When it’s Time to Change the Sermon

By: William D. Shiell

It’s Thursday night. For once in a few weeks, you’re ready for Sunday before Saturday. You’re enjoying a nice evening off and a chance to breathe before a wedding Saturday, worship Sunday, and two committee meetings Sunday afternoon.

You wake up Friday morning to another shooting, terrorist attack, or weather disaster.

Do you change the message?

Revise the sermon?

Stick with the plan?

Changing a sermon isn’t as difficult as whatever has happened on the news. In the back of your mind, however, you know that this is not the last time the headlines will affect your week. How do you decide what to do?

Sermon preparation is just as vital to the week’s work as whatever happens during the week. We’re not proclaimers of the nightly news. Preachers deliver good news that offers hope and transformation even in the midst of violence. Decisions about changing direction, however, can offer a great opportunity for pastoral encouragement, support, and change when people need a good word. Here are seven suggestions as you decide how to shift for Sunday.

  1.     Wait 24 hours.
    You don’t have to be the first person to post your feelings on social media. Watch, stay alert, pray. Jesus reminded his disciples that the Holy Spirit would give them a “mouth and wisdom” during turbulent times. There is often another “story behind the story” waiting to unfold.

  3.   Evaluate where and how a problem should be addressed.
    Worship services offer several ways to address problems in addition to the sermon.
    – Pre service announcements
    – Pastoral prayer
    – The Benediction
    Following the Newtown shooting, I used the Pastoral Prayer as a time to read the names of the deceased children. I used the sermon to announce a word of hope in the midst of disaster.

  5.   Ignore partisan behavior and bickering (and other bad behavior).
    Gary Fenton once commented that most of what we see on social media—especially in an election year—is verbal litter. Be careful that the garbage does not become part of the Sunday message. The preacher has the opportunity to set a tone for the congregation that rises above the rhetorical barbs of the world and points people to Jesus.

  7.   State publicly when a situation cannot be addressed yet.
    There are times when a pastor needs to address a problem publicly but wants to give an issue thoughtful time to respond. A pastor might feel that a reactionary sermon might leave the congregation more wounded. In worship following these times, pray for the victims and the cities involved; but save the sermon for later. Do your homework and heart-work, and invite the congregation to come to worship to hear your message on this topic.

  9.     Trust your intuition, prayer, and practice
    As you rehearse a sermon, pay attention to your prayers and your words. If your heart drifts toward an issue going on that week, speak into it. You’ve planned for this sermon for awhile, and God is speaking through you as well.

  11.     Reach out to friends in affected areas.
    Email a local pastor or missionary to find out what’s going on where the tragedy has occurred. Personalize and localize the situation for your congregation. Tell a story about how they can pray and offer hope to those who are hurting.

  13.     Change the sermon the closer violence strikes home.
    When congregations are caught in the crossfire, or loved ones are closely affected, treat the issue as you would the death of a church member. Ignoring the obvious disrespects the victims and misses an opportunity to offer hope.

By knowing when and how to speak, you are giving your congregation something they long for during difficult times and something that comes from worship of a resurrected Christ– courage.
For further discussion about this and other issues related to preaching, join us for our second annual Preaching Forum October 1. Register today.


July 27, 2016

William D. Shiell

President, and Professor of Pastoral Theology and Preaching

ABOUT William

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