Preaching That Flows

River Flows Through It(Creative Commons image by Greg Locke on flickr)

“He who controls the pace, controls the victory.”

Scrawled on a whiteboard in his office, we find Frank Campana’s training philosophy. Frank is a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) coach of some renown for his unorthodox training methods. Rather than employing the typical cadre of cacophonous heavy metal or rap beats to train his fighters, Frank enlists Beethoven.

Against the virulent tempo of MMA, where the slightest miscalculation can lead to defeat or worse, Frank’s rationale is clear: if he can condition his fighters to regulate the rhythm of their blows according to the mellifluous syncopation of classical music, they will be attuned to seize the opportunities that lead to victory.

Frank is not a real MMA trainer, nor are his techniques bolstered by wins. Frank is a character in Gavin O’Connor’s recent film, Warrior. Nevertheless, I believe his unorthodox methods bear consideration for we who preach the Gospel. Whereas music is a common feature of MMA events (every fighter has his theme song by which he enters the cage), it is not usually yoked with the preparation of sermons. Why is that? What if we employed music to enhance the flow of our preaching?

Flow is everywhere; and yet, it often goes unnoticed. It pervades the wired world in which we live — show me a coffee shop that doesn’t employ an eclectic array of dulcet tracks to facilitate conversation or leisurely study. Hospital waiting rooms, pubs, carnivals, department stores, even elevators, employ music to regulate the flow of life there, to encourage a certain kind of experience.

Filmmakers have long known this truth. The power of music to affect our perception of time is made lucid in Chris Nolan’s 2010 blockbuster, Inception. Nolan uses an admixture of legato and staccato brass arrangements and adagio orchestral accompaniments to curb our perception of time’s flow to meet his cinematic needs.

Through iTunes, one can now purchase workout mixes set to a particular rhythm of beats-per-minute to intuitively guide us to our target heart rate on the treadmill or elliptical runner. If you frequent gyms, you have experienced this phenomenon; try bench-pressing when the music switches suddenly from Metallica to Miley Cyrus. Consider even the impact Krista Tippett’s cadence of compassionate inquiry can have on a morning jog.

Flow is everywhere, but it is not the same as beat. As hip-hop mogul and rapper Jay-Z avers, “The flow isn’t like time, it’s like life. It’s like a heartbeat or the way you breathe, it can jump, speed up, slow down, stop, or pound right through like a machine. If the beat is time, flow is what we do with that time, how we live through it. The beat is everywhere, but life has to find its own flow.”1

What if we applied such insights to our sermon preparation? With most contemporary biblical scholars, I maintain that hermeneutics is coequal with reading; interpretation does not follow exegesis, it constitutes it. This being the case, what if our first step of sermon creation was to pray for the Holy Spirit to guide our flow vis-à-vis our community? The mercurial stock market has taken an emotional toll on our people so we are led to play some Bob Marley as we open God’s Word. Maybe we are on the cusp of a successful stewardship campaign and we opt for Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” The point here is to get in sync with the flow of our congregation following the Spirit’s leading.

While the music plays, we then begin to probe the biblical text for its claim upon our lives as God’s people at this time and place. Perhaps the Word that comes to us finds its accompaniment in our musical selection? Maybe we need to replace R.E.M. with a track from Emmanuel Jal? 

The theological reality is that God’s Word alters our being-in-the world, our flow. Once the Word has made its claim upon us and we move to consider what we want to say and do through our sermon (Professor Tom Long labels this the sermon’s focus and function2), we then yoke a particular track to the rest of our sermon preparation. We might ask ourselves, “What flow or rhythm might help this sermon to “do” what I think God wants to happen through this sermon?”

The beat of the music will encourage the flow of our preaching. This facilitates what Professor Cleo LaRue identifies as the “preparatory rhythm” of sermon preparation, namely, “the mode of reflection best suited to reach the depths of the preacher’s creative energies.”3

The rhythm of our congregations and our world lend themselves to the glorious and chaotic beats of our ministries. We do not control the flow; we control how intently we listen to the whispers of God through the Scriptures and in the midst of our ministry. Our job is to preach according to that flow, sometimes with, but often times in spite of the beats of the world. Why not lean on the power of music to guide us?

1Jay-Z, Decoded (New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2010), 15.
2Thomas G. Long, The Witness of Preaching, 2nd ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), chapter 4.
3Cleophus J. LaRue, I Believe I’ll Testify: The Art of African American Preaching (Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 99.