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Moving Sermons

Did this message have rhetorical power?

I want a sermon that moves me. So many sermons seem to intend little more than to fill my mind with information. Yet I already know more than what I am living up to. Like most Christians, my belief outstrips my behavior. I need a sermon that can encourage me. I need a sermon that can motivate me not only to know but to be and do what I already know I need to be and do.

In other words, I need a preacher who will speak with rhetorical power. I value preaching that can maintain my interest, spark my imagination, and lead me to a meaningful response. The sermon under examination, " Finding Our Way Home, " has elements that help in this regard.

Strength: The preacher notices me

This sermon values me as a listener. Right away I could tell the preacher was paying attention to my needs and my life. Call me self-centered, but nothing holds my attention like hearing someone talk about me. The preacher begins with the text, describing Jesus' experience with Peter and the other disciples. Yet it doesn't come off as ancient. " Maybe it was the time you carried your little box of personal belongings out of your office for the last time in disgrace, " the preacher says. " Maybe it was the time you watched your child walk into the worst mess of her young life.I think Peter felt like that that night. "

I've never actually carried a box of belongings out of my office in disgrace, but I can imagine what that might feel like. My daughters are too young to have engaged in any horrific messes quite yet, but I occasionally think about what it might be like if they did. The point is this sermon speaks about contemporary life in ways I can readily relate to and connect with. The language evokes human experience, and it's helpful that the preacher doesn't wait until the end of the sermon to do it. Listeners need to connect from the earliest stages.

Strength: The preacher speaks to deep things within my heart

Engaging sermons speak with depth and imagination to critical listener concerns. This sermon evokes several significant themes, like trust, home, and being lost.

The preacher shows Jesus saying, " Trust me. I will bring you home. " Later the preacher notes that " people are always looking for a home. " Toward the end of the sermon the preacher shows Thomas saying, " We don't know where you are going, let alone how to find the way. " These themes unite to evoke a deep human sense of insecurity. The sermon drives toward the listener's longing for direction and confidence. The preacher repeats these themes, integrating them with description of the biblical text, building toward a climax at the end of the sermon. This is helpful.

Weakness: The preacher moves too quickly

At the same time, I found I wanted to slow down a little. The sermon covers a lot of ground, perhaps too much ground. The images are there and the language is effective. It is just that we skip past some of these things so quickly that the words don't have opportunity to sink deeply into my soul. It is one thing to say the right things. It is another thing to say them so they stick. There is an easy rhythm to effective preaching, a slow cooking that works the language down into the bowels.

This is an aspect of the oral nature of public preaching. When one writes a text to be read, one can say things succinctly, knowing the reader has opportunity to re-read, to study, even to mark the text for deeper contemplation. None of this is possible in an oral presentation. The preacher needs to give the listener time and space in the structure of the sermon to ponder, to smolder, to delight. That is why I encourage preachers to attempt less in order to deepen the impression. Slow down and say more.

One More Strength: The preacher speaks to be understood

The language of this sermon is not fancy. The sentences are seldom complex. There is scarcely a four-syllable word in the whole sermon. There is a flow to the language that feels like the words have been spoken before they were written. The preacher has not dumbed-down the sermon, and yet the listener never gets the sense that the sermon is flying over her or his head.

Research has shown that almost half the North American population operates at some level of functional illiteracy. If so, we have to keep the language simple. This sermon achieves that goal.

The sermon has some grab. A listener has to appreciate a preacher that can hold attention and appeal to the heart. This is what we're looking for as listeners. This sermon gives us what we need.

Kenton C. Anderson is dean and associate professor of applied theology at ACTS Seminaries (Northwest) in Langley, British Columbia. He is author of several books, including Choosing to Preach (Zondervan).

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