A few years ago I started preaching nearly every week for the first time. Previously, I’d preached once every few months or few weeks, but when our church started our second campus, I picked up the majority of the preaching at that campus.
The consistency of standing before the congregation each week drew my attention to some things I’d never seen before. It seemed each week there were large parts of my sermon to which people were incredibly engaged and aware, but other parts in which their engagement seemed to subside.
I began to ask myself why. Do people just have short attention spans? Do people not know how to sit still for twenty-five minutes and listen? Am I just a roller coaster of boring?
It turns out, the answer had minimally to do with my hearers and a lot more to do with me.
As I observed them week after week, I noticed that it wasn’t just times in the sermon (as if people stop listening after five minutes), but actually kinds of rhetoric within the sermon.
Here’s how I figured it out: Because I manuscript my sermons, I decided to color-code the fonts on my manuscript according to various kinds of rhetoric I used within. Initially this started off relatively simple:
- Blue represented narrative
- Green represented transition sentences or transition paragraphs
- Black represented information
- Purple represented application.
When I preached these first few color-coded sermons, I noted that the times people were most attentive were in the blue sections – during the narratives. I further noticed that the times I lost them was not when I was giving them information, but when I was giving them too much information all at once – say, if a page were dominated by black ink.
Immediately I faced a dilemma. I want people to have access to the information parts of the sermon, but how I’m doing it now, they’re missing it anyway. On the other hand, I don’t want the sermon just to be a storytelling session.
I messed around with some different solutions, most of them fruitless, until I came across a simple, straightforward one: Instead of giving people straight information, couch the information within the narrative. This allows them to receive the information as a necessary part of the story. I still have the same amount of black on the page as I ever did before, but now it occurs throughout the blue.
As an example, when I preach through a narrative section of scripture, I don’t read the entire passage and then give people lots of information about it. Rather, I re-tell the narrative – mixing in interpretive information – and reading key texts along the way. This allows my sermon to be dominated by blue, have black mixed in, and it keeps the audience’s attention throughout. I’ve noticed over time that if I have too much black without a break, I am most likely losing people’s attention. But that rarely happens with too much blue or purple. This is key to effective communication.
In short, by color coding the sermon, I was able to objectively see how and where the sermon missed the audience. And it helped me fix it in a relatively quick manner.
Since my original days of color-coding the sermon with four different colors, I’ve added some more colors to help me get even better. Here’s what the color-code breakdown looks like now…
- Dark Blue:Narratives of any kind other than personal
- Light Blue:A personal narrative.
- Green:Transition sentences/paragraphs.
- Purple: The discipline here is to only use purple if you have a real application where you are saying, “Now, go do X.”
- Dark Red:Pop-culture references, no matter how subtle. Example, “As the great theologian, Eminem once said, ‘You’ve got to lose yourself…’”
- Red:General cultural references. Example, “In America we are individualists.”
- Brown:Any citation of Scripture, or any reference (even a non-quote) from another passage in scripture.
I’ve noticed in this that it gets a lot more complicated when the types of rhetoric overlap. It may not always be clear what color to attach to a paragraph. However, there is a hidden beauty in this problem – combinations of rhetorical style are actually really good for the hearers. For example, when I communicate information (black) through narrative (blues), especially personal narrative, that information is much more likely to stick in the hearer’s mind and heart. I may go so far as to, in these segments, color code specific sentences, making an entire paragraph a veritable rainbow of colors. The point, however, is that use of one or more of these rhetorical strategies is the hidden gem of the sermon that I’d never thought about until I started this color-coding system.
As a final note, an unintended side-effect of color-coding the sermon manuscript is that it makes for easier memorization – or, if you do not memorize your sermons, it makes for easier sight-reading from the page.
In memorization, certain pieces of the sermon get connected with a color. And you can generally remember how the color-scheme of a page looked, if you print it out – and I always recommend you print out.
In sight-reading the sermon, you do not have to scramble all over the page to find your line in a monochromatic page. Rather, because you’ve spent time looking at this page, if you know you’re looking for a green transition sentence, your eye can go automatically to the green section. No stuttering, stammering, or stalling. Your eye knows where to go.
This may not work for everyone, but it revolutionized my preaching and it’s pretty simple. I pray that as preaching and preachers go into this young century we continue to find ways to rely more on the Spirit, relate more to our audience, and revel in the love of God as we expound His word.
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