Seeing as I am not happy with my own performance, now seems like the perfect time to describe what I would be doing if I were teaching homiletics (which is fancy-pants Episcopal talk for preaching).
If there were two books I'd want on my hypothetical reading list, they would be Impro: Improvisation and the Theatre by Keith Johnstone; and Born Standing Up by Steve Martin.
I read Impro when I took an summer intensive improv class a number of years ago, shortly after I graduated from seminary and it blew my mind. It's full of stuff I have applied to many areas of ministry.
Sermons are clearly prepared in advance, but there's still lots in here that's applicable. If there's one concept I've kept from it all these years that I've applied to preaching, it's "Be obvious!" It's counterintuitive, but I have found the following to be true time and time again:
The improviser has to realise that the more obvious he is, the more original he appears. I constantly point out how much the audience like someone who is direct, and how they always laugh with pleasure at a really 'obvious' idea. Ordinary people asked to improvise will search for some 'original' idea because they want to be thought clever.
So many preachers work so hard to find some original interpretation of a familiar text. It's amazing how the obvious comes as a jolt of electricity. What I've found hard is paying attention to the obvious; I have found it's so ingrained in us to leap to the clever.
I'm trying to think of an example. I heard someone preaching not too long ago whose theme was breath. He went to great lengths with that word, using the Hebrew, compared with the Greek, with quotes from various theologians and missed (from my perspective) the more obvious things: what does it feel like to breathe? What keeps you from breathing? The ways we actually experience breathing every day were ignored entirely.
Born Standing Up was fascinating from a preacher's perspective for several reasons. First of all, just seeing how long it took Martin to hone his craft was inspiring. Second, the amount of thought and theory behind his craft impressed the heck out of me. He says that at one point he toyed with getting a PhD in philosophy. You can see why; he's so thoughtful in what he does. Here, for example, he explains some of his theory of getting a laugh:
In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it...What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song...
These notions stayed with me for months, until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.
Clearly, this is not comedy for beginners! But reading this made me think about my own approach to preaching and why I do what I do.
For folks in the SF Bay Area:
First, I noticed in an email from CDSP (the Episcopal seminary in Berkeley) that this Thursday after the 5:30 Eucharist, there will be a presentation on the effective use of microphones in churches, in Easton Hall. Just thought I'd pass that along, in case you're interested.
And, finally, I'm going to be preaching at All Saints, San Leandro through the end of the year. So you can come and see that I have no right to be writing about preaching at all!