The first time I cried listening to the radio (though certainly not the last) I was listening to Ira Glass tell the story of a dad who made Santa so real for his kids that they had a hard time letting go. The story made me lean into my own nostalgia and family life and think about what Christmas has meant for me. I didn’t know it then, but I’m pretty sure that radio story preached to me.
Since that moment in 2012, I’ve become a pastor and even launched a podcast with a group of colleagues called Alter Guild.
So I got to wondering, how have podcasts influenced my preaching? And how could they continue to challenge me to work my craft?
- Individual stories show a much better picture of complex issues.
I recently listened to an episode of This American Life about a woman named LaDonna. For an entire hour, I was transfixed by her story. It spoke about sexual harassment, the #metoo movement, workplace culture, leadership, grit, and culture change, but without mentioning any of those topics. By telling LaDonna’s story of standing up to a culture of toxic masculinity, This American Life drew me into the story.
I’ve tried a few times to focus on a single story to engage people in the meaning-making of gospel proclamation. At its best, the story draws people along, like I was drawn into LaDonna’s story, or rather, like I was changed by LaDonna’s story.
- A cold open
Ira Glass, the host of This American Life, brings me right into the story. No announcements, no greeting, no introductions. It catches me off-guard but always sparks my curiosity as I wonder where it’s going. I find myself incorporating this into my preaching by starting with the guiding image or story and catching people’s attention right away. I’ll often then pause to pray and offer a more formal greeting, but in true Ira Glass fashion, I tell them to “Stay with us!”
- Episodes and seasons keep me tuning in
TV does it. Netflix does it. Podcasts do it. Hey, even Charles Dickens did it. Our world organizes thoughts around episodes in a series that builds an idea one step at a time. So why can’t our sermons tie week to week to week? Welp, they can, my friends! It just takes a little bit of planning and foresight. What sermons will your people be binge-watching?
- Segments keep me listening
One of my favorite podcasts has a recurring segment called “Yes, Yes, No,” where the hosts find an obscure tweet and run down the rabbit hole until everyone can explain the tweet in their own words. Another favorite podcast shouts “Hold on, wait a minute!” every time they need to explain a concept that one of their guests drops without explanation. Then they go back to their topic.
I’ve been thinking about incorporating a segment into my preaching. I know some preachers offer time for “Ask a pastor” a couple times a year. Perhaps it would be playful at best, a #faithfail moment that mimics #pinterestfails or a point in the liturgy where I could take a minute to explain why we do what we do. Maybe I would offer a theological word of the day at the beginning of worship and use it in as many (humorous) ways as possible.
But as with any great segment, you have to be consistent. Always tell people that it is a recurring moment and clue people into the joke, so that they can laugh along and not think you are just stuck on a weird word.
- Curate other people’s stories
Podcasts do an amazing job of presenting stories of life, loss, laughter, and heartbreak (you thought I’d find another L, didn’t you?). But they don’t just tell us the stories, they show them through the voices of the people who lived them. What if you used a story from your congregation by recording a conversation ahead of time and using the story as a part of your sermon?
By curating the stories of others, we can also break out of the box of our own experience and share the mic with someone else. A few months ago, I played a short section of a public radio story so that people could actually hear the voice of the story that so captured my imagination. They were drawn in way more than if I had retold the story.
To work on the craft of preaching, we should listen to other good preachers. And the very best podcasts? They’ll preach.
Looking for a list of great podcasts?
A fine list of podcasts prepared by your very own Alter Guild (Meta Herrick Carlson, Derrick Tronsgard, Miriam Samuelson-Roberts, and me):
Just 2 Pearls
2 Dope Queens
This American Life
Death, Sex, and Money
Terrible Thanks for Asking
The Longest Shortest Time
Love and Radio