Is it written or spoken? Heard or seen? Inspirational, educational, or informational? Is it a work of art or a medium of instruction?
Really, does a good sermon elicit the same kind of response in a congregation as does a good song? Connecting with mind, heart, and memory? Or is it more like listening to talk radio? Saturday talk radio with its myriad of instructions on how to make your car ride better, your house stand stronger, and your investments mature faster. Which is it?
These are loaded questions, to be sure. Because a good sermon needs to have a piece of all of the elements I’ve mentioned — written, spoken, audio, visual, information, and inspiration.
Yet in the way we try to design sermons around here, they do function very much like a song if they are done well. Think about it. A song begins with a verse, hopefully one that creates an immediate visual image in the mind’s eye of the hearer:
I got the call today, I didn’t wanna hear
But I knew that it would come
An old true friend of ours was talkin’ on the phone
She said you found someone
And I thought of all the bad luck,
And all the struggles we went through
How I lost me and you lost you
What are these voices outside love’s open door
Make us throw off our contentment
And beg for something more?
The role of the verse? So that hearers will say or think to themselves, “I know what that’s like. I’ve been there.”
So it is with the opening moments of a sermon. The preacher begins a journey with the congregation and at various points along the way invites people to join him in a common experience. When I preach, this is most often the “someone here . . . “ section of the message.
Back to the song. A good song has a memorable chorus … even if you don’t know all the verses to your favorite song(s), you know the chorus. Like this one for me which follows the verse from above:
I’ve been learning to live without you now
But I miss you sometimes
The more I know, the less I understand
All the things I thought I knew, I’m learning them again
I’ve been tryin’ to get down to the Heart of the Matter
But my will gets weak
And my thoughts seem to scatter
But I think it’s about forgiveness
Even if, even if you don’t love me anymore
Choruses that are well done stick. The Heart Of The Matter, Don Henley’s song I’m using here, is 23 years old and I’ll never forget its plaintive, forgiveness-seeking refrain.
It’s the same with a one-point sermon, the type we preach most often at Good Shepherd. After establishing the common ground with the “verse” section and then studying the Scripture for the day to get God’s perspective on our shared human dilemma, we try to communicate the salient truth in a way that connects. That’s memorable. That’s sticky.
We even call that point the “Refrain” in preaching. Coming up with a Refrain phrase that’s memorable, faithful to Scripture, helpful to life, and, potentially saving to souls is neither easy nor quick. It’s hard, time-consuming work that’s generally worth the effort. Some of the refrains we’ve had here recently include:
Jesus exposes who you are so you will discover who he is.
What you hide in order to have will come back to haunt you.
The favorites you play will play you.
What you tolerate today will dominate you tomorrow.
When Jesus builds your house, the upgrades are free.
So there’s a reason good music intersects with your spirit and your memory in a way a good edition of “Car Talk” never can. The verses bring you in and and the chorus brings it home.
We pray the same is true of preaching at Good Shepherd and elsewhere in the kingdom.
Here’s The Heart Of The Matter: