Comic and Preacher Pens How-To Book on Sermon Prep  

Susan Sparks reflects on humor that is joyful and therapeutic in her book, “Preaching Punchlines.”

She is not speaking of humor that is scornful, rude, hateful or judgmental, but humor that lifts us up and honors. She quickly banishes any thoughts that she is advocating delivering sermons that are theologically light.

Sparks, who is pastor of Madison Avenue Baptist Church in New York City, knew that her calling was to be a pastor at age 6.

Yet, her dreams were ridiculed and squelched by religious leaders in her native Southern Baptist upbringing, and so she delayed that dream until mid-career after becoming a successful attorney.

She delights in being a pastor, and this book stresses the hard work that delivering a sermon, speech or comedy routine requires. She is part of a standup comedy troupe that includes a rabbi and an imam.

The heart of the book is the fifth chapter, in which she demonstrates the humor of Jesus in example after example.

Sparks is enthusiastic about how Jesus uses ordinary circumstances to connect with his audience.

He uses every technique available: exaggeration, humor, voice, irony, timing, silence, parables and repetition to capture his listener’s attention.

Follow Jesus’ example, she urges. Use every means possible including humor. This is important because the audience will remember only 10% of what you say.

Providing step-by-step instructions on sermon preparation, she emphasizes always keeping your congregation in mind. What are members of your congregation interested in? What keeps them awake at night? What’s going on around you?

Observe people and listen to them, she advises. Always keep a notebook or recording device with you. Make a note about your observations. Develop a file system that will let you find illustrations that you have experienced, observed or read about. Talk about the hard stuff.

She stresses that congregations need more than they can Google. They need to be given real food by someone they trust.

“A sermon is bigger than us,” she writes. “In its purest form, a sermon should be a message inspired from a higher power given through you to a congregation. God is the power source. If we don’t feel the power, it’s not God.”

Learn to write like a comedian, Sparks says. Build your scenario. The punch line comes last. Wait a moment to let it sink in before you start talking again.

Boil your sermon down to your core message. Put that at the top of your page. Read your sermon out loud at least twice. This will help you weed out unnecessary words or extraneous material.

Narrow your sermon to what is direct and necessary for your one-line summary. Reserve the rest for another time.

Finally, she follows and recommends the practice of praying your sermon out loud.

One commandment Sparks gives is the one many ministers ignore, but its observance is essential: “Thou shalt not be exhausted by the Sabbath.” Rest and sleep are essential.

Sparks believes that being given an opportunity to preach before a community of faith is one of the highest honors one can receive. If one is to perform at her or his best, time apart, rest and reflection are mandatory.

So, she emphasizes that ministers must take a day off. Get away. At least stay away from the church once in a while. She and her husband take motorcycle trips.

Always remember why you are doing what you are doing, she says. Tap into the source. Always keep a copy of your sermons. Review them, taking note of common themes. What excites you? What do you preach about most often?

Her final commandment is my favorite, “Thou shalt have joyous communication.” This is true for comedians, motivational speakers and preachers. “No matter how we feel, we must radiate joyous communication into the rafters and far corners of the sanctuary.”

As I travel around and hear sermons from preachers in various denominations, this element most often is missing. Where is the joy of living the Christian life?

I already know my failures. If the joy is lacking in your speeches or sermons, Spark’s book will lift your spirits and help you rekindle your zest for preaching.

She reminds us that we are enough, and that God always has our back.

“Preaching Punchlines” contains ample references and numerous QR codes that allow you to scan even more. This book is pure gold for anyone who wishes to improve her or his sermons.

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Churches in America: too fragile to fight (at least with each other)

BILL LEONARD* | SEPTEMBER 3, 2019 – Baotistnewsglobal,com

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Peter Wehner cites this comment by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary:

“The Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis – not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action.”

Labberton’s insightful, poignant challenge might require a small caveat: The Church is indeed in crisis, largely because of multiple crises, few of which are momentary. We’re in it for the long haul. In America 2019, to confront one crisis or multiple crises, you must stand in line. It feels as if a new or expanding crisis in the country or the church occurs daily, sometimes by the hour.

