Show, Don’t Tell

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It is sermon grading season for me as the semester ends so unsurprisingly when I started to ponder a topic for today’s blog, all things homiletical came to mind.  

I realize that most people who read The Twelve are not preachers but I’d guess most of you listen to your share of sermons and so hopefully this will be of some interest to also you. And perhaps along the way I will name something that might just bother you about some of the sermons you hear, even though you may not always be able to put your finger on the reason why. I may have written similar musings before here on The Twelve but as most preachers know, some things simply bear repeating!

But as I have been grading sermons these past days (about 25 of them since middle of last week with about 10 to go) I often find myself writing “Show, Don’t Tell.” This is the #1 piece of advice teachers of creative writing give to aspiring novelists, of course. The idea is that in good writing you can Tell all manner of things: that a given character attended Harvard, that a certain person loves spaghetti, that the house in which someone lives is red brick with white trim. But there are other things you ought not merely Tell but need to Show, and principally in writing this often has to do with emotions.

Thus: don’t Tell us that Jeremy is angry. Describe Jeremy to us and let us figure it out. Show how the color has risen in his face, how his neck muscles seem to be almost pulsing out of his skin, how his eyes have narrowed into slits, how his breathing has become both more rapid and more shallow. Jeremy is a Mt. Kilauea on the verge of eruption and Showing that to readers is far more interesting and indelible than blandly writing “Jeremy was ticked off.”

In writing—and also in the writing of sermons—this “Show, Don’t Tell” is often also about illustrating what you are talking about so as to let those who read you or listen to you know that you understand what you mean. In truth, all sermons have some Tell in them. But this needs to be followed up with a Show. Too often we hear sermons—and probably too often I myself have preached such sermons!—in which we hear long strings of utterly true statements. The preacher Tells us “God still restores us today!   God liberates us from bondage! God fights battles for his people. Jesus stands with us when we’re sad and it really helps.”

That is all Tell and it is all true and all such things are perfectly fine to have in a sermon. But they need to be followed up with a Show. God restores us yet today? How?   When? If the preacher is going to assert this, then back it up with a real-life example. Then we know the preacher knows what she’s talking about. We even have something that will now be much more memorable and the kind of thing we can be on the lookout for in everyday life, celebrating it and praising God for it when we see in action.

In a recent book and in comments I make on any number of student sermons I often use this analogy. Suppose you are sitting at Panera Bread having lunch with a friend when at one point you say, “My friend Jane Gibson is a good person.” The odds are that your friend will reply, “Oh yes? How so?” How odd it would be, however, if all you could offer in response was “I don’t know. She’s just good, that’s all. Jane. Good. Yes she is. Good.” “OK, but how do you know that?” your friend would no doubt press you.   If your answer is “I have no idea,” your Panera friend will conclude you may not know what you are talking about.

Of course, that’s not usually how it goes at Panera. Instead you say, “Well, for instance, last week at the supermarket Jane noticed this older woman struggling with one of those shopping carts with the one wheel that won’t turn. She was also seeming to have a hard time reaching stuff on various shelves. So Jane abandoned her own cart, helped the woman finish her shopping, stayed with her in the checkout aisle and even helped get the groceries into her car. That’s Jane for you—she is just such a good person.”

“Ah, I see” your friend would reply. Because indeed, now he does.

If it would be unacceptable at Panera to give a non-answer when pressed for specifics on something you had just told to someone, it ought to be the same in sermons.   “Jesus shows up when we need him” the preacher Tells the congregation. And in their hearts any number of hurting people in the pews ask “Oh yes? How? When?”  

The hardest part of preaching is answering that question with real-life vignettes of God in action. Tell without the Show is far easier.

But if we believe God is on the move today—and by the Spirit, God surely is—then it is a joy and privilege to Show that to God’s people because then they can say “Ah, we see.” Because then they will.

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