what’s a sermon?

Off the back of Natalie’s challenging series on her top 10 presentation offences, I’ve been pondering whether a sermon is a speech or a presentation.

What’s the difference? Well, the distinction, as one blogger with a fair deal of experience in this area puts it, runs like this:

In his autobiography, regarding his stand-up comedy years, Steve Martin writes, “If you don’t dim the lights… the audience won’t laugh.” This subtle, paradoxical observation is the core difference between speeches and presentations. In a presentation, half of the art is figuring out how to create an environment where your audience can actively participate without knowing they are participating. In a speech, the audience may laugh or cry, but they are not required nor encouraged to participate, because, during a speech, the spotlight never leaves the speechmaker.

So … what do you reckon a sermon is: speech or presentation?

Now, I’m really not interested in reviving the sterile debate about whether extemporary or scripted preaching is better or more ‘Spirit anointed’ (interestingly, Bill Hybels’ preaching which usually feels very extemporary is amongst the most scripted). Likewise, I’m pretty cool towards the whole issue of point form v full text notes — you can give a speech from point form notes and a presentation from full-text notes (and vice versa) so that hardly cuts ice.

Go on. Have your say. Leave a comment!

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8 comments

  1. Speech or presentation? It should be whatever is most effective for inspiring, learning, rebuking, training…

    Current educational research leans strongly to the side of learner participation.

    1. I expect you’re dead right on the current educational research. Some people would react against such pragmatism, however. The proclamation of God’s word — these objectors might say — is not something that relies on human ingenuity, etc to have its effect.

      Of course, I’m not sure I buy this objection. People like John Stott (I Believe In Preaching) — writing well before the advent of the contemporary obsession with presentations — think that any sermon should involve ‘participation’ (whether it’s verbalised — as in stereotyped African-American congregations — or not — e.g., in so far as the preacher anticipates objections, etc — is beside the point).

  2. Why would they say that a good presentation is any more “ingenious” than a good speech? Both are human systems through which we proclaim God’s word. If we really think these are unnecessary, then bible reading would suffice?

    I should temper my previous comment about educational research. The research I was talking about is with regard to the goal of teaching and learning. I suspect the goal of inspiring may be better served by speeches. So perhaps it is best to consider the text before deciding the delivery system.

    1. Why would they say that a good presentation is any more “ingenious” than a good speech? Both are human systems through which we proclaim God’s word. If we really think these are unnecessary, then bible reading would suffice?

      Good point. And wouldn’t even Bible reading be a ‘human system’ — God’s word in human words for one thing, and (ideally) read aloud well by a human person?

  3. True, but human language is a layer that is impossible to strip away. So I would have sympathy if someone wanted to go to that level and stop.

    1. Toby, I’m not sure I get the point you’re making. I thought I was agreeing with you?

      As far as I can work out, Bible reading — as much as whatever variety of proclamation we settle for (ie. preaching, presenting, or whatever else we might devise) — is a God-ordained human way of proclaiming God’s Word, Jesus. So, if you can’t strip away the humanness of the Bible (or the Bible read aloud … in translation!), then I would say it’s just as true that you can’t strip away the humanness of preaching.

  4. Yes we are in agreement, but I thought you were pushing a bit too hard against the hypothetical “objectors to human ingenuity”.

    Proclamation/speech/sermon/presentation is a layer of higher order communication on top of the Bible (even though these methods are God ordained), because it selects, interprets, and applies the original content. And if someone wanted to strip this away because of the human ingenuity involved, then you couldn’t call them inconsistent for reading the Bible in a human tongue, because it is impossible to go “back to basics” any more than that (language excepted).

    But anyway, I don’t know anyone of this persuasion, so I’m probably defending a straw man, and I’m not even sure how hard you were attacking him!

    1. OK. Glad to hear we’re aligned!

      I guess my incipient Barthianism shines through though in my struggle to grant that proclamation (of whatever form) is strictly a ‘higher order of communication on top of the Bible’. I’m totally keen to preserve the normative authority of Scripture. But I’m just not sure this is the way to do it — or the way reflected in the pages of Scripture itself.

      Things seem a little more complicated to me. Take the apostolic proclamation in Acts, for example — something that takes numerous forms and involves a variety of human communicative activities (reasoning, persuading, testifying, etc). Of course, often the apostles interpret and apply (Old Testament) Scripture in their preaching. And yet it also seems like their proclamation produces (New Testament) Scripture: ie. at least some of the Bible is built on human proclamation (rather than the other way around).

      But this does take us quite a long way from where the question started of what a sermon is, doesn’t it?

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