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Its bin done

As a preacher I have heard just about every joke ever made about preaching rubbish. There’s jokes about drilling for oil (if you don’t strike any, stop boring) jokes about speaking long after you have stopped preaching and jokes about being 6 feet above contradiction (pulpit-less churches need not apply).

One of the reasons I write books and conduct training sessions on preaching is that I really believe it should be better. Preaching should be an electrifying encounter with God and not a stultifying encounter with the preacher.

All the same, next time I hear someone talking about a preacher being a ‘frustrated actor’ or something similar – I shall think of those actors who have reached the zenith of their career by providing the voice of a litter bin!  Click on the picture for full details of the story.

Image: BBC

Would be great to hear your favourite preacher jokes via comments!

Preaching from Timothy

Over the past few weeks I have been preaching through the so-called ‘Pastoral Epistles’ – Paul’s letters to Timothy and Titus. They offer a fascinating glimpse into an age when the church was emerging from the shadows as no longer a ragtag collection of followers but an entity in society. After Paul’s pithy description of the Gospel for which we ‘labour and strive’ (1 Timothy 4 v. 10) , we then find ourselves plunged into a catalogue of nitty-gritty details on everything from benefits for widows and preachers’ wages to diet and discipline! It was this journey from the sublime to the pragmatic which led me to the two stories below.

When Abraham Darby III opened the world’s first Iron Bridge in 1781, his Christian principles were outlined in the toll notice you see below.His strong belief that all were created equal led to the pricing policy for the bridge, where everybody, including the Royal Family, paid the same toll. As well as being an engineering marvel, these 279 tons of ironwork underpinned his theology.


The other image is a t-shirt design bearing the words of George Loveless, farm labourer, Methodist Preacher and Tolpuddle martyr. Along with a small band of others. Loveless formed an illegal association in 1834 to protest against the unjust treatment of manual labourers by wealthy landowners.  They paid a high price for their protest – and were transported to the other side of the world as punishment. Like Darby before him, Loveless’ practical actions were driven by his theological convictions – that all men deserved a certain dignity and justice under God.


From the fields of Dorset we returned to the passage, and Paul’s injunction to young Timothy to ‘keep these instructions without partiality, and do nothing out of favouritism’ (1 Timothy 5 v. 21). From there the path lay back into the world to ‘love and serve the Lord’ – which is where the real sermon will now be preached in shops, office, homes, schools and elsewhere.

…leads nowhere

On this day, with the eyes of all the world on America, I have a confession to make.  Over the past year I have fallen in love with Aaron Sorkin’s superbly crafted and brilliantly scripted “West Wing”. I have grown to love the characters with their humour, wit, passion and flaws. Most of all, I have come to admire the real desire for goodness and change which breathes through the politics. Many people love Sorkin’s writing because it is fiction which depicts reality as it might be. Below are the words of Matthew Santos, Presidential Candidate in the show’s final series, as he speaks in church after a tragedy has befallen the local community.

Today they seem especially relevant.

God bless you.


 I blame every one I can think of and I am filled with rage. And then I try and find compassion. Compassion for the people I blame. Compassion for the people I do not understand, compassion. It doesn’t always work so well. I remember as a young man listening on the radio to Dr. King in 1968. He asked of us compassion, and we responded, not necessarily because we felt it but because he convinced us that if we could find compassion, if we could express compassion, that if we could just pretend compassion, it would heal us so much more than vengeance could. And he was right: it did but not enough. What we’ve learned this week is that more compassion is required of us and an even greater effort is required of us. And we are all, I think everyone of us, tired.

We’re tired of understanding, we’re tired of waiting, we’re tired of trying to figure out why our children are not safe and why our efforts to to make them safe seem to fail. We’re tired. But we must know that we have made some progress and blame will only destroy it. Blame will breed more violence and we have had enough of that.
Blame will not rid our streets of crime and drugs and fear and we have had enough of that. Blame will not strengthen our schools or our families or our workforce. Blame will rob us of those things and we have had enough of that. And so I ask you today to dig down deep with me and find that compassion in your hearts. Because it will keep us on the road. And we will walk together and work together. And slowly, slowly, too slowly, things will get better. God bless you. God bless you and God bless your children

Image: inages2.wikia

Preaching and the second screen

Research published yesterday by in the UK by Digital Clarity, confirms what many have believed for some time about trends in TV viewing habits. Amongst the under-25s ‘social TV’ is on the increase, where people watching TV are simultaneously communicating with their friends via a second screen on Twitter or Facebook. 80% of those surveyed said that they used a second screen, with 72% of them using Twitter.  This transforms TV  viewing from a passive to an active experience, and allows those who are geographically separated to watch TV ‘together’.  Reggie James, founder of Digital Clarity, commented ‘Social TV has changed this completely by turning programmes into online events where you have to watch them as they happen’. Instead of passively absorbing the content of a TV programme, people are discussing it, laughing about it, and even suggesting the way it should go.

