Creativity in preaching often seems an elusive dream for the one who must come up with one or more new sermons every week, year after year. Sometimes the creativity comes simply because the Spirit does something we had not planned. At times like this it is important to remember that powerful preaching does not necessarily mean creativity in preaching.
Among those people who have been non-creative or not very dramatic in the sorts of things they would do in the pulpit, one must include the apostle Paul. Paul was mournfully aware of his inadequacies as a public preacher. He spoke about it on several occasions. We have examples of his preaching in the Book of Acts, and we have indications of the sort of things he did. His preaching was rather straight-forward, ordinary, and not very unusual.
Of course, the Spirit of the Lord did some incredible things with Paul, and he is one of my greatest encouragements to remembering that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels.” It is the treasure that makes the difference when we make ourselves available, when we think “I have bombed out” –, and, in fact, I have “bombed out.” But the Lord often does something other than what I am doing.
Another example of a powerful but uncreative preacher is Jonathan Edwards. He had a tedious sermonic style. He wrote out his manuscripts. Being very near-sighted, Edwards held the manuscripts just beyond his nose and read them in monotone to the congregation. One of those sermons, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, was the spark that the Lord used to ignite the First Great Awakening in North America. Powerful preaching! But not what we would call creative.
A more recent example would be Billy Graham, who has probably been used by the Lord more powerfully than any preacher in history. But Graham’s critique of his own sermons is scathing. His sermons usually follow a formula of describing the problems of the world with an explanation of how Jesus is the solution. Billy Graham does not know how to tell a story, and he avoids stories in his sermons. He reads statistics, which he does fairly effectively. Despite what some preachers criticize as a simple, predictable pattern in his preaching, Graham is used by the Lord in a powerful way. It would be a mistake to confuse creativity and power.
Creativity for Confrontation
Creativity helps enlightenment come in more than merely a gnostic sense. We can become preoccupied with the entertainment dimension of creativity only to have people walk away, having been entertained but thinking “I’ve heard nothing from God!” Creativity is something that helps us accomplish a primary purpose of all preaching: confrontation. Whether we are preaching a doctrinal sermon, an evangelistic sermon, or any of the range of sermon types available to the preacher, confrontation remains a primary aim. Christian preaching confronts people with the claims of Jesus Christ in one way or another.
In preaching a doctrinal sermon one does well to recall Christianity has no theoretical thought or theoretical doctrine; it is all practical and immediate. But how does one confront someone with the idea of eschatology? How does one confront someone with the doctrine of justification? Creativity is one way that we can help people be confronted.
The New Testament has a wonderful way of describing confrontation in the Greek phrase prosopon pros prosopon. It expresses the idea of coming “face to face,” and it works like a mirror. The most important ingredient of confrontation comes when preaching helps people get a true look at themselves. How do we help people see themselves from God’s perspective? Accomplishing this difficult responsibility separates preaching from public speaking.
The task looms even larger in the context of the values and behavior patterns of American culture. The New Testament anticipates the kind of climate in which preachers must bring their messages today:
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of stress. For men will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, inhuman, implacable, slanderers, profligates, fierce, haters of good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, holding the form of religion but denying the power of it. Avoid such people (2 Tim. 3:1-5).
In this kind of climate, however, a strong encouragement from the Church Growth Movement urges preachers not to threaten people from the pulpit. A seeker service aims at making people feel comfortable. This strategy raises the subtle danger in some minds to avoid the confrontation and only reinforce the existing prejudices of Baby Boomers. In such a climate, how does one communicate with a contemporary audience and hold their interest so that they will listen to a word from God, and yet still give them a word from God?
Successful confrontation requires some creativity. We can preach prophetically, yet fail in the confrontation task of helping people see themselves. We can be prophetic but fail to communicate. Creativity can help us in achieving that goal of effective confrontation.
Positive Biblical Confrontation
Jesus was not one to give a three-point sermon. He stood in the Rabbinic rhetorical tradition, quite apart from the Greek tradition of rhetoric. He followed Rabbinic patterns very well, but He was quite creative in the way He interacted with people. He used the everyday illustration. Jesus would not have had a book of 6,000 sermon illustrations. He used the commonplace experience at hand. He told stories. He challenged the assumptions of people.
The Sermon on the Mount represents one challenge after another, such as the beginning of the beatitudes: blessed are the poor in spirit. Such an assertion flew in the face of conventional wisdom which knew that blessed are the strong in spirit! The audience of Jesus would have believed that blessed are the strong and the successful and all those things that Job’s friends had talked about. Jesus was turning upside down the ideas of standard piety: watch out how you pray — it doesn’t count; watch out how you practice your piety — it doesn’t count. With one idea after another, He challenged the comfortable ways His hearers thought about life.
