Sunday 25 June 2006

Ten propositions on preaching

by Kim Fabricius

1. What is a sermon? Wrong question. A sermon is not a what but a who. A sermon is Jesus Christ expectorate. You eat the book; it is sweet in the mouth but bitter in the stomach (Rev. 10:9-11); you spit out the Word and spray the congregation. When grace hits the mark, it always begins with an unpleasant recoil.

2. A sermon starts in silence. Before a preacher preaches, she must not preach, she must listen; and when she does preach, it is only because she has to preach. God gave us one mouth and two ears—and the preacher must use them in that proportion.

3. Sermon preparation is primarily the preparation of the preacher, not of the preached. The preparation of the sermon itself will only be as rigorous as the askesis of the preacher. Pray for the presence of the Holy Spirit—and then work like stink. If the Holy Spirit hasn’t been with the preacher in the study, he’s not going to accompany the lazy bastard into the pulpit.

4. Context, context, context. A text without a context is a pretext. The context of scripture, of course, but also the contemporary context—the Bible in one hand, the broadsheet in the other. The clash of two worlds: scriptura probat mundum.

5. Relevance? Blow relevance! It is God who determines relevance. Who wants to hear about relevance? For example, the forgiveness of sins, the whole of the gospel, is relevant—but not because, as the world thinks, the forgiver finds inner healing, but because the guilty one is a sufferer in need of acceptance and embrace. When relevance rules, the tail of the world wags the dog of the church.

6. The gospel itself is not “Repent and be forgiven”—that is sheer legalism—but “You are forgiven, and therefore now free to repent.” Even pagans say, “If you’re sorry, I’ll forgive you.” More to the evangelical point, how can we repent of sin when sin is only known as sin forgiven, when we can only know ourselves as sinners in the light of grace?

7. Technique? Skills? Voice coaching? Forget about them. A sermon is not oratory, a sermon is sui generis. Besides, all theological speech is broken speech. Moses had a stammer, and Paul was embarrassingly inelegant. Smooth tongues are often forked. What has been called “word-care,” however, is a different matter: the practice of word-care is crucial. Literature, particularly poetry, is the school of word-care. Remember: you are responsible for every word you preach.

8. And the latest technology? Woe unto “techies”! Technically, Richard Lischer observes that “when the brain is asked to multi-task by listening and watching at the same time, it always quits listening.” Substantively, if the medium is the message, how can the medium of IT—icon of postmodern power—square with the word of the cross? Lischer provides a thought-experiment: “What would Martin Luther King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech look like in PowerPoint?”

9. Your congregation: know it, live it, love it. This is the perichoresis of preacher and community, and it must lie at the heart of every sermon. If you don’t laugh and weep with your people, you’ve got no right to expect them to hear you preach.

10. Finally, preach like there is no tomorrow—because there isn’t: in the sermon tomorrow is already today. Homiletics is eschatology. On the other hand, if you haven’t struck oil within twenty minutes, stop boring!


byron smith said...

Provocative, humourous, and in easily digestible points.

Why can't more sermons be like that?

::aaron g:: said...

Damn good advice, Kim.

I'm preaching in about an hour so this is an inspiration.

Jordan Barrett said...

Good stuff - but I think you contradict yourself in points 3 and 5. You note that "If the Holy Spirit hasn’t been with the preacher in the study, he’s not going to accompany the lazy bastard into the pulpit." Shortly thereafter you say, regarding relevance, "It is God who determines relevance. Who wants to hear about relevance?"

My point is this - at first you make it up to the preacher to make the Holy Spirit present with the "lazy bastard [in] the pulpit." Yet then you seem to blow off relevance as to say it's not the preachers responsibility but is left up to God. Which is it? Lets hypothetically say a preacher screws up and "isn't with the Holy Spirit", yet lets employ your (oversimplified) argument from point 5 - could not the Holy Spirit be with the lazy bastard despite the preachers failure (or despite their care for relevance)?

Perhaps I've missed your point, and if so, such is the life of short bullet point posts. I do see a lot of good criticism, yet I also see what appears to be overreactions to possible personal (and negative) experiences.

Anonymous said...

Excellent post!

My only quibble, as an ex-Lutheran and now Independent Catholic, is with the second half of #10. If you haven't struck oil in about eight or nine minutes, stop. :-)

Anonymous said...

Hi Jordan.

Ouch about the "bullet points" - except that mine are meant to be teasing and suggestive, not mnemonic, let alone summarising ot totalising. My "Ten Propositions", after all, is not a decalogue!

My point about "relevance" is simply that God-in-the-text determines what is relevant to preach, not whatever happens to to be currently fashionable in the world. The world will, of course, put its questions to the church, and we must listen, but we must be even more attentive to the Word whose creature we are, to scriptures' counter-questions -precisely for the world's sake. (On a sophisticated level, I have Tillich's method of correlation in my sights.) I read the Book - of course; crucially, however. the Book reads me.

As for "responsibility" - mine and the Spirit's are not commensurable. This is not a zero-sum game, as if the more I am responsible the less the Spirit is responsible - indeed, just the reverse (cf. by the way, human autonomy and freedom). My job is to get on with the job, diligently and prayerfully. To be sure (as Luther said), God can speak through a dog turd let alone a lazy bastard, but from that I draw no edifying conclusion.

Anonymous said...

Did Luther really say that God could speak through a dog turd?! I haven't heard that before.

On preparation/inspiration - I agree with you, Kim, 100%. But I think it is important to remember that the inspiration of the Holy Spirit is active in the hearer as well as in the preacher. That should never be an excuse for not doing the work of preparation, but in my experience the sermon that is heard isn't always the one that's preached. And that isn't always a bad thing! ;)

Guy Davies said...

I agree with point 8, "Woe unto the techies!"

See my post on PowerPoint and the death of Preaching


You must have learned something from Preaching and Preachers, but not the bad language or the assumption that preachers are women!


Looney said...

Kim, I was going to agree with you 100%, although I am at a loss with point 8. I must sheepishly (this is where I put in the picture of the sheep) confess - I am a techy.

Still, I appreaciate the other points.

Anonymous said...

Hi Guy.

Sorry about the bad language. If it is any comfort, it is not as bad as it would have been but for the sensible advice the editor!

As for women in the pulpit, do you know Samuel Johnson's (in)famous bon mot? "Sir," the Doctor declared, "a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

T.B. Vick said...

Hey Kim,

This is great!! Thanks for providing us with this! I have linked it at my site.

Anonymous said...

The issue with powerpoint slides as part of the sermons suggests that truth is communicated by audio (oral) but not visual means. Jesus used his own version of power point siides by pulliing a child out of the crowd to make his point, (probaly) pointing an actual sower scatering seed alongside the road while 'speaking' the parabable, and pointing to the widow who gave her 'mite' without calling attention to herself while give a mini-sermon on strewardship. A poor use of powerpoint is no more of a hindrance to preaching the gospel than bad grammar or inappriate humor in a sermon.

Anonymous said...

speaking of bad grammar, sorry for the typos in my comment!

Anonymous said...


That is the finest article I have read in a long time. I come from a church that likes the Purpose Driven Life is Gospel and after weighing, and measuring, I've found it wanting.

Your comment on letting the bastard fail in the pulpit reminds me of a joke. A minister decided to not study but expected the Holy Spirit to give him a word to deliver to the congregation through him. When the Sunday approached the pastor heard a message from the Holy Spirit. "You're lazy."


Eugene McKinnon

Anonymous said...

Hi Ray,

I confess to being a Luddite-tecnnophobe, yet I do think that the deployment of PowerPoint in worship, particlarly when it displaces the sermon, has not been fully thought through. Nor do I find the examples you give - Jesus and the child, the sower and the widow - even remotely analogous to PowerPoint - indeed juts the opposite: these are real people who are signs of the kingdom.

Your post implicitly raises the question of sermon "illustrations", which can be like windows in a house that cast some some light and help the congregation to breathe - or they be a total destraction despite the preacher's intentions; they can also be an indication that the preacher has become tired of thinking and is having a rest - i.e. he's being a lazy bastard! A lot more, however, needs to be said on the subject.

PamBG said...

As for women in the pulpit, do you know Samuel Johnson's (in)famous bon mot? "Sir," the Doctor declared, "a woman's preaching is like a dog's walking on its hind legs. It is not done well; but you are surprised to find it done at all."

Just for future reference, is this meant to be ironic?

Looney said...

I know of one congregation with many highly educated men, but it is said of them: "The women preach better than the men". Kim, should I direct your admonition towards these men? "lazy bastards!"

Anonymous said...

Hi pambg,

Yes, it is my ironic reply to my friend Exiled Preacher's comment (see above). Though Johnson can turn a phrase, can't he!

Anonymous said...

Not any more, he can't.

"The past is not dead. The past is not even past." - William Faulkner

Jordan Barrett said...

kim fabricius,
I apologize for any offense with "bullet points". It was a late night for me, and looking back I would have chosen my words differently, and I'm sorry for that - no excuses though.

What you wrote makes a lot more sense and I appreciate your follow up. Again, good stuff.

Anonymous said...

Hi Jordan,

No offence taken, really. I actually thought the "bullet points" was a nice touch, no malice. In any case, when you lead with your chin, you've got to expect to take a few shots.


Ben Myers said...


In response to the suggestion above, Kim has also written a sequel-post about hearing preaching. So stay tuned for the sequel this Sunday....

Sivin Kit said...

This opening, "... You eat the book; it is sweet in the mouth but bitter in the stomach (Rev. 10:9-11); you spit out the Word and spray the congregation. When grace hits the mark, it always begins with an unpleasant recoil." Really caught my attention :-) I'm looking forward to the hearing preaching propositions.

Anonymous said...

Why not just give 2 Timothy 4:1-5.
Herein are the best points about preaching. Also, one is not forgiven before repentance. read Acts 2:38. thanks, wth

Looney said...

"Also, one is not forgiven before repentance."!!!

Jesus said (Luke 23:34) "Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing." wth, I think you will have trouble reconciling your statement with Jesus forgiveness of those who haven't repented.

Anonymous said...

I know this is an ancient post, but as a very passionate preacher myself I couldn't pass up an opportunity to comment. Plus, I am a rapidly growing fan of Kim Fabricius and his pithy arguments..

I agree and find much value in most of your points, but I couldn't disagree more with point number 7 "Technique? Skills? Voice coaching? Forget about them." This sounds like parroting of old prejudices by intellectual or academic preachers against more charismatic ones. There are several reasons why these skills are not only useful, but critical to authentic preaching.

#1 you give it in point 3 - preparation. Why prepare the preacher in prayer, the scripture through exegesis, and the sermon through writing and not prepare the presentation? It makes no sense. Preparation of a preacher to have clear and moving vocal quality, emotional expression and movement is just as important as any other kind of preparation.

#2 - incarnation. As you pointed out a sermon is not a what, but a who. The sermon is embodied by the preacher in the preaching moment and that includes the whole person, voice, body, everything. If the preacher does not put themselves into it in terms of emotion, projection, vocal dynamics, pauses, gestures etc... then they are not really preaching. Just reading a text aloud. You separate word-care out as valuable, but denigrate care of the whole mechanism which is saying these words.

#3 - Homiletics is not a literary art form it is a performative art form. That is we "do" it. Surely all the tools we use to do it are valuable and should be practiced. Learning skills to become a better preacher is not at all to suggest that a sermon is MERE oratory, but a sermon does in fact involve speaking. Would you tell an organist not to practice?

#4 - "Smooth tongues are forked" this is nothing but prejudice. It is the same argument used down the ages against beautiful music in worship - it can be used to manipulate people. Of course, any gift can be turned to poor uses and we could all point to preachers who abuse their authority by preaching prosperity gospel or something else, but this is a horrible reason to condemn the skills themselves. Theological speech is broken, yes, but what we want to emulate about Moses is not his stammer. These are stories about overcoming inadequacies, not about raising up flaws as commendable. We all have our own inadequacies we have to overcome in the preaching moment, but it is an insult to preachers and congregations to suggest that all preachers should be plain-spoken, inarticulate, stammerers.

Quite frankly, I wish more preachers would spend some time considering the presentation side of things, considering how they might better embody the message. 95% of communication is nonverbal. Can we even pretend to be faithfully attempting to preach God's word if we aren't using all of ourselves to do it?

Aric Clark said...

That last comment was me...

James T Wood said...

I'm coming late to the game, but I hope to still have some good dialogue. I'm working on resources for how preachers can use visuals well (link) - I agree that illustrations can distract from the sermon - if they're not well used. However, your point that one cannot both read and hear at the same time is only part of the story. John Medina ( a neuroscientist at the University of Washington points out that vision is our primary sense and that there is a huge increase in comprehension and recall when information is encoded both visually and audibly.

The history of the church is filled with visual representations of the gospel (mosaics, frescoes, stained glass, cathedral floor plans, paintings, etc.) - one need not be a techie to use visuals to communicate the gospel. However, if we are to communicate in the language of the people, we need to consider using technology.

$0.02 for you.

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