The Simple Sermon
One of the key challenges in business presentations is to make complex ideas easy to understand; to create a link to the audience by presenting a simplified version of the message the presenter wants to convey. The reality is that most people just
One of the key challenges in business presentations is to make complex ideas easy to understand; to create a link to the audience by presenting a simplified version of the message the presenter wants to convey. The reality is that most people just don’t have the time, energy or head space to try and unravel the presenter’s sometimes abstract expertise and insights. Another reality is that most business presenters have much more to say than their audience wants or needs to know.
In my work with Roman Catholic clergy, I have learnt that they too struggle with the challenge of making complex ideas easy to understand; to engage with a congregation themselves struggling with head space. Do they also have more to say than their audience wants or needs to know? Well possibly, because, if we are honest, don’t we all?
One approach to dealing with these challenges is to utilise techniques focused on making the sermon ‘simple’; easy to understand and easy to engage with. So, what is a simple sermon? To my mind there are three characteristics:
SIMPLE SERMONS ARE SLIM
SLIM (Say Less, Impact More)
It would be easy to say make your sermons simpler by making them shorter, by saying fewer words. That’s not what this is about. It is about saying less of that which does not directly relate to the aim of the sermon. It is about ensuring that every sentence, story, quote, or analogy is earning its place by directly advancing the progress of the sermon towards meeting that aim. It’s all about making sure that your key message — the ‘pearl of great price’ — is not buried in an ocean of content.
Aims, messages and destinations
Of course, this requires an aim that is clearly articulated (you will see plenty of examples of aims like this in the sermons in the following pages).
In the simplest of sermons there will also be one key message (and just one); the idea, feeling or insight that the preacher wants the listener to fully understand, carry away and remember. To use the well-worn analogy of a journey, the aim of the sermon is the destination, where you want to take your listeners. The one clear message is the reason for that journey.
Here is an example of the aim and how one clear message can play out (taken from homilies submitted to me as assignments) from preaching on Pentecost Sunday.
Aim: To explore the idea that when we say ‘yes’ to the Lord we join with the apostles at Pentecost; we receive the Holy Spirit and wisdom and courage
Message: The Spirit was given to us at our Baptism and continues to invite us on God’s adventure, but we have to let him in through our own locked door and say, ‘Yes’ to the Lord!
In the sermon, the preacher had one focus — leading his audience towards saying ‘yes’. He began by speaking about the Apostles’ experience of Pentecost: ‘They freely chose to accept the Spirit and his gifts in their lives — they said “yes” to the Lord’, then moved on to exploring the effect of the Holy Spirit in our lives; when we say ‘yes’ we invite the Spirit to guide us and enable us to respond to Jesus’s instruction ‘As the Father sent me, so I am sending you’. He focused then on the ‘locked doors’ and the necessity of prayer, illustrating this with the beautifully succinct question: ‘Yes — is this the shortest prayer ever known?’
In short, he had one clear message and wrote a SLIM sermon to deliver that message.
Landing the sermon
Some years ago, I interviewed a very experienced preacher who talked about the common problem of ‘aborted landings’. You may well have heard this in a sermon; just when you think the preacher has reached their conclusion and delivered their message, they say something on the lines of ‘This reminds me of an experience I once had . . . ’ or ‘Pope Francis once said . . .’ and off they go (again) usually to explore another message (and maybe another). One of the benefits of having one clear message is that the message ‘lands’ the sermon well. It is the ending that satisfies the listener, which makes sense of the journey, it is the payoff they get for paying attention — the message they can take away and reflect on.
In the homily above the preacher used the message as his closing words. That’s what I call a well landed sermon.
SIMPLE SERMONS HAVE A SIMPLE STRUCTURE
Easy to follow = easy to understand
Using a simple structure responds to the listener’s need to understand, and easily follow, the preacher’s argument or proposition. The structure provides a logical sequence of events, a sense of progress, and a road map for the journey that retains the listener’s attention and interest.