How does one transfer that style to a modern situation? How can preaching challenge people so that they continue to hear and want to hear?
In the Old Testament, Nathan provides one of the grandest examples of how to confront someone. He is not of the same school of thought as Jonah, whose school of thought is “Forty days and you’ve had it, brother!” Jonah’s approach does not normally draw people in, but the Spirit of God worked overtime with him. Nathan, on the other hand, told a non-threatening story to help David begin to see what was happening in his life. In the same way, does modern preaching help people come to grips with what’s really going on in their lives?
Spiritual Foundations of Creativity
The secret, of course, lies more with the Holy Spirit than with technique. The Holy Spirit is the source of this kind of creativity. Persons cannot make themselves creative. Creativity comes from God. The Holy Spirit is the author of creativity. In people, wherever there is the creative capacity, it is the work of God. This capacity is a part of being created by God, in the image of God. Whether manifested by the invention of the internal combustion engine or the discovery of the principles of gravity, creativity is something that the other animals do not have.
All people have a capacity for creativity. Thus, preachers have no basis for complaining that they lack the “gift” of creativity. To take it a step beyond the image of God, Christian preachers are “born again.” This fact opens the door of creativity as wide as eternity.
Beyond being “born again,” Christian preachers have been called by God to preach. God is very clever. He does not ask us to do things we cannot do. The preaching task relies upon faith that God does not ask preachers to do something that He has not empowered them to do. This issue finds expression in 2 Timothy 1:6:
Hence, I remind you to rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands; for God did not give us a spirit of timidity but a spirit of power and love and self control.
The capacity lies within all Christian preachers starting from their call. That empowerment forms a springboard for anything we do as preachers.
Hindrances to Creative Preaching
That being so, the encouragement of creativity involves identifying some of the hindrances to creative preaching. One of them comes in the reliance on crutches. The tendency to rely on only one sermon form provides a secure crutch. The sermon corpus of many preachers look exactly alike: just change the subpoints and the poem. The pattern becomes so predictable that the congregation can anticipate the next point. It’s safe, it’s secure, it’s boring, but at least we know what we are going to do next Sunday.
The “Illustration Book” provides another crutch. This is a wonderful thing for someone who writes and sells illustration books. But illustrations chosen at random from such a book are not generally internalized. On the other hand, illustrations may come across in readings or through experiences that seize the mind and become a part of us. Something clicks.
Eric Rust, for many years professor of philosophy at Southern Baptist Seminary, had been a physicist before entering the ministry. He used to say: “All of a sudden it was like a Wheatstone bridge,” which is defined as “a bridge for measuring electrical resistance that consists of a conductor joining two branches of a circuit.” Rust depicted the Wheatstone bridge as that scary thing in the Frankenstein movies that had highly-energized electric currents flashing through the air between two poles. The mind bridges two ideas in the same way.
We have to discipline ourselves to the habit of reading a weekly news-magazine, the newspaper, a novel or a mystery story, on a regular basis. Preachers need to develop the habit of being exposed to the sort of thing that grabs us, so that it is internalized within us. Also, we can develop our eyes to see illustrations in our own life experiences; they surround us constantly. “Consider the lilies how they grow …” — now that is a great illustration. In the midwestern wheat belt, people know that wheat and tares grow up together unless the grower uses one of the new herbicides. For making a point where you live, look for a localized metaphor. What do you notice? What do others notice?
Another great hindrance to creativity rests in the egocentric sermon. Have you noticed how easy it is for preachers to lapse into monologues about themselves? Instead of merely being personal, some illustrations become more and more autobiographical. Some preachers tend to chatter about themselves, like the stand-up school of theology or the Henny Youngman approach to homiletics. Preachers would be amazed by how many people are offended by the things many pastors say about their wives. Instead of making the preacher seem more human, these personal tales tune people out. All sorts of snippy, chatty conversation from the pulpit leaves people wondering: “what does this have to do with me?”
Fear provides another hindrance to creativity. Many people have a fear to do anything new. People fear doing something that will expose a weakness. The dramatic monologue is an extremely creative sermon form in which the preacher becomes the character of someone like Paul or Judas or Barnabas. Though it may seem a scary thing to try, most preachers can do it. A dramatic monologue has all the content of an expository sermon, because it requires the kind of Bible study and communion with the Spirit that allows us to enter into what God was doing there and what it has to do with today. It also allows for powerful confrontation; the preacher is not the center of focus, rather it is the character.
