There’s a legend in these parts about a liberal religious minister who once a week (usually a Wednesday, the locals say) disappeared into the hermetic confines of her book-lined study for a full 24 hours (with little more than bread and water for sustenance) and emerged on the other side with a beautifully crafted sermon of sound reason and impeccable logic. The legend goes on to say that hundreds of souls would flock to the hard wooden pews of this minister’s congregation just to hear her deliver what was, essentially, a record of the lofty thoughts that occupied her mind during those twenty-four grueling hours. It was a religious experience, I hear tell. Maybe not quite as significant as Moses descending from cloud-enshrouded Sinai to deliver the Ten Commandments, but significant nonetheless…and just as mysterious. One can only imagine the intellectual angels and demons this minister wrestled with during her weekly trip to the edge of the abyss, peering into the meaninglessness of existence in order to bring back something—anything—that might give her parishioners enough of a raison d’etre to get them through another week. Then again, maybe she just preached about whether or not she thought the Twins were going to make it to the playoffs that year.
What interests me here is the process. It resembles the model of sermon writing I was taught in theological school: Choose your theme, get a bunch of books about that theme, go to your office, close the door—always close the door, place the books on your desk, begin to peruse them, find some stuff that supports your stand on said theme, place a sheet of vellum on the desk, dip quill in ink and commence writing. If you really want to be a super duper sermon writer, try picking your themes a few weeks in advance and start piling up the appropriate books ahead of time. (This allows you to take full advantage of the inter-library loan service at your local university.) Soon your desk will be covered with books and your fingers will be stained black with India ink and you’ll find yourself in sermon-writing nirvana. And your congregation will know you’re doing your job because you’ve developed an efficient, if secretive, method for delivering sermons.
So here’s the thing. Two things, actually. Thing one: settling into a cozy pew for an hour or so to listen to a ripping good sermon may once have been considered a relatively inexpensive way to be entertained on a Sunday morning, but nowadays if I want to listen to someone talk about something on Sunday (or any day), all I need to do is logon to the interwebs and visit TED.com…for free. Thing two: if I want someone to talk at me in person, I’ll hitch a ride with the Doctor and transport myself back to second grade and suffer through one of Mrs. Updike’s diatribes [*shudder*]. At least, these are two things the “Unchurched, Underchurched, and Dechurched” may be thinking. They might also be some of the things our youth and young adults may be thinking (well, at least the part about hitching a ride with the Doctor). The finely wrought sermons that used to fill our pews to the brim on Sunday mornings may not be cutting it any more. Which is why I believe that if the sermon is going to survive as more than a quaint relic of a bygone age, we need to turn the whole process inside out. Like this “Inside-Out” Sundae from the Green Mill Restaurant & Bar in Bemidji, Minnesota:
Take our tulip sundae glass, dip the outside in caramel and chocolate sauces, fill the inside with vanilla ice cream and strawberries and top it all with whipped cream and nuts. You’ve never seen a sundae quite like this!
That’s what it says on their menu. And I did eat one of these sundaes once. And it was a mess. Point is, digital natives have an entirely different way of relating to information (caramel sauce) and, perhaps more importantly, an entirely different way of valuing expertise (chocolate sauce). While Boomers and Builders may be content to have information and expertise presented to them with a cherry on top at the end of the process (sitting in the pew on Sunday morning), digital natives (and digital immigrants) know that information and expertise are pretty much everywhere, not just in the preacher or the books on top of his or her desk. The sundae glass is fairly smeared with them. And it’s much, much more interesting (and fun and authentic) to be in on the process from the very beginning, before the ice cream is even scooped in.
Okay, I admit this sundae metaphor is pushing it, but I hope you get a sense of what I have in mind. Actually, I’m not the only minister who’s thinking about this. Dan Harper recently posted his thoughts on getting more folks involved with the whole sermon writing thing. In More than a Sermon, Dan suggests posting “a reading and a question for reflection on a sermon blog” on Thursday, posting “the reading text of the sermon on the same sermon blog” on Sunday just before preaching, live streaming the sermon with comments via Twitter, then following up with comments on the blog, with Dan joining in “the online conversation when it made sense to do so.” A pretty good place to start, if you ask me. (And remember “pretty good” is high praise when it comes from someone in Minnesota.) I have my own recipe for building an “Inside-Out” sermon that I’ll share with you next week. In the meantime, comments on the subject are more than welcome!