At a faculty coffee break, I commented casually that I was working on an article entitled “The One-Shot Preaching Assignment.” Later, a colleague stopped by my office to explain that the image of preaching as shooting a sermon at a congregation is a very poor image. A gun, she pointed out, is an instrument of violence and is out of place in a community whose gospel is the unconditional love of God for all.
I about fell out of my chair. I was not thinking of a gun when I was thinking of the one-shot sermon. I was thinking of a syringe and the kind of shot we receive at the medical doctor’s office. We normally get injections in order to remain healthy (as in the case of immunization) or to become healthy (as when we get penicillin to cure pneumonia). The preacher’s question is “When I have only one shot to give, how do I best give the injection so as to aim for the maximum benefit?”
Of course, our encounter ended with gales of laughter as the misunderstanding unfolded. However, the miscommunication that evolved in this incident illustrates an important reason for thinking about the special dynamics of the one-shot preaching assignment.
In this article, I begin by pointing to some occasions when the preacher has just one opportunity to bring the gospel to a community. I then outline some possibilities and problems for such an occasion. The article continues with suggestions of things to do and things to avoid and concludes with an epilogue suggested by economy and ecology.
Occasions for the One-Shot Sermon
The one-shot sermon takes place when the preacher has only one opportunity to bring the gospel to a Christian community. The community may be an established local congregation or it may be a temporary listening community comprised of persons from several different congregations, such as at a statewide meeting.
In most cases, the one-shot sermon will be a single sermon preached for the community. However, many of the dynamics which attend the preaching of a single sermon are also found in events which include more than one occasion for the preacher to address the body but which are still of limited duration. At a conference which lasts only one day, for instance, a preacher may speak in the morning, in the afternoon and at night. At a revival, a preacher may preach on Sunday morning and then for several nights in succession.
Most one-shot preaching assignments take place within an arena where the preacher can assume a friendly predisposition. A sample list of such occasions would include a revival, a pulpit exchange, an ordination, a building dedication, a world mission emphasis, an installation of a new pastor, an anniversary, a return to one’s home church, an annual meeting of the church at a middle or upper judicatory level, the visit of a middle or upper judicatory official, and an ecumenical service (such as the community thanksgiving service).
But some one-shot sermons take place in environments in which some listeners will not be favorably disposed toward the gospel. Some listeners may be indifferent and some actively hostile. This may be true for weddings and funerals and will almost certainly be true for occasions such as high school or college baccalaureate.
Problems and Possibilities in the One-Shot Assignment
The purpose of preaching the one-shot sermon is the same as for any sermon: to shine the light of the gospel for the sake of the listening community. The preacher seeks to bring a word from God which can renew the listeners and which can help them interpret the world in the terms of the gospel. Yet, each one-shot preaching assignment has its own special qualities.
We now review some problems and possibilities which occur on occasions when the preacher has but one chance to be in the pulpit with a congregation. In almost each case, the same dynamic that is problematic for the preacher can also offer the preacher a positive possibility.
The fundamental difficulty is that the preacher is unacquainted with the specific situation within which the sermon will be preached. Normally, sermons which penetrate most deeply into the hearts of the listeners are those which insightfully take into account the circumstances, hopes, fears, and peculiarities of the listeners. The one-shot preacher sometimes feels as though he or she is giving an injection in the dark without an intimate knowledge of such particulars.
But a preacher may have more knowledge of the listeners than at first appears. At bottom, the listeners are all human beings and human beings share many fears, hopes, and experiences. The preacher who is from the same general cultural milieu as the community can presume that the hearers will be touched in some degree by the winds that blow across the culture. Furthermore, a visiting preacher may not be as likely as an established pastor to have a reduced view of the possibilities of a preaching situation because of past history with the congregation. For instance, on a given issue, local ministers’ experience with the congregation may cause them to become immobilized, preoccupied or even vindictive, whereas the one-shot preacher may not be so encumbered.
Another problem is that the one-shot preacher is unknown to the congregation. The guest preacher does not step into the pulpit enjoying the same degree of trust that accumulates over a successful pastorate. Indeed, in many local congregations, the attendance at the Sunday service will actually decline from ten to twenty-five percent when a guest is in the pulpit.
Yet, the one-shot preaching event may also be free of frustrations that build up over the length of a local ministry. Some of these frustrations develop outside the context of the service of worship but they impinge upon the listener’s receptivity to the preaching of the settled pastor. For instance, a parishioner may think, “The pastor never called on my aged parent in the nursing home,” and that memory may screen out the local pastor’s sermon. But when the one-shot preacher rises to speak, the windows of the hearer’s consciousness may be wide open.
Yet another problem for the one-shot preacher is lack of clarity in the speaking assignment. The committee which invites the guest speaker may not be clear about the nature of the occasion or what they expect in the sermon. Thus, the visitor may walk off the plane only to discover that he or she has the wrong kind of sermon in the briefcase. Or the instructions from the local arrangers can be so vague as to leave the preacher befuddled about what is expected and needed. In either case the preacher may be able to make use of the preaching event in a way that exceeds the expectations of the planning committee.
The one-shot preacher will sometimes arrive on the scene to discover a hidden agenda. The resident minister, for instance, may be in trouble with the congregation. In the corners of the fellowship hall, the guest may find himself or herself in the role of counselor to a troubled community.
Denominational officials from middle and upper judicatories frequently face especially difficult problems. Recent studies show that denominational loyalty is not as strong as it once was, at least among members of established Protestant bodies such as the United Methodists, Presbyterians, United Churches of Christ, and Disciples of Christ. Thus, the judicatory leaders of today may not benefit from the innate sense of respect and interest which their predecessors could presume.
Indeed, today’s denominational leaders may be initially perceived as impersonal bureaucrats from the far-off religious conglomerate (vaguely known as “headquarters”) who are servants of institutional self-interest. The “left wing” decisions of national assemblies cause some locals to be suspicious and hostile. In addition, ecclesiastical officials are sometimes perceived more as managers than as preachers. Hence, the barometer of listener expectation is often low.
However, low expectations can become an asset to the one-shot preacher. If the preacher’s sermon is warm, filled with pastoral concern, candid, and brings the light of the gospel into the sphere of the listeners in an illuminating way, the congregation may be pleasantly surprised. In its somewhat disarmed state, the congregation may be unusually receptive to the preacher’s message.
The timing of a one-shot preaching event is sometimes a problem. Many one-shot preaching events begin at a time when the participants are already tired. For example, many church conferences begin after supper on Friday evening. In the case of regional meetings, the participants may have traveled for long periods of time in order to reach the meeting place. Planners often overfill programs on which the one-shot preacher preaches.
Thus, it is not uncommon for the participants to arrive weary from a week’s work and travel, to make their way to the meeting room where they sit through a long program. The preacher may not reach the pulpit until 9:00 p.m., 9:30 p.m., or even later. Listeners groan inwardly when they realize they must face a twenty-, thirty-, or forty-minute address.
Again, when the anticipation of the people is minimal, they can especially appreciate a sermon which relates the gospel to their situation in a way which arrests even a tired or distracted imagination.
The publicity materials which precede a preacher’s arrival, and the introduction of the preacher on the chancel, sometimes create problems. In one instance, the publicity or introduction may develop an image of the preacher which arouses such a high sense of expectation that no human being could fulfill them. (One denominational executive reported to me of being introduced in glowing terms that suggested she had only slightly less knowledge than God!) In another instance, the promotional information or introduction may be so full of the titles of the speaker’s books and articles and official minutia and the like, that the reader (or listener) gathers the impression that the preacher is so erudite as to be incredibly boring.
The preacher may be able to turn this to his or her advantage with appropriately self-effacing remarks and through the communication of an attitude that establishes a genuine human rapport between speaker and congregation. And, as mentioned above, the listeners’ surprise which accompanies a life-giving sermon often more than compensates for a dry introduction.
Some guest preachers do not learn how to handle the public address system. Unfortunately, after careful preparation, long travel, and great expense, they cannot be heard clearly.
A small problem is that one-shot preachers sometimes look tired. This is often because they are tired from a long (and frantic) trip to reach the place of speaking. This is especially true of denominational officials who have been on the road for several days. While there are no magic formulae to reverse tiredness, a shower close to the time of preaching and some simple physical exercises (that can be done in a motel room) can minimize the appearance of tiredness and can help energize the preacher.
Some Things to Do
There is no plan which can guarantee a hearing for the gospel in every one-shot preaching assignment. But we can do some things which help communication. I list twelve such things.
1. Perhaps the simplest thing the one-shot preacher can do is to remember that he or she is primarily responsible for helping the community of listeners encounter the gospel. The one-shot preaching assignment is not first to promote an ecclesiastical, social or personal agenda. Still less is it to fulfill the ego needs of the one-shot preacher. We need to see ourselves, in the words of H. H. Farmer, as servants of the Word.
