There’s a lot of writing going on in the Wagner household lately. My preschooler is learning to write letters. My kindergartener is beginning to weave letters into words and words into the occasional sentence. And Mommy is writing – well, everything from blog posts to Sunday sermons to children’s curriculum to academic essays. Each writing task is different, with its own unique joys and challenges.
During seminary, my writing was primarily academic. Even my assigned sermons – when I look back on them – were written in a more formal, academic style. Long sentences. Precise arguments. Careful attribution.
Then I started to preach every week. Sentences got shorter, repetition more frequent, and ideas more fluid. The text flowed, but also sometimes rippled right over rocky places that, in an academic context, would have demanded explanation. It took some getting used to.
It was during Ph.D. coursework that I learned to integrate academic writing and sermon writing – probably because I was doing both simultaneously during those years. I knew I had found the sweet spot when a professor remarked that my papers had a storyteller’s touch, and my congregants paused on their way out the door to ask me to repeat the author’s name that I referenced in the sermon that day.
My grad school classmates (many of whom found my pastor/scholar vocation a curiosity) would occasionally ask me which was harder to write – the paper or the sermon. The answer was the one for which I was most out of practice at any given time. During finals week, when I was writing and editing one paper after another, my sermons came out awkward and clumsy. But when Holy Week ended and I had just preached five sermons in four days, academic writing felt foreign and intimidating.
As I moved back and forth between the two, I established my own writing guidelines:
1. Cite sources. Every time. In academic work, citing sources is expected and assumed, and citation styles are standardized. In sermons, the expectations are less defined. My rule of thumb is always to cite, for my own future reference, but especially if the sermon will appear in any written form (electronic or print). I use end notes to document my sources in sermon manuscripts, because both parenthetical citations and footnotes at the bottom of the page break up the sermon’s flow too much for my liking. In addition to the formal citation, I add generalized attributions in the text of the sermon, giving as much information as is needed to orient the listener. My in-text references often include titles, categories, and time-periods (“one contemporary theologian argues…” or “Rev. XYZ of ABC Church said…”), but I rarely use full names, unless the name is well-known outside of the academy. I also rarely assume that a name is universally recognized; even the most familiar household names may be unknown to someone in your pews. The goal is to provide enough information that your listeners can put the quotation or idea into context, while keeping sermon delivery moving along smoothly. Too much information is distracting; not enough feels disrespectful to the person from whom I am borrowing.
2. Don’t water it down. I have heard several variations on the argument that sermons should be written at a level that a child can comprehend. Write at a third-grade level. Don’t assume that people know the Bible. Preach to the seeker who knows nothing about church. Frankly, those arguments annoy me. Sermons ought to provide more than a feel-good story. They should stretch and teach and challenge. A good sermon teaches the biblical narrative, provides explanation of unfamiliar context or historical elements, and invites the listener to be shaped by the text. Sermons should have substance, helping the audience “become even more rich with knowledge and all kinds of insight” (Phil 1:9, CEB).
At the same time, I do define technical terminology, or avoid it altogether. Every field has precise vocabulary that serves as a sort of shorthand for those familiar with the field, and theology is no different. In sermon writing, though, I can’t assume the shorthand will be understood. I try to edit out jargon completely, and define any technical terms that are integral to the sermon’s main point. I also read with a critical eye to theological or liturgical words that are familiar to me, but outside of the vernacular.
3. But don’t dress it up either. Sometimes, the temptation is not to water it down, but to dress up my writing with lengthy descriptions or strings of examples. I like words, and sometimes I let loose with a string of flowery adjectives that add little to the argument. I also use repetition frequently in my sermons, a tool that works well to keep the listener oriented, but can be overdone. I’ve learned that tight, concise writing is more enjoyable both to read and to hear. I’ve also realized that the more sophisticated the argument, the sharper the writing needs to be. A well-written argument, whether in an article or a sermon, should be easy to follow and readily understood.
Whatever I write, my goal is to tell the story – the story of God’s love for us, of the light of Christ in the world. When that’s the goal and the motivation, any kind of writing is a joy.