Remember Preaching 101? On the first day of class your professor said, “In this course you will write, think and sleep preaching.” Then over the next few sessions he demonstrated the three types of sermons with a booming voice that rattled the windowpanes. Everyone in the class was awed (and filled with just a bit of vocal-chord envy).
By the end of the course every student could identify and deliver a topical, textual or expository oration on command.
A recent ministry transition gave me the rare opportunity to listen to other pastors preach. I heard a new variety of sermon — a style that, surprisingly, my preaching professor failed to cover in class. (I say “surprisingly” because so many preachers employ it, the uninformed observer might think that seminarians devote several semesters to it.) It is absent from the list of preaching classes in every college catalogue I perused. And my inspection of the literature on preaching turned up no book, not even an essay describing it or extolling its virtues.
Since (apparently) I have discovered a new, as yet undefined type of sermon, I decided to name it. At first I tried to incorporate my surname somehow, perhaps “Longitory” or “Longual.” Neither sounded right. Besides, those titles simply reminded me of the garden variety “long sermon,” and nobody wants to hear those. In the end I settled on a name borrowed from contemporary literature — the Stream of Consciousness sermon.
Now the reason for this choice will become obvious in a moment. First, for you non-literary types, Stream of Consciousness writing is a way to display the thoughts of a character in a novel. Since human thinking often flows without any particular organization, plot or direction, authors represent it on the printed page by an utter lack of punctuation, run-on sentences and phrases. The prose is disjointed, one thought jumping to another, seemingly without end. James Joyce popularized this technique in Ulysses (which some people say is the greatest literary work of all time):
…all he could do to keep himself from falling asleep after the last time we took the port and potted meat it had a fine salty taste yes because I felt lovely and tired myself and fell asleep as sound as a top the moment I popped straight into bed till that thunder woke me up as if the world was coming to an end God be merciful to us I thought the heavens were coming down about us to punish when I blessed myself and said a Hail Mary like those awful thunderbolts in Gibraltar that they come and tell you there’s no God what could you do if it…1
And this consciousness-stream continues for forty pages. Fun stuff, huh?
In Stream of Consciousness writing, then, we read whatever comes to the mind of the thinker at the moment he thinks it. In Stream of Consciousness preaching we hear whatever comes to the mind of the speaker also at the moment he thinks it. Of course, a Stream of Consciousness sermon has complete sentences and for the most part follows traditional syntactic rules. In that it differs from the writing technique. Otherwise the parallels are striking. A Stream of Consciousness sermon typically begins with a text (or maybe a thought or experience) and then takes the listeners on a wild ride from topic to topic to topic, without organization or outline, as each idea presents itself to the preacher’s consciousness.
I know. You want to say, “Hey. Wait just a minute! This is not a distinct style; it is simply a bad sermon from an unprepared preacher.”
My gut reaction is the same. But consider this: not only are these sermons preached in thousands of pulpits every Sunday, but many pastors like preaching this way — they intentionally plan on having no plan for their message. Still they face several challenges.
First, few of us have a thirty-minute stream of thought that is worthy of putting on paper, let alone show-placing in front of a congregation of spiritually hungry Christians.
I suppose a highly imaginative and entertaining speaker has the best chance of success with this style of preaching. Perhaps the sermon could mimic the modem comic’s monologue — one humorous story flows into the next, building and reinforcing a few general themes.
All of us would agree that a good, clean comic is great fun; we might even pay money to hear him. But comics plan their routines. They work hard on the jokes they tell. They know what stories they will share and in what order they will share them. Despite appearances, it really isn’t a stream of consciousness at all. And if you wanted to learn something comics fall woefully short.
A second problem with stream of consciousness preaching is that it can lead to topics and statements that are wholly inappropriate.
Have you ever said something that you wished you could take back? All of us have. The potential for this happening in a Stream of Consciousness sermon is high. Since the speaker often has little clue ahead of time what thoughts the sermon will reflect, any direction is possible.
A colleague once preached about death the Sunday before Christmas. The sermon might have been OK if the topic were “Victory over Death,” or “Christ born to die for us.” But one of his friends had died the week before. And his heart felt futility, sprinkled with a dose of self-pity.
Remaining true to his Stream of Consciousness form, his Christmas sermon was an extension of his feelings. His topic? “Death: I will die, you will die, we all will die.” Christmas is always a tough time for those who have lost loved ones. Perhaps, if he had offered some word of comfort, the sermon might have worked. But he simply shared “whatever was on his mind.” His emotional state was a poor roadmap for a sermon.
A third difficulty with this type of sermon is that new themes are rare. All of us have favorite topics and issues. We have certain stories we use over and over because they received a good response the first time or we like the sound of the words.
Stream of Consciousness preachers rely on preexisting knowledge, not preparation. But without quality time in study they eventually have nothing new to say. There’s one explanation for short terms of service at a church.
Some people claim the Holy Spirit guides them when they speak — they don’t need preparation or organization. I wonder if they relied on the Spirit to guide them when they took tests in college, or if they studied in advance. It seems to me that many prayers for Holy Spirit help in test taking come from unprepared students and not unfettered spirituality.
Now shouldn’t we pray for Holy Spirit help in sermon delivery? Of course. But it isn’t a bad idea to ask for assistance in study and preparation as well.
The last flaw is that Stream of Consciousness sermons often leave the audience wondering, “What was that sermon about?” That should not surprise us. Such sermons are often about nothing in particular, though they may touch on many topics.
An older Stream of Consciousness preacher once gave me this pointer on successful sermon delivery: “Sometimes I turn to the back of my study Bible on Sunday morning and look at the topical outlines for a sermon idea. Several issues will grab my attention. But I won’t lock myself into the Three-Point structure. Sometimes I have three points, sometimes one. Sometimes I don’t have any point at all.”
Indeed.
While Stream of Consciousness writing can be good literature, a key point to remember is that writers such as Joyce use the technique judiciously. Yes, Joyce continues with this style for forty pages in Ulysses, but the bulk of the book contains dialogue and plot, and even that is mighty tough reading. Writers who overuse this devise will be rewarded with a frustrated reader and a book slammed shut. And that is another difference between Stream of Consciousness writing and preaching. When our brain can take no more, the preacher drones on without relief.
I suspect that while a good Stream of Consciousness sermon may be a possibility, very few of us could successfully pull it off week after week. The fact that so many preachers continue to feed their congregations a steady diet of this type sermon is a testimony to tolerant or biblically ignorant parishioners, not a successful style of preaching.
So if you want to preach stream of consciousness sermons keep mind that they are as difficult as mountain climbing many people die on Everest last year when they filmed the Imax movie I can see it at a theatre like the one where my Dad lives though he never goes because he is getting older which we all will do sometime I suppose we need to prepare to meet our maker and evangelize the lost especially if they are going to climb a mountain… Ethyl, fire up the organ time for the invitation.
1Joyce, James. Ulysses. (New York: Random House 1961), 727-728.

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