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Changes, Improvements, and Inspiration

06 September 2021

Thinking on new ways to preach, The Preacher asked some prominent contemporary preachers how recent experiences have changed their thinking and practice

 

Changes, Improvements, and Inspiration iStock

Archbishop John Wilson, Roman Catholic Metropolitan Archbishop of Southwark.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

By making me really consider what might be on the hearts and minds of my hearers and how these Scriptures speak to them? Finding the ‘here and now’ significance of God speaking through his word has become more urgent and necessary, conscious that with live streaming the congregation can be expansive.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

To pray and reflect more in advance, and allow more time for what I want to say to percolate. This will, hopefully, enable what I want to preach time to mature, find greater coherence, and better expression. Sometimes it’s too ‘hand to mouth.’

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

Obviously in prayer, reflection, and different aids to understand the scriptures. The arts have always been inspiring, but increasingly human experience and story – from a whole host of sources which shed light, directly or indirectly, on our humanity before God’s loving mercy and the life of faith.

 

Jennifer Brown, Director of Training for the College of Preachers

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

I think it is important to acknowledge within my preaching the suffering that people have experienced because of the pandemic whether they themselves have been ill or bereaved, or if it is suffering resulting from isolation and the disruption to life that we’ve experienced over these past 16 months or so. I also find that I try to encourage people to see the positives that have resulted from the changes we’ve been forced to make, and to preach

hope.

On the purely practical side, because I am conscious that we have some of our congregation still taking part remotely (for example via Zoom), I try to keep my sermons fairly short and my delivery ‘energetic’, so as to hold the attention of those interacting through a screen.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

I’m not sure there is any one thing it depends on the preacher. Although I suspect that for many, just having more time available to read the Bible and books on theology, to engage with culture through novels, films, visiting museums, etc, and just having time to think and reflect, rather than the constant busyness that life imposes, would likely result in more creative, thoughtful, and inspiring sermons.

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

First, to scripture I always try to see the passage set for a given Sunday ‘afresh’ so as to let it speak to me and be open to new ideas or meanings emerging from the text. I then look for ways in which what the text is saying connects to the life of the church now.

 

Ian Paul, theologian, author, and speaker. Adjunct Professor, Fuller Theological Seminary; Associate Minister, St Nic’s, Nottingham; and Managing Editor, Grove Books.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

Preaching to a camera, either live or pre-recorded, is very different from preaching in person. There is none of the usual feedback from engaging with people face to face, and I have realised afresh how important that is! It is actually much more like speaking on radio, but with a camera; you need to engage directly with the technology, think about, in effect, speaking to just one person, and you need to project your personality to make up for the lack of other connections. I think people find it harder to concentrate when listening, so things need to be more compressed, animated, well-illustrated, and to the point.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

The primary thing in this medium, as for preaching in person, is to watch yourself, receive feedback, and act on that to improve. I think a lot of online preaching would improve a lot if

we all watched ourselves back and learned from it! Watching yourself preach is very painful, and most people avoid it—but with recorded sermons there is now no excuse!

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

I have watched lots of other people preaching online and take inspiration from examples where people have done it well. One of my favourites is the Lutheran Bryan Wolfmueller, whom I watch a lot. Not surprisingly, he has a lot of experience in radio broadcasting, and that carries over into his excellent video work. He is great at using simply, low-tech techniques to communicate well.

 

Sergius Halvorsen, a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, is Assistant Professor of Homiletics and Rhetoric at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

During the pandemic we’ve had far fewer services than normal, so my opportunities to preach over the past year have been vastly reduced. As we slowly resume a normal cycle of services, I return to preaching with a much deeper love and appreciation for the preaching ministry.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

Vulnerability: I preach my best when I allow the Word of God to pierce my heart, and to touch upon my greatest weaknesses. While maintaining appropriate boundaries not preaching myself the preaching that affects me most deeply, is almost always the preaching that is most meaningful for the hearers.

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

I look to the intersection of Scripture and my deepest vulnerability for inspiration. It might sound counter intuitive, but I am most inspired to preach when I discern how the Word of God strengthens and encourages me where I am right now.

 

Rachel Mann, an Anglican priest, poet, writer, and broadcaster, currently full-time Area Dean of Bury and Rossendale. Visiting Teaching Fellow in the Manchester Writing School, MMU, and Visiting Scholar in Sarum College.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

I’ve preached more briefly, simply, and more directly from the heart. This has been especially true when preaching through the medium of Zoom or broadcast via YouTube.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

Preachers asking of themselves, ‘What one simple thing is God inviting me to say here?’ and ‘How might I say this briefly and engagingly?’

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

A friend once claimed that Soaps were the only place in our society where moral debate still happens. I’m not sure this is correct, but I am fascinating by popular culture as a conversation partner for the Gospel. Cinema and TV inspire me as much as literature, poetry, and art.

 

Gillian Straine, CEO of The Guild of Health and St Raphael

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

Like everyone else, I have had to adapt to delivering sermons across Zoom or prerecord them. It’s a completely different experience, but the same amount of thinking needs to go into the way that I communicate given the limitations. It is only 50% the theology the rest is engaging the listeners.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

Think about the lives of the people who are listening and work hard to make it relevant and non-authoritarian we must regain ground in the public square.

