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Casting light on the sermon

08 September 2017

In the run-up to the sell-out Festival of Preaching this weekend, some of the speakers share tips on what makes a good sermon


Paula Gooder

Director for Mission Learning and Development, Birmingham diocese

I once heard somebody say, about public speaking more generally, that if you can’t hold what you want to say in your own head, why would your audience be able to hold it in theirs? So, one of the things I often do when preaching, is to see if I can preach the sermon without any notes at all.

I have also been inspired by the Gospels — which were written for an aural audience — and the way they use patterns and motifs to help their audience hear and retain the key motifs more clearly. As a result, I try to compose sermons to be more an aural event than a written one.

Sermons have many different purposes, but, for me, one purpose is to provide us with food for reflection during the week ahead. If the sermon has gone from the mind by the time we leave the church, then the food it provides for the week ahead goes with it.

There are, of course, other ways of keeping a more complex sermon in the mind (e.g. providing the full text or sermon notes) — and there are times when nuance and careful placing of words dictates a different method — but it is an interesting and sobering challenge to aim for holding the whole thing in my mind, in the hope that others may be able to hold at least some of it in theirs.


Mark Oakley

Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral

Seek to be resonant, not relevant. Avoid the tyranny of cliché. Aim for the sermon to be more formative than informative. Don’t be afraid of ambiguity, or a message that hovers rather than comes quickly into land. Speak from your scars and not from your wounds.


Kate Bruce

Deputy Warden and Tutor in Homiletics, Cranmer Hall, Durham

Take time. Don’t try to construct a sermon in a rush. Sermons need time to simmer. If we bring it to the boil too quickly, the imagination never gets space to work on the material.

The biblical text, taken in, chewed over, and digested over a period of days has time to interact with the preacher’s prayers, observations, struggles, and their interaction with news, pop culture, and the daily round.

Rushed sermons are usually unfocused, half-baked and indigestible. The busy preacher may object that Saturday evening is the only time they have for sermon preparation. If the preacher starts pondering the passage at the start of the week, however, there is plenty of time for the forming of the sermon to happen on back burner of the imagination — such as when walking the dog, or doing the ironing.

The sermon theme is further refined in the process of structural shaping, and in the consideration of how the text, or notes, are to be lifted off the page and inhabited in the preaching space.

Good performance takes time and care; it is not a dirty word in preaching. Unreflective delivery is not likely to result in an engaging piece of communication. Preparation of content, structure, and delivery are essential.


Martyn Percy

Dean of Christ Church, Oxford

Preaching is reciprocal and relational. It starts with a calling: namely, to say something meaningful and appropriate, on behalf of God, to a situation, people, and place. So we start with placing our life at the mercy of God, and asking for his heart and mind as we craft our words. This is a place of humility. We pray for wisdom. And we offer in prayer the people, places and times that God has asked us to address.

We then go to the scriptures, to commentaries, poetry or prose — or to the news, or situations we are seeking to address. The Holy Spirit speaks to the Church from both the outside and the inside; we must be unafraid of what the Spirit might be saying to us from contexts that might be uncomfortable.

Indeed, we are sometimes called to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. We are called not only to be exegetes of the scriptures, but also of situations and congregations. The interpretative task — hermeneutics — is about covering distances: reaching across spaces, time, and sources to make new connections.

Preaching is part of the proper function of good faith: it helps us to make homes, cross boundaries, intensify joy, and confront suffering. Preaching does this by weaving and blending the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the living Word of God, and the life we have. It is part of God’s work: the Word made tangible. Just as God was and is in Jesus Christ: the Word made flesh.


Doug Gay

Lecturer in Practical Theology and Principal of Trinity College, Glasgow

The US homiletics professor Thomas G. Long is famous for encouraging student preachers to write two brief statements concerning their sermon, which could be a single sentence or even a phrase. One statement covers the focus of the sermon: what is the sermon about? The other concerns the function of the sermon: what is the sermon doing?

He also encourages preachers to think about the literary form of the biblical passage that they are engaging with, and how that relates to the form of the sermon. I have found these two guidelines enormously helpful and fruitful as a preacher, and in working with students on preaching courses.

Although people will often ask what the sermon was about, and rarely, if ever, what it was doing, we as preachers need to think about the function question. We need to be guided and influenced in that by our understanding of what the scripture is doing (i.e. what is going on in this passage). With this understanding, we can resist the tendency for the form of the sermon to flatten or homogenise the rich diversity of scripture.

We can also hope it will open us to the questions of what the Spirit has said and done to us, in the process of preparing to preach, and of what we dare to hope God may do with our sermon.


Jessica Martin

Canon Residentiary for Education and Outreach, Ely Cathedral

Is your anecdote really necessary? Perhaps it is. Perhaps it shows the Word of God, living and active, speaking from the everyday; perhaps it flips the familiar, or the knowingly churchy, head over heels and lets it out into the air; perhaps you know your hearers so well that you can pick a narrative world so central to them that God’s word skids neatly round your shortcut and lands exactly where you need it to land.

