By Rosemary Johnson
When, a few months ago, I started preaching sermons, I realised it wasn’t so different from writing.
For my first sermon, on Matthew 16: 13-20 (‘Who Do You Say I Am?), I used the narrative style, that is, I re-packaged the reading as a story, including extras such Jesus sitting down and taking a stone from his sandal when he asked the ‘Who Do You Say I Am?' question and flashbacks to the Book of Daniel. Many of the stories entered for the Best Stories Ever Told competition in 2016 could be used in churches as narrative sermons. Having no dramatic training whatsoever, I delivered my story-sermon as if it were being read on CBBC, with different voices for each character. The assistant priest, and my husband, said they couldn’t hear Jesus because I dropped the volume for Him, to indicate gravitas. Ho-hum, you can’t win them all.
For me, a fiction writer, all that was straightforward, but then to embrace the real thing, the proper sermon. I made a point of writing notes, not a script to be read out aloud, as I’ve seen too many people standing at the front of the church, their head buried in a piece of A4 paper, reading word for word, and it’s off-putting.
For fiction and non-fiction and sermons, you need:
- A good hook in the first line/opening sentence. Whereas readers won’t buy your book if they find the Amazon sample uninteresting, congregation members will daydream (albeit discreetly).
- Something which resonates with the reader/listener’s life and experience (possibly in the initial hook?).
- A cohesive thread. (Not evident in every sermon I’ve ever heard, alas.)
- A good ending. A form of words which sums up the story or sermon, or a question, a punchline, or anything which moves things on.
- No repetitions, of words or phrases. If you think your reps jar in your writing, how much more obvious will they be when you vocalise them?
- Discretion, especially about indiscretions. Think carefully about what you reveal about yourself, especially insofar as it involves your family and friends. Anything embarrassing will be embroidered and exaggerated.
As for divergences, in a sermon -
- Style. Don’t worry too much about style. If you write notes, your normal spoken style will prevail, and, if you hesitate, or restart a sentence, probably no one will notice, and, even if they did, they won’t care.
- Repeating yourself. Emphasising the points you’re making (as distinct from reps of words and phrases) is actually helpful, as listeners may not have heard what you said the first time or appreciate having it reinforced – because they can’t rewind you.
There are many reasons why Christian writers write. On this blog on Saturday, Deborah Jenkins was reminding us about how we long for our writing to nourish others. Christian writers should consider preaching as a different way of deploying their skills for the service of God.
Rosemary Johnson has had many short stories published, in print and online, amongst other places, The Copperfield Review, Circa and Every Day Fiction. In real life, she is a part-time IT tutor, living in Suffolk with her husband and cat. Her cat supports her writing by sitting on her keyboard and deleting large portions of text.