Chapter 104

The Sermon's Mood

The spirit of a message is like the tune of a song

Everyone knows a sermon has points, but not everyone knows a sermon also has a tune.

I applied the word tune to preaching a few years ago when I began to wonder, Why do I especially like certain sermons? What makes certain ones really work? There was some important ingredient in effective sermons that went beyond the normal considerations of content. That ingredient, I realized, was the tune.

A sermon's tune—its mood or spirit—is not easy to define precisely, but it's unmistakable. Hearing some sermons, I think of seventy-six trombones coming down Main Street. Other messages make me picture a violin and a crust of bread.

We don't often think of the tune we'll play when we're preparing a sermon, because our preparation tends to focus on the content. But afterward, when we evaluate how we spoke it and how people responded to it, then we recall the tune: the subtle atmosphere that was projected, the mood that filled the sanctuary as the sermon was preached.

Complicating matters is that not just sermons but preachers have tunes. I ask my students to imagine what sound track would best complement their preaching, and they give me answers ranging from Willie Nelson's music to something majestic from Handel's Messiah.

In fact, when I open my ears, I find tunes all around me. Churches have their tunes. Communities do, too. In Appalachia, most of the tunes are somber; "We're going down the valley one by one," "'Tis midnight, and on Olive's brow," "The Old Rugged Cross." Pathos flows through these tunes.

If I want to preach to Appalachia a greater sense of Easter, I can't fuss at them for not jumping up and down the first Sunday I sound that unfamiliar refrain. Joy is a strange tune to their ears. They need time to catch the beat.

So I've realized I need to be aware of the tunes of preaching. My sermon, the text it's based on, my church, and my own personality—each has a distinctive "sound." A sermon's tune may not play well in every situation. The idea is to harmonize our preaching with the notes being sounded around us.

Your predecessor's tune

Preachers new to their church need to discover their predecessors' favorite tunes. It's especially important if the predecessor had a lengthy tenure, because that preacher's style has defined the word sermon for that congregation. In the minds of the hearers, any variation from that tune has to struggle even to qualify as a sermon.

Suppose for twenty-three years my predecessor said each Sunday, "I have four things I want to say about the text this morning. In the first place …, and the second …," and so on, and at the end summarized the sermon. That's a precise, ordered tune, like a military march. The congregation is accustomed to a methodical, logical sermon—major premise, minor premise, and conclusion—so when I come in singing another song, I can't expect everybody to ooh and aah. If I don't preach that way, I can expect, at least for a while, that the congregation will not accept my "talks" as sermons. They'll probably say, "Well, it just didn't seem like a sermon.

This is not unreasonable. For many listeners, a change in form is equivalent to a change of content. Preach a narrative sermon, and the people who have been used to hearing Reverend Outline preach "One, two, three, four" will say, "Well, it was real interesting and all, but we like more Bible." You may have included more Bible in your sermon than he ever did, but the only way listeners have to register the different tune they heard—even when the content or theology of the sermon was virtually identical—is listing some vague problem with the contents. They couldn't take their usual notes on the sermon, so they figure it must have had an unbiblical melody.

Now in a new church I wouldn't try to imitate the previous pastor. Nobody preaches well enough to imitate, and no one can sing someone else's tune anyway.

However, I need to prepare the people to hear a new tune. And that takes time, just as it took me time to get used to new translations of the Bible. I first memorized Bible verses from the King James version, so I talked about using other translations long before I was comfortable with them emotionally.

Second, I must respect how hard it is on a congregation when I change the form of the sermon. If the form is always new and different, congregations don't hear it as well. It's like hitting them with a hymn with unfamiliar words and tune. But if the basic form of a sermon remains predictable and clear, I am allowed to work creatively within it.

Most congregations can handle only one variable at a time. So if I am going to vary the form of my preaching, my message had better be familiar. Or if I plan to hit them with a novel message, then my preaching style ought to be predictable.

That rule extends to the service itself. If I plan to preach a different kind of sermon, the rest of the service ought to be straightforward and predictable, and if I'm going to experiment with the service, I'm wise to preach my standard sermon.

Since visually and vocally I'm a new variable to the congregation when I first come to a church, I try not to add a lot of clever innovations initially. Once they get accustomed to my voice and appearance, then I can make some changes. Whether I like the waiting period or not doesn't matter. What they're accustomed to has shaped the ear.

The congregation's tune

I work with not only my predecessor's tune but my congregation's. I analyze a congregation somewhat like I would a group of people going down a street. I ask myself, What are they doing? Is it a parade? Are they just out for a stroll? Or is it a protest march?

For some congregations, every Sunday is a protest march. Some issue must be taken on arms control, taxes, poverty—whatever. They're marching to city hall, and you can almost hear the drumbeat of protest, protest, protest.