Or perhaps it leads to an as-yet-unnoticed turn in the scripture, a metanoia that you can see on the other side of your own chosen story. In that case, it will be worth taking the high rhetorical risk of expending an appreciable percentage of the time you have to speak on something that appears to look away from the scripture. . .

But if, actually, you chose your anecdote because you think it is the only way to make people listen as you start talking; if you chose it to make the scripture look easier to take; if you chose it because you want people to like you and think you are funny, or clever, or charming; if, in fact, you have at some level decided to cheat your auditory of the spiritual food they are hoping for, and to give them something they could get anywhere, any day of the week: don’t do it!

Trust God, and point towards his Word. Yours, and you, are secondary.


Joanna Collicutt

Karl Jaspers Lecturer in Psychology and Spirituality, Ripon College, Cuddesdon

1. Pray.

2. Begin with the text(s) and read it far enough in advance to immerse yourself in it. Try and read it in the original language (an interlinear Bible can be really helpful). If the text is very familiar, this can give a new angle on it. You might want to use a lectio divina approach to open it up.

3. Try and avoid commentaries other than to check for facts. Instead, identify the ways in which the text is connecting with your everyday life: worries, joys, big questions, small hassles, stuff the news seems to be throwing up.

4. Think about the community you are going to preach to, or the particular occasion, and reflect on which of these issues might also be important for them.

5. Identify one theme or take-home message.

6. If it feels natural, use a story that is ostensibly about you, but really about all of us.

7. Try to connect with the locality: features of the church building, the wider environment, the sense of place and belonging.

8. Make sure that anyone who listens to your sermon has, in some way, shape, or form, been offered the message that he or she is beloved of God, no matter what. If you write the text of the sermon, do a word-search for “love” when you have finished it. If it’s not there, then there is something wrong.

9. Beware of trying to please your listeners; pay more attention to what the Spirit might be asking you to say.


Pádraig Ó Tuama

Poet, theologian, and leader of the Corrymeela Community

Take a story.

Then take another.

One from the story of life, one from a story of your life.

Hold them together in the light of each other.

View each through the lens of the other.


Add salt, or whatever it is that helps you taste.

Add a friend.

Add poetry.

Add honesty.

Listen again.

Keep listening.

Think of the people you will be speaking to.

Listen to their listening.

Face your fear.

Think about being a bit courageous, a bit vulnerable, a bit open.

Think about what love would say.

Think about what needs to die.

Think about what needs to rise.

Keep adding poetry.

Open your mouth, sinner, and speak.


Stephen Cottrell

Bishop of Chelmsford and Chair of the College of Preachers

There is a great American saying that goes: “If they ain’t heard it, you ain’t said it.” It is the very best advice I can offer to preachers. Your content may be exemplary and inspiring, but if you don’t deliver it with some passion, verve and style, no one will hear it.


Timothy Radcliffe OP

former Master of the Order of Preachers, writer, and itinerant lecturer

Focus on what is most puzzling in the biblical text: the verse that you would rather not talk about. If people see that you are struggling to make sense of it, then they will see that you, too, are a fellow disciple on the way, and not some know-all who has it all wrapped up.

Second, look them in the face as you preach. If you are not engaging them it will be immediately clear. A 15th-century Sufi imam, Mullah Nasrudin, is supposed to have said: “I talk all day, but when I see someone’s eyes blaze, then I write it down.” Finally, stop talking when you still have more to say.


Sandra Millar

Head of Life Events for the Archbishops’ Council

For me, preaching at “life events” is about connections: connecting the story of God’s great love to the story of everyday lives. It’s about noticing and listening to the culture and context of those I’m meeting, about seeing God with fresh eyes in scripture, and about answering universal questions of life like: Am I loved? What happens if I fail? How do I know what to do? How then shall we live?

Above all, it’s about warmth and love for God in Christ, and for those who are listening that day — love that smiles.


Malcolm Guite

Poet-priest and Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge

In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare describes how good poetry is written:

The poet’s eye, in fine frenzy rolling,

Doth glance from heaven to earth, from earth to heaven;

And as imagination bodies forth

The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen

Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing

A local habitation and a name.

I think this insight about poetry applies to sermons, too. The danger in preaching is abstraction: a flight into “-isms” and theological language. When we preach the incarnation, our words should also seek incarnation: they should be “bodied forth” in the particular.

But the particular — concrete instances and images we use in preaching — should not be like a brick wall, but like a house with many doors and windows. These particulars should be a “local habitation”; they should provide a sheltering place and a local address for insights and ideas.

God did not send us a theological discourse to show us who he is, but a particular person in a particular place. And yet that earthly person was also a door into heaven. In our own small way, we should also seek the images and stories that are familiar enough to be reachable and habitable, but which also open up and invite us to glimpse a little of the truth, and beauty of heaven.


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