2. The one-shot preacher can get an accurate picture of the preaching situation. The preacher conducts an “exegesis” of the congregation by contacting local people and asking at least the following questions:
a. What, specifically, is the name of the occasion?
b. What is the official purpose and theme of the occasion? Is this the same as the unofficial purpose? (Most of the time the official and unofficial agendas agree, but occasionally there is some difference which could affect the way in which the preacher conceives the sermon.)
c. What would the local arrangers and participants like to see happen as a result of the event as a whole?
d. How does the one-shot sermon fit into the purpose of the event?
e. Who will be in the congregation? A sermon to an international assembly of the church may assume at least a few things that cannot be assumed at a baccalaureate sermon at the county high school.
f. What can the preacher learn about the theological, political, economic, educational, psychological, sociological make-up of the community of hearers? What are the realities of their daily lives? What are their worldviews?
g. How would the preacher answer the items in the preceding question for himself or herself? Does the preacher need to reflect on how to handle differences in conviction between himself and the congregation so as to maximize the opportunity of creative interchange and to minimize the possibility of prematurely losing the interest and confidence of the listeners?
h. What will be the physical condition of the listeners when the sermon is preached? How might this awareness affect the development of the sermon?
i. On the basis of publicity materials and other knowledge that the listeners have, what anticipation might the listeners have about the event and about the preacher? Does the preacher need to take this into account in order to defuse hyper-expectation or to address hypo-expectation?
j. Can the preacher sense clues which suggest a hidden agenda on the part of the local planners?
k. Do the listeners have any peculiarities in their use of language and imagery about which the preacher needs to know? For instance, how are they likely to hear the word “shot”?
l. How much time does the planning committee suggest for the sermon? The preacher wants the length of the sermon to fall within that expectation and may well prepare a sermon which is 10-15% shorter. Planners nearly always overestimate the time available for the sermon.
3. The preacher needs to be clear about the purpose of the sermon. What can the one-shot preacher reasonably expect to happen as a result of the interchange between preacher and people? A preacher can easily expect too much …. or too little. In any case, the preacher will want to have a strong, positive emphasis. This is consistent with the character of the gospel as good news.
4. The preacher will want to think carefully about how to put the sermon together so that it will have a good chance of accomplishing its purpose at the time of delivery. The preacher will want especially to review the language and imagery of the sermon in the light of local customs.
5. The preacher will usually be helped by working from a biblical passage. The most important reason for doing so, of course, is that the Bible is clearly a portent and generative starting point as the preacher seeks to relate the gospel to a community.
In addition, the sensitive use of the Bible can enhance the credibility of the preacher. The preacher may even want to read the scripture lesson in the service of worship. This not only allows the preacher to read the text with emphasis that will lay a foundation for the sermon, but allows the preacher to be identified with the Bible. Furthermore, it gives the congregation a chance to adjust to the preacher’s voice and gives the preacher a chance to adjust his voice to the acoustics before the start of the sermon.
6. The preacher will want to use stories, images and illustrative material which is lively and can illumine the real lives and thoughts of the listeners. The one-shot preacher can often use his own autobiography as a lens through which to focus the gospel. Not only does one’s life story become a gospel lens, but the careful and appropriate use of such personal material can help the community identify with the preacher. When speaker and listener are in solidarity, they tend to be mutually receptive.
7. The communication between preacher and people can be enriched if the preacher makes reference to something which has happened in (or is characteristic of) the listening community. A preacher may discover some local or regional story which can make its way into the sermon. The use of such material not only indicates to the listeners that the preacher has thought specifically about them (and, hence, is not just reproducing a generic sermon) but can help the preacher localize the gospel.
8. When a preacher is asked to deal with large-scale realities, the preacher can find some way of breaking the large-scale reality into units to which listeners can relate. For instance, a preacher may lay out the size and scope of world hunger. The listeners think about world hunger and then rattle the small change in their own pockets and feel demoralized.
Of course, it is important for the listeners to hear the numbers and percentages of the world’s hungry. But listeners are more likely to grasp the significance of the world hunger situation if they can visualize the effects of hunger in a family, a community, a region.
While it is crucial for listeners to understand the trans-national, systemic nature of world hunger, the listeners will more likely decide to take a positive action if the preacher helps them discover how their daily practices and investments implicate them in the system which helps create world hunger and if the preacher helps them see how their actions contribute to feeding hungry people and to systemic reform.
