In my just-over-thirty-six-years of attending church and listening to preachers, I’ve sat through a number of sermons which sounded more like long essays than impassioned proclamation.
And the fatal flaw of those sermons was the fact that they were written (and often then read from the pulpit!) more for the eye than for the ear.
Now: for most of us preachers, that is an easy trap. We’ve been trained from at least middle school, after all, to write papers that our teachers would then read. So we’ve grown up and been educated in an environment in which good writing was designed to result in pleasurable reading.
And yet writing a sermon is completely, fundamentally different. A sermon, ultimately, isn’t to be read. It is to be heard.
(Now I know many sermons get published, some even get turned into books (!), but a sermon’s first and primary purpose is its original use as spoken proclamation.)
So here are some general principles I try to employ in my weekly task of writing something that will be heard far more than it will be read:
- Keep your sentences short. No need to impress your professor with you skill with the semi-colon; you need instead to impact your hearers with bold brevity.
- Words that sound similar without rhyming — which sounds trite in preaching — have staying power and resonance. One of the strongest bottom lines I remember came from the 2012 series Royal Pains: “What you tolerate today will dominate you tomorrow.”
- Your strongest points come when you contrast conventional wisdom with biblical truth. From Movementum: “Leaving your mark isn’t about what you accomplish. It’s about who you influence.”
- The passive voice is to be avoided at all costs.
- Please tell me you got the joke in the bulleted point above. Sort of like “avoid cliches like the plague.”
- A little alliteration never hurt. From Courageous: “What you have to hide in order to have will come back to haunt.”
- Writing for the ear involves the liberal use of words that sound like what they actually do. The technical term for these words is “onomatopoeia,” and some of the best examples are BOOM, THUMP, SPLASH, WHAM, and my perennial favorite, SPLAT.