Public crises alone are daunting enough, even on the briefest of lists: opioid addiction; gender and sexuality issues; racial and political divisions; immigration and the treatment of immigrants – documented and undocumented, sick or well, adult or child; healthcare or lack thereof; religious liberty or lack thereof; global warming with melting glaciers and flaming forests; species extinctions; sexual abuse inside and outside the church; increased suicides; and mass shootings, mass shootings, mass shootings.

“It feels as if a new or expanding crisis in the country or the church occurs daily, sometimes by the hour.”

As these and other public crises demand multiple responses from Christian communities, so do an increasing variety of ecclesiastically-specific crises that confront congregations across the theological spectrum. Here are but a few:

Denominational support systems are disconnecting, disengaging, even breaking apart.
Religio-political divisions create tensions throughout denominations and congregations.
The changing sociology of Sunday often means even “active” members attend worship services only intermittently.
Estimates vary widely, but some 4,000 to 10,000 churches close each year.
The “Nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, remain an ever-expanding subgroup in American religious life. A recent study from Eastern Illinois University put Nones, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals in a statistical dead heat, each at around 23 percent of the population. A 2017 Christian Science Monitor report on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans noted that the number of white evangelical Protestants fell from about 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016 – and only 11 percent of white evangelicals are under age 30.
Many congregations now experience decreasing and/or aging membership; declining finances that impact staff salaries, programs and building maintenance; waning attendance, membership and baptisms; and escalating intra-church conflict, often directed at ministers.

Worse yet, with both documented and anecdotal evidence, new and enduring doctrinal-cultural-political debates continue to impact congregations, fomenting unrest if not outright schism. Headlines in recent months outline multiple crises:

“After Disagreements over LGBTQ Clergy, U.S. Methodists Move Closer to Split” (NPR)

“Hate Thy Neighbor: When American Evangelicals Fall Out” (The Economist)

“Battle Lines Form Over Social Justice: Is it Gospel or Heresy?” (RNS)

“Pastor’s Exit Exposes Culture Rifts in a Leading Liberal Church” (New York Times)

“Joshua Harris Kisses Christianity Goodbye” (Wall Street Journal)

“Only Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist” (Christian Century)

“Amid Evangelical decline, growing split between young Christians and church elders” (Christian Science Monitor)

We all know that congregational conflicts are not unique in Christian history. Disputes arose the moment the Apostle Paul proposed welcoming Gentiles into the church. The Pauline epistles alone document congregational infighting among the fledgling Christian communities. Take the ever-factionalized Corinthian church, please! Paul rakes them over the gospel coals for arguing over food (“meat offered to idols,” 1 Corinthians 8:1-13); kowtowing to certain “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11: 1-15); and debating when, whether, with whom or never to have sex (“better to marry than to burn,” 1 Cor. 7:1-9).

(Those crises convince me that the Corinthian Church was essentially proto-Baptist.)

“Contemporary intra-church unrest and schism is particularly damaging since so many congregations are already weakened by the crises that surround them.”

Across the centuries, doctrinal disputes, sacramental differences or participation in “wars of religion” could get you exiled, burned, beheaded, hanged or drowned by Catholic and Protestant alike. Thank God, we’ve left that behind (mostly).

Historically, American congregational conflicts illustrate the adage that “churches multiply by dividing” amid multiple disputes and crises. Yet contemporary intra-church unrest and schism is particularly damaging since so many congregations are already weakened by the crises that surround them, making recovery at best lengthy if not altogether impossible. In fact, some congregations are now so weakened that schism will simply hasten their demise.

That reality ought to sober us all toward cooperation and reconciliation. In that vein, might we together:

Distinguish between genuine dissent and petty animosity?
Develop creative measures for nurturing healthy debate and the boundaries of disagreement before crises occur?
Enlist the services of trained mediators and conflict managers when necessary?
Resist airing disputes outside the Christian community, especially on social media?
Recognize the difficulties of recovery in the face of contemporary institutional and individual exhaustion?
Cultivate congregational unity around shared ministry that energizes beyond, alongside or despite differences?
Gravitate toward those congregations that best reflect our gospel commitments; then work to make them better, not tear them down?
These realities confront us with yet another “Bonhoeffer moment” in this country and the world, a time of decision when the best elements of Gospel and Church call us to remember and reaffirm who we are and what we are about as participants together in the Body of Christ. To our crisis-ridden times Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks yet, writing from prison in 1944, the year the Nazis took his life:

“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men [and women] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not underestimate the importance of human example” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

Crisis or not, that’s quite a calling, then and now.