Certainly there are things to protest. But if you protest all the time, people get weary of that tune: Here we go again to city hall. It's not effective. I may thump my suspenders and say, "I'm a prophetic voice in this age!" but the point is, I'm not getting anything done.

Some congregations are on parade. You get a sense of John Philip Sousa. It's triumphant. Every day is Palm Sunday, and everything is grand and glorious. But there are always people recently widowed or hurting or whose daughter is on drugs or whose job just disappeared. These people are not in the parade.

That means the music has to vary. Some sermons need the feel of a friendly stroll down the street, just a couple of you talking. Then the parades and protest marches provide a different beat, a new sound that catches one's attention.

The text's tune

The tune of a sermon also needs to be appropriate to the tune of the text. With some of the Psalms, you're excitedly on the way to Jerusalem. With others, you're sitting in a trash dump, saying, "I just want to die." There are some where you're sitting in a circle with your kids. In some of them you're all by yourself: "My soul is quieted within me."

So sometimes the biblical material itself may say, "Don't play the wrong tune here. This is a penitential psalm, so don't try to inspire people."

Once I listened to a pastor preaching on the Beatitude, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they will be satisfied." But he started hitting people with what was wrong with them. "You're out hungering after this and thirsting after that," he fumed, "when it should be righteousness you're after!" He said some good things, but the words hunger and thirst did not flavor the sermon, and as a whole it never came across as a blessing. He turned a beatitude into an exhortation, and thus changed the music entirely.

Later I asked him, "Do you have other words for blessed?"

"I don't like the word happy," he said. "I would rather just say blessed."

"That's an important word in the Bible," I said, "but blessed are those who live within earshot of the Beatitudes." I wanted him to know that somehow the soft oboes of blessing needed to be heard.

Your weekly tune

My personal experiences during the week—my work, my prayers, my study, my attending all kinds of events—have set up a certain rhythm, a tune, in my own life. And I may discover my tune doesn't fit that of the text. My tendency at times like that is to tell the congregation, "When I chose this text with its stately marching cadence, it echoed the way I felt. But this week I've had 487 committee meetings, and everything is still hanging. I'm exhausted. Yet this passage arrives so beautifully in Jerusalem that I wish it were my experience today. So if you detect in my voice some longing, some wishing, it's really there."

That's the course I take when my personal tempo is out of sync with the text. It works better than saying, Fred, get up to that text! That's often unrealistic. I say to the people, "I'm down here, and the text is up there. If anyone wants to try to reach up to it, let's give it a try."

I want to understand my personal tunes, but unless they prove unhealthy, I don't feel obliged to alter them. If I'm constantly sucking melancholy out of every situation, however, then I may need some help. But within the normal variations of my life, it's wise to recognize my own tunes and share from them.

Most often, people will be able to pick up our tunes. There will be days when we show up with a violin and everybody else brings drums, but most people can adapt. And next Sunday will probably be better.

Your dominant refrain

Although we will play variations on our theme, most of us settle into a dominant refrain. The gospel playing in our lives for years has created in us a distinctive sound. Congregations usually accept the theme to which their pastors return. But it's dangerous to assume that ours is the tune everyone must play. In the best of circumstances, we know and the congregation knows that ours is not the only tune the gospel will play, but it's what it plays best through us. Others will have their distinctive tunes as well. Understanding individual tunes can help avoid a lot of heartache and jealousy. When we invite guest speakers, we can say, "We're bringing in a set of tympani, folks. You've been listening to this little ol' clarinet, but the gospel in this person's life sounds with extraordinary resonance, and you'll love it!"

That little speech helps keep people from saying "This preacher is better than that preacher," because that's like saying a drum is better than cymbals. You can't compare them. It's also a good way to get people ready for a new minister.

Over time our tunes become like theme songs. Thirty years later, people will recall my ministry and say, "He was the violin we had way back before we brought in the trumpet." And once my tune becomes a theme song, I can talk about it at points where I know there will be dissonance, like at the beginning of a difficult sermon: "This is a tough one today, folks, so I'm going to bring out the violins."

Of course, overuse turns it into a ploy. But it's useful every now and then when I know my experience and theirs are at cross-purposes, or the text and I are on different wavelengths. And it sure beats getting mad because they are not in tune with me.

Beginning with the ear

Often I go into the sanctuary and sit in the pews to do part of my work on a sermon. There in the quiet, I ask myself, How would this part sound? If I heard this tune in the sermon, what would I think? I want to be sensitive to the tunes of preaching, to operate from the ear to the mouth.

Isaiah writes, "The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him that is weary. Morning by morning … he wakens my ear" (50:4). Preaching, like music, begins with the ear. If I get the tune right, people will not only understand my words but sing along.