9. The preacher frequently helps the overall tone and movement of the occasion if the preacher is prepared to reduce the length of the sermon as it is preached. The parts of the service which precede the sermon often take much longer than the planners expect. Listeners begin to get edgy and distracted. Under these conditions, a lean, pointed, well-edited, fast moving and brief sermon may have a better opportunity to be received positively by the listeners than the complete and unabridged version.
10. The one-shot preacher can prepare a biographical sketch (for use in publicity and by introducers) which offers a realistic portrait and which helps the community think of the preacher in terms which are appropriate for the occasion. For instance, listeners tend to be less well prepared by a list of the preacher’s institutional history than by a lively indication of the preacher’s personal background, interests and projects which have prepared him or her for the particular preaching assignment. A brief personal story in this material can help the listeners begin to build rapport with the preacher. An up-to-date photograph which depicts the preacher in a warm and natural pose is a help.
11. A one-shot preacher can be of direct encouragement to the local arrangers by responding promptly and directly to the initial invitation to preach and to subsequent requests for information concerning biographical information, the scripture text, the title of the sermon, the preacher’s arrival and departure times. Early in the process, the preacher should let the managers of the event know about special needs. A one-shot preacher cannot pull up in the parking lot and assume that an overhead projector will be waiting in the sanctuary.
12. The one-shot preacher will often benefit from feedback concerning the sermon. Occasionally the preacher will have access to written evaluations of an event which are made by the participants. But more often the preacher needs to directly contact representative participants. The preacher wants to know not just “How did I do?” but “What can I learn from this event that can help me as I think about other one-shot speaking assignments?”
Some Things to Avoid
I turn now to practical matters that the preacher can avoid in the one-shot preaching assignment. The preacher can thus remove these distractions from the environment of the sermon.
Denominational representatives often begin their sermons with “greetings” from “headquarters.” This custom is so pro forma as to have a narcotic effect upon listeners. Indeed, listeners may suspect that the preacher is lying; they know that no one is really sending a greeting to them. This practice can be profitably avoided. If preachers must bring greetings, perhaps they could arrange to do so at an earlier point in the sermon when they could also say a concise word about the relationship between the denomination and the congregation.
One-shot preachers sometimes use mystifying, in-house vocabulary. At an area-wide meeting of the church, the old-line faithful may know that DHM refers to the Division of Homeland Ministries. But a newcomer may easily think that it refers to a new blood disease. In-house vocabulary, therefore, should be avoided.
One-shot preachers sometimes give the impression that “the action” is somewhere other than within the community or lives of the listeners. A third world situation, an ecumenical agency, a far-off congregation where the pews are bulging — these can all sound as though they are where ministry is revolutionary. By comparison, our own community can seem drab and our day-to-day ministries can seem unexciting and inconsequential. Preachers can avoid contributing even indirectly to this impression by helping the listeners see how the daily living of the listeners participates in God’s gracious, redemptive presence in the world.
An Epilogue Suggested by Economy and Ecology
Many one-shot preaching assignments take the preacher a long way from home at considerable expense. Two factors suggest that the church should reconsider the practice of long distance commuting for one-shot preaching assignments: economy and ecology.
The incomes of most denominations are not increasing rapidly enough even to keep up with inflation. Many of our denominations actually have fewer dollars available for mission than a decade ago. Thus, from the point of view of stewardship, the time has come to ask, “Is it really necessary to spend the money to fly someone from Indianapolis to San Francisco to preach a one-shot sermon?”
With the proliferation of educated clergy, and the spread of the ecumenical spirit, capable preachers can undoubtedly be found closer to home. (Of course, values other than financial stewardship — such as the importance of symbolizing denominational connectedness through the presence of a denominational leader — enter into the planning of one-shot preaching events.)
The stewardship of the environment is a closely related issue. Long distance travel is environmentally abusive. Thus, we naturally ask, “Is it worth the ecological price to fly a preacher from Lubbock to the Big Apple to preach at the dedication of a pipe organ?” Ironically, today preachers pump tons of pollutants into our fragile biosphere as they travel hundreds of miles to deliver one-shot sermons on the care of the earth!
The one-shot sermon has characteristic problems. But it also has great possibilities for bearing witness to the gospel. I hope that these reflections help get the right kind of shot to the church.

Share This On: