(You will not be surprised to note that I am simultaneously working on tomorrow’s sermon and listening to my iTunes DJ playlist.)
People frequently comment on the physicality of my sermons, the extent to which I preach with my full body. That comes in great part from having been taught to preach by the congregation I served in Florida, at St James’ Church, Tampa (before it merged with House of Prayer). A good part of it, though, comes also from my fondness for r & b and rock’n’roll music. While I’m devising a sermon, I typically have an implicit soundtrack — sometimes just one song, sometimes two or more — playing in my imagination.
This morning, the playlist brought up the Dream Academy’s “Life In A Northern Town”, which illustrates and intensifies my practice. As I was listening along, I awaited (and mimed, I confess) the signature double-drumbeat that comes at the beginning of the “Ah hey a ma ma ma” refrain, and noticed that as tremendously powerful as that drum figure is, the arrangement reserves it only for the beginning of the refrain. One could throw it in at several positions, but it arrives just once at each iteration of the “Ah hey” in the first refrain. After the first verse, the refrain is sung only once; in subsequent verses, the refrain is sung twice through (each time with the double-drumbeat on the first two “hey”s). As the song develops, the drummer (Ben Hoffnung) leads into the drumbeat with fills that heighten the anticipated duh-dum.
OK — that might satisfy one the “Great Moments’ posts I’ve written before, but the point this morning is that the drum track defines an acoustic and affective space for the song. And our sermons are not categorically distinct from this sort of musical composition. The double-beat in “Life In A Northern Town” contributes a point of orientation to the song; it signifies by accenting the chanted refrain and by contrasting with the relatively quiet arrangement of the rest of the song.
When putting together a sermon, we may well ask ourselves “What’s going on in the drum track?” or “How are we heightening the crescendo to which this repeated motif is leading?” For many sermons, the answer is all too easy: there’s no drum track, there’s no crescendo, there’s only a relatively monotonous meander. There are no ornaments, no hooks, only time passing slowly. Preacher: if your sermon were a song, would you willingly listen to it more than once? Would you even listen to it all the way to the end?
Churches often devote vast amounts of individual and institutional energy, money, and time to figuring out why people don’t come to church. Here’s a very quick, but demanding, tip: if the worship and the sermon don’t affect congregants and visitors, then the clever poster campaign, the cool-ly ironic name of the congregation, the bare feet or the coffeeshop ambiance or the incense or the elaborate planning will probably not enliven, perhaps not even sustain, the congregation.
(This is not to say that every sermon should be bombastic: no, no, no. “Life in a Northern Town” is actually a relatively subdued number, and one can imagine meditative sermons that work in the ways a minimalist composition does. But if you haven’t even thought through the ways that the sermon involves a great deal more than the cognitive work of “thinking something up and saying it”, or “looking up a cute, or touching, or striking, story to illustrate [what you take to be] the point of the Bible reading”, I’ll lay heavy odds that the sermon is missing a great deal that could strengthen, deepen, and extend the impression that the sermon leaves. Or doesn’t.)