What Getting Stuck In The Australian Outback Taught Me About Designing A Sermon. Really!

When I was fourteen, my parents and my older brother Clayton
(he is number seven out of eight, and I round it out
taking the eighth place) and I spent a semester in Australia. My father
was nearing the end of his career as a member of the faculty in
the School of Law at Southern Methodist University (SMU) in Dallas
and he decided to take a six-month study sabbatical in the land
down under. To this day, I have a sneaking suspicion he did a bit
more sabbathing than studying, but that’s not the point of this story
(which, as you know by now, must have only one point).

What an experience this was for an eighth grader! The Australians
drove on the left side of the road, spoke with their thick accents
(and don’t confuse them with British accents, either), ate meat pies,
cheered on local rugby teams, somehow mastered the bewildering
rules of cricket, and for after-school entertainment, frolicked on
Bondi Beach. It was, in every sense of the word, an adventure.

And one time during that semester, I entered a few tennis tournaments
for boys who were fourteen and under. Two of the tournaments
took place in small towns in the interior of New South Wales
(NSW), so the four of us piled into our small car, drove it on the
“wrong” side of the road, and headed into what I was hoping would
be Australian tennis glory. Things were going relatively well until my
father took what he was convinced would be a short cut between two
of those interior towns.

On that short cut, we found ourselves on a rutted dirt road
with no apparent signs of civilization—much less tennis courts—
anywhere in sight. And then, out of nowhere—well, actually out
of the bush to our right—came a leaping kangaroo across the road.
It sounds too cliché to be true, but it happened: we had Australian
kangaroos crossing the road in front of us leaping to dizzying heights
and at terrifying speed. When the situation could not get more surreal,
it did: our little car became stuck in a low ditch on that rutted
dirt road.

Now: Davises are not handymen. My father was a professor.
That brother became a judge. You know what I do for a living.
We’re mechanical nincompoops. So there we were, stuck in a gully
on a strange continent surrounded by leaping marsupials. What had
been merely an eighth-grade adventure suddenly took the tone of
something more ominous and more permanent. (Years later, when I
did undergraduate work on the fiction of Flannery O’Connor, that
day in New South Wales was remarkably like the Georgia scene in “A
Good Man Is Hard to Find” . . . thankfully, minus the murder and the
mayhem.) But how would we ever get out of this mess? We were in
an adventure, the stakes were high, and how would we ever get OUT
of the predicament we had found ourselves IN?

And as we continue our journey into Simplifying the Message and
Maximizing the Impact, I want to suggest that in your process of sermon
design you want to capture that same sense of rollicking unease.
You want the people in the congregation to feel as if you have taken
them on an adventure. “How did I get here?” “How did the preacher
get here?” “How will I get out of this mess?” “How will she?” Those of
us who preach have been entrusted not only with the permission to
identify places of pain and despair in people’s lives; we’ve also been
commissioned with the good news that brings deliverance.

Given those stakes and that reality, please: do NOT walk people through a sermon outline. That will put them to sleep. Take them on a sermon
adventure. That will keep them on the edge of their seats.


The above is an excerpt from Simplify The Message; Mulitply The Impact my book ON preaching that Abingdon Press will release on February 4.  You can pre-order copies here.