It’s a beautiful Sunday morning in late summer, and the Rev. Norm Bouchard is once again telling stories in front of the congregation at Center for Spiritual Living Colorado Springs.
This one’s about a clever donkey who tricks his master by dumping salt into a river and lightening his heavy load every time they walk to the city to sell it. His owner, upon realizing the trickery, finds a way to teach his four-legged friend a lesson.
“How many times does it take you and I to fall into the water before we learn the lesson?” asks CSLCS senior minister Bouchard. “Day in and day out, lessons are given to us, but do we really hear it? I’ve noticed the lessons repeat over and over again until we finally get it in our head it’s a life lesson we need to learn.”
This is how Bouchard preaches — through colorful stories. Some are personal, some he’s collected from those around him and others come from such sources as the feel-good book series “Chicken Soup for the Soul.” But they all serve a purpose — to make sure his weekly sermon lands and sticks with his listeners.
“I make them laugh and I make them cry,” Bouchard says. “I’m well-known for touching people’s hearts. No change happens in your head. It always happens in your heart.”
Writing a weekly sermon is an acquired skill. A gift, many would say. How does one come up with the ideas, words and analogies to keep their congregations interested, energized and upright on a sleepy weekend morning?
Bouchard isn’t the only one telling stories this Sunday. Across the city, reverends, priests and pastors are searching for the right words to leave their listeners inspired and thoughtful.
“I absolutely love the energy coming from the people,” Bouchard says. “The energy to know somehow it’s changing people’s lives. I’ve always loved speaking.”
First United Methodist Church Rev. Kent Ingram wants his sermons to be an experience, not just a transference of information.
“When I’m preaching, I feel like I’m doing what I was called to do,” Ingram says. “Once the words are out of my lips, I don’t own them. They belong to God. People say I really love what you said about such and such, and I have no idea I said that. I long ago gave up ownership of what these words are.”
Bouchard came to the church after a life in corporate America, where he learned 60% of people are visual learners. That now accounts for his beloved PowerPoint presentations. His teachings are based on monthly themes that match the seasons of the year. January is about going back to the basics. February is themed around love and March is devoted to spring. A different topic exists for every week in the month. Plans are never made longer than two months in advance. He wants to make sure the message is in tune with what’s going on in people’s lives.
Each sermon has three points, a manageable number for most people, he believes. And the stories? He packs them in.
“They give people the ability to walk around in a story and discover the truth for themselves, so I don’t have to tell them what to do,” Bouchard says.
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What else goes into a sermon? A lot of thought, humor, tugs at the heart and, naturally, listening to that invisible, silent guidance.
“Sometimes I put my feet on the desk and think about it,” Ingram says. “I let spirit work.”
Ingram uses the lectionary, a three-year cycle of prescribed readings built on the books of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Many mainline churches also use the lectionary, which follows the Christian year and church calendar. Other preachers at First United Methodist sometimes do a series related to a single topic.
Ingram begins by reading the text in several translations, uses commentaries to provide background and context and sometimes looks at other sermons. He does that on Monday mornings and puts an outline together. Tuesdays are spent trying to illustrate it with stories. Wednesdays find him typing up the text and allowing it to marinate for awhile, before he comes back to it and adds any last notes. And then he memorizes the sermon and preaches without notes.
“I try to make them feel. I do offer information. I want people to think about things,” Ingram says. “It’s not just a stand-up comedy routine. But I do use those kind of stories so there’s an emotional response to the text as well. Stories connect with people differently than linear prose.”
Beth-El Mennonite Church Pastor Jordan Farrell uses the narrative lectionary to help select Scripture passages for worship. The church has a Worship Planning Team that discusses services a month beforehand. They talk about themes, images and ideas that emerge from the scripture.
“My sermon ideas grow out of a lot of intentional listening,” says Farrell. “It’s an opportunity to listen for the intersection between scripture, the lives of people and the work of the Holy Spirit.”
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Farrell allows the passage to shape his 15- to 20-minute sermons. If the passage is a psalm, he lets the tone of his sermon feel like a prayer. If the passage is a narrative, he takes a more narrative approach to his preaching.
“It’s only after I listen to the passage and reflect on the many conversations I’ve had with people throughout the week or weeks that I begin to get a sense for the ‘flavor’ of a particular sermon,” he says.
For Bouchard, writing his weekly missive is a practice in the Law of Attraction, which says what you’re thinking about will find you. Because he knows the upcoming Sunday’s theme, he stays open to life’s synchronicities and serendipities during the week before, finally sitting down to concoct his presentation for a few hours on Friday.
“If the theme is love, I notice all during the week the things that come across my path,” he says. “You’ll see your theme everywhere; it’s in our consciousness and you’ve not said a word.”
And what does a writer and speaker want more than anything? To have their words hit the sweet spot. Of course, there’s never a surefire way to know if a sermon has resonated, but sometimes you just know. There’s a certain stillness in the room for Bouchard.
“You’ve wandered some place in their heart and you can feel the stillness,” he says.
People are always polite and say nice things, says Ingram, so he’s never positive about his effect. But he’s been at it long enough to know something’s happening.
“Over the years, you get a sense of the seeds you’ve planted, and the words and stories you’ve told that help people change their lives,” he says. “I’ve had enough people say I needed to hear that sermon today. I walk through the sanctuary and say let this sermon help one person. That’s my prayer each week. They haven’t fired me yet.”
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