When I am away in Latvia, I post details of the things that I am doing at the Latvian Biblical Centre and with different preaching teams, and churches. I always get some kind of response, which tells me that there is someone out there and I am not merely talking to myself!
My most popular recent post was one on the Latvian Biblical Centre Graduation. Earlier in the day I had posted a reference to my delight in seeing 29 students graduate, including 17 students from our first two-year School of Preachers programme. This was the highest number of graduates in the history of the centre.
The second, and far more popular, post was about the rather sumptuous graduation cake. The cake was a culinary triumph made by one of our students. It reminded me of the good old days of ball by ball commentary on Test Match Special on Radio 4 on BBC Long Wave.
The commentators had the skill of being as entertaining during sometimes long pauses in play as when talking about the cricket action itself. These conversations were often about the colours of the buses going by and the quality of the chocolate cakes sent in by fans for the commentary team to enjoy.
People have picked up that I like cakes, so whenever cakes get a mention, it gets their attention. “Crumbs”, I thought, “is this all that gets people responding?”
It occurred to me that preachers need to be careful about what they share in their sermons, blogs, posts and tweets. Early on in my time as a pastor in Lancing I casually mentioned that I liked Mars Bars. 22 years later I have not had to buy one Mars Bar. Christmas, birthday and at numerous other points in the year were opportunities to hand over a delicious four-pack.
The personality and various quirks of the preacher do add colour to sermons, but we do need to be careful. Some of the incidental moments in a sermon, the impromptu jokes, the personal disclosures, and asides do tend to be remembered. These ingredients can add light relief or variety to a sermon but can also be a distraction.
Is this what I want people to remember about what I say?
One well-known preacher once shared that he had been involved in preaching a series of sermons that let the hearers into some hidden corners of his life. He explained that he felt the need to draw back from this because many of the congregation had taken a voyeuristic interest in him rather than his sermons.
Thinking about this, I realise that most preachers need an editor. Editors tidy, trim and improve our words. I lose count of the times I have heard my wife say to me after a sermon, “Why didn’t you tell me you were going to say that?” Maybe we need to learn to be our own self-editor, and learn to ask the right questions about our choices of what we say and don’t say:
Did my sermon benefit from the inclusion of that information, comment, or joke?
Am I saying this for myself or for the hearers?
Could that ingredient be removed from the sermon without losing any of its impact?
Could this content in the sermon be a distraction?
The great Baptist preacher CH Spurgeon was known to have a brilliant sense of humour, which was on display in his sermons and lectures, but said that he needed to hold back more humour than he used. Perhaps he realised that sometimes the hearer cannot get beyond the funny moment.
It is always a challenge to get the mix right, but it is worth it.
What do I remember about my preaching after this weekend?
It’s a piece of cake.