Welcome to the blog of Bishop Will Willimon, Professor of the Practice of Ministry, Duke Divinity School. Here you will find articles, sermons, lectures and other offerings from Will Willimon.
“You were really present to us in your sermon today, preacher,” he said on
his way out of church last Sunday. What did he mean by that? Are there
Sundays when I am absent?
I suppose that his remark was an affirmation that this sermon really
seemed to mean something to me. I was “there” in a way that was noticeable
and engaging. Perhaps that is not a bad distinction between a sermon
and a lecture. A lecture is usually a rather “cool” presentation. A few ideas
are put out on the table for reflection, consideration, and possible adoption.
The ideas may mean something to the lecturer or they may not.
On the other hand, in a sermon, there is the expectation that the
preacher will be “present.” The moves made within the sermon must not
simply be general ideas that may or may not have any relevance to the
preacher. They must be ideas that, to some degree, the preacher is trying
to embody in his or her life. The effective sermon is not simply a report
on what the preacher may or may not think. Rather, the engaging sermon
engages the hearers, it takes them somewhere they would not go without
the power of the sermon. It makes a claim upon the hearers. They understand
themselves to be addressed, summoned because it is clear that
the preacher has also been addressed, summoned by the very word the
preacher is attempting to preach.
Sometimes some preachers are accused of being “manipulative.”
Verbal manipulation can be a problem. However, we preachers ought to
acknowledge that every one of our sermons is a sermon about matters
that deeply concern us. We really do want to persuade our hearers, want
to change them, want to encourage them to internalize these ideas in their
The gospel of Jesus Christ is not merely some report on an interesting
philosophy. Rather, the gospel is a matter of God’s action and human
response. The gospel is a claim about the mighty acts of God and therefore
that claim must be an act, a summons, a deed.
Detachment can be the death of preaching. In fact, for the preacher
to be detached from the subject matter is a basic violation of what the
gospel is all about and therefore what preaching is all about.
How can we preach in such a way that it is obvious we are present in
our preaching? Some of the advice your English composition teacher gave
you in high school is relevant. It is better to speak in the present tense than
in the past tense when using verbs. The active voice (she approved that . . .)
is better than the passive voice (it was approved that . . .). Simple, direct
sentences are to be favored over complex sentences. Short, uncomplicated
sentences convey energy and directness. As someone has said, the passive
voice is always about something that took place somewhere else other
than here and at another time other than now.
Concrete details are much better than abstract generalizations. I
remember hearing about a teacher of preachers who asked students in
his homiletics classes to call out all of the big theological words they had
learned in their seminary classes, words like redemption, atonement,
sanctification. Then he asked them to think of one everyday noun that
could stand for and exemplify those big words, words like bread, water,
wine, birth. He was trying to get his budding preachers to move from
the detached abstraction engendered by the seminary studies to specific
engagement. What are our sacraments if not concrete embodiments of
matter, which without the bread or the wine would remain theological
abstractions? Preaching that is present is therefore preaching that is
If something is universally true, it is best grasped through the particulars
of life. Things that are generic and abstracted tend to float above
human experience. You will note that Jesus is a model for us in this matter
of concrete communication. Jesus spoke of coins, seeds, soil, and the stuff
of everyday life to speak of divine matters.
Avoid standing off from the sermon or from yourself in the manner
in which you speak about the sermon. Don’t refer to the sermon or to
yourself as preacher, or to the listeners as listeners. Why say things like,
“This morning I would like to have you consider the possibility that . . .”?
Instead, just begin by saying, “Let’s look at the problem of . . .”
Lately, I’ve become annoyed at the way we preachers will speak about
something called “the Christian community,” when what I suppose we are
talking about is church.
Don’t talk about a story, or report on a story, or explain it. Tell the
story. Rather than introduce a story with something like, “There is an old
story that I heard some years ago, I have forgotten just where, perhaps
you have heard it, which I would now like to retell again to you.” Rather,
simply begin, “One day there was a little girl who did not know which way
to turn in a dark wood . . .”
