Before The Sermon

One of the challenges of the pandemic has been preaching to a camera without people present. Thankfully we are currently able to meet, but there have been many Sundays of just preaching to a camera. When there is an actual gathering of people, and you are preaching, there are lots of things to be aware of between the beginning of the service and the sermon itself.

1. The Time – this is number one for a reason. Sometimes delays happen. End of service still needs to arrive on time. Maybe the announcements take too long, song introductions become mini-sermons, a technical hitch slows things down. What is the result? Well, you need to preach shorter. Be aware of where you can trim time from your message (an illustration that can go, a shortcut through the introduction, removing the review of the series so far), and be careful not to edit out important elements (the major points, the key transitions, etc.) Pray that you will not be annoyed by the adjustment. People can read people and at least some of your listeners will sense it.

2. The Pre-Message Messages – between the announcements, any interviews, prayers, songs, etc., there is usually quite a bit said before you get to preach. Listen to it and maybe you can integrate elements into the message. Especially if someone has done something nerve-wracking like a testimony, be sure to acknowledge and thank them. However, you have a sermon to preach, so make sure an engaging opening (or a terrible one) doesn’t distract you and weaken the message. (And if you are like me, there are sometimes quite amusing comments that come to mind in relation to what has happened earlier in the service. These are often better left behind when it comes time to preach!)

3. The Speaker Introduction – especially if you are a guest speaker, you don’t know what they are going to say about you right before you preach. Generally just say thank you and get on with it. Clever retorts made without time to evaluate can really backfire. (A note to those introducing a speaker. Please only say what is helpful. Too much praise, too much humour, or too much time all make it harder to preach effectively!)

4. The Service Mood – sometimes a congregation is laughing after you’ve been introduced, sometimes they are in a deep and sombre moment. Perhaps they have been bored to death already, or maybe they are distracted by the crying infant. It is helpful to read the congregation and launch accordingly. Adapt your introductory comments as appropriate.

5. The Congregation – as well as evaluating the mood of the congregation, it doesn’t hurt to be aware of the people. If you are not in a position where observing would be awkward, observe and pray for your congregation. This sermon is not about you preaching it, it is about them hearing it. Pray for their hearts to be open and for yours to be beating with Christ’s heart for them.

6. The Journey – minor detail, until you make a mistake. Be sure to check your journey from where you are sat to where you will preach. Any steps? Any microphone cables? I remember one church where I had to climb a literal staircase to get to the pulpit. I was thankful for those extra moments when my introduction came far earlier than expected (and my end time was pre-determined by being a live radio broadcast – I did a lot of thinking and praying on my way up those stairs!)

7. The Focus of the Preacher – it is good to be aware of all these things and probably other things too. At the same time you are thinking about the message. In the midst of it all, remember to pray. You want to preach focused rather than distracted or distressed.

Anything else you would add to this list?

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Pondering Pre-Sermon Position

Over the years I have been a visiting speaker many times in churches.   While there is no such thing as a typical church, there are some things that are common to many churches.  Take, for instance, the pre-sermon logistics for the visiting speaker:

Before the Service – Upon arrival the visiting speaker is typically greeted by one of the church leaders and then invited back into a small room to pray with that leader or the leadership team.  Thus most of the time before the service is spent in prayer.  This is a good thing, of course, as we need to declare our dependence on the one apart from whom we can do nothing.  It is good to sometimes be able to hear the heart of leaders for their church.  It is good to settle the heart and prepare to preach.

During the Service – Then just before the service begins, the preacher is often ushered to the front row, or even to sit on the platform facing the congregation.  The latter option will be more typical in more formal churches (sometimes with a more formal arrival to that position too).  Up front in one way or another just seems more practical.  It avoids a long walk down the aisle after the speaker introduction, for one thing.

A lot can be said, both practically and spiritually, for these two standard practices.  Maybe they should remain standard practice, but I just want to ponder them for a moment.

Before the Service – When the speaker arrives at a church, the minutes before the service begins are the prime opportunity to get to know the congregation that will be hearing the sermon.  While some people praying will reveal helpful insight into the congregation, many don’t.  But spend fifteen or twenty minutes chatting with the guy on the sound desk as you collect your microphone, and a handful of other people you can strike up a conversation with, and you tend to learn a lot about a church (especially if that is your goal).  Should we not pray?  Of course we should, and hopefully, we all have.  A lot.  But does an extended time of prayer right before a service outweigh the value of that interaction time?  Typically, I’m not convinced.

During the Service – Then what about the pre-sermon placement of the preacher?  Each to their own preference, I would say.  My preference?  I like to be at the back of a congregation.  It allows me to feel the temperature in the room.  Are people distracted?  Are they engaged?  Again, more opportunity to become aware of the listeners.  Are there some obviously awkward first-timers?  And what about the awkward walk up the aisle after the speaker introduction?  Not a problem.  It is relatively inconspicuous to move to the front row during the last song before the sermon.

I know this is my own preference, but I have found sitting on the front row you can feel watched, unable to properly look at your notes or the Bible, and unable to look around and observe the people.  And sitting on the platform facing everyone?  This feels like hard work because so many eyes could be inquisitive about every sip of water, look at the Bible, posture, facial expression, etc.  Maybe you can see everyone’s faces, but you lose all freedom to observe them, check notes, adjust radio microphone, or whatever.  It is the shortest walk to preaching position, but often you can feel the least prepared when you arrive!

This post is purely subjective ponderings.  I certainly wouldn’t want a church to change its practice just because I am preaching – I am very used to all the options and happy to serve in whatever pattern is preferred.  What do you find helpful when you are not in your own familiar church environment?