Why should preaching ignite the heart?
Meanwhile the clock is ticking.
Sack it all. You snap the lead on the dog and head for the hills. The internal panic monster growls in your ear. As you walk, ideas and snippets of the text come to mind and drop away. A possibility starts tugging at your sleeve, but as you turn to look it flits off – a half-baked idea, it is dismissed. Returning home, other things press in and occupy your attention. The sermon worries are set aside. Meanwhile, as yet unnoticed, deep in your imagination something starts to stir.
At this stage in the sermon preparation process I have learned to trust that somehow it will come together – an approach that mugs the panic monster. When I return to focused preparation I discover that while my conscious mind was dealing with the day to day, the sermon was taking shape. Something seems to have happened in the incubator of my imagination. Impressions gathered as I strolled through the biblical landscape might tug insistently at my sleeve. Odd thoughts connect with ideas I might have picked up in a commentary or a conversation. Perhaps overheard snippets from the supermarket queue will float into consciousness and offer themselves as illustrative material. Scripture speaks to Scripture and sets up resonances. Links are forged: a scene from a film; a picture in the paper; a headline; a Facebook comment; a line from a song; a Tweet. Seemingly random materials seem to fuse together and the sparks start flying. The structural framework emerges from scribbled ideas. Scripture, image, day-to-day instances and applications are welded into shape; form and content inform each other.
I picture the preaching space and play with delivery ideas as I pace around the living room: gesture; eye movement; use of space; tonal variation; verbal emphasis. The dog looks quizzical. I rehearse possibilities on the stage of my imagination, playing with the sermon material, hammering it out on the anvil of possibility. I find myself engaged, absorbed and focused. The blue touch-paper is lit. The heart ignites. Boom. We are on our way.
This is invariably my experience in sermon preparation, which is a process that takes me through the valley of creative despair (where I have no ideas and on a bad day don’t want the hassle), up to the heights of delight in the privilege of exploring with people the power of the ancient text alive in the present moment, inexorably pulling us towards the love of God.
Of course, working on a sermon prior to the delivery is only half the story. Arguably the sermon doesn’t become such until it is delivered live in the event. Here the lifeless text or notes become the sermon as the preacher interacts with the congregation, and in that specific context the Spirit breathes life into dead words. Some ideas are dropped; improvisation might lead to new thoughts and ideas as the preacher works on their feet, responding to the nudge of the Spirit in the moment of delivery. As they speak, the sermon leaves them and wings its way to the hearer, where it might take a new shape as it fuses with themes in the life of the whole community; in this person’s current life experience; in that person’s present concerns or hopes. As different hearers apply aspects of the preached material to their own situation, other sermons are heard, birthed from the one preached.
Perhaps this view of preaching is too positive. It is also true that the sermon may die in stony cynicism, become buried in the soil of distraction or worst of all nosedive into the barren rocks of boredom. The day of the poorly conceived, ill-prepared, dull, disconnected, boring, irrelevant, authoritarian, yawn-inducing, patronizing, pontificating, pointless and badly delivered sermon is most emphatically over. However, I want to go in to bat for the enduring power of the sermon. Imaginatively conceived and delivered, guided by the revelatory impulse of God, the sermon has the potential to move and inspire people; in short, it can ignite the heart.
The image behind the title of my book, Igniting the Heart, suggests a sense of words pulsing with revelatory potential, leaping out and sparking connections in the imagination of the hearer. This is an understanding of preaching laden with illuminating possibility, the ‘Aha’ moment when the switch flips, the lights go on and we see anew. For preaching to ignite the heart, it must spark connections with the hearer. Achieving such connection requires the active engagement of the imagination of the preacher and hearer.
The imagination is of vital importance for preaching. In all the stages of the sermon process the human imagination, filled with the revelatory power of God, is at work: in prayer; in biblical spadework; in observation and reflection; in mulling and contemplation; in the unconscious fusion of ideas; in the play of words on the page; in the forging of empathetic connection and the logical linking of ideas; in the work of performance; in the task of reception and action. Imagination matters to preaching.
Kate Bruce is an RAF Chaplain. She was Deputy Warden and Tutor on Homiletics at Cranmer Hall from 2013 to 2018, and still teaches and researches in the area of preaching. She lists her interests as stand-up comedy, skiing, running and eating chocolate.