Saturday, April 11, 2009

Beyond a Predictable Sermon

It's interesting how the word 'predictable' has negative connotations. And yet it is a neutral term, isn't it? When something is predictable, it simply means that you can basically know what will happen.
  • It is predictable that the sun will rise tomorrow on Easter Sunday. That's good.
  • It is predictable that I will get meatloaf for dinner every night of my life. That's bad.
  • It is predictable that my pay will come in each month. That's good.
  • It is predictable that Keanu Reeves will never make a good film. That's bad.
Well, you get the point.

I am speaking to some Moore College graduates next Tuesday at their reunion.

The topic: "Beyond a Predictable Sermon."

So, help me:
  1. Do you want your sermons to be predictable in some ways? In what ways?
  2. Do you want surprises? Twists? Turns? Unexpected things.
  3. Have you seen some unpredictable sermons that are dishonoring to Jesus?
  4. What are some unpredictable things you've seen in sermons?
  5. How did those things help you or hinder you?
Help me, help them.

Pic on FLickr by Pastelhearts.


Megan said...

I want to hear the gospel preached and the Scriptures opened. If that's predictable, that's good. I'm not interested in legalism, but I do need to hear hard talk on sin, wrath, and judgment, if it's in the text. Don't soft-pedal hard truths; have confidence in the text, and, above all, preach the Scriptures. I don't know whether that's predictable, or not....

Anthony Douglas said...

Predictable = "I know what this passage is meant to say in order to line up with orthodoxy, and let me show you that it does."

Faithful = "Let's see what this passage actually says, and deal with that."

Predictable = sermon said nothing new, so predictably, nobody talks about it.

Faithful = sermon actually opened up the text, perhaps in a new way, and forced people to think. If they're faithful, they'll be talking over coffee later.

Guess you know what side I'm on. Every time, I'm trying for an a-ha moment, a penny dropping, etc. Ideally, it all comes together in that moment, and they can see why I've picked my particular way in, how it opens up the passage, how the passage says something unique to itself while true to the Scriptures, and all of this at once.

From a teaching perspective, that flash of insight is gold. People will remember it, and the hook is the very thing you want them to take away and live by. So no gimmicks for gimmick's sake, but if there's a gimmick that makes exactly my point, I'm there.

I've seen plenty of predictable sermons that are dishonouring to Jesus, to varying degrees - but some drove me to tears!

I'm happy to supply all sorts of personal testimony, if you like - as long as it's not today...must get back to my sermon.

(Late Saturday nights are about the most predictable thing about me...!)

John said...

I think it's good to be "unpredictable" on occasion because the gospel often feels so familiar that we don't realize what's actually being said.

An example: I heard a sermon preached not to long ago where the priest said, "We've all made a decision for Jesus...and that was to crucify him."

It caught my attention because it turned spiritual lingo on it's head and pointed towards the deeper truth.

Melinda said...

i guess this is obvious (and the same as previous comments) but an unpredictable format or structure can be helpful when it becomes clear how consistent and important that the same content (the gospel) is. so i guess that goes in line with gimmicks (ie not just for the sake of it but to point all the more closely and clearly and strongly to the gospel).

it's pretty relevant at easter i think when everyone is expecting the same sermons (to give and to hear, both whole-life christians and easter christians). i heard (of) two good and different easter sermons - one on easter saturday where the persona of peter was explored first person style and one on easter sunday with three short sermons in the one service (broken up by bible readings and songs) on the three exchanges (truth of God for a lie, him who had no sin to be sin for us, from idols to serve the true and living God). i think both were faithful and fulfilled my first paragraph.

i guess if the goal is the Truth and the Truth being made clear - predictability (eg consistency and repetition) and unpredictability (eg new formats and ways of saying things) are helpful whenever they achieve those goals and will hinder when they don't (eg for the sake of it or inappropriately proportioned emphasis).

Donna said...

I think sermons become predictable (in a bad way) when the preacher forgets what the congregation already knows.

Sally Hitchiner said...

It's not notable (by me at least) that my vicar will predictably preach a sermon that is dependent on the text. It's predictable that he will start with a prayer but I wouldn't bother to say it was so unless you asked me about it.

When we *say* something is predictable we mean something different. We mean that I disagree with the presupposition of the preacher. And if this is the case we need to break this down and look at the presuppositions we disagree with in their own right.
So, in the uk, some evangelicals will always find that the primary application of every passage is to read the Bible more. I'd question this presupposition about scripture but it's a far weightier issue than saying it's just "predictable" suggests.

The other major area that people say evangelicals are predictable on is "Conservative Evangelical intonation" - where if you didn't speak the language you could listen to a sermon done by any one of thousands of young preachers and you would know it was a UK conservative evangelical sermon from the sound of their voice. I would question the presupposition that there is only one model for preaching (or even learning to preach) a good evangelical sermon.

There are certain preachers you can play "sermon bingo" with: everyone writes down 3 words or phrases they think will come up knowing the particular preacher. When you have a full house you drop your hymn book and win the game.
But even then, the buzz words are generally just things that have had a particularly big impact on the preacher.

I think the claim of "predictability" must be broken down and looked at because it generally hides a far weightier discussion about theological presuppositions that will have a much greater impact on the world. We can't trivialize our critiques of predictability to the category of mere style.

Sally Hitchiner said...

having said that... and reading John's quote.

"Unpredictable" isn't generally meant as a bad thing is it?

Close following of the text we have been given should lead us to be slightly unpredictable... as the Bible it self is often unpredictable. Surely we can't entirely systematize God or his word so we should at times expect to be surprised by a sermon? We should expect there to be new and surprising applications of his word with each generation. We hear how the Bible applies to the internet or to teenage mothers or to the "current financial crisis" or whatever.

We should expect to be surprised by God's word.

Al Bain said...

I know I'm coming in here too late. But...

I yearn to be unpredictable as a preacher because I know that as a listener i love hearing/imagining things from a fresh perspective. But I've got to be really careful to balance my desire to be fresh with a deeper desire to be faithful. Fortunately it is possible to be both faithful and unpredictable.

The huge problem with predictability (especially faithful predictability) is that it can be soporific. We need to work hard as preachers to wake people up and give them reasons to pay attention. I think Anthony describes this well.

Anonymous said...

Justin, I hope the presentation went well.

From the other (rookie) side, with a grand total of 1 short talk and looking down the barrel of 3 in a few days, a predictable sermon would be nice... :)

Anyway, I like what Anthony and Sally said, and will add that the word is not predictable and challenges every part of sin-tainted lives that are still in a sinful world.

So let the the bible knock the preacher off his feet, then have the man pick himself up and tell me about it. ;)