Preaching for Special Services by Scott M. Gibson

Posted: August 27, 2013 in Book and Article Reviews
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Scott Gibson sets out to guide ministers in preaching for “special occasions:” funerals, weddings, baptisms, infant “presentations, the Lord’s Supper, and other occasions.  Any given year, many voices vie for attention in a worship service.  Various “holidays” and special interests can take up the majority of our services.  Employing a preaching plan for the year helps to avoid distraction.  As Fred Craddock notes in Preaching, without a sermon plan the smallest ripple of trouble in the community sounds like a “canon in the homiletically empty ear.”  The same can be said for special occasions.  Without adequate preparation and planning, they can become instruments of great harm.

            Gibson quotes D. W. Cleverley Ford, “The preacher’s responsibility… is to try and make the special occasion take on special significance” (18).  The hope is for transformation of lives.  Although I would hope that it is a moment of transformation for the audience, I disagree with his initial statement.  The preacher’s responsibility is not to make it a special occasion.  These tend to be momentous occasions by their very nature; we don’t have to work it up.  That being said, we can undoubtedly cheapen the moment if not adequately prepared through prayer.  Secondly, it is the Spirit’s job to bring about transformation – not ours.  We are a vessel, nothing more.  Thus, we pray, “Come, Holy Spirit.” 

            Regarding sermon preparation and delivery, Gibson notes that clarity is essential.  Haddon Robinson’s proposed that sermons should communicate the “big idea” in the Biblical passage.  Focused clarity prevents confusion in the pulpit and the congregation.  Gibson also argues that sermons should not be memorized.  By this, he means to highlight that sermons shouldn’t feel canned.  I disagree with Gibson at this point.  While the sermon should be heartfelt and it is best to have a manuscript, that does not mean that one cannot memorize the sermon or that memorization will make it sound canned.  Memorizing a sermon can actually free up a pastor.  The point is the same.  The sermon should feel natural and appropriate for the context.

            Gibson states that nobody remembers the pastor delivering the sermon at these events.  False.  For better or worse, pastors are often remembered because of these moments.  That is especially true if we don’t limit the event to only a day.  The sermon extends beyond that event because, hopefully, it is a Word from the Lord.  Extended care for the family or people involved in those special moments is a way sermons continues to preach.  The impetus for a preacher isn’t being remembered, but these special moments do forge deep bonds.

            Essentially, Gibson makes one point in his book over and over again.  Sermons for special occasions must be Biblically based, Christ centered, listener oriented, focused, brief, and gathered around a central idea.  He applies this to every scenario, unpacking this schema for each special occasion.

            Weddings are a worship service.  As such, the couple is not the center of the service.  God is the center.  In my estimation, Christian marriage is not initiated by us but is a grateful response and testimony to God’s work in this world.  As such, the sermon is an integral part of the service.  It is an opportunity to orient the couple and the community to God way that is most aptly demonstrated in marriage.  Theologically, Gibson states that the marriage relationship is three persons.  Yes, marriage is the one-flesh-reality of two people joined together under God.  But, marriage is also a communal act.  In its proper understanding, the marriage relationship is not outside the community that gives its approval for the marriage.  That’s why we don’t encourage eloping.  Marriage is not merely about the couple.  It’s also about the larger community, which we have all but eliminated in our individualistic, privatized culture.  Given the communal nature of worship and marriage, it is important that we carefully consider the people gathered to witness the marriage.  For this reason, each sermon should take into account the unique sets of relationships represented. 

            Gibson also suggests a five to eight minute sermon for the wedding.  Understandably, brevity can be a virtue in many setting.  But, brevity without depth of message is folly.  It is important that we give adequate weight to the occasion, both in the preaching and liturgy involved in the ceremony.  I worry that our inability to pay attention and be still for very long as a culture is the primary motivation for this suggestion.  Although important to consider culture, it does not mean that content is sacrificed for comfort.

            Six “sources of wedding sermon topics” are listed: theology of marriage, great wedding texts, texts that bisect an aspect of the service, a text that intersects with the couple’s interests or qualities, a text that reflects the personality of the couple, texts that capture the uniqueness of the couple as revealed by the meanings of their names” (40).  These are helpful sources for wedding sermons.

            Funerals, too, are worship services.  This is partly why eulogies have sometimes been deemed inappropriate.  Gibson argues that a “good word” about the deceased does not have to detract from a message about Christ.  Instead, it can be used as a way to talk about Christ.  Gibson points to the Wurtemberg ecclesiastical ordinance as a guideline for wedding sermons.  It should be a “public confession of the Christian hope of the resurrection, a last testimony of love, an earnest reminder of the approaching hour of death” (51).  Thomas G. Long is quoted: “What a Christian funeral does primarily is to provide a suitable structure and language for the worship of God at the time of death” (51).  The sermon gives voice to mourning while still proclaiming praise and hope in God.

            Gibson states, “Preaching by its very nature is evangelistic” (51).  He employs a narrow definition of evangelism, “missionary preaching,” which rests upon conversion as the function of preaching.  However, “evangelism” is more than “missionary preaching.”  It is “good news!”  And, in that greater sense, evangelism is embedded in preaching… even when it is to a community that follows Christ!  Preaching must be tactful and not emotionally manipulative.  A broader definition of evangelism helps prevent understanding preaching as solely about “getting people saved.”  It’s about pointing people to Christ, wherever their walk with God is. 

The funeral sermon must be personal and warm.  Notes from pastoral visits, visiting the family after the death, and observing photographs for personal details can be helpful for connecting the sermon with the family.  Don’t use complicated texts that require lengthy explanation.  Earl Daniel’s classification of funeral sermons is a useful tool: biographical occasional, and doctrinal.  Each of these areas can be a way to form the sermon.

Both baptism (any age) and infant dedication are significant moments in the life of the believing community.  Sermons help us orient to what is really happening in these moments.  Gibson makes the argument that the person(s) being dedicated or baptized are the focal point of the service.  This, again, is an unfortunate misnomer.  God is the focal point of the service.  Those receiving baptism or dedication are participants in what God is doing, but they are not the focus.  Again, I think Gibson is too enamored with our culture’s emphasis on individualism.  

            This book has few references and is predominantly Baptist in orientation.  Overall, the book was theologically impoverished and was redundant.  Out of the 109 pages of text, 108 of those pages could be scrapped and still maintain the “big idea.”  The method of preaching held up is deductive and does not seem to offer much space for inductive preaching.  I do not recommend reading this book.  There are others out there that would be far more beneficial on which to spend time and money.

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