Rather than summarize conversations between people, “One day
Jesus was met by an interesting man who had some interesting things to
say to him,” say, “‘What have I got to do to inherit eternal life?’ he said
to Jesus.” It is always better to show than to report. If the conversation is
interesting, don’t tell your hearers that it is interesting. Rather, repeat the
conversation for them and, if it is interesting, they will know it without
your telling them.
Study the art of storytelling. Storytellers seem to involve their listeners
in the action of the plot, seek to have their hearers identify with the
various characters in the story. Isn’t that what we want them to do with
Extended quotations, even if they are from Scripture, get to be tedious
and difficult to follow. Again, in quoting, we are distancing ourselves
from the material we are presenting. Our hearers likewise will feel
distanced by the use of long quotations.
Generally, I think it is a good rule to avoid heavy-sounding theological
abstractions. Use words like redemption, or atonement, or incarnation,
which are all good theological words, and watch a congregation’s
eyes glaze over. All of these words speak of concrete, available experiences
of God’s ways with us. Talk about those ways, the primary theological encounter,
rather than the abstracted theological report of that encounter,
and you will be “present” in the sermon.
Perhaps above all, we must be interested in what we have to say,
convinced that what we have to say is of singular importance for our
hearers. I sometimes tell my students to search the biblical texts for the
given Sunday and find something within the text that engages them. If
they can’t find something that engages them, they will never engage their
congregations. It is well for our hearers to ask us to be present in our sermons,
interesting, engaging, and enthusiastic about the message we deliver. To be
anything less is to raise questions about the validity of the message we
have to deliver. The message we have been given is good news, the words
of God unto life. Let us give that message with all of the clarity and all of
the presence we can muster.
Want millennials back in the pews? Stop trying to make church ‘cool.’
Rachel Held Evans is a blogger and the author of “Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church.”
A number of years ago a distinguished homiletics professor wrote a bookon the science of preaching. He noted those insights, techniques, andmethods that are required to preach well. His book was a massive exercise in the explication of the precise steps on the way to a good sermon.
This sort of thing flies in the face of what I believe about the preaching task. From my experience with preaching, I believe that preaching is much more of an art than a science. Learning to preach is more akin to learning to paint in watercolors than it is to learning to mix chemicals together to produce a predictable chemical reaction.
As one of the most demanding and difficult of pastoral tasks, preaching requires so wide a range of gifts and skills. It is no wonder that some have asked if it can be taught at all. “Preachers are born, not made.” While natural gifts of the preacher count for much, good preaching is an art, not magic. It must be learned. As with any art, preaching is an alloy of gifts and training, natural inclination and cultivated dispositions.
Because preaching is an art, the best methods of homiletical education tend to be modes of apprenticeship—a novice looking over the shoulder of an experienced master of the art in order to get the insights, moves, and gestures required to practice that art. For this reason, homiletics is often the most difficult practice to teach at a seminary, and often the most poorly learned. Preachers are made through intense engagement between a master and a novice, the master being willing to take the time to get to know the novice, the novice being willing to submit to the moves, habits,and insights of the master. Preaching cannot be learned, as it is often attempted to be taught, with a group of twenty passive seminarians sitting through lectures in a homiletics class, handing in a few written “sermons” during the course of the semester.
Chrysostom says that a preacher needs two basic attributes: “contempt of praise” and “force of eloquence.” I find it fascinating that he links these two particular qualities. If the preacher lacks eloquence, then the preacher “will be despised by the people and get no advantage from his sublimity.” On the other hand, if the preacher “is a slave to the sound of applause,” the preacher will speak more “for the praise than the profit” of the congregation. Art will subsume theology and verbal dexterity will be more important than biblical interpretation. Thus, while the great Chrysostom does not shrink from calling for artful eloquence in preaching, it is always art in service to gospel truth.