*Bill Leonard lectured at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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“Religious Liberty” is being hijacked; Rev. Dr. Molly Marshall – BaptistNewsGlobal

It is much easier to sit in front of my computer screen and opine about government, politicians, policies and the challenge of living in a democratic municipality than it is to enter the political process as one voice among others. It is much easier to limit my engagement to spaces and contexts where most are in agreement. It’s easy to sit in our Sunday school classes and talk about our responsibilities in the public square. It’s much harder to actually move from theoretical advocacy to responsibly and faithfully inhabiting those places where decisions are made about the common good.

I recently had such an opportunity as the city in which I live was debating whether or not we need a nondiscrimination ordinance to protect LGBTQ persons in our community. I went to a public meeting as a private citizen, as a person of faith with clear convictions about justice and as a religious figure who serves as president of a seminary that resides in the area the city council oversees. I went as one voice among others (which is always helpful to those of us given to pontification).

Members of our community had been working on this for more than a year. It takes great patience and strategic thinking to make policy change. As one who came late to this movement, I grew in respect for those who have labored to garner support and sift what is at stake. They are serving the common good in ways that may surpass some of our faith communities that are more insular.

I was pleasantly surprised by the level of civility. No one clapped, hissed or booed. Persons listened attentively to those with whom they disagreed on the nature of human sexuality, religious freedom and public accommodation. And we stayed a very long time in order to give each one opportunity to present perspectives on the proposed ordinance. I found myself on the opposite side of some other clergy, especially Roman Catholics, which was painful since I care intensely about unity of the Body of Christ.

I felt it important to stress that persons of faith can find inclusive ways to express their own religious freedom. It requires empathy and attentiveness to those whose experience we may not understand. I spoke about the journey our school has been on, seeking to be nondiscriminatory in all our functions.

“We must work to preserve human dignity and religious liberty for all.”

For the past seven years, Central Baptist Theological Seminary has had a non-discriminatory policy that names gender identity and sexual orientation. Our board is far from a wild-eyed liberal group; rather they are sober, faithful people who believe in religious liberty, justice and compassion. They acknowledged that we know a lot more today about human sexuality than when the Scriptures were penned. We believed it was the right position for a school that prepares leaders for ministry.

Some in attendance at the city council meeting were stunned that “a Baptist can be open minded,” as one put it, after I articulated our institutional perspective. The popular (and rather monolithic) conception of who Baptists are is less than admirable.

I presented a few brief words of witness from the perspective of religious liberty, especially as the rhetoric of discrimination is heating up nationally, kindled by the Trump administration. Reportscontinue to surface that the president is asking the Supreme Court to legalize workplace discrimination against gay employees.

Religious liberty does not mean persons can do whatever they please. We live in community as citizens in a democracy that has both legal and social obligations. The free exercise of religion is within a larger commonwealth, which has implications for the religious liberty of others.

Thus, the limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another. Precluding employment, housing or public accommodation is life-threatening and injures already vulnerable citizens. We are aware of the statistics of incidences of suicide attempts among LGBTQ youth and adults; additionally, violence against this community is rampant.

Congregations are free to do what they choose about including or excluding sexual minorities from membership, roles of leadership either ordained or lay, and whether to provide pastoral services (including weddings) to LGBTQ couples. The church or synagogue or temple can determine how it will exercise its religious liberty. It can exclude in a way a civil society cannot, yet many religious leaders are learning how to include and accord dignity to those formerly marginalized by faith communities.

As the Baptist Joint Committee for Religious Liberty has concluded: “A baker or florist’s religious beliefs do not provide a blanket exemption to state or local laws that protect customers against discrimination in the commercial marketplace. Granting an exemption could drastically undermine nondiscrimination laws which provide important protections for religious customers.” This balanced perspective offers a helpful approach to the thorny issues a community faces. Baptists and other communions caring about religious liberty can trust the BJC as a reliable guide on current legal challenges.

