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Word a particularly bad choice

Photo by Vicki Harris

Photo by Vicki Harris

WHAT MAKES A GREAT SERMON?

What was it about a great sermon you remember that kept you interested? What about a sermon can make you tune out? If you’re a minister, how do you keep your congregation engaged week in and week out? You can comment on this column online at www.albanyherald.com or on The Herald’s Facebook page.

Author Jonah Lehrer has written a book on how to foster and encourage creativity. As one who preaches and writes weekly I need all the creativity I can get and someday I may pick up his book, though it would have been sooner except for one unnecessary word in the book’s excerpt in the March 10-11, 2012 Wall Street Journal.

The offending word was “particularly,” a word that in most contexts is harmless. But not this time. At least not to those of us who preach weekly.

You be the judge.

In his book, Mr. Lehrer retells the fascinating story of how sticky notes got invented. The short version is that somebody at the 3-M company invented a glue so weak it could hardly hold two pieces of paper together. Nobody could think of any use for it until Arthur Fry went to church one Sunday.

Mr. Fry, who sang in the church choir and liked to mark the hymnal pages with little scraps of paper, realized one Sunday during church that the weak glue could make sticky notes that would adhere to, but not destroy, other pieces of paper.

And at what point in the worship service did this lightning bolt hit Mr. Fry? According to the author, it happened during the sermon.

This is hugely possible. All kinds of ideas come to persons during the sermon, even to the one doing the preaching. There is no telling what greater good might happen in the world if more people attended church, thus increasing the possibility of more creatively wandering minds.

But back to “particularly.”

Here’s how Mr. Lehrer unnecessarily — and I suspect gratuitously — spiced up the story as he reported, “... during a particularly tedious sermon Mr. Fry had an epiphany.”

It wasn’t good enough to report that the inspiration happened during a sermon. And it wasn’t even good enough to slam the sermon as being “tedious.” Mr. Lehrer piled additional abuse on the preacher by calling the sermon “particularly tedious,” as if every sermon this poor bumbler preached was lousy, but this one, this one was really, really, particularly bad.

Well, maybe that’s true but I doubt it. Particularly bad sermons (and I’ve preached and sat through my share) don’t stimulate creativity. They stimulate sleep or create anger, frustration or hopelessness. I wouldn’t count on much creativity going on during bad sermons or awful sermons. It’s good preaching, or at least mildly good preaching, that tills the fields for creativity, Mr. Lehrer. Although there are exceptions to every rule, thus making it possible that we can thank an awful sermon for our sticky notes, for the most part good stuff produces more good stuff.

If I’ve made too much of this one word chalk it up to a fierce desire to defend the honorable, too easily maligned craft of preaching. Mr. Lehrer is a good writer. It was just one word I didn’t particularly like.

Contact the Rev. Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.