Craft of Preaching

Sermon Development

Tips for effective proclamation, from advance prep work to gathering feedback.

Red Ink and All: Getting in Touch with Your Inner Homiletician Part 5

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Letterwriting
(Creative Commons Image by Gene Han on Flickr)


This is the fifth article in a series. See part 4.

So how do you measure your efforts over time? Namely, what tools exist to measure or get a handle on how your sermonic efforts are contributing to the sorts of flourishing named or implied by the purpose your inter-disciplinary team developed?

Back in the classroom we use rubrics. What’s a rubric? The term rubric comes from the Latin word for red. Historically, rubrics were instructions written in prayer manuals -- in red ink -- alongside the actual words of the prayer or rite.

In a learning environment, a rubric breaks a more complex learning objective into smaller parts. Like the rubrics of old, they are written in the metaphorical “margins” of the primary action, in this case the sermon.

As used here, however, a rubric indicates not so much a proscription (“Don’t pull on your ear when you preach!”) as much as it does a hoped for outcome (“The preacher communicated the message of the sermon with a minimum of external noise.”).

The point of a rubric (scored or not) isn’t to assign a grade to your sermonic work, but rather to generate a conversation based on some marginally empirical data, giving the preacher a slightly longer perspective on his or her work. I say marginally empirical because, in the end, I hold to the mystery more than to the math of proclamation. Even so, I find numbers useful if imperfect tools in learning the art of proclamation.

What might a rubric look like and how might you use it? For the sake of conversation, let’s use the following purpose: “Preaching is to cultivate a learning environment after the pattern of Christ’s own life, with our questions activated and illuminated by the activity of the Spirit.” From this we might develop three or four hoped for outcomes:

  • The sermon contributed to my sense that the church is a place to learn, to ask questions, to not have all the answers even as it remains a place of trust and hospitality.
  • As a result of this sermon, I see my questions and doubts as existing within the circle of God’s own activity through Christ and the Holy Spirit.
  • As a community and individual, this sermon enables the church to witness to the gospel in a climate of skepticism.
  • This sermon helped me to either see my questions in a new light or ask new questions that I had not considered before.

Asking your interdisciplinary witness team to assign a point value to each of these (on a scale of 1-5) may be helpful or not -- the goal isn’t assessment but conversation and formation.

If you take numbers too seriously, by all means ditch them and go share a cup of coffee and a donut with your conversation partners. You can live without the numbers but neither you nor the Word proclaimed can prosper for very long without fellowship!

Upon sharing this with one of my students, he also suggested something else: that we go beyond “talking” about the sermon. He worried that the sermon might be a conversation piece but seldom went any further.

As we talked, it occurred to me that lectio divina, particularly the point at which participants are asked to reflect on how they feel the Spirit moving them to “act” or to change or be changed might prove useful as well as fitting to a purpose conceived as some reflection of God’s saving action.

Back in my first year or so of ministry, the ink on my ordination certificate having barely dried, I got a visit from Bill Ice, a life-long Presbyterian and dedicated ruling elder. He stood in the door of my study, paying his usual Tuesday morning visit, thanking me for the sermon that I had preached the previous Sunday. And then he paused: “You know, I liked your sermon, but, to be honest, I found it difficult to follow.”

It wasn’t exactly what I wanted to hear. And maybe I wasn’t prepared to hear what he had to say. Or maybe I was buying time. Whatever my motives, I made him an offer: “Would you like the manuscript, Bill? We could sit down and talk about it if you want.”

“Sure,” he said, “if you don’t mind.”

A few days later, he brought the manuscript back, marked up, as it happens, with little rivers of red ink. I no longer remember the sermon but I still remember how it was with Bill: the sermon was not so much mine, as the church’s, and perhaps even God’s own, red ink and all.

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