“The limits of religious liberty have to do with whether or not its exercise causes harm to another.”

We must work to preserve human dignity and religious liberty for all. This means that employment, housing and commercial services are equally available to all. It is the right thing to do; it is good for our community; and, yes, it is good for business. Across the nation, the law is trending toward equality. The church must not lag behind.

We must not be absent from the social landscape. Schools and churches are members of the larger community, and we are called to participate constructively as faithful interpreters of gospel values. Keeping silent is not helpful in our times when the principle of religious liberty, as set forth in the First Amendment, is being hijacked by religious leaders and others who give it a narrow sectarian meaning that argues for personal privilege and concomitant discrimination.

The proposed ordinance passed with a 5-2 vote. It was an act of compassion and justice for which I am grateful. I pray it will be but one of many grassroots-led actions for the common good in the days ahead.

Related commentary:

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It Takes Heat to Bring the Grace II – Rev. Susan Sparks

This is part two of a two-part series about finding blessings in the midst of pain.
In my last column, I wrote about my opportunity to visit two holy shrines in Birmingham, Alabama. The first was Eugene’s Hot Chicken. It was there that a local resident shared why hot sauce makes fried chicken so fabulous. Sporting a mischievous twinkle, she explained, “It takes heat to bring the grace.”

Ain’t that true—for chicken and for life. Sometimes the hardships we face (the heat) come bearing divine blessings (the grace).

Which brings me to the second holy shrine I had the honor of visiting: the Civil Rights Trail. My trail walk included Kelly Ingram Park, the site of some of the most vicious confrontations over civil rights in Birmingham. Truly, a place where heat cracked open the door for grace.

The park is encircled by sculptures memorializing the violence, including fire hoses pointed at the crowds of protestors and cement walls you walk between that have three-dimensional police dogs lunging out on all sides.

Of all the powerful installations, perhaps the most visceral is “The Four Spirits.” It depicts four little girls around a park bench preparing for worship at the 16thStreet Baptist Church. On September 15, 1963, a bomb planted by the KKK exploded under the front steps of the church, killing those four little girls: Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley.

The deaths of those tiny civil rights warriors spurred an international outrage that marked a turning point in the Civil Rights Movement and fueled support for the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In fact, the tombstone for Addie Mae Collins reads: “She died so freedom might live.”

I walked to the church located across the street from the park, and there I discovered a huge stained-glass window on the back wall near where the bomb exploded. It glimmered in the sun, a black crucified Christ in its center.

A member of the church pointed out to me that the right hand of the Christ is flexed to represent the pushing away of hatred and injustice, while the left hand is outstretched, palm open, offering forgiveness. Under the image are the words “You do it to me,” based on Matthew 25:40: “What you do to the least of these, you do it to me.”

She then explained the window’s remarkable history. As the news of the bombing spread worldwide, John Petts, an artist in a tiny coastal village in Wales, heard about the tragedy and offered to create a window to replace the destroyed back wall of the church.

Rather than have a few wealthy individuals fund the project, donations were capped at half a crown (around 15 cents in current value) so that the window would be a gift from the people. All over Wales, people lined up to give. School children brought pocket money to donate. That tiny nation, more than six times smaller than Alabama, pulled together and created that window to help rebuild the church.

Sometimes it takes heat to bring the grace.

I walked home at the end of the afternoon, moved yet utterly disheartened. Here we are, fifty years of heat later, and the grace of true civil rights still hasn’t come. Violence is still aimed at our brothers and sisters of color. Racist hearts are still hardened against them. Equality is still held far from their reach.

I returned to Eugene’s for dinner, hoping for solace and grace from the heat of the chicken. But before I ate, I paused to pray for a larger grace, a grace for which Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley made the ultimate sacrifice. A grace that was and is the legacy of the crucified Christ. A grace that will come only if all of us—side by side, hand in hand—face the heat together. For it is then that we the people will bring the ultimate grace of freedom.

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