There is also the fear of challenging people. Since the pastoral invitation went out of vogue in many churches, very few sermons actually challenge people to act. Many of the new church starts of the last five to ten years operate with a model that avoids challenging people. This model avoids making expectations for people to do things. Worship attendance may be high but giving is very low, as is involvement in Christian Education and in any signs of discipleship growth. The preacher has a fear of challenging people for fear of losing them. The way to attack this fear of challenging people is through deciding “I’m going to find creative ways of challenging people that will help them.” People do experience challenges in positive ways.
Drawing People In
In order to confront and challenge people in positive ways, it is crucial that we draw people into the sermons so that they are not detached observers but that somehow they are brought into what is going on. One way of doing this comes through asking questions like the ones that Rumpole asks. Rumpole of the Bailey, the British version of Matlock, declares that a lawyer should never ask a question of a witness unless he already knows what the witness will answer.
In the pulpit, never waste time asking questions that will not elicit the kind of response you want. Ask questions that will draw people in. When I speak about personal witnessing and the way the Spirit calls to our remembrance the things of Christ, I have asked a question that has proven effective in many kinds of cultures and many different racial groups. This is the question: “Have you ever found yourself in a situation in which you were quoting or paraphrasing, or maybe just giving the gist of, a verse of Scripture that you had never memorized?” Very few Christians have not had this experience, if they have any genuine commitment to Christ. Normally, heads begin to bob, faces begin to smile, eyebrows raise, and people are drawn into the sermon. What has happened is that there is a connection made and the audience is participating because their experiences have been drawn into the sermon. Look for those kinds of connections with people.
Another way to draw people into the sermon comes through using a different kind of outline. James Cox advocates Monroe’s motivated sequence which involves five elements: 1) Attention; 2) Need; 3) Satisfaction; 4) Visualization; and 5) Actualization.
The first step of this approach calls for drawing attention to the subject, and then to identify the need that will be discussed, the need that people share. The attention step should make it obvious to the congregation that this is a need they have. The second step defines that need.
The third step describes how that need can be satisfied. In a sermon on “hope,” something can be said about the feeling of despair and hopelessness. What satisfies that need? God always gives some concrete reason for hope. Hope is not a theoretical idea; it has a concrete basis and that basis is the resurrection. If Christ can come out of the tomb, if death can be defeated, what can He not help us deal with? What lies beyond the darkness? When you stop in the midst of your despair, then you have denied yourself the power of the resurrection, and resurrection is what God is going to do on the other side of the darkness.
In the fourth step, help your congregants visualize what difference this can make in their lives. How will a concrete hope, rooted in Jesus Christ, make a difference in their day-to-day systems? The final step calls for people to actualize what the gospel offers through their response. Depending on the kind of message they have heard, this step gives various ways they can respond.
I ignored Cox’s enthusiasm for the motivated sequence until my first ministry after seminary. The eleven o’clock hour seemed a vast wasteland. In desperation one week, I developed a sermon using this model. My sermon on “Hope and the Power of the Resurrection” had an electrifying impact on the congregation, and a family responded to the invitation by joining the church. I have few sermons that I preach more than once, but this one I have used in a variety of settings around the country and invariably I see people come to faith in Christ through it. It has more to do with them than it has to do with me. It is all centered in them, and it is between them and God.
This experience suggests a third thing we can do to draw people into the sermon: give a way for people to respond. An opportunity for response does not necessarily mean an altar call in the traditional sense. Tony Campolo rarely speaks in any forum without giving an invitation for people to respond to the message by doing something. When talking about conditions in regions of the world with desperate need he may say, “Compassion does a great job and if you’ll just come down here and give me your name and address on a piece of paper I’ll have Compassion send you all the information.” When addressing seminary students on urban ministry he will typically say, “O.K., if you’ll just come down here and give me your name and address on a piece of paper we’ll send you the information on how you can be involved next summer in Philadelphia through our Urban Ministry module and you’ll get seminary credit.”
There are ways to give an invitation, even in a Seeker Service. One thing to not do is to pass the attendance card at the beginning of the service. Do it at the end of the service and have options for some kind of response. The elusive seeker can just check a box. Collect the offering at the end of the service instead of at the beginning of the service. This allows Christians to make concrete responses to the message, and seekers can put their card in the plate indicating the spiritual decision they are wrestling with. Find something that works, but give ways for people to respond if God has touched their hearts in the sermon.
Visual illustrations also help draw people in. Television has made Americans more visual in their understanding; but sermons tend to be exclusively verbal. Jesus used visualizations dramatically. Of course, Jesus was teaching in a pre-literate age. We now preach and teach in a post-literate age. It is almost the same dynamic. When Jesus spoke of the lilies and the wheat and the vine and the branches, using all of those agricultural illustrations, He probably pointed to them as He spoke. He did not just talk about them; there they were. We do this today with children’s sermons. Usually, children’s sermons do not speak to children because we use such theoretical ideas, asking them to make such huge leaps in analogy that the message goes right over their heads. But adults almost always get something out of children’s sermons. Adults love children’s sermons because they usually are show-and-tell demonstrations.