A trend which I have started to notice in the past month or two is people tweeting live on a Sunday from the sermon they are hearing. They are not doing it in vast numbers, and it doesn’t happen every week, but the hashtag #sermon or #sundaysermon is becoming a familiar sight on my Twitter feed. I find myself slightly torn over this.  On the one hand, as described in my post on circular preaching, I welcome anything which turns preaching into a more interactive experience. People tweeting about it means that they are engaging more of their brain with the process of listening, which has to be good. On the other hand, the sight of people looking down at their phones whilst I am preaching, as if uninterested, could be distinctly unnerving. Also, does it mean that they are thinking more about how they can translate the message into 140 characters than how they can translate it into their character? I would love to know what others think about this.

Some of you may remember the sequence in Life of Brian where a group of people at the back of the crowd listening to the Sermon on the Mount all mishear Christ’s words differently. Perhaps today it might look something like this:

Shaping up the sermon

Over the past three days there has been an ongoing discussion about the shape of different sermons. It has not been an exhaustive list, and the descriptions of each shape have been deliberately pithy, with just enough detail to provoke a response. However,that has not put people off contributing to the discussion. Comments have pointed out the limitations of each shape and the amendments which might improve them.

Now is your chance to ‘come clean’ on what shape your sermons tend to be. The aim is to indicate the shape you do preach, rather than the shape you feel you ought to. There is space at the box to add your own suggested shape.  Please use the comments box if you would like to explain more about what you have put.

The broken arrow

Although there are dozens more shapes, and some have been suggested by you already, this is the last in this little series. The broken arrow draws people in from a wide angle, and focusses their thoughts on a particular insight. You will notice, though, that it doesn’t go all the way in terms of interpreting what that point means in people’s lives. The second line is incomplete, and people are left to make up their own minds about where to take the interpretation next. Is this a dereliction of the preacher’s duty, or a positive gain?

A poll to follow in the next post…

The splotch

Rather like a clown, this shape is zany, quirky, and liable to keep you entertained.  Firing off in several directions as it does, there is no time to get bored, and it is almost certain to ‘hit’ everyone at some point.  What it gains in attraction, though, it loses in focus. Where is it heading and what is it for?

Look out for shape #5, the broken arrow, at lunchtime…

The snub nose

This sermon shape starts from as broad a base as possible.  From a variety of sources, both biblical and contemporary, it draws people in. As it progresses, it appears to draw towards a challenging and incisive conclusion. However, just before that happens, it loses its nerve, and flattens out into a harmless and blunt end.  It has the advantage of capturing people along the way, and avoids the pitfall of leaving people smarting from a sharp conclusion. However, it never quite reaches its point. What do you think?

Look out for the splotch and the broken arrow later today.

The flying V

This sermon shape starts from a point of current interest, such as a news story, and widens out to incorporate Biblical input and further reflection. As it progresses its scope widens ever further.  It has the advantage that it piques the interest straight away. However, its disadvantage is that it never returns to a focussed point. What do you think?

The shape of things to come

We’ve already had a fish , a heffalump and a magpie in the pulpit – now it is the turn of the camel. The phrase “a camel is a horse designed by committee” has been variously attributed to Alec Issignois and Lester Hunt in a Vogue magazine in 1957. Whoever it was, though, I think they got it profoundly wrong.



The design of the camel – so perfectly suited to its environment, speaks of one gifted and driven individual, rather than a committee, surely? Its wide feet are perfect to prevent it sinking into the soft sand. Its shaggy coat keeps it warm on cold desert nights, its long eyelashes keep out the sandstorms, and its hump keeps it supplied with water. In short – it is the perfect shape for its purpose.

What shape would the ideal sermon be? Over a few posts I want to introduce some suggested ‘shapes’ for sermons and see how they play with you. I will insert a poll on the last one in the series.

Shape#1 : the tableau

In this shape of sermon a vast sweep of biblical material is set out before you. By the time you have looked at it in earnest, you will have heard something about the given subject from many eras and writers. A bit like Monet’s vast water lily paintings, it can be a little overwhelming. Stand too close, and you can only appreciate a little at a time. Stand too far away, and you can’t appreciate the workmanship. This may be a good shape for addressing Biblical illiteracy, but not so hot on keeping attention levels.

What do you think?


Richard Littledale

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