How can preachers keep their preaching fresh? Doug Powe of the Lewis Center staff interviews Professor of Preaching Teresa Fry Brown about preaching familiar texts for different generations, preaching for in person and digital audiences, as well as sermon preparation for bivocational pastors.
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Doug Powe: Dr. Teresa Frye Brown is the Bandy Professor of Preaching at Candler School of Theology, the Associate Dean of Academic Affairs, and the author of many books, including Delivering the Sermon. Our focus for this podcast is how to keep preaching fresh. I want to begin by asking about preachers who often struggle to preach familiar texts, especially when they must do it repeatedly. The easy answer is because they preach the text all the time, but I think it goes deeper than that. It’s simply: “I’ve looked at this text before.” Could you give any insight into why preachers struggle to teach familiar texts.
Teresa Fry Brown: People struggle with repetition because they do not break a text apart and look at different aspects of the text. There’s so much meaning in each text that even a comma can change its meaning. A diacritical mark can give you something. People don’t practice reading the text in different voices, with different kinds of emotion. When you do that, the text may be the same, but the circumstances surrounding the application of the texts have changed. If you pull up the same sermon all the time and never refilter it, you will bore yourself and the people. If you preach the same way all the time — the same process, the same layout, people will start measuring their emotion and their responsiveness because you don’t change at all.
Every time you approach a text you are a different person, and your experiences are different. And every time people hear the text their experiences are different, so I think you could preach the same text every Sunday for a year and find something different in the text every time. If you are aware of the different translations of the texts, the different people, and their experiential base, and aware that you are a different person every time you approach the text, you find something different every time.
Doug Powe: Dr. Fry Brown that is quite a challenge — to take the same text and preach it for a year and to make it come alive each week in a different way.
Teresa Fry Brown: Yes, and there’s so many for different sermon forms. You could do a topical piece. One of the exercises that I do in Intro to Preaching is “The joy of the Lord is my strength.” Sometimes people say [listlessly], “the joy of the Lord is my strength.” I go, What! Look at the words: “the joy,” “the joy of the Lord,” “the joy of the Lord is.” Present tense, right? The joy of the Lord is my strength. There we had six or seven different words. You could do you could do a topical thing on joy. You could look at a different word each week. You could ask yourself: how does the meaning change if I change the commas? So, there are different ways to do it that I think that could be refreshing.
Then also look at the liturgical year context. When we’re rolling through Lent people say to me: how many times can you preach that he got up? Well, there are different ways to do that or the seven last words or Ash Wednesday. There are so many different possibilities if we broaden our idea about what resurrection is and find a different kind of text. Since you preach a different sermon for everyone who’s listening to you because they bring themselves to the text, there’s a multiplicity of ways to preach resurrection.
Doug Powe: If I’m preaching the same text for 52 weeks, how am I cognizant that I’m falling into the trap of approaching the text the same way? Many people would think I am actually approaching it differently not realizing, “They probably fall into the trap of just doing it in one particular way, so they end up at the same place.” Is there a way to catch that so that I can disrupt my preaching pattern?
Teresa Fry Brown: I think the word disruption becomes critically important. Some of us schedule out: Today I’m going to work on this verse. Tomorrow I’ll work on the next verse. We routinize things and we begin to bore ourselves. Every now and then, develop a different routine for that week because it refreshes you. Pastors have people who are sick, budget meetings, toilets to clean, they have all these things they have to do. And maybe, it’s okay to not follow that same routine. I’ve had people who say “I can’t preach. I was up all night with the baby being sick.” Were you thinking about things before the baby was sick?
Doug Powe: Hmm!
Teresa Fry Brown: Well, if you’re thinking about the sermon and the text every second (I don’t mean consciously or subconsciously), there’s some engagement with life that should be informing. I always say every second of your life informs your next sermon. You don’t have to use three points. Some Sundays preach one point. Some Sundays don’t preach points at all. Some Sundays preach about a word in the text. There are so many different ways, but I think we get routinized because it’s easier to follow a routine than to challenge ourselves to do something different. During Covid pastors were so used to their pattern of delivery, even of where people would say amen. But when the people weren’t in front of them, they didn’t have the visual cues as to when to say things, when to raise their voice, when to do all these things, so they had to work on reading cues on a flat screen. Pastors were dealing with all these other things during Covid, including their own creativity and isolation rather than developing new habits. I talked with someone yesterday who said in their tradition they preached for two hours.
Doug Powe: Oh, wow.
Teresa Fry Brown: And I went whoa. I’m talking to people about how you can be very concise and preach the same sermon in less than an hour — 12 to 25 minutes, no more than 30 minutes — because people’s listening habits change.
