The sermon as sacred disruption – Martin Stewart

I would love a creative conversation in Candour on sermons.

I remember an elder in my first parish informing me as he was leaving (!) that my preaching went only so far and then it left things open-ended rather than me taking the opportunity to deliver the ‘killer’ punch.  He was taking his family to a church where the preacher would tell him how things were.
I was disappointed about his leaving but impressed that he saw exactly what I was trying to do.  I was serving in a context where a few preachers had been telling everyone what to think and the majority of people were quite over it.
Nearly 30 years on I still view the sermon as a conversation.  I understand the engagement with the scriptures as opening a window for ongoing dialogue with God.  If the preacher leaves no questions for further discussion and no sense that there is more to be explored then I wonder if the preacher has inserted her or himself into an unhelpful place – as the dispenser of all truth.  I say unhelpful because I truly believe that all of our sermons are a form of nudging up towards the truth but never quite getting there.  God builds the bridge – we preachers contribute to and invite the conversation.

Recently I was asked where I pitch the sermon in relation to the congregations I serve.  My thinking was that I aim out in front of them.  The Word of God calls them onwards – a calling from the future (the kingdom coming).
I do not aim behind them as if it is my role to back them up and endorse where they find themselves.
I do not aim right at them either, as if to please them.  I do meet congregants from various churches who do, however, behave as if this is exactly what the sermon is to achieve.  They talk critically of preachers and sermons that they do not agree with.  Of course all of us will find something to disagree with in almost every sermon we hear (except, of course, our own!), but I wonder whether there is a kind of litmus test being applied which needs to be challenged.  Why should the sermon have to meet our predetermined criteria for it to be God’s Word?  Does that mean that we do not need any sermons at all because we already have everything sorted?  That is one monumental position to have attained given that we still live in the land of Paul’s only seeing in a mirror dimly!  I have to say that those who insist that any word from God has to comply with their predetermined positions (isms) strike me as people struggling with idolatry.
I aim my sermons in front.  In front of the congregation and in front of myself.  I miss a fair bit of the time.  But I aim there anyway.  I figure that we are all on a journey of discovery and the Word calls to us where we find ourselves – inviting us into deeper engagement.
“Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.” Psalm 42:7

I found this quote from Rob Bell really helpful:
“The sermon is an art form that needs to be reclaimed… It’s the original guerrilla theatre, somewhere between a recovery movement, a TED Talk and a revival. This art form has been hijacked in our culture. For many people, the sermon is how you build bigger buildings. But the sermon is about the sacred disruption.”

I like that.  Sacred disruption.  I forgot to mention that I understand any conversation with God to be unsettling.  The Scriptures are full of God disrupting and disturbing people – there needs to be a somewhat untamed dimension to our sermons.

2 thoughts on “The sermon as sacred disruption – Martin Stewart

  1. Marty, that’s a good description of what I’ve been doing all these years. Some get quite frustrated that I don’t give an answer they can take or leave.
    I’m reading Rick Chromey “Sermons Reimagined” at the moment and he posits that the postmodern want to come to church “to experience God… to be amused and to think deeply…” That approach leaves me with the thought that the preacher is still in charge, just different tools – and what happens when they don’t “experience” God (whatever that means)?


  2. Lots of thought-provoking ideas here, but let me just pick up on the TED talk comparison. Last week’s NZ Listener had an excellent five pages on public speaking today and I noted a number of bullet points which would make good discussion material for emerging preachers:
    • Public speaking is having a renaissance, with the aid of technology. Done right, a talk can electrify a room and transform an audience’s world view.
    • Preparation is hard graft – thorough groundwork, a carefully structured script and knowing the text well enough to appear to be giving it off the cuff.
    • Use humour, warmth and emotion to connect with the audience – speak from the heart with openness and conviction. Tap into people’s passions.
    • Storytelling often comes naturally but make sure your anecdotes are applicable to the overall narrative and audience context. Fine tune to remove unnecessary details.
    • Don’t make the fatal mistake of believing you are the most important person in the room. Take a more self-effacing approach, be authentic and humble.
    • Use all the tools of the voice – changes in volume, pace, pitch, timbre, tone and prosody (patterns of rhythm and sound).
    • It’s all about the idea, not about you. Use THIS MATTERS as a mantra.
    • Time limit – no more than 18 minutes. Conciseness is vital as is the ability to arrive quickly at the main point
    • A talk is an opportunity to give something of value – the ability to share knowledge in a way that is helpful to people and shapes how they think.
    from TED Talk articles by Stephen Jewell, Nicky Pellegrino et al in NZ Listener June 4 2016, p 12-19.


Comments are closed.