In my work with clergy, I explore several structures used in business presentations, for example, Past-Present-Future, Problem-Need-Solution, Explanation-Exploration-Expectation, Pleasure-Pain-Proposal. I’m hoping you will have noticed these are all three-part structures because that’s what’s important here. What we are doing is employing ‘the rule of three’.
The rule of three
This technique is based on the principle that ideas or concepts presented in threes are more memorable, interesting, and easily understood. One theory is that it’s about how humans process information; we have become proficient in pattern recognition and three is the smallest number of elements required to create a pattern. It is also how most stories are structured (and we know the power of stories for relaying a message).
All very interesting, but how might we use these structures in a sermon? Here is an example of the Pleasure-Pain-Proposal structure (again taken from a homily submitted to me for Pentecost Sunday).
Pleasure: ‘How beautiful today’s psalm antiphon is: Send forth your spirit, O Lord, and renew the face of the earth. Imagine if that really happened . . . Would there be no more poverty? No more hunger? No more fighting? Imagine stepping out into that world — just the other side of the church door, a mere footstep away.’
Pain: ‘If we are honest what do we really expect to see when we go outside? The unsafe streets? The dirt and debris? Don’t we sometimes feel worn out by what we do see? The disciples in our first reading must have felt pretty worn out.’
Proposal: ‘I think Jesus gives us the answer in the gospel . . . If we open ourselves to the Spirit in prayer and in active love for those around us, we will bring a little bit of God’s kingdom to the world outside this door and through us, God really will send forth His Spirit and renew the face of the Earth.’
There’s a flow and coherence here that comes from using the three-part structure and, in this sermon, a skilful referencing of the psalm in ‘pleasure’, the first reading in ‘pain’, and the Gospel in ‘proposal’ which results in a journey from ‘pleasure’ to ‘pain’ to ‘proposal’ which anchors the sermon to the liturgy of the word.
The structures I’ve mentioned are based on persuasive presentation, change management or decision-making models (which I guess makes sense as they are taken from business presentations). I’d suggest that any logical three-part structure focused on the key message would be useful in engaging the listener’s attention. How about the classic ‘Story-Explanation of relevance-Key message’ or ‘Key message-Explore message-Repeat message’? Or ‘Today’s readings tell us . . . But what does this mean to our everyday lives? One message we could take away is . . .’ Simple ways of applying the rule of three.
SIMPLE SERMONS USE SIMPLE (BUT NOT SIMPLISTIC) LANGUAGE
It is important that we don’t confuse ‘simple’ with ‘simplistic’. I am not suggesting dumbing down what you have to say but rather expressing an idea that may be complex, using a range of communication techniques that help the audience understand and engage with the message. Some of these techniques are well known and, in my experience, well used: storytelling, visual language, and quotations come to mind. A technique I hear used much less often is ‘triples’ (yep, it’s that pesky rule of three again).
In terms of language, this is about using a combination of pattern and brevity that makes for memorable and understandable content. We know the power of this technique because we’ve been hearing triples since, well, forever. How about ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen . . .’, ‘Location, location, location’, ‘Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness’ or ‘See it. Say it. Sorted’? Those triples get everywhere.
For an insight into how we can apply this technique to a sermon we can see some excellent examples of triples in a homily published in this magazine (Issue 183, page 24, Sermon Christmas Day) by Archbishop John Wilson:
‘Hope, forgiveness and eternal life are offered freely to us . . .’
‘There is a purpose, a calling, some definite service to which we are each invited.’
‘Because God loves the world so much he refuses to abandon us to ourselves, to sin, or to death.’
‘Thank you Lord, for the beauty, the consolation, the reassurance of your presence.’
‘These truths, these gifts, and more besides.’
The skill shown here is in writing memorable, impactful, and easily understandable statements that summarise complex and profound truths. They capture our attention; they make the complex clearer and we often keep them with us long after the sermon has ended.
MY ONE CLEAR MESSAGE
Do all sermons need to be simple? I think not. There are times when what we want as listeners (simplicity) is not always what we need. However, if we can use techniques to help our listeners more easily understand and engage with our message doesn’t that simply make sense?
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