When I took the required basic class in homiletics (preaching) at seminary, I ended up with a professor whose highest priority was that we memorize our sermons. So much to talk about in homiletics: choice of text, exegetical work, theology, congregational demographics and circumstances, delivery . . . and what we talked about, endlessly, were techniques for memorization.
For me, a person whose ability to memorize anything was almost completely depleted decades ago, that approach meant that I wrote my two assigned sermons as fast as I could so that I would have as many days as possible available in which to memorize them, and that my delivery was uninspired at best, heartily sick and tired as I was of what I'd come up with.
Unlike most of my classmates, I completed my field ed assignment during my third year of seminary, after my homiletics class was behind me. My supervising pastor has a doctorate in homiletics and, while our styles differ considerably, he offered me some excellent advice. He was generous in his compliments about my writing, but he said that it was more appropriate to the page or computer screen, and sought to convince me that a sermon is an oral rather than a written event.
I knew that he was right, but I didn't know what to do about it. His style is energetic and exhortative; mine is quieter and more reflective. How would I turn the latter into an occasion of oral communication?
I can't say that I've made much effort in that direction, but it's certainly come to my attention that many of my favorite preachers preach without notes ~ including at least one person who always writes out his more academic presentations and more or less reads those.
And, very gradually, I've found myself less and less entranced by my own sermon writing, and more interested in connecting on a deeper level of communication with the congregation.
The final nudge came when I talked to someone at the Presbyterian church my brother and his wife have been attending. It's grown dramatically in the past few years, and I asked the lady in question what she thought the reasons were.
"Oh, it's Pastor K," she exclaimed. "He's so charismatic, and he remembers every single name." Well, that leaves me out, on both counts, I thought. "And he preaches without notes; it's as if he's having a conversation with you," she said. Hmmmmm, I thought.
So I'm giving it a try. It turns out to have nothing much to do with memorization, at which I am very bad, and quite a bit to do with conceptualization, at which I'm more or less ok.
I used to research and think quite a bit about my weekly sermon in big chunks of time until Thursday, at which point I would sit down and write most, if not all, of it down. I might tweak it a bit over the next couple of days, but on the whole it was a finished product by Thursday afternoon. And while I certainly didn't read it from the pulpit, I placed a lot of reliance on that manuscript placed securely in front of me.
Now I'm trying a new approach. I start to write in my head as soon as I start to read. All week long, I re-think, re-read, re-study, re-illustrate, and re-organize in my head. On Thursday I write an abbreviated version, and then I proceed with what's going on in my head and heart.
There's nothing much to memorize, because it's more of an internal dialogue with myself, and I'm keeping track of the conversation all week. I don't need any cool techniques oriented to brain-functioning; I'm using the same skills we all use to remember our conversations and ruminations in general.
Now . . . I've only tried this for real a couple of times, and chickened out a couple of times more. But the response is so gratifying that I'm feeling motivated to keep working at it. I think that if I counted the hours, this approach probably takes a lot more time ~ but when Sunday rolls around, I feel as if I am immersed in an ongoing experience of the text rather than producing a frozen-in-time explication. I have to let go of my attachment to the perfectly worded phrase wrung from hours of consideration and revision. But I feel much more free to make alterations as I go, whether based on things that have come up in the congregation during the week, or on thoughts that occur to me as I'm speaking. And . . . when I speak without notes, I'm able to leave the pulpit behind!
I used to wonder what pastors meant when they referred to the Spirit at work in their preaching. I'm thinking that this new engagement with the spoken word might be what they're talking about.
Check back in six months, and we'll see how it's going.
Image: None of the above means that I am immune to the allure of a pulpit in the sky. This one is from Bruton Parish Church in Colonial Williamsburg.