Preach First-Hand Sermons

Friendly Reminder: A weekly reflection from the Quaker Leadership Center

Several years ago, I came across a passage by Thomas Kelly about Quaker preaching. As a Quaker and a preacher–who was actually preparing a sermon–I took note. He wrote:

There is so much that is wonderful in books. But one who relies for their sermons upon book-stuff about religion, and is not at the same time enjoy­ing immediacy and experiencing vitally fresh illumi­nation from God, is not a real minister, even if they have a degree in theology from Oxford or Cambridge. Second­hand sermons aren’t real sermons. Only firsthand preaching counts. [A person] is a minister who is given a mes­sage within themself, as a fresh insight from God, trans­mitted through them to others.

As someone who agrees that “there is so much that is wonderful in books,” I need reminded that preaching should flow from personal experience of the One Source in addition to written re-sources.

Quaker preaching should be “first-hand.” It flows out of a current relationship with the Living God. It arises from direct experience with the divine. We live a listening life, integrating spiritual practices, receiving spiritual nurture, staying faithful in following leadings for social concern, and familiarizing ourselves with the “still, small voice.”

We heed George Fox’s words: “Know that Voice that speaks, the sound of the words, and the pow­er of them.”

In addition to personal spiritual nurture, we also consider the spiritual journey of our meeting. Where is the Life? Where is the pain and struggle? What questions are emerging? What patterns of ministry and mission are manifesting?

We widen the circle even more to include our community, country, and world. How do current events expose our national wounds and sins? What cultural trends trouble us? How does the news initiate a call to action for people of faith? What is not making the news that deserves our attention?

Global awareness is right, but we should be careful not to neglect local ministry. And our international citizenship should still flow out of first-hand relationship to God.

All of this is material for the co-creation of a sermon. Preparing a message can be a kind of process of spiritual formation and social engagement.

It can also be a practice of spiritual direction, as you consider the movements of Spirit in the congregation. Preparation is important. (Even though Oxford & Cambridge don’t make a minister, I’m still an advocate for seminary training.) But the preparation is servant to the Presence. If the Spirit seems to be moving in a different direction, it has long been acceptable among Friends (in theory, anyway) to revise or even lay aside the message.

As Rufus Jones put it: “Preaching, if it is true preaching, ought not to interrupt the worship; it ought to continue the spirit of worship.”

Committing to first-hand preaching can be hard, especially if your meeting or church expects you to preach most Sundays. Here are some advices to ponder as you consider your preaching practice.

  1. Nurture your spirit. Read, journal, find a counselor and spiritual director, play music, write poetry, meditate on scripture. For the sake of your integrity and ministry, keep current in your relationship with God. We find our voice by hearing God’s voice.
  2. Live a listening life. Gather and glean everywhere you go. Inspiration comes in surprising places. There is no sacred-secular divide. All of life is sacramental.
  3. Prepare, prepare, prepare. Set aside adequate time to gather and organize what you’ve been learning into a coherent whole. Edit. Let your message settle then return to it. Simplicity is a testimony. Lack of preparation does not equal Spirit-led. Unorganized rambling can be just as distracting as script-reading.
  4. Preach it to yourself. We often prepare a message we need to hear first. Spend some time praying and reflecting on the message as spoken to you, invite the Light. There is no more powerful sermon than one that comes from a place of authenticity and alignment. Deep calls to deep.
  5. Trust the Spirit. Spirit is wise and resourceful. Trust that God was involved in the preparation and will be present in the meeting for worship. Hold your message loosely. Be ready to give it as you prepared it. You don’t know how some word, phrase, or image might speak to someone’s condition. Also be ready to lay it aside; it may make room for someone else’s ministry to arise or for a transformative silence to do its work.
  6. Make it invitational and actionable. You’re not showing off your skills and wisdom, you’re pointing people to the Living Christ, so they can live their own first-hand sermons. Neither vague liberal slogans nor fiery judgment will do. Use queries. Tell stories. Suggest possible practices, places of prayer, and applications. As Francis de Sales wrote: “The test of a preacher is that their congregation goes away saying, not, ‘What a lovely sermon!’ but, ‘I will do something!'”
  7. Include diverse voices. You don’t have to preach every Sunday. Friends, this is not a realistic or spiritually-advisable expectation. God is manifold and diverse. Make room (including “behind the pulpit”) for people of different ages, races, styles, and theologies. It will enrich your worship and help you hear & experience God in new ways.
  8. Bonus: Give yourself grace. Not every sermon has to be amazing. You don’t have to be innovative and profound every Sunday. Take the view of a “long obedience” and nurturing spiritual community over time. You’re not the only voice God has available to speak. And stay centered in your identity as God’s beloved so critical comments don’t define you.