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

I speak to people who would never darken the door of our churches this is the mission field, these lives are important to Christ.

 

Alyce McKenzie, teacher, speaker and author, the Le Van Professor of Preaching and Worship at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University, Dallas, Texas. An ordained elder, in the United Methodist Church.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

Preaching on Zoom has made me realize more than ever the importance of the preacher’s presence, the energy and passion the preacher brings to the preaching event, that can come through even when preaching to a camera, seated behind a computer. With regard to delivery, it calls for more intentional facial expression, vocal intonation and gestures. With regard to content, it calls for even more vivid imagery and storytelling and more conciseness.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

It’s tough to identify just one thing. I’d say the preacher’s hyper attentiveness to everyday life for signs of hope and divine goodness in people and events. This will inform both our biblical exegesis and our illustrative choices.

Neglected aspects of biblical texts, dreams that can sometimes reveal the interior workings of God, and the often-overlooked graces and joys of everyday life.

 

Bishop Nick Baines, Anglican Bishop of Leeds, a regular broadcaster, writer and blogger with 16,000 followers on Twitter.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

The pandemic has changed my preaching in adding a new medium to the practice. Preaching online is more akin to radio broadcasting where you are speaking to one person (even if there are ten million persons listening) and have to consider how language and image will be heard and appropriated differently.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

Most preaching would be improved by learning to listen to what is actually being heard (rather than, primarily, what we think we are saying).

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

I am inspired by Scripture, books and the world around (see Koyuke Koyama and his Water Buffalo Theology).

 

Vicky Johnson, Anglican priest, Precentor at York Minster, singer and liturgist, formerly a research scientist.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

I am more attentive to the challenging situation in which we find ourselves today acknowledging that many are hurting, fearful and carrying unimaginable burdens. Context is everything, and context shapes what the preacher is given to say. A global pandemic is a context the preacher cannot ignore.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

I have a few things to offer! Clarity and brevity. Imagination and authenticity. But if I had to choose one thing I think preaching could be improved by a commitment to holding the task in prayer and the careful use of words.

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

Obviously scripture is the primary source of inspiration, but I also lean on music, poetry, art, literature and even science. I think inspiration can come from anywhere and everywhere, I guess the challenge is having eyes to see, and hearts to receive that inspiration.

 

Gregory Heile, a Dominican friar, is Professor of Preaching and Evangelization and Director of the Doctor of Ministry in Preaching at the Acquinas Institute of Theology, St Louis, Missouri

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

As a listener, I have watched or listened to preaching from across my own country and worldwide. This engagement with other preachers has given me a greater sense of how preachers engage complex social issues.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

First, as preachers prepare, I hope they will keep their listeners in mind. Second, I long for preachers to engage in humble dialogue about complex social issues with their listeners—both in and out of the pulpit.

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

Pope Francis is an exemplary preacher. He keeps his listeners and the challenges of contemporary culture in mind, and he is kerygmatic, courageous, and humble in speaking to complex issues.

 

John Perumbalath, Bishop of Bradwell in the Anglican Diocese of Chelmsford, Chair of Churches’ Refugee Network for UK and Ireland.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

I have become conscious that I do not know all in the audience, especially if I am preaching online, so learnt to leave space for different groups of people to reflect in their own particular context.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

Listening! We need to know the aspirations, pain and suffering of our listeners. Otherwise our sermons will become meaningless monologues.

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

In the interaction of the text (scripture) with our context and the needs it presents.

 

 

Stephen Wright, an Anglican priest, Vice Principal and Academic Director of Spurgeon’s College, author and researcher.

How has the pandemic changed your preaching?

I have certainly tried harder to communicate as clearly and in as down-to-earth a way as possible. Initially, I was getting used to the unfamiliar medium of doing sermons to camera for pre-recorded services. This seemed to require more attention to brevity and clarity. I think that a sense of pastoral/prophetic urgency was also involved – the need to speak a timely word in a situation where many would be disoriented or lonely. This was intensified since our parish priest moved on in June 2020 so as one of the resident honorary priests, I felt a greater sense of responsibility. Since my church resumed live services, first from

August-December 2020 and then since March 2021, we have not used the pulpit (it has been one of the roped-off areas for COVID security) and the physical reality of being on the same level as the congregation has led me, almost instinctively, to attempt a more conversational and less formal tone; I have also been a little more open about personal struggles of faith. I think the sermon has assumed a greater importance in the service since communal singing has been impossible and also because of the unique pastoral situation mentioned above, so there is a sense of trying to rise to the challenge.

What one thing do you think would most improve preaching?

Preachers listening to congregations more – so that they can craft messages that really seek to engage hearers on the level required to build them up in faith and understanding and enable them to live out their discipleship consistently.

Where do you look for inspiration in your preaching?

I try to find fresh resources that I have not consulted before related to the biblical passage(s). I sometimes turn to poetry, especially George Herbert and other Christian poets of that period. I find that using even everyday personal stories can create a spark in the preaching event which is missing when the presentation is more detached: but identifying such stories is not always easy.

 

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