You are a person, too. Your habits of engaging a text change. Your study time has decreased. The ways in which you use resources have decreased. If you’re preaching the same way you were 25 years ago or 15 years ago or 10 years ago, you need to reevaluate because you become almost calcified in your creative process, and you don’t want that to happen.
Doug Powe: I’m not going to say the pandemic’s over, but hopefully we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. But now a lot of preachers must preach to people who are in-person, and they must preach to a virtual audience. You’re talking about the cues that you must pay attention to, and this is a different world. You don’t just have the people right in front of you. Now you also have to pay attention to some extent to those who are joining you virtually. Do you have any advice for how someone can preach to two audiences at the same time?
Teresa Fry Brown: In my mind, preachers are always preaching to more than one audience. Each person listening has their own hermeneutic, their own social location, and their own way of listening. They have things that they’re thinking about that are different than what you are saying. Before 2020, there were people that were selling cassettes, floppy disks, and MP3s, so your audience kept growing. Or they’re watching you on live streaming or they’re watching you on television and you never knew exactly who the audience was with whom you were preaching. Someone would go and tell someone about the sermon which may or may not have been what you said. So, we’ve always had to be cognizant that there were people physically in front of us, but that did not mean that they agree with us or follow along because sometimes we teach people perfunctory responses that don’t necessarily mean that they’re paying attention to what we’re saying. They just know everybody else is saying “amen.” It’s like the collective effervescent waves at football games. Because somebody else is saying it, “Oh! It’s time for me to say amen!”
Because many people were doing sermons on the telephone — they had a camera and a light and their child had the phone — and all these other kinds of things, some began attending more to the production than to the word. Now the pandemic, the endemic nature of Covid and other diseases and racism, all these other things are still there, so people may need to continue to be more cognizant of their facial expressions (which I’ve taught for years as a former speech pathologist) and the language that they use so that the language doesn’t become so colloquial, that it’s language that someone on the other side of the world would understand. Using abbreviations — I’m not saying don’t use them, but once you use a word, there must be a place for you explain the word (not the dictionary definition) or reiterate it —you can say the same concept over and over again, but you use different words. Olin Moyd wrote a book in the eighties, and he said that you have to reach each age and each of those words will preach.
You don’t know who’s listening. Someone could be sitting right in front of you and not pay attention to a word you say. With the persons who are online, you don’t get immediate feedback. One of my former students, Dominique Robinson, in 2013 started the iHomiletic™. Some people are going back and responding to comments in the chat. So, you don’t know while you’re preaching, but you go back later and read the comments in the chat and then respond to them. That gives you a better connection. It should also inform you about what part of the sermon was understood or not that could inform your next sermon. Just like that line that we used to have when you shook hands at the end of the service where people said that you said things that you know you didn’t say — there are tools to still get feedback, even though it’s a camera, even though they might be people that you will never see.
There’s a church in Texas, The Wherever. They have a wherever church because they may never see those people. But the people are writing comments and responding to them. They have a “Digi Pastor” who goes in and responds as the person in the pulpit is preaching, and I think that’s not going to go away at all.
Doug Powe: I think you’re right that, even with those who are there, they do start with a different hermeneutic. The location doesn’t really matter. You’re trying to reach people who all are going to bring their own hermeneutic to the sermon.
Teresa Fry Brown: That’s true.
Doug Powe: You said that in preaching we’re trying to reach different generations. Some churches have more generations than others, but still the hope is that your congregation could span anywhere from someone in their nineties to someone who’s 10 years old. The hope is that you’re going to say something that connects with all those individuals. Is there a way to do this well?
Teresa Fry Brown: My grandmother at a hundred was listening to rap music because she wanted to be able to communicate with her great-grandchildren. A well-read preacher is a solid preacher. A preacher that is aware of cultures and communities outside of their demographic is a solid preacher. It doesn’t mean you try to be the 10-year-old or the 20-year-old, but you should at least be aware of what is grasping their attention at the moment so that you’re not preaching only for everyone that is 10 years either side of your age. The preacher has to read and listen, and listen and converse, and listen and watch, and listen in order to, as Moyd would say, reach each age and understand that even within your congregation, with different age groups, different generations, a child who’s being raised by their grandparents has a different point of view than a child who is being raised by their parents.
So, you must invest some time. I’m going to say listen again because I think, past your voice, the best sensory kind of input for preachers is listening and watching and observing. In my classes I have people listen to music they wouldn’t ordinarily listen to. I say to preachers you can’t only listen to gospel music and be relevant because some gospel music is not theologically relevant. You can watch reality shows if you want to, but watch some documentaries also. You could read crime novels, but you may have to read a love novel every now and then because your people are doing that. You must also be aware of what cultural matters infuse your particular congregation and not be so ready to jump on a sociological study that did not include your people as to when you want to shift how you’re preaching or shift what is going on even in how you’re ordering worship or who’s included in worship.
