I have been thinking about preaching. I began preaching in 1997, at first once per month. Then in 1998, I was appointed to serve as a pastor of two small churches. The challenge of preaching every week while in Seminary was intense. I have always had appreciation for the power of story, so the search for illustrations was my most time consuming.
I still remember one particular morning when there was a visitor in the African American church I was serving. As she left, she commented "I enjoyed your story this morning." I know she meant it as a compliment. But I also knew that especially in the Black Church tradition, the question before every preacher is always "is there a Word from the Lord this morning?" She was also telling me that while I may have shared a nice story, it had not been a Word from the Lord for her. It had been a story, not a sermon. And she was right.
As I continued to work through preparing sermons and trying to be open to God giving me the ability to preach better, I began to feel better about my preaching. I have always had a heart for sermons that are down to earth, because I remember well what it is like to be a new comer in church and how important it is for preaching to be accessible.
The next major marker in my preaching history came in 1999. It also happened in the Black Church tradition. I was to be a part of a Martin Luther King, Jr. worship celebration. The pastor of the host church had been given free reign by most other clergy to just plug us in anywhere and we would be glad to serve. I expected to read Scripture or pray or something along those lines. Imagine my surprise when I walked in and saw in the order of worship that each clergy person was invited to give "remarks." For a preacher in this tradition, that meant preaching. (The host pastor was being respectful of each clergy person gathered.)
I prayed hard. I asked God to give me something to say. Such things have a way of getting longer with each person's remarks, and I was in the middle of the line up. I still don't remember what it is that the Spirit gave me to say. But I do remember that Scripture as well as stories from my devotional book flowed through my mind and out of my mouth. We, the gathered community, connected with each other and with the Spirit in a powerful way.
After that worship service, I came to this conclusion: if God can do that on a moments notice, then surely God can enable me to preach from an outline and not from a written manuscript. So I began taking more risks. On this journey, God has taken me from a nervous, manuscript reading preacher to an outline/very little notes preacher. On the way, I have discovered that the connection among the gathered community and the Holy Spirit feels more palpable.
I know that preaching in a way that feels conversational helps open us more deeply to what God has to say. I also know that God is able to accomplish such things.
So here is what I am wondering: do sermons in conversational style connect more deeply because there is an underlying assumption about authenticity? That if a sermon just "flows out of a person" it somehow communicates, subconsciously I think, that the preacher really believes/experiences what is being preached?
I ask this not because I think only preachers who don't use a manuscript have something authentic to communicate. That is patently false- when I used a manuscript I desperately wanted to share well from my heart. But I do think the medium of sermon delivery communicates in conjunction with the sermon itself.