Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Straws, Sitcoms, and Sermons

Last night I was eating out and ordered my usual Diet Coke.  The waitress gave me a straw, but when I tried to unwrap it I realized it was defective.  The machine that crimps the ends of the wrapper crimped the end of the straw, so one end was closed off, rendering it unusable.

Later I was watching a video of Andy Stanley delivering the closing teaching at Catalyst Atlanta in October, and he made a joke about preaching – at the expense of Presbyterians, of course.  He said: “if your [preaching style is] all about theology and no application … then you’re Presbyterian.”

Sadly, too often he’s right.  And then I thought about my defective straw.  In a sense, 95% of the straw was perfect – but the crimp at the end made the whole straw useless.  Perhaps the straw is a symbol of the function of worship.  People come to worship with parched souls, thirsty for God – and good worship with good preaching can serve as a straw, enabling them to connect their thirst with God's living water.

But I suppose that too many preachers are providing a defective straw.  If the message is dry, inaccessible, or irrelevant to everyday life, the straw is crimped at one end … and if the message is all pop psychology/pseudo-theology, it’s crimped at the other end.  Either way, a good working connection between the congregant and Christ doesn’t happen.

When we think about how to connect to the parishioner, too often we pay too much attention to our content and not enough attention to the method of delivering that content.  The most effective way to deliver content is to be in sync with how people are used to receiving content in today’s world, and that is constantly changing.

I remember attending a lecture over a decade ago by Rodger Nishioka, a Presbyterian seminary professor who is known for work in the area of multiple intelligences.  At the time, persons using the Web was not nearly as ubiquitous as it is today, yet he said that it was already impacting how sermons could be constructed.  He said that while sermons used to need to be designed with a smooth flow and seamless transitions, the Internet made people accustomed to “context switching” – clicking a link and jumping to an entirely new page.  Thus he said that you could now “hyperlink” in a sermon – make an abrupt jump from one context to another, as long as the listener could grasp the connection behind the jump.

That lecture caused me to continually be aware of how people receive information and design my sermons with that in mind.  For example, consider a sitcom.  It is actually 21 minutes long without commercials, presented in 3-4 blocks, the longest of which will be no more than 8-9 minutes.  After 8-9 minutes, people need a brief timeout (a mental commercial break) before proceeding. 

I’m very mindful of the 8-9 minute rule.  I try not to go more than 8-9 minutes without giving the people a brief mental break – repeat a point, make a quip – anything to allow the brain to relax for a minute and restart.

Another technique I borrow from television is what they call the “establishing shot.”  Ever notice how scenes often begin with a shot of an exterior – so you know where the next scene takes place?  Toward the end of a sermon, I often refer back to something I said earlier.  But if it was more than 8 minutes before, I preface it by saying, “Remember earlier when I talked about…” – that’s my “establishing shot.”  It gives them time to recall and refocus on what had been said before, preparing them to understand how that ties into what is coming next.

Speaking of tying things together, modern sitcom construction usually has at least 2 parallel stories that converge on a single point.  This is key to the modern sermon.  We read multiple Scripture lessons, but I don’t preach multiple lessons, I preach one lesson (usually the Gospel lesson).  And I preach one point from that lesson.

I don’t know where the old saw about “three points and a poem” came from, but that just doesn’t work.  What is effective these days is multiple illustrations of a single point.  There needs to be one “takeaway”, one central point.

Brandon Tartikoff, legendary programming executive with NBC in its heyday, used to require people pitching a TV show to sum it up in one sentence.  I vividly recall him talking about the pitch for The A-Team.  It went like this: “The Magnificent Seven, the Dirty Dozen, Mr. T drives the truck.”  Before we write a sermon, we need to be able to “pitch it” with a single, memorable sentence.  Your congregation can't get the point of your sermon if you write it without a clear and unequivocal understanding of the point you're trying to make.

So here’s my pitch for sermon writing: A good sermon is one point, multiple illustrations, familiar delivery.

I think that’s what I’ve discovered is the common link between the best preachers of today.