Voting for a Sermon
I tried an experiment in a Thai church I was asked to preach at recently. As a Dallas Theological Seminary graduate I always try to prepare my expositional messages well ahead of time and end up spending many hours in preparation. Yet I departed from my usual regimen on this occasion and found myself standing in the pulpit on this particular Sunday saying something I had never said in 40 years of preaching, "Congregation, I have to be honest and tell you that I'm not sure what I'll be preaching on today." They gave me a rather blank stare and then I put a PowerPoint slide in Thai on the screen with the title and references to 15 Bible stories, "You see today I want you as a congregation to "vote" for one of these 15 stories. The one that gets the most votes will be the one that I will preach on." Before they voted, I asked for 6-7 people to tell the congregation which story was their favorite from the list and to convince the rest in just a minute of why they should vote for that story. One Thai lady got so carried away in her appeal that she almost told the entire story. When the votes from the 50 or so that were present were counted, the majority voted for the story of the poor widow who gave her two coins (Mark 12:41-44). Fortunately this was the shortest story on the list. I briefly looked the story over and then for the next 40 minutes I led them through that story in a "Simply The Story" style (www.simplythestory.org). The response was quite encouraging and I promised to return for another "election" in the future.
I've felt pressure when preaching before, but in this case it was multiplied by 15 since I needed to be ready to preach from any story on the list. It also was one of the most satisfying experiences, because it meant that all 15 of those stories are in my "heart pocket" ready for use at the drop of a hat. I now find myself mentally shuffling through that list when I have a divine opportunity to witness while sitting in a taxi or bus, waiting in the doctors office, having tea in a shop, etc.
I was advised in seminary to be ready to "preach, pray or die" at a moments notice. Decades of missionary work helped me to be able to pray without preparation, not sure about the dying thing ... but I certainly couldn't preach well without at least some warning and time to prepare. Now I have an increasingly large set of stories appropriate to the Thai worldview that I can call upon when evangelizing, counseling, discipling or training leaders.
This ability is revolutionary for me, especially in light of my pre-orality past, when I didn't have even one Bible story ready to tell in a content accurate fashion. True, I could have summarized or have told you the gist of a few Bible stories, or if you gave me an assignment and time to memorize a story, I could have complied. The difference now is having a number of stories ready to share without notes in both informal and formal settings. Previously the only tool in my Biblical communication tool belt was a large hammer entitled "exposition". I used this hammer on all biblical genres, but of course felt most at home in the epistles where I spent most of my time (A professor recently told me that 90% of preaching in the states is centered in on 10% of the Bible, namely the epistles). My oral tool was the size of a tweezer and as a result I effectively skirted what I now realize to be 75% of the Bible - namely narrative. To preach "the whole counsel of God" we need to treat a variety of genres by using a variety of tools and not just one favorite tool that we are used to. I'm now commending this oral tool to all my missionary friends and many are finding just how powerful and impactive a seemingly simple story can be.