In my first preaching lab at seminary, there were two students who didn’t seem to get it.
Unlike the others, who tracked along nicely and gave positive feedback, their responses indicated that what I was trying to proclaim in my first two sermons did not register with them.
My first impulse, of course, was to dismiss them as dense or uncooperative, and to take refuge in my areas of success. I tried to shrug them off and just focus on those with whom my style made a connection.
But eventually I had to contemplate the possibility that, for those two, I could be the problem. Purely in the interest of science, I set up an experiment. My goal for the third sermon was to reach those two. I had them in mind all the while I was preparing this sermon, and came up with something radically different than the previous sermons. Surprisingly, it seemed to work. This sermon connected with them in a way the others had not.
I thought of this on my internship when I was offered the opportunity to preach a stewardship sermon. During a discussion with my internship committee about stewardship, one woman told me that her husband hated stewardship sermons. I asked her what he disliked about them, and took notes as she listed the complaints.
Then I told her, “I’m going to write this sermon for him.”
This stewardship sermon that I wrote for a guy who hates stewardship sermons is easily one of my better efforts.
As I reflect on the sermons I have written, the most effective ones seem to be sermons that I wrote with someone particular in mind, not in an accusing way but in a graceful way. Funeral sermons written for surviving family members, confirmation and graduation sermons written for kids, sermons written in response to someone struggling with a particular issue–those are the ones that seem to resonate the most. Having someone specific in mind helps the focus.
It’s dangerous advice to say, “Write a sermon with someone specific in mind,” especially for a young preacher. After all, the most important first step in effective communication is to establish an authentic voice. Trying to write for other people could sabotage the process of finding a voice. It may result in telling people what they want to hear instead of what they need to hear.
But if one has located one’s authentic voice, I highly recommend writing a sermon for a particular person on occasion.
As a writer, I’m most comfortable with a manuscript style sermon. But I know there are those in my congregation who have trouble connecting with that style. They should not be deprived of the inspiration of God’s word just because I won’t leave my comfort zone. Writing sermons with someone in mind has forced me to do the occasional sermon with puppets, with a guitar, with role-playing, with wandering the aisles, and in a press conference format, to name a few.
As long as you have a compelling voice, you are not wed to a style that reaches only a select audience.
I think that’s what Paul was getting at in 1 Corinthians 9:22 when he wrote, “I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some.”