How do you explain righteousness to someone who has never been in church? In my sermon, I ask this question as I take out my pocket watch. Righteousness is a very ancient model. The ancients would take a cord, a piece of leather or vine, and tie a rock to the bottom of it; they had made a plumb. As I explain this concept, I hold the end of my watch chain and let the watch fall, creating a plumb line. With a plumb line the ancients tested a wall to see if it was upright, righteous, straight (as I say this, I test the pulpit). And if it was not righteous, that means it was going to fall over. The plumb line tests the standard of uprightness and things that do not conform to the standard fall over and are destroyed. Jesus is righteousness. He is the standard, and we all must ask, “Do I conform to Jesus?”
In churches that use overhead projectors to display choruses during worship, some other creative visual opportunities exist. Of course, one could always display a teaching outline but that lacks creativity and does not take advantage of the visual. It is a short move from the visualization of righteousness to a visualization of justification. This example comes from the common use of computers. On pages typed on old typewriters the right-hand side margin was not justified. (Display an overhead cell showing the irregular right-hand margin of a typed page.) It has peaks and valleys just like our lives: up and down, erratic, irregular, unstable. A computer can justify the margin with respect to a standard of righteousness, and that is what Jesus Christ wants to do in a person’s life. (At this point, display a justified computer page.) He came to do that for the world. As I speak I stretch my watch chain along the straight right margin. The cross of Christ justifies our lives in line with Christ the way a computer justifies and lines up the margins of a text. I conclude the visual illustration by reshaping the chain into the likeness of a cross. This use of visual illustration goes beyond the display of a static image. It involves a dynamic, dramatic display.
To illustrate sanctification, I use a finger pick. This illustration involves narration and demonstration. A finger pick is placed on his fingertips by a guitarist or banjo player who plays multiple strings in a pattern. As I explain the pick’s purpose, I put one on my finger. To strum the strings or to pick each note separately, other guitarists and banjo players use flat picks. I hold up a flat pick. Flat picks play a different style. I have a friend who is a flat picker; I play a little banjo and guitar with a finger pick. Once when we were about to play together, my friend needed a pick for his guitar. I said, “I’ve got a finger pick; will that work?” He said, “Yeah, give it here.” Before my eyes he mangled my pick and bent it until it was unrecognizable, but it was now flat and usable for his purposes. As I tell the story, I bend a finger pick into a new shape. In my sermon I say that is what Jesus Christ will do with us when we give ourselves to Him. We are not going to be the same. He is going to bend us, and mold us, and make us usable.
In order to draw the congregation into his sermon, the preacher needs an active understanding of the issues of life. One of the greatest hazards of professional ministry comes in the semi-enforced disengagement from the broader culture. Often cut off from the popular culture, a preacher benefits from developing skill at exegeting the culture as much as from exegeting the Bible. Exegesis of Scripture provides something to say, but without exegeting the culture we may not know how to say the message. Ethicist Henlee Barnette has often remarked that all a preacher needs to enter the pulpit is a Bible, a newspaper, and a dictionary. Exegeting the culture begins with the discipline of reading a good newspaper and newsmagazine on a regular basis. The major newsmagazines report on major cultural trends and issues in society.
Another way to gain insight into the issues of life comes in following the Nielsen ratings of TV programs. For the last ten years Cheers figured in the top TV programs. The program uses the same plot every week. The theme song even admits it: “The troubles are all the same.” The characters in the program deal with loneliness, low self-esteem, vanity, meaninglessness, inability to make loving commitment, alienation in relationships, and anxiety. The program caricatures American society, and its popularity may come from the high degree to which Americans can identify with the characters.
In contrast to Cheers, The Cosby Show enjoyed an equally successful tenure, but it presented an entirely different picture of life: acceptance, mature commitment, purpose, sacrifice, forgiveness, and security. Perhaps Cheers represented the misery-loves-company experience of America: “Sometimes you just want to go where everybody knows your name.” Perhaps Cosby portrayed what people wanted. Whatever the artistic value of American TV, it gives a picture of American society which many preachers can never enter.
This article comes from an oral presentation given in a forum of preachers. I prepared an outline for the presentation, but I did not prepare a manuscript. My written version of that presentation does not read the same as a transcript of that oral presentation. While the thought patterns, at least in the order of material and content presented, remain the same, how one communicates in writing differs from how one communicates orally.
Oral preaching requires the kind of creativity that moves beyond seeing a sermon as a literary piece one writes, toward seeing a sermon as a theatrical expression. The primary creative question for the preacher is: “How can I help people grasp a message from God?”

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