The Complexities of Sermon Preparation
Dr. Marguerite Shuster, PhD, Harold John Ockenga Professor Emerita of Preaching and Theology and Senior Professor of Preaching and Theology, Fuller Theological Seminary, was the keynote speaker at Tyndale Seminary Preaching Conference on March 6, 2017. We were able to sit down with her and ask her what she felt was important in preaching today.
What are the important elements to preparing a good sermon?
“There are complexities to sermon preparation. It takes time, first and foremost. It starts with the exegetical step and involves taking the text seriously—you need to engage with the text, really listening to it and not just to some agenda you bring to it. The second step is the engagement with your world and with the hearts and lives of the people in your congregation.
"The qualities of imagination, of collecting illustrations and of thinking through the design of the sermon also come into play. There is nothing wrong with classic 3-point sermons, except that we're tired of hearing them. We don't want to listen to any more sermons that just go on and on for 20 or 25 minutes, either. That kind of adlibbing irritates people and causes them not to care about what you're saying.
"There is a kind of esthetic here. It is the evocative character of the words that we use and the way we design the sermon itself that are important, so that it holds the listener's attention until the end. Often preachers work with a ‘pearls on a string’ design. They have a point and they make it, then stop. And then they have another point and they make it. You can cut the string at any point, and you'll never know when they are going to be done. That's not a good sermon design because it doesn’t pull people along until the end. Someone once told me that they enjoyed my preaching because they never knew where it was going to take them. They experienced the sermon as something that would have a different shape depending upon its objective. What if you were preaching on an epistle and wrote a contemporary letter? What if you took a biblical narrative and told a story? What if you took a psalm of lament and by use of anachronism that was faithful to that passage, you wrote a contemporary lament? There are a lot of different kinds of things that you can do.”
Where can preachers find inspiration?
“Reading quality literature can help—novels or short stories that have the length of a sermon, that build tension and have movement and do interesting things that keep people with you. Poetry is another place to look to—poetry like that of Billy Collins, who uses common life experience and language in a highly evocative way. Preachers also need to be constantly observing. Everything in the whole universe is a sermon illustration. If preachers aren’t paying attention to the whole of life, they will always be talking about their favorite sports team or their family because they don't have anything else to use as an illustration.”
What are some barriers that preachers are facing today?
"It's often assumed that preachers have all the answers, until the hearer in real pain finds out that they don’t. Then people sometimes leave the church because they don’t see that there may be a worthwhile alternative to having all the answers. Standard answers might work when they're applied to someone else’s life. When it comes to the problems in your own life, you might discover that the same answers don’t fit. If your pastor doesn’t understand this, it might seriously impact the faith of suffering members in the congregation. I question the need to have it all worked out. The Bible isn’t like that; God isn’t like that. Well then, fess up. Preachers need to get shaken out of believing that they have it all figured out.
"We live in a culture where we are expected to be triumphant, and this expectation presents certain risks. For instance, always saying that we are having a great day is for public consumption and starts to erode our honesty with ourselves, which erodes any possible honesty before God. If we ourselves don’t know where we are, how can we come before God with the openness required to receive the supply that God has for us? The cultural pressures are astonishing. I don’t have quick fixes; we are bunch of sinners. We need to live remembering the fact that we are sinners."
What to do you see as important for preachers to remember?
"It is not our job to justify God’s ways to human beings. It is our job to cling to the hope and to the promise. It is the hope and the promise that enable sacrifice on this earth in the interest of things that matter, such as justice, because all the failures around us are not the last word. In my view, if we don’t have that, and if all of our focus is in the now, then that is a setup for self-interest and cowardice. It is the hope and the promise that make everything possible."