I had the honor and joy of speaking last week at the Write-to-Publish conference in Wheaton, Illinois. In one of my three plenaries, I talked about "writing for the senses." It seemed to go over well enough.
I believe not only in writing for the senses, but in teaching and preaching for them, too. That is, consciously involving the learner's senses whenever possible. (I was, therefore, quite glad that Kristin Sanders' sermon on Sunday at Cobblestone Community Church involved a good metaphor and helpful props.)
Some of my favorite sensory preaching moments in the past have been:
Taste and Touch
On Palm Sunday 2010, in the final message in a series called "Do Something," I talked about how during my latest visit to Jerusalem, as our group was walking through the Old City of Jerusalem, our guide Nader pointed out to us several times a scrap of bread on a window ledge or a few pieces on an electrical box. He explained that, because Jesus revealed himself to the two disciples he met on the road to Emmaus in the breaking of bread, bread is so revered by the Christians of Jerusalem that they will not throw it in the garbage … and if any bread falls to the ground or is seen on the ground, the residents will pick it up and place it on a ledge so it won’t be trampled underfoot.
So I asked everyone to come to communion, expecting to meet the living Christ in the breaking of bread, like those two disciples. And then I asked them, on their way back to their seats, to leave a piece or two or more of bread on the window ledge to represent the person or persons they had invited or planned to invite to Easter, with a prayer that that person would someday soon be meeting the living Christ in the breaking of bread, as they had just done. It prompted a beautiful response from the people of God that day.
Oh What a Sight
One Summer (2009, the fortieth anniversary of the original "Summer of Love") we did a "Summer of Love" series. As a sort of fun finale, I delivered my message on "The Breadth of Love," from Ephesians 3:18 and Luke 15:1-7. Some people giggled through the whole thing. I don't know why. I thought I was groovy.
Taste of Grace
In a study of Galatians called "Livin' Venti," I preached on the first ten verses of Galatians 2 in a message called "Free to Belong." I wanted to emphasize the futility of adding to the Gospel of Grace. So I produced a fresh Krispy Kreme donut and asked how many would eat that donut if I gave it to them. Of course, many hands were raised. Then I produced a ketchup bottle, a jar of jam and a bottle of hot sauce, and added those ingredients to the donut, asking if anyone would eat it. ONE young man (in each celebration that morning!) raised a hand, so I gave him a bite. The crowd loved it—and even more when one of the guys had to leave the room shortly after to get a drink, or crackers, or something! It was fun—and, I hope, got the point across.
A Hands-Tied Experience
Also in the Livin' Venti series, preaching on the latter half of Galatians 2, I preached the first part of the message in a strait-jacket, to illustrate our tendency to return over and over again to the constraints and strictures of the Law, instead of enjoying the fact that we are "Free to Enjoy" the new life God gives us. That simple visual seemed to make this message one of the most impactful and memorable I've ever given. Oh, and in case you're curious, the strait-jacket was bought from a costume supply place ... I didn't just happen to have it on hand, despite what you may think.
Wedding Banquet, Draft Notice
In an eleven-part study of the book of Revelation (that is easily one of my favorite series, ever), I gave the ninth message, "The Last Word on Salvation," on Revelation 19-20. In it, I depicted salvation as wedding (ch. 19) and war (ch. 20), and we did a number of things to try to drive the point home. We divided the message into two parts, separated by the celebration of communion.
For the first part of the message, I came onstage in a tuxedo and issued the invitation, "Come to the Wedding" (from Revelation 19:1-10), after which we celebrated communion together from a beautifully appointed banquet table, to emphasize the wedding supper of the Lamb. After communion, I returned to the stage, this time in Army camo fatigues and issued the call, "Go out to War," from Rev. 19:11-21. We also had, on each seat in the auditorium, a card with a printed invitation to the wedding of the Lamb on one side, and a draft notice on the other; as part of the response, I urged participants, if they accepted the wedding invitation, to also sign the signature line on the draft notice, emphasizing that we kid ourselves if we think we can come to the wedding without joining in the battle.
My co-pastor at the time, John Johnson, planned and delivered one of the most imaginative messages I think I've ever seen. He actually constructed a silo in the auditorium and delivered the first ten minutes or so of the message from INSIDE the silo, and had a video feed that showed him, contained and isolated in the silo, speaking to us from the big screen! He also had a SECOND camera that he could switch back and forth from to show us the cozy confines of his self-imposed cell. It was a memorable way to depict how many of us tend to prefer isolation from each other rather than engagement and vulnerability and community with each other.
Finally, one Thanksgiving Sunday, I surprised the whole church by concluding my message that day by challenging them to donate their shoes—the shoes they wore to worship that day—to people around the world who don't have even one pair of shoes to wear, through the ministry of Soles4Souls. God's people responded magnanimously! It was a day to remember, as worshipers came forward during the closing song, left their shoes on the platform steps, and left church BAREFOOT! The following weeks, people donated shoes by the hundreds, and we shipped them as a Christmas gift to the Soles4Souls distribution center!
Over the years, some of my favorite (and, I think, most impactful) preaching experiences have been those in which I remembered to employ multiple senses, especially those beyond sight and sound, and encouraged active participation from the saints. Like when we roped off sections of the crowd to indicate circles of influence. Or when I released a live butterfly as part of the message.
Or when the Scripture reading included dramatic sound effects. Or when each worshiper received a small smooth stone or a coin or a dollar to drive home a point. Or when the front of the Easter Sunday auditorium was transformed into a luxuriant garden that not only looked beautiful but spread the fragrance of flowers throughout the room. Those are the moments I enjoyed best as a preacher, and the ones I think people remember best as participants. I only wish there were more of them.