Doug Powe: What I have found interesting, and I experienced this with our own son is that even when particularly younger people don’t seem like they’re listening, they’re often listening.
Teresa Fry Brown: Yes.
Doug Powe: It is important to make sure that you’re connecting with them, even if it doesn’t feel like it’s a good use of your time.
Teresa Fry Brown: I’ve heard people use a word and I’ll say, “Tell me what that word means.” I don’t necessarily use the word, but I can find a word — because we have 50-60 thousand words that we know — that’s similar that might reach someone else with a definition that still lodges with that person. I preached a sermon Sunday where I used a breadth of songs as a litany, but I knew that I had different people in the congregation that would come in and go “Oh, that’s me! She understands that I exist!” It’s the concept of “I see you and I hear you.” Avoid illustrations that demean any demographic. I don’t care what people are saying. Don’t spend time in a sermon talking about those young people. Blah! Those old people. Blah! That negativity pushes them away from hearing the gospel because your illustrations were awful.
Doug Powe: How can we hold together different things in a sermon? For example, say something happens as it did in Memphis, Tennessee, but it’s also Transfiguration Sunday. You’re trying to hold together preaching this very relevant theme that’s in the news, but you also want to pay attention to the liturgical season, to Transfiguration Sunday. You can just pick any time of the year. How do we hold together multiple things at the same time and do them well? Because the tendency is that I do one well and maybe just mention the other, but I don’t really do justice to both well.
Teresa Fry Brown: Amazingly I’ve had this discussion several times in the last year.
Doug Powe: I can believe it.
Teresa Fry Brown: Or the last two or three years. Where I am now as a homiletics professor, is follow what you usually do at your church because you may have been talking about what happened in Memphis before that happened. So, your church already knows your stance and it might be addressed in a prayer, a song, or a reading, and then the sermon is focused on the liturgical event. That’s one way. Another way depends on if I’m preaching Lent or if I’m preaching Good Friday. James Cone talks about the cross and the lynching tree; it falls right together. One needs to read the room to know in which of those places I’m going to address a social issue.
Now, I’m going to complicate matters. Perhaps the Sunday after an event happens is not the Sunday to necessarily preach on that event because you do not have all the information. You only have what scrolled on the news and more details later. Sometimes, if you have not been addressing the issue all the way through, you may have the tendency to fall over your feet because you’re giving partial information, and then you must spend five Sundays saying “I was wrong about this. More has come to light. Maybe we should reconsider.”
If you’re known as a pastor, preacher, or church that’s always doing things on the front line, they already know where you stand. Pray about it. If you are not on the front line, focus on Transfiguration Sunday. Offer a prayer, have a talk after church or something like that. Then the next Sunday, address it because you will have more information, and you don’t feel forced into changing, because those last minute forced sermons fall apart and your emotional overlay wipes out any kind of call for action, compassion, or prayer because you are still in shock.
Depending on the location of the church, if this is happening in your city, that may be the Sunday that you read the text from Transfiguration. And you pray because that’s as much of a sermon in that moment, because you’re attending to the aches and pains of the people who are on the front line. Or that’s the Sunday that you do a five-minute sermon, and you shift to some other kind of liturgy. A sermon is part of the worship, but it is not the entirety of the worship service. We get lost when we think that sermon is the star event. Well, what was the rest of the service and why did you have me sit here for 45 minutes if that didn’t matter?
We also have to be sensitive enough to know that preaching takes place in different ways, that it’s not always a prescribed little event where somebody does this thing and everybody’s applauding, everybody is grounding. There are other ways to preach. Your action at that time may be the better sermon.
Doug Powe: Due to decline, it’s particularly true now in mainline congregations that you have more lay pastors, people who are either bivocational or they work full time and preach on Sunday or people who don’t go through the traditional route to become ordained. What advice can you give to bivocational lay pastors who don’t have the time to prepare sermons in the way that someone who is a full-time minister does?
Teresa Fry Brown: Read, read, read, read. Read the text, get into the text until you feel it. Wrestle with the text. Do not compare yourself to anybody else who has preached the sermon before or what you’ve heard. Preach what you know in your head God has given you and in your heart that your people need. It is not a performance or competition. With passion and compassion, relay the Word of God that people will live. Love the people enough to want them to live. That’s what I would say to people starting out.
Doug Powe: Dr. Fry Brown, I really appreciate it. This has been excellent, and thank you for your time, you know, because you are the busiest woman in theological education.
Teresa Fry Brown: I love you, Douglas Powe.
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