Over the years, the line between writing a story and preparing a sermon has become blurred. These days, I tend to take the same approach with both, which means that I spend longer editing a sermon than writing it in the first place. I revisit it frequently, toying with the order of paragraphs, or searching for exactly the right image or turn of phrase.
It’s not about ‘trying to be clever’. The sermon – like every effort to communicate – is actually a work of art, and needs to be treated as such.
Art can be a spiritual experience for people. A poem, painting, story, film or sculpture has the power to give people a taste of what lies beyond themselves. This is one of the ways in which God has weaved revelation into the fabric of what it means to be human. The sermon is unique among art in that the explicit contract between artist and audience is that God is front and centre. Some people turn hostile if they suspect that you’re trying to sneak God into areas where He’s forbidden, but with the sermon you’re allowed to be blunt.
Because of this, I find myself squirming in the pew if I suspect that I’m listening to a preacher who takes more care over constructing e-mails than he does over sermons.
“It’s about God. It’s got nothing to do with me” is an excuse used by sometimes well-meaning, sometimes lazy preachers who think that God is a KitchenAid mixer – you just throw in the ingredients, and leave Him to it. This approach denies one of the fundamental concepts of the Bible, namely that God, as an act of love, freely delegates to us responsibility for His reputation and message.
It’s got nothing to do with human effort or creative manipulation, rather it recognises that art and communication have divinely-ordained rules. Don’t tell me that Jesus, who painted pictures of plank-eyed people, camels squeezing through needles, and angry vineyard workers didn’t take how he communicated at least as seriously as what he communicated.
I’m not saying that every preacher needs to be a poet, or that clever structure is an adequate substitute for a vibrant relationship with God. What I am saying is that every preacher needs to realise that things like language and format actually matter. A preacher doesn’t need to succeed in creating art, but a preacher needs to at least try.