt and light as an example. Everybody knows what salt and light are – it makes it easy to understand his point. Jesus illustrated complex, abstract points with simple, concrete things. I think this is a big challenge for me: I like to deal in fairly abstract ideas, it’s a lot harder to ground them in reality. This is one of the things Chip and Dan Heath say in Made to Stick. George Orwell wrote about this as far back as 1946 in “Politics and the English Language”. People can latch on to things which are concrete and specific, ideas and concepts can be harder to grasp.

The other thing is, Jesus often illustrates with several practical examples. In the passage I’m preaching on Sunday morning (Matthew 5:38-48), Jesus says: “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” – before giving no less than four practical examples of what that might look like.

One fairly short principle, followed by lots of very practical application. Quite a difference from my sermons.

Although we often focus on the content of Jesus’ teaching – rightly, of course – I think it’s good sometimes to take a step back and look at how Jesus taught. It’s something I know I need to bear in mind each time I preach. Am I showing people what obedience to God would look like – positively and negatively? And do I help ground what I’m saying in regular, everyday experience?