Christy Lipscomb is co-pastor and co-founder of City Life Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a church that is located in a core city neighborhood known for drug-dealing, prostitution, and homelessness. She is ordained in The Wesleyan Church and is a dynamic, faithful pastor and preacher of the gospel. While we can learn from her in a multitude of ways, check out this sermon she gives at Asbury University Chapel to see a great example of preaching that involves the listener in creating meaning.
Show, Don’t Tell
Christy Lipscomb opens her sermon with an evocative description of her first days of urban ministry. She could have simply said, “The house was a mess and its previous tenant sold drugs.” Saying that would have been true and the listener would have understood what she meant. But instead of telling the listener about these first days, she showed them. Using phrases like, “shaky, old house…filled with filth, garbage, and human filth. Feces had been spread on walls in parts of the house;” “bags of rotting garbage stank in the July heat, quivering with maggots.” This language is lively, the listener can see it, smell it, and seemingly know exactly what it means to be there.
Evocative language that shows should not be limited only to real life stories as it can help make scripture also come alive. Imagine if the sermon used evocative language that built a new understanding of God, that could be seen, smelled, and felt as it describes gospel reality, the inbreaking of God in our midst. Indeed, this is what Lipscomb does as she shares story after story of God at work in her ministry context, as well as through the biblical witness. In this sermon Lipscomb is speaking to those preparing for ministry, so the presence of God is the equipping and empowerment that Jesus gives to his disciples as they are sent into mission in the world.
Preaching theorist Paul Wilson frames the theological movement of the sermon as moving from trouble to grace, from the tension of sin to the hope of God’s presence and activity. It is for this reason then that sermons that show, that describe meaning rather than efficiently articulating meaning, must show in both the trouble and the grace. If a sermon only shows the reality of the trouble, the reality of life amidst sin and pain and loss, and fails to show the grace in a way that the grace is seen, touched, smelled, and felt, the loudest note of the sermon will be the trouble. Preachers of God’s good news know that the loudest note, the truest word in the sermon is God’s grace to us. Our listeners can touch sin, pain, separation, and loss intimately. Let us use evocative, descriptive, engaging language so they can touch God in their midst as well.
Interested in reading more about showing and not just telling? Check out the Artistry in Preaching series, especially Scott Hoezee’s Actuality: Real Life Stories for Sermons that Matter, and Peter Jonker’s Preaching in Pictures: Using Images for Sermons that Connect; as well as Paul Wilson’s newly revised homiletic The Four Pages of the Sermon, Revised and Updated: A Guide to Biblical Preaching.