It’s been my pleasure to teach the Advanced Lay Servant course, “From Your Heart to Theirs” for the past 7 years. My last stint starts Sunday week. It’s a course that is subtitled, “Delivering an Effective Sermon.” The gist of the whole course is to encourage Lay Servants to realize that the best message is one that comes from the heart and touches someone else’s.
The official teacher’s guide to the course is good and helpful, but like many curricula it needs tweaking to juice it up and grab the attention of the students. The first week of class is mostly lecture with facts about different kinds of sermons, Bible interpretation aids, pluses and minuses of manuscript versus extemporaneous preaching styles, use of the hymnal, and tips on how to use one’s voice more effectively. The bottom line is that the course is about making it personal. The second week is when we listen to each other to see if that’s what we’ve done.
A “heart-to-heart” message is authentic, genuine, and has immediate “street cred.” It is not about sharing a speaker’s glamorous life events, but sharing how our ordinary lives intersect with and are really a part of God’s bigger narrative. The Scriptures are the text and we are the illustrations. Of course, I know that good sermons depend upon thorough exegesis; an interpretation from or out of the text itself. The biggest temptation in preaching a “heart-to-heart” sermon is a tendency to depend on eisegesis; a reading into the text from our own experiences and perspectives.
I submit that although exegesis is most important, the application of that knowledge into our contemporary existence through eisegesis is vital, too. We are required to superimpose our stories onto Scripture in order to be real and relevant. Therefore, I often find myself preaching in a way that uses my personal narrative in an illustrative manner. The Scripture speaks for itself, but I also need to share how it has applied to my life.
My children would have gladly preferred that I kept much of this to myself through the years, and I agree. Too much of the preacher’s story and not enough of Jesus’ makes for a self-centered, look-at-me-and-say-“wow!” hubris. Sharing too much of my children’s stories, usually without their permission, was downright embarrassing! I exposed their lives to a critical public.
I may have seen the moral of the story, but my kids and parishioners probably thought, “There he goes again, tooting his horn about his family.” Now, granted, most of the time these stories were self-deprecating, but it was still overdone. The sermon should be mostly about God’s salvific work than about me-me-me even if primarily about foibles! On the other hand, an all-exegesis sermon can sound like a commentary read aloud – b-o-r-i-n-g! There needs to be a balance, and sermons need to be as creative as the Creator!
The emphasis of the teacher’s guide for “From Your Heart to Theirs” is to help students realize that they already have a basis for ready-made sermon illustrations. Their personal experiences are the source. The seductive pitfall, however, is to start from experience and then hunt a Bible text to back it up. I encourage using the lectionary as the foundation for any given Sunday’s sermon, praying and studying through the passage and other information, then pondering where a speaker’s life and the text meet. Then tell the story!
This process is where the rubber meets the road for Lay Servants, Lay Speakers, and clergy. All of us can benefit from using a timeline of the key events in our lives. Those events can provide tons of illustrations about God’s providence and our obedience to or thwarting of God’s perfect will.
Baptisms, marriages, deaths, grammar school antics, high school friendships and graduations, college encounters, adult friendships, love and heartbreak, parenting, illnesses and the like can provide living proof of God’s faithfulness. Stories that make these scenes come to life animate the sermon and enliven the speaker who can “see” what’s being shared and say it more easily than rattling off a memorized illustration or someone else’s humorous story. The hearers can easily connect their similar adventures or misadventures, and find themselves drawn into God’s narrative. It makes preaching more than just an “inner dance,” as someone has called it. It becomes a “conga line” that brings everyone along!
I appreciate so much the work of Lay Servants. It is an honor to be asked to teach preaching, and it is a blessing when these students fill our pulpits when clergy are out sick or we’re celebrating Laity Sunday – whenever! Preaching is an art that can be learned if laity and clergy alike are willing to tell God’s story and their story in such a way that’s faithful to Scripture and magnifies Christ. Thank you to every Lay Servant and Lay Speaker for all that you do to bring God’s Word to life! We’re all walking sermons!