There has always been an uneasiness among Christian preachers in admitting that preaching is an art, a craft with certain techniques and skills that can be learned and refined in the practice of preaching. If preaching is a gift of God, an act of revelation, does it not seem disingenuous of a preacher to prepare, plan, craft, and practice the delivery of a speech that ought to come straight from God? Paul shows this tension when he tells the church at Corinth,
When I came to you, brethren, I did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God in lofty words or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
And I came to you in weakness and in fear and much trembling. My speech and my proclamation were not with plausible words of wisdom, but with a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God (1 Cor 2:1–5).
It is noteworthy that Paul says that he “decided”—that is, planned and contrived—to speak in a certain way to the Corinthians. He consciously constructed his appeal to them in order that it not appear self – consciously constructed, so that the Corinthians might not be impressed by Paul’s oratory, but rather by the “power of God.” In other words, there is no way around the necessity of rhetoric: consciously or subconsciously contrived ways of speaking that aim to persuade listeners. Paul is a great model for us preachers as we marvel at the wide array of creative rhetorical devices that he employs in order to communicate his beloved gospel.
It is a privilege to be engaged with you in better biblical preaching.
- John Chrysostom, Six Books on the Priesthood, 5.1–8 (p. 127).
We make a weird move in our seminary homiletics classes. After having
spent at least sixteen years educating these students out of their natural,
oral culture of stories, images, jokes, and slang, and into a literate world
of books, term papers, and abstract ideas, in one semester of a preaching
class we try to drag them back to their oral talents.
Yet many commentators have been saying for some time that our
entire culture is making the same move. Gutenberg helped to create the
modern world with his printing press, a world in which the written, printed
word predominated. Now many believe we are in the “postmodern”
world where TV, computers, and other technologies have dismantled the
literate culture and returned us to oral communication. Most of us receive
most of our information through TV. Even a hip newspaper like USA
Today tries to look like TV. The words on my computer screen may look
like print, but what looks like type are only flashes of light, having more
in common with the transience of the spoken word than the permanence
Preaching must recover a sense of itself as an oral event. When, in
your first preaching class in seminary, the professor said, “You will hand
in three sermons this semester,” those weren’t sermons. Nothing lying on
paper is a sermon. A sermon must be spoken, “done,” performed. You
haven’t “done” King Lear if you read it. It’s a play; therefore it can only be
encountered in performance. Sermons are like that.
Therefore Clyde Fant, great teacher of preachers, spoke of the need
for “oral preparation” of sermons. Fant advised us first to speak a sermon;
then, only after we have tried speaking the sermon aloud in our study
should we put anything down on paper. On paper, the eye gives clues to
the reader through paragraphs, underlining, punctuation. The hearer has
no such clues; therefore the speaker must help the hearer with transitions,
emphases, and coherence. A manuscript can delude us into thinking that
our sermon is more coherent and comprehensible than it really is when
Retaining a sense of orality is perhaps the greatest advantage of
preaching without a manuscript. A sermon manuscript gives us preachers
the illusion that we have “done” a sermon when at last we have fixed
words on a page. On the page, the reader is given clues by the writer when
to pause, when to stop and ponder, when to move on. When spoken, the
sermon has no punctuation marks, no paragraph indentations, none of
these printed clues to help it communicate. In writing out our sermons,
our sentences tend to be too long, our thought patterns too involved. We
lose a sense of movement and rhythm.
Even when we know our manuscript well, we tend to look at the
manuscript rather than look at our listeners. We miss clues that our listeners
are sending us when they don’t understand, or when they are losing
interest. Preaching is a visual as well as an auditory affair. Oral communication
requires eye contact as sender and receiver send one another clues
about what is being communicated.
Most of us preachers must work to regain and to develop our oral
skills. In some traditions, such as the Pentecostal, or in African American
churches, preachers never lose those skills. TV’s presentation of a composed,
polished talking head, eyes fixed on the viewer (reading from the
teleprompter!) gives us preachers some competition. Yet, oral skills are
learned—eye contact, timing, pacing, voice control, memory, humor,
posture are all skills that we can improve despite our innate gifts or lack
Have yourself videotaped. Ask yourself, in viewing this tape, “How
do I appear to others as I speak?” Listen to the audiotapes or videotapes
of other preachers, even attempting to imitate some of their oral techniques.
Imitation can be the path toward eventually finding your own
voice. Preachers have learned much from Garrison Keillor.
Deliver your sermon in front of a mirror.
I find myself watching the performers on The Comedy Channel on
our cable TV. Despite the content, here are people who speak for a living,
who develop their sense of timing, their interaction with the listeners,
their love of words for the sheer sound of them.
And give yourself credit. I have noted how even the most mediocre
of us preachers demonstrate a facility with the spoken word, skill in oral
communication, the holiness of one human being telling the truth to others,
which is rare in our culture.
So, if we are moving from a once predominately print and literate
culture to an oral and imaged culture, we preachers may be rediscovered.
Our day has come!
I’ll admit it. I like to be in control. I don’t think of myself as a “control
freak.” However, I want there to be a minimum of chaos. On Sunday, for
instance, I like to have a general idea of where we are going to be by noon.
It is fine for the Holy Spirit to be invited into our worship, but only to a
degree. I like the Holy Spirit to have some room for movement, but not
all that much.
I believe it is helpful in the planning process to state a theme of where
the sermon might go on a Sunday like this one, with a text like the one
assigned. After all, we ought to know where we are going, and if we don’t,
we’ll never get there. However, the statement of theme might be guilty of
giving the illusion that we have somehow, by simply stating a theme or a
message for the day, controlled where we are going. Most preachers learn
very early that preaching is not an easily controlled activity. And I like to
be in control.
Some time ago Barbara Brown Taylor stated that “something happens
between the preacher’s lips and the congregation’s ears that is beyond
prediction or explanation.” Taylor notes an experience that every
preacher has, sooner or later: “later in the week, someone quotes part of
my sermon back to me . . . only I never said it. There is more going on here
than anyone can say.” And how! In order to prepare our sermons well, we
need a fairly clear idea of our intentions. But in preaching there can be a huge gap between intention and result.
And so a distinguished literary critic, in pointing out the great gaps
that occur in literature between a writer’s intention and the results that
take place in the reader, calls his book The Uses of Misunderstanding. How
well I recall interviewing an older preacher, asking what he had learned
in forty years of preaching. He answered, “The possibilities for misunderstanding
are virtually limitless.” And how!
How many times have you stood at the door, on a Sunday morning,
and a layperson says to you, “That was a great sermon on . . .” And you
want to say, “But I never said that. That was not what this sermon was
about.” Too late. The sermon is already out of your hands and into the
congregation. Something has wrenched the sermon from your control.
The sermon is not, therefore, best conceived of as a skillful packaging of
ideas that are delivered to a congregation. Rather, a sermon is an event,
a conversation between pastor and people that can go in almost any
I remember an educational theorist years ago telling teachers,
“Teaching is not telling and listening is not learning.” This teacher of
teachers had learned that education is a more indeterminate, risky endeavor
than simply delivering information. The receiver is busy intruding
powerfully on the message that is delivered. We cannot predict where
a sermon will finally go. Rather than predicting, we ought to consider
that perhaps the most important preaching task is offering, intending to
evoke an event, but not being able to control that event. My friend Eugene
Lowry likes to say that the preacher’s work is to help people get to the
point where they can perceive what God is doing and open themselves to
that. Beyond that, preaching is mostly out of our control.
We are not simply delivering a package of information to a congregation.
In the sermon, we are walking a journey together, engaging in a
conversation. In any conversation, there must be a willingness on the part
of each partner to be changed through the conversation. A lecture is oneway
communication. The speaker hopes to change the listeners. But in a
conversation, all of the speakers are also listeners. As you preach, you are
busy listening to the congregation, picking up on a number of subtle, but
powerful cues from them that tell you how you are communicating. The
congregation is also struggling to hear what you are saying. But as they
struggle, they are also busy rearranging what they hear.
Add to this the Holy Spirit. By God’s grace, the Holy Spirit takes
our pitiful words of preaching and enlivens them, rearranges them, helps
them to catch fire in people’s lives.
In the African American tradition there is the powerful use of silence.
The preacher stops frequently throughout the sermon, sometimes
even in mid-sentence, to let the congregation have some room to process
what is being said. This is crucial space. Not only does it provide space
for people to thoughtfully consider what is being said, to catch up with
the flow of ideas, but it also provides for the Holy Spirit to come. It is in
the gaps, these life-giving spaces, that the Spirit can roam, can take hold
of lives, and can make of our preaching more than it would be if left up
to us. No one did this better than the great Howard Thurman of Marsh
Chapel, Boston University. The phrase “pregnant pause” was meant for
Eugene Lowry says, “We cannot control the result of our sermon.
We do our best, of course, but know that with God’s Word we are at best
working provisionally. The Spirit works with certainty. Our task is to try
to maximize the possibility of proclamation happening. We simply cannot
produce it by will.” And I like to be in control.
Better than seeing the sermon as my product, I ought to see it as my
gift, my part in the divine-human conversation that takes place in the
congregation. I ought to enjoy the freedom that is given in the sermon,
the freedom for new insight to arise in the congregation, the freedom
for the Holy Spirit to take my poor sermon and make it mean even more
than I intended. There can be great grace in learning to enjoy being out of
control in the sermon!
Last week I reflected upon some of the challenges of preaching in light of the resurrection. This week, I would like to point to some of the implications of preaching in the light of Eastertide:
- As Bonhoeffer said, there is only one preacher – the resurrected Christ. As Barth said, only God can speak to us of God. And as Will Willimon has said, many of my homiletic failures are due to Jesus and cannot be blamed on me. I don’t know why the Risen Christ chose not to appear through some of my very best homiletical products. Grace isn’t grace if it’s predictable, programmable. I’m not troubled that Jesus performed many miracles; I’m troubled that he performed so few. Even one so talented as Richard Lischer has not been able to come up with a knock down, one hundred per cent successful homiletical method. Preaching works not for reasons rhetorical but rather for reasons theological. As Lischer famously said, “Preaching works before it is understood.” After forty years of working with Jesus I still don’t understand: why he insists on talking to losers with whom I would never strike up a conversation and why sometimes, though he chooses to speak through me, he refuses to speak to me. All preaching is externally authorized. If anything is ever heard anywhere, by anyone, in one of my sermons, it’s a miracle.
- While it is aggravating for those of us who talk about Jesus to have Jesus come and go as he pleases, preaching keeps generating faith in me because of the wonder that Jesus shows up at all. In my experience, the last people to believe that preaching actually works are preachers – perhaps this is a defense mechanism against the reality of Easter. It is so tough to relinquish your life to a discipline over which you have so little control. How many Sundays (not as many Sundays as I wanted, but enough to keep me nervous) would some besotted, smart young thing emerge from Duke Chapel, after service, and report that she had actually heard something. I would respond, “So? The women were right? He is risen and returned to the same losers who disappointed him the first time.” When one considers all of the artful, governmentally subsidized defenses against the word of God – the Duke curriculum, alcohol, promiscuity, the Department of Religion – it restores my belief in miracles. You don’t need a me to tell you why preaching often doesn’t work; but only the Risen Christ explains why preaching sometimes works.
- The purpose of the church and its ministry, the most important thing that pastors do, is preach. All your theological training – all for the purpose of giving you the guts to make an apocalyptic announcement: God has won a great victory. The bloody, crucified Lamb rules. Join up, or else stay stupidly out of step. There are powerful forces working against the utterance of this liberating announcement. All I ask is for a a Sunday congregation of fifteen or fifteen hundred, with their chests stuck out, saying, “Hit me!” I fully understand why pastors allow so many things to crowd out their preparation for and investment in preaching – look, I’m as big a coward as the rest of them. Only Easter explains why so many persevere in this vocation. But faith, as Paul says, is an auditory, acoustical phenomenon. In an unguarded moment Jesus said, “He who hears you hears me.” I didn’t say it was the most effective way to get a New Heaven and a New Earth. In all this, I have just meant to say… it is true.
Preached at Church